Thursday, 20 October 2016

All Or Nothing

Clematis Tangutica in October

The phone rang: “Sorry, Mrs. Friko, I have rammed a chisel into my hand. It doesn’t look good, I’d better go to A + E.” So said Paul, aka New Gardener, five weeks ago. He required surgery and a long process of healing.

The phone rang: “Sorry, Mrs. Friko., I can’t come on Thursday, I’ve hurt my back. I’ve an appointment with the Physio.” So said Old Gardener three weeks ago. He was unable to move without pain for two weeks and unable to bend for another week.

The mind of the gardener is, in a way, the mind of the chess player.
He makes a move after having thought out what the ultimate effect
of that move may be. He visualises the end of the game.” *

Late September, early October, after the long hiatus of high summer, when gardeners take a well deserved break and spend a little time glorying in the fruit of their labours and admire the ravishing colours of their borders, it is time to pick up the pieces and continue the game. It’s actually a busy time in the calendar, pruning, tidying, clearing paths, transplanting and planting, clipping rose bushes, dividing overgrown clumps of herbaceous perennials, generally planning the coming spring's changes. 

No help for it, I had to knuckle down myself. Except, I seem to have become strangely feeble, lacking not just energy but also strength enough to dig holes, transplant small shrubs, do serious weeding. It’s hard to get down on my knees and even harder to get up again. As for pruning fruit trees, forget it. How did I ever do all these things myself? What happened to me? 

Sitting down, going for gentle walks, snipping here and setting in the earth there, I forget how old I have become. The disparity between spirit and flesh springs to mind. When I can’t fall asleep I now-a-nights spend a lot of time gardening in my mind. Having Austin and Paul has made a huge difference and I’ve rediscovered my pleasure in creating an outdoor space that’s worth looking at.

Then, last week, the phone rang: Hi Mum, I’ve got a bit of time to spare. Would you like me to come for a couple of days and catch up on jobs round the house? How about from Monday to Wednesday?"

“Yes, please.”

Then Paul rang.: "My hand is much better, would you like me to come back next week? I can make Tuesday."

“Yes, please.”

Then Old Gardener rang: “The Physio has helped, I could come over on Tuesday and give you the morning.”

Goodness me, no. Absolutely not. How would I cope with supervising and ordering about three of them? “No, please. But if you can make it Thursday, that’d be great.”

Which means that between Monday and Thursday my garden has been in intensive care, with operations being carried out at a tremendous pace. Old Gardener left just before lunch today. He’s coming back on Monday, Paul is coming back on Tuesday. At this rate I shall run out of jobs by the end of this month. They know of each other, could they be making themselves indispensable, each in his own way? My son won’t be back for three months, he’s out of the running. It was lovely to have him, even better to have got through a list of tasks which needed urgent attention, but having busy people around makes me want to get out of their way and take a nap. As that was out of the question, it being politic to show willing to chip in occasionally, I feel as tired as if I had done the work myself.

The unmistakable smell of autumn is the smell of decay, shot through with the bitter fumes of smoke. With the help of my son Old  Gardener was deprived of one of his favourite activities, namely lighting bonfires. He is a bit of a pyromaniac, bringing with him a supply of spent oil just on the off- chance. I believe it might even be illegal to use spent oil.  Watching a large pile of prunings, both of trees and shrubs, growing to unmanageable proportions fills me with dread. The last time Austin took it upon himself to set light to such a pile, immediately upon arrival and before I could give explicit permission for the deed, there was a massive fire going in a wooded part of the garden. He badly scorched a branch of the beech tree which is clinging on for dear life anyway, a yew hedge and  one side of a yew pillar. I wasn’t keen on a repetition. When I remonstrated he said: " they’ll grow again, they’ll be back next year.”

Solon, my son, took it upon himself to break up, cut and even saw through each bit of pruning, stuffed what could be stuffed into the green council bin for collection and otherwise filled two huge builders’ bags (the sort they deliver sand and grit in) and took them to the tip. It was a boring and repetitive job, but the stuff is all gone. And I am inordinately pleased. Austin was quite downcast this morning when he saw the empty space where the raw ingredients for a fire had been. “I see you’ve got rid of my bonfire,” he said.

*Richard Wright:  The Practical Book of Outdoor Flowers 1924

Monday, 10 October 2016

Some Cultural Pursuits

Did you know that? Do any of you live in or near one of the Stratfords mentioned here?
Do these Stratfords have theatres similar to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the original Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK?

I had no idea of any of it until we went to see King Lear the other day. Isn’t that a splendid Bottom?
Titania isn’t half as grand.

Every time I see King Lear I hope that this time he isn’t going to fall for his conniving, dishonest, fawning daughters’ flattery and that he sees them for the grasping, treacherous witches they are. No, Lear remains blind to reality and favours appearances over truth. Cordelia is silent and he throws her out. Goneril and Regan are free to pursue their evil machinations. Lear goes mad, Gloucester has his eyes gouged out and lots of people die.  That’s the trouble with Shakespeare tragedies, once they’re written they stay written, no matter how many centuries pass.

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (1916) by John William Waterhouse, oil on canvas

As for Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the whole disaster hinges on a love potion. If Isolde’s handmaid Brangane hadn’t swapped a poisonous tincture for a love potion the whole five hour music drama would have been over in less than one. As it was (again, once written, a thing stays written), misunderstandings, secret trysts, honour and skullduggery abound and are thoroughly demonstrated by thunderous music and dramatic voices. Practically everybody dies here too. If Brangane had at least come clean a bit sooner rather than at the end when death was but a foregone conclusion, Tristan und Isolde might have lived happily every after.

Okay folks, seriously. Both King Lear with Antony Sher in the title role, one of the greatest parts written by Shakespeare, at the RSC in Stratford, and the transmission of Tristan und Isolde from the Met in NYC were experiences I wouldn’t have wanted to miss. Beloved didn’t come to Stratford, he’s seen King Lear many times; he finds the journey tiring now and will only undertake it “if it’s worth it” for him. Although it was sad that he stayed at home it was also a bit of a relief for me. For once I could enjoy a theatre visit without having to have half an eye on his wellbeing.

Wagner was a different matter. The transmission came to the screen at a small local theatre, which takes less than twenty minutes’ drive. He sat through the five hours’ performance without a murmur.  Actually, that’s not quite true, he once snorted a loud ‘Nonsense’ and another time he complained that the interviewer made it look as if the English horn solo in Act III was to be played by a cor anglais. But he had nothing to complain of in the orchestra or even the singers. Not many can do these roles justice but the Met ensemble did their very best. Although he detected a slight wobble in Isolde’s voice he praised her accuracy. That’s the trouble with musicians who have spent their life playing at the big houses, for world famous conductors and have had the privilege to hear the greatest voices for over forty years. They do tend to have an opinion!

Luckily the audience was small, seating was ‘cabaret style’, that is small tables for individual parties, wine, cake and hot drinks were served during the two intervals and, in spite of some minor niggles, the music was simply overwhelming. We are lucky, almost the entire Met season is to be transmitted; Wagner was only the season’s opening.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Joys of Autumn

October, and uneven patches of the ornamental Japanese cherry tree are turning red, while other parts of it hold on to green leaves. The nights are turning cool and soon  the first drifts of leaves will cover beds and lawns. It was already dark when I looked out of he kitchen window at half past seven this evening  and there are still three weeks to go before we change the clocks. By eight the central heating had switched itself on.

Just when I was about to give a deep sigh and moan 'where has summer gone', I remembered that I like autumn, and even winter is not so bad when you think about all the advantages the cold season brings. For a start there is the drama of it, a foreboding of endings; of death, essentially. Spring and summer are much less sexy,  simply too hot and sweaty, doing any kind of work is an effort and only evenings bring relief. Travelling to work on the Underground, the air thick with vaporised commuter sweat mornings and evenings, heatstroke, hay fever, discomfort, irritation and short-tempered exchanges with fellow commuters, co-workers, and other shoppers in the supermarket, that’s summer.

Give me the crisp months of respite. Winter clothing, doesn’t that sound cosy?  Snuggling up in several warm layers, wearing  big, baggy jumpers and coats which hide wobbly bellies and long sleeves to make flabby upper arms disappear. Bliss. And the food! Carbs are allowed again, stews and casseroles and soups! Forget about the lettuce leaf, the raw food salads, barbecues and picnics under vicious attack from wasps and other pests. The only meats are cold meats, semi raw chicken, charred sausages and mozzarella which has curled at the edges. No, civilisation reigns again,  bringing hibernation food; there’s meat and gravy and potatoes, great piles of roasted vegetables, all eaten indoors, at the table or from a tray in front of the telly. and red wine tastes ever so much better in front of the fire than on a muggy night in the garden.

And what about the telly! In the UK all channels suddenly rediscover what they’re for: namely entertainment, and possibly education (good old Beeb, keep your hands off, Tories and Murdoch!), not endless repeats of programmes which weren’t interesting the first time round. We are spoilt for choice all of a sudden, from mid-September onwards. New series start, thrillers and costume dramas and must-see one-offs jostle for viewers. True, it’ll all be over when the Christmas Specials arrive, the crowd pleasers, game shows, unfunny comedians and sitcoms, but until then there’s a glut of entertainment to keep us quiet during the long evenings.

Bedtime isn’t bad either. In summer, after a day of the sun sitting on our South facing windows, the bedrooms are far too hot to allow for comfortable nights. Few private houses in the UK have air-conditioning and even wide open windows hardly lower the temperature. I like the feel of a covering but there are nights when even a cotton sheet is more than I can bear. Now, with temperatures back down to the low teens and under, the feel of a cosy duvet is perfect.

Thick socks, hot cocoa, guilt-free reading and TV sessions, baked apples with cinnamon and toasted almond flakes, box sets, walks in the woods while leaves are drifting, game stews and afternoon tea in front of a fire, hats and scarves and gloves, and the mists rising from the valley floor, these are my favourite seasonal things.

Soon it'll be time to dread Christmas but then, as many of us remind each other at the beginning of October: “In three months’ time it’ll all be over and we can look forward to a new beginning.

But for now and first of all, here’s to a happy autumn!

Friday, 23 September 2016

Colours of the Equinox

In his poem 'September 1815' Wordsworth has it that

While not a leaf seems faded, while the fields,
With ripening harvest prodigally fair,
In brightest sunshine bask, this nipping air,
Sent from some distant clime where Winter wields
His icy scimitar, a fortaste yields 
Of bitter change . . . . .

Yet, there is still colour to be had in the garden. True, with the sun’s rage mellowing, summer has vanished, afternoon shadows grow long and there is a definite nip in the air when day lowers itself into the horizon. Autumn birdsong is less noisy, sweeter, more leisurely than the sounds of Spring, when the season's work must still be done. It’s the brief moment before trees wear the red, gold and amber uniform of Autumn and, finally, small beacons of light, the autumn bulbs, corms and tubers beloved of gardeners everywhere, come into their own.

For me the arrival of cyclamen is a pleasure every year at this time. I almost forget them, until I see the ivy-like leaves appear and wait for the curled stems to deliver on their promise, and produce dainty, delicately leafed flower heads.

The sight of a mass of cyclamen in full flower is enough to take your breath away. As if by magic, the carpet of white, pink and purple blooms of cyclamen hederifolium reappears year after year, the individual tubers becoming as large as plates eventually. I didn’t plant  many originally, in fact, only a very few of them; I must have been assisted generously by ants, birds and self-seeding, because new flowers, at first just one or two blooms, grow in all sorts of rocky cracks and shady nooks where none were before. There are varieties that flower in Spring but I love my autumnal show. September, October and sometimes into November is the time for cyclamen, when many other plants have lost interest and withdraw into themselves, prepare for the first cold winds of winter and huddle together in brown clusters.

For those of you who might like to try and grow cyclamen, here are a few facts from the website of the Royal Horticultural Society:

A delightful tuberous perennial providing colour often when little else is flowering, particularly in late winter or early spring. Hardy cyclamen species and cultivars are ideal for naturalising under trees, on banks or in a shady border and planted in association with other early-flowering woodland plants such as snowdrops, winter aconites and primroses

Common name Sow bread
Botanical name Cyclamen
Group Tuberous perennial
Flowering time Mostly autumn and winter 
Planting time Autumn, winter (when ground is not frozen) and early spring
Height and spread 5-13cm (2-5in) by 8-15cm (3-6in)
Aspect Partial shade
Hardiness Fully to frost hardy
Difficulty Moderate

PS: After reading the first comments, I think I need to add a PS. Indoor and outdoor cyclamen are slightly different varieties. The plants you buy in pots for the house need cool rooms, warm central heating will kill them, so keep them in a coolish corner.  The indoor varieties will not survive outdoors. The outdoor varieties are fully hardy, down to frost and snow, they won’t like being brought indoors.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Signs of Autumn

How very kind you are; thank you for saying nice things about this blog.Your comments gladden the heart and give me all the encouragement I need to continue.

It is as if we’ve been sending out ‘come hither before darkness falls’ vibes; friends and family have turned up on the doorstep, announced and unannounced, but all welcomed with open arms. It’s not as if we were on a beaten track, living where we do, miles from any fast road, with no airports or big cities within easy reach; it therefore behoves us to appreciate these visits even more. 

First came PhilipJohn, and Marilyn, the latter with their unruly dog, who raced about the house, under tables, on beds and sofas, on the lookout for food to steal. Millie was quite put out. Beloved had a lovely time with them, rehashing ancient histories about concerts, conductors and colleagues. We hadn’t seen Philip for a few years, he spends much time abroad, getting himself known as a composer. (I looked him up online, his works are performed by more orchestras in the US than in the UK).

Another musician, Judy, and her architect husband Peter (hurrah, someone for me to talk to - not a musician) came next. The doorbell went and there she stood. “I hope we find a welcome? Please?” That’s Australians for you. She said so herself. "On the way from somewhere to somewhere". We hadn’t seen Judy for years and Beloved was thrilled to chew the fat with her. Musicians are a gossipy lot. 


Family came too. More signs of autumn, the personal kind. They visited after giving due notice, as our family does. Nick and his wife Ali, who live in Massachusetts, decided that if they had to come to see Beloved before his personal winter sets in, they might as well make a proper trip of it, travelling to Holland, France and Italy, both to see family and the sights. They were with us for just an afternoon and evening; the visit went off well, during those few hours we found plenty to discuss. Some of it catching up, some of it current affairs and politics. Our conversations usually have some depth, even if we don’t always all agree with each other.

Sally, one of Beloved’s daughters, stayed slightly longer; Beloved and she looked at old family photos and told stories of past generations. Sally is an archaeologist and history, both personal and the academic kind, are her great interest. She has written a number of books about the area of Southern England where she lives.


I wonder if any of you have similar experiences to mine. Beloved and I have been married for thirty years and in all that time his children and I - apart from one daughter - were never on really cordial terms. We never fell out and the relationships have got better over the years, but real warmth was always lacking. Until now. I am not looking to blame anyone, there are always two sides to every story, but a more relaxed attitude would have made our lives more pleasant. Always having to be careful, always afraid of slights, always preparing oneself for a visit by donning some kind of armour, make for uneasy situations. 

As I said, meetings during the past few years have been less of an ordeal (oh dear, that does make it sound difficult!) and these visits in recent weeks have been a genuine pleasure. In fact, I liked both of them so much that I gave them keepsakes: Beloved’s Breitling watch for Nick and two pairs of earrings of mine for Sally. (Does that count as the sort of kindness I mentioned in my previous post?) We parted on the very best of terms, with close hugs; Sally almost shed a tear while she whispered “thank you” in my ear, and Ali, Beloved’s daughter in law, who has been the most difficult of them all, made a special effort to praise me for taking such good care of her father in law. She thanked Beloved for being the kind of man he is and for having raised his son to become a wonderful partner for her and a devoted father to their children.

I was touched. Why do people soften so when it’s almost too late? I know that we may not see them again, this was a kind of leave-taking. Father, son and daughter were all very aware of this fact, but nobody put it into words. The feeling was there and there were both sadness and gratitude in the air, unspoken.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Selfish Gene

This may not be exactly what Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene is all about but there’s certainly a connection between ‘Doing Good Makes One Feel Good’ and the survival instinct of genes, that is the survival of the most selfish and therefore fittest genes.

I’ve been in one of these spells of ‘why blog - who could possibly be interested in my throw-away drivel’,  followed, a bit later, by ‘if it gives me pleasure to blog, who cares if anyone else wants to read said drivel’.

That’s me being pensive - via a selfie. (selfish selfie?)

Anyway, to repeat, why blog. Do you blog because it gives you pleasure, whatever it is you write about, even it it’s purely self-centred? Can the general kind of blogging, the kind I indulge in and most of you, whose blogs I read, be anything else but self-centred?

Is there a kind of blogging which benefits others?
Perhaps blogging is a pure form of selfish altruism, after all, it benefits ourselves most of all.

Very well then, I’ll do some ‘blowing my own trumpet’ blogging,  having decided once again to take up recording my drivel.

I have been kind on several occasions recently. Only once entirely without an ulterior motive. I had no choice, really. Unlinking a shopping trolley at Aldi’s I noticed a woman rushing past me. She’d obviously just returned her own trolley and was on the way back to her car. I noticed her for two reasons, one she was wearing a bright orangey skirt and two, she was swinging her hips rhythmically at speed, clearly in a great hurry. Having stared at her for a moment I turned my attention back to the row of trolleys; on one of them sat a tan leather handbag (purse to you over the pond), well scuffed and filled to bursting. I grabbed the bag and asked various ladies occupied with their own trolleys if they were the owner of the bag. All of them shook their heads. I kept hold of the bag, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I had made several years ago in the London Underground, when I found a well-stuffed wallet on the floor, asked the young man in the seat opposite if he had lost it, was told ‘no’ but instantly informed that he was getting off at the next stop and would hand the wallet in for me. Like a fool I handed it over. As he ran out I realised that  no way would he hand in that wallet to Lost Property or a station guard. I just hope he stole no more than the cash and returned the rest. Probably not.

No, I wasn’t going to make that mistake again, I would hand in the purse myself, to a supervisor in the store. I went up the aisle and saw the woman in the orangey skirt harangue a uniformed member of Aldi’s staff. As I came nearer I heard “but it must have been found in the shop, I haven’t been anywhere else. Are you sure it wasn’t handed in?”
Orangey skirt lady had a high, angry, scared colour. She saw me loitering, and glared at me, ready to accuse me and anyone else within reach of theft. The member of staff was upset too. “No, I’m afraid no bag has been handed in; I can make enquiries, of course. Have the shop searched.”

Aha, orangey skirt lady was bag lady!

I went closer and brought forth the bag with a dramatic flourish from behind my back. No fanfare, just an accusatory “there’s my bag, where did you find it?” Member of staff joined  in the chorus. “Yes, where did you find that?” And, turning to bag lady in orangey skirt “Do you want to check it?”

What? I am handing in a lost bag and my credentials need checking?

Both of them saw my thunderous look and both withdrew. Orangey skirt bag lady finally calmed herself, hands still shaking, and after giving further action due consideration - you could see her weighing up the pros and cons of checking me out v. thanking me, she decided to trust me and fell upon my neck in a short but powerful hug. Finally, I got my “Thank You”.

Isn’t it strange that the two women's first reaction was to suspect me of evil-doing?

This post is now long enough, recording the next act of kindness will have to be postponed. Until next time.

Friday, 26 August 2016

It’s Pouring . . . . . . .

Both Beloved and I belong to the generation which has life-long ‘Saving’  with a capital ’S’ as part of their genetic makeup. We, that is me in particular,  have in recent years been a little less dogmatic about the rainy day vision and the need for having a large umbrella to catch the inevitable downpour, and I have persuaded us to allow ourselves the really rather modest luxuries we indulge in; in other words, becoming skiers, spending the kids inheritance. All the same, just as well that the Boomer years have meant well for such as us, because the rains have started to fall in earnest.

On top of the newly necessary sums of money we need to spend on carers, assistance in house and garden, etc. the property itself is falling down around us. In the case of trees literally so.We had very high winds during the weekend and when Millie and I went for our morning walk on Monday we found a huge chunk had fallen out of the beech tree. As we are on the edge of the castle grounds this was cause for concern. Had somebody been walking in the moat at that precise moment they’d never walk again, they’d be dead. As it was the second time within a week that a branch had come adrift I thought I’d better call Jonathan, a proper, bona fide, letters-after-his-name arborist. First of all to remove the part-corpse from the path, secondly to cut it up and chip the unwanted bits, and thirdly to give me an idea of the state of the patient’s health or otherwise.

Jonathan hedged his bets. “Well, hm, I can see none of the funguses (fungi? or is that only for mushrooms?) associated with large trees. “  ( The beech is at least 70 feet tall - it’s massive).  “On the other hand, there is some die-back which might indicate that the tree is stressed.” The tree is stressed? What about me? I am stressed just thinking about his hourly rate! “On the whole the limb sections look normal, it could just have been the high winds. Or mechanical weakness”. Deep breath out . “On the other hand. . . . .” Renewed intake of breath on my part. The noughts are simply tumbling into place following the initial figure, in itself a fearful thought!

We’ve left it that I keep a very  close eye on developments and call him the minute I see anything untoward, like a white blob or a tarmac-like black blob on the stem near the ground. Mind you, Jonathan says,  sometimes these blobs come out and immediately withdraw into the tree again, like they are some delicate violet shrinking away from the light of day.

A definite help, that.

This is the third and last of our large trees threatening imminent departure. We’ve lost the sycamore and the horse chestnut to a deadly fungal disease, I really don’t want the beech to go as well. It’s also the last of the beeches, there were three originally, two before our time; we have merely the stumps left, one of which has thrown up  a large new limb which might not be viable for long, coming from a diseased parent plant. We still have more normal sized trees, like maples, a few ash trees,  ancient hawthorns and a thirty year old walnut, mere Johnny-come-latelies compared to the big boys who may have seen a few hundred years of tourist activity around the castle since the Normans first threw it up to ward off those Welsh barbarians, thinly disguised as tourists but really after Norman damsels. And loot, of course. As well as the land the Normans stole from them. 

Seriously, my garden is not some suburban plot with a few newly planted decorative specimens. even the plum and apple trees are groaning under the weight of considerable agedness; they really are in need of chopping down!  Everything in Valley’s End is old, including the human inhabitants, so we should all be left in peace and allowed to disintegrate  into the ground gracefully, as nature intends for all of us.

To quote Jonathan once more :  “if the beech were in a field or a wood somewhere it could just shed limbs as it went along. It might take another hundred years over it. As the saying goes:  A hundred to grow, a hundred to stay and a hundred to die.”   Lovely.