Monday, 14 November 2022

Books, Gardens, and a little Lesson in Humility

I have only very recently discovered a new to me, very powerful, story teller: Elizabeth Strout.  "Olive Kitteridge" is a beautifully observed novel, each chapter introducing and later revisiting and fleshing out a set of characters, all interconnected, living in a small town in coastal Maine, New England. It took me a long time to accept the emotional pain and troubled lives Strout uncovers for the reader, but she is gentle and empathic at all times and her characters, though complicated and flawed, become likeable in spite of themselves. I am glad I persevered, I have already bought "Olive Again" and will certainly explore more of her books, which are quite famous in the UK now, since she won the Pulitzer Prize.

I have been reading a lot of lightweight mysteries, as well as rubbishy novels which I've given up on (life's too short to let irritation take hold); lately I have felt that a better reading diet would do me good, so I've downloaded Anne Tyler, Penelope Lively, Rose Tremain, Maggie O'Farrell, Ali Smith, and a few others whose work I don't know yet; and for light relief, Nancy Mitford and P.G. Wodehouse. I have just counted the unread books on my Kindle, including non fiction, Travel, Myths, Nature and Poetry, there are 40 books in total. The unread books on my shelves come to a hundred or more; is it time I stopped buying new books?  Is it possibly an excuse that my Kindle books are all very cheap, under one £Sterling, all offers by clever booksellers and publishers to draw the unwise in? Winter is coming, it's too cold and wet to do much gardening, and I can most often be found curled up in a comfy chair with a book (or Kindle) in my hand. 

Talking of gardening: I haven't yet mentioned the Open Gardens on the last weekend of June. As always, visitors seemed to enjoy themselves. Saturday was cool and damp and windy and there were fewer than a hundred people all told.

On Sunday the weather was glorious, warm and balmy, neither too hot nor too cold and crowds turned up.

I sat on the sun terrace and had generously placed a few garden chairs around, there are always lots of people who have need of a sit down and many gardeners enjoy a natter about all things horticultural. As do I. There are also a few benches dotted about here and there and visitors are always welcome to make use of them.

I had quite a number of enquiries this year about trees; I watched a group of people clearly wondering what sort of tree my elderly walnut tree was and seemed unwilling to accept my explanation - in a nice way and with much exclamation of surprise. Not many people nowadays have walnut trees in cottage gardens. Another couple was smitten with my weeping pear tree. I admit it is a rather splendid specimen, I hadn't cut its umbrella of thin, graceful ash grey branches and silver leaves at all this year. It looks like a ballerina in a wide hoop skirt about 2 ½  metres across. I too would admire it if I came across it in somebodies garden.

I am glad that I decided to put myself through the effort and hard work; I freely admit quite an important reason for my decision was to show the world my "suffering at the mean hands" of my neighbours. (He actually turned up, the cheek of the man!) That's not all, of course, I like gardening and am quite proud of the result of my labours, as well as the positive feedback from visitors. Nearly everybody always praises my views; like I told the estate agent who came to value my house "It's a location to die for". Well, maybe not quite.

There is something I learned from the Open Gardens too, something about a failing I know I have and have had forever: I am inclined to judge people by their appearance.

There was this elderly couple, late 60s maybe, a little drab, even shabby looking, with the colour of people who work outdoors, gently strolling about. By and by they reached the sun terrace where I was sitting and stopped to chat about a plant or two, I forget which. I don't know how it happened - did they ask who tended the garden?, was I the only gardener?,  did I live alone? how did I cope? ; eventually, in the most unassuming manner, without in the least pushing themselves forward, they opened up and said that they had both been widowed and quite accidentally found each other and saved each other from the blight of loneliness. I was right to think that they lived on and off the land. She said "he brought a flock of sheep into the union." They were quietly happy and contented, probably not very well off. I had the impression they had everything they needed. So there was I, sitting on my sun terrace, with a house behind me larger than one person needs and proudly showing off my garden to these people who have so much more than I have in my lonely existence. Me and my stupid middle class superiority, I have swallowed wholesale the idiotic English attitude that class matters. Time I remembered where I come from.  I have envied the little couple ever since.


Tuesday, 1 November 2022

Getting Ready

 November and still mild. Soon we'll be saying "we must have frost, otherwise the bugs won't die and the fruit trees and shrubs that need a touch of frost to fruit next year will stay barren." For now I am glad the heating can stay off. Radiators on for an hour in the evening is all that's needed at the moment to stay comfortably cosy.

This tray of tomatoes is the end of them, There were more green ones than ripe ones, I'd left the whole lot on the table in the conservatory for more of them to turn red.  I could have made green tomato chutney or fried green tomatoes, but turning the red ones into soup was already enough work for just two bowls of it. These are called Gardener's Delight and although the plants are very prolific producers the tomatoes are quite watery, not worth hours simmering down to a pulp. The soup was tasty and it felt good to be eating something entirely down to me, but that's where the pat on the back ended. Anyway, the compost heap is grateful for any offerings.


Il Gatto had to come in too. We've had him for years; I fell in love with him in the art department of a London Department store and had to have him although it took many months for the Italian artist to produce him and ship him to the UK. In winter Il Gatto stays indoors, I am not sure that he is totally frost hardy.

A last look over to the hills and time to go in. Tools can stay out until tomorrow. The rays of the late afternoon sun turn the tips of trees, shrubs, spiky herbaceous plants and the fields the opposite side of the valley golden. There is a nip in the air and it's been a good days work outside. Time for a rest and a mug of something hot, possibly even a chocolate biscuit to tide me over until supper time.

Monday, 24 October 2022



Griddy is a hedgehog which was trapped in my cattle grid and rescued by the two little girls in the photo.
He is not the first one to end up in one of my two cattle grids, I rescued one myself and have since filled in the grid nearest my house along the drive. But Griddy was trapped, the ladder out had rotted and he was very lucky that the girls saw him and had the sense to get in touch with the Hedgehog Preservation Society.

In spite of their ferocious appearance hedgehogs are really quite delicate. Had the girls not rescued him he could have died from hypothermia, dehydration, starvation, or a combination of all three. After 48 hours on a heat pad, warming up and resting, he was eating well and putting on much needed weight before returning to the wild. In the meantime, local craftsmen have installed a new ladder in the cattlegrid. In future there is a way out for any creature that falls into it.

The local representatives of the Hedgehog Preservation Society kept me informed of developments and when Griddy was ready for the great outdoors again, they came to me and asked if I would have him to be released. I was gratified to hear that they could think of no better place for a hedgehog than my garden and the surrounding banks, overgrown with brambles, shrubs, hedges and furnished with piles of wood and plenty of hiding places for such a shy creature. I know he is still here, he leaves me signs in the form of black hedgehog poo, although he has possibly started to furnish himself a winter den for hibernation. The weather is still rather warm and I hope he is eating as many slugs as he can find before he withdraws. Any food I leave out is usually gone in the morning, I sincerely hope it's not the marauding cats who eat it.

Sunday, 16 October 2022

Autumn in the Garden

In spite of the month being October there are still areas of wonderful displays. The hedge is full of berries and hips; does that mean we are going to have a hard winter?  Some say so, but I am not sure; our winters have been rather mild in recent years. 

The hedges are magnificent, wildly overgrown and full of life. I love it that all kinds of creatures have taken up residence. I am providing them with water in large shallow trays; It's such a pleasure to watch  birds by day taking a bath and surprise hedgehogs coming for a drink at dusk. Soon the latter will take up cosy winter quarters in wood and leaf piles which I have deliberately left in various nooks and crannies. The more birds, frogs, toads, and hedgehogs I encourage to eat slugs the better pleased I am during the summer. And if the foxes come and eat that rat of the sky, the pigeon, I don't mind either. They leave the coloured doves alone, these are too fast for predators.

The next three pictures are showing part of the drive. It's a difficult area to cultivate because there  are several trees and the ground is shaded and dry. I think various kinds of conifers might be suitable, I am busy studying Pinterest ideas. Algorithms can be quite handy, Pinterest obviously knows what takes my clicking fancy. Maybe a visit to a plant nursery is in the offing during autumn when the time is right to plant plants shrubs and trees.

I don't know why I have so many cyclamen everywhere, perhaps the birds help
plant the seeds.

Last year I planted a weeping cedar along the drive,
it's doing quite well.

 There's a Mediterranean  pencil pine under the ash tree,
in a year or two it will add a few inches and become more of a picture.
For now the normally boring ash tree itself and its butter yellow autumn leaves
draw the eye. 

I am glad that I have recovered my gardening mojo, the opening in the summer was a great success; several hundred people came to visit during the last weekend of June. ( More of that some other time). The back garden was the showstopper then, the drive borders on the front of house, which are quite spectacular now, less so. You can't have everything. 

Sunday, 9 October 2022

Sunday with Hildegard of Bingen (1098 - 1179)

my ornamental Japanese cherry tree in full autumnal splendour


This morning I woke up a little subdued - I don't want to make my mood sound darker than that; subdued is a good enough word for now. I have been very aware of the days getting shorter, the nights drawing in and leaves turning colour prior to tumbling off the trees. Loneliness is so much worse in winter. Time to beware of the black dog.

So, what to do to make today, Sunday, a little special? It is all too easy for me to let one day run into another without any marker, and time at this time of life speeds up and before you know it, another month has passed. 

Let's start with breakfast, maybe a couple of slices of fruit bread and marmalade? Some ham and a sliver of mature Welsh cheddar? During the week I eat muesli and stewed fruit and nothing else; it's quick and easy and fairly healthy because of the dried fruits, nuts and seeds that I add myself.  And how about a large mug of fennel tea to wash it down. The main thing is to eat consciously, taste every bite and savour the hot drink going into my stomach. 

And while I am eating breakfast I have chosen to be accompanied by Hildegard of Bingen's heavenly sounds. Instead of almost deliberately depressing myself - I know what happens when I read the daily news reports - why not refresh my knowledge of this early medieval polymath, visionary, composer, writer, poet, botanist, philosopher, medical writer and practitioner and abbess of two convents, which she founded. Hildegard was born into the Rhenish aristocracy in 1098, she spent the remainder of her eighty years as a nun.

Hildegard von Bingen. Line engraving by W. Marshall

Hildegard became very powerful in a male dominated Church. She prevailed against various abbots and bishops and even attracted the attention of the pope in Rome who gave her permission to record her visions. She completed her great musico-poetic work around the year 1150. Seventy-seven songs and a music drama are extant today, more than of any other single medieval composer. When the mood takes me I will happily spend an hour in her company.

Hildegard was not universally popular in her time, powerful women were not then and are not now. Nothing much changes. It is said that her nuns, all noble ladies, wore jewellery and extravagant headdresses, and pursued an active life of the mind - without spending too much time in hair shirts, or on bread and water in freezing cells. (I made that last bit up.)

In spite of a lifetime of poor health Hildegard had a vast output of work. She has become important in our time for many reasons. The Feminist movement has embraced her and her ideas on holistic natural healing have been incorporated into the New Age canon.

On Oct. 7, 873 years after her death, the Vatican finally gave her the highest recognition for her considerable achievements. She was elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. There are 34 Doctors of the Church, and only four are women (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux and now, finally, Hildegard von Bingen).

I admire her but most of all I like to listen to her music. Nothing can soothe the anxious spirit like her music can. for today the black dog is banished.

Tuesday, 4 October 2022


I read today that "The Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine has gone to Sweden's Svante Paabo for his work on human evolution."

Neanderthals and, to a lesser extent Denisovans, have been in scientific news for a year or more. There are fewer finds of Denisovan material, hence less is known about them, although they definitely existed as hominin ancestor of Homo sapiens, the modern humans, i.e. us. 

(The first traces of Denisovans were found at Denisova Cave in Siberia in 2010. Fossilized teeth from Denisovans were later discovered in the same cave. Two upper and one lower molar were found in sediments that were dated to between 195,000 and 52,000 years ago)

Ever since I was taken to the cave in the Neander Valley in Germany as a young teenager I have been fascinated with human evolution. It was a study visit arranged by the school.

This visit was a long time ago, the whole class was taken on 'retreat', a kind of religious meditation and a rite of passage between childhood and emergence as young women. That my main 'take-away' from this three day outing would be seeding the first doubts in my mind that maybe the theologians at my school were not 100% the font of all wisdom was probably not the intention, although I have to stress that our religious teachers were not creationists. We had science lessons too, physics and chemistry as well as pre-history and history. 

Modern science has advanced in huge leaps since the days in 1856 when the skeleton of homo neanderthalensis *1 was first discovered. The Neander Valley was originally a limestone river canyon with rugged scenery, waterfalls and caves. Large scale quarrying changed the shape of the valley dramatically. During quarrying works the bones of the original Neanderthal man were found in a cave called Kleine Feldhofer Grotte, which is the cave we were taken to on a visit during the retreat; perhaps the school needed to imbue us with scientific zest as well as religious zest. Sadly, neither the cave nor the cliff where the bones were located still exists. Still, perhaps the destruction of the valley was not altogether a bad thing, without the quarrying operations the bones of Neanderthal *1 would not have been discovered. Since then many more traces have been found not only in the Neander Valley but in many other places all over southern, central and eastern Europe, 400 separate Neanderthals so far.

Paleontologists and geneticists have established that Neanderthals lived between 130 000 and 40 000 years ago; they coincided and bred with Homo Sapiens between 2600 and 5400 years ago, before they disappeared as separate hominids. One of the recent discoveries is that between 1 - 4% of modern human DNA comes from our Neanderthal relatives. And it turns out that Homo sapiens bred with Denisovans too: in parts of South East Asia up to 6% of people's DNA is Denisovan.

Fascinating stuff. Perhaps the Neanderthals really were the knuckle dragging, grunting, sub humans that we imagine when we now call certain types of man "neanderthal". It is somewhat unlikely though, because these early relatives of ours left art behind, in the form of cave paintings. They also lived on earth for far longer than Homo sapiens before they finally became extinct. No doubt paleogeneticists will find out much more about them as methods of scientific exploration continue to develop.

As for my visit to the cave in the valley of the Dussel in North Rhine Westphalia I remember only how very disappointed I was. We had been told that we were to be present in a place where the ancestors of early humans had lived and, being an imaginative soul, I envisaged visible and detailed traces, with maybe the odd domestic arrangement preserved for me to marvel over. There was nothing, just a cave in bare rock, without even the obligatory fire pit. They do it so much better in films. 

Monday, 19 September 2022

Pomp and Circumstance...

.... and endless ceremonial,  or so it seems after eleven days of non stop media coverage. I have never watched so much daytime TV in all my life. And I'm not even a royalist. Neither royalist nor republican, just someone who is, in spite of herself, fascinated by the seamless perfection of the colourful spectacle, the matchless uniforms and splendid head dress of diverse Royal Armed Forces, some regiments, aristocratic Royal servants and court dignitary offices centuries old, with names to fit the archaic origins. 

It is coming up to three o'clock in the afternoon on Monday 19th and there is now only the actual committal service and interment to go. We are being told that this occasion will be far more modest and private than the huge service in Westminster Abbey, where the great and good of the world were in attendance, wonderful music was being sung and played and ladies displayed splendidly exotic black hats. Church dignitaries, equally resplendently dressed, preached and eulogised and praised, mourned and prayed and told us all to be as good and kind, noble and god-fearing as the late queen had been.

For these eleven days commentators have repeated themselves over and over again, rehearsing the same phrases, vying with each other to find something new to say, to dig up the most telling character trait of the queen; interviewees have repeated the same anecdotes, and queues to walk past the coffin during its time of lying-in-state have grown and grown. And the phrase "paying their respects" was used by all and sundry, from on high to down low. Some of the people  in the queues appeared to be full of excitement at being present on this momentous occasion, some no doubt projected their own grief at personal losses during the period of covid when they couldn't properly mourn their loved ones, and others were there to say they hd been there, the kind who would attend anything from the opening of an envelope to a state funeral.  

Last Thursday, after the Palace had told us that the queen was gravely ill, the first five hours until her death was confirmed, commentators were almost grotesque in filling the resultant void of news with guesswork. They couldn't start praising the monarch and neither could they give any definite information. So they waffled on and on, repeating each statement "for the benefit of those who have just joined us" time and time again. It was quite painful to watch. In the end I switched off and therefore missed the announcement. 

And from then on it was wall-to-wall overhead drone footage of the journeys the queen's coffin took from Balmoral, where she died, to the various stages on the way to Edinburgh. Then followed various stops in London, from Buckingham Palace to the Great Hall at Westminster, to Westminster Abbey, all of them accompanied by the same sombre tones of endless commentary. If there is anybody in this country who is still crying over her death, they show remarkable staying power. Apart from the family, of course, who have shown themselves in a very good light, united and dignified, in spite of what the tabloids say about some of the family's members, Camilla and Meghan provoking the most hate speech in media and press.

Heavens, when I started this post an hour ago the Windsor Palace bit had only just started; guess what? they are still marching to the same Beethoven Funeral Marches, a whole hour later! The TV is on in the background. The procession is now finally inside the walls of the castle where the public is no longer welcome. But TV is.

So, now the UK has a new King. I met him once at a Royal Garden Party when we were lucky to have been singled out for a brief conversation with the then Prince of Wales; this was a long time ago, in the days when Diana was still around and Camilla no more than a tear of regret in Charles' eye. My daughter and I rather monopolised the conversation with Prince Charles who had really been wanting to meet my Beloved in his capacity as a musician at the Royal Opera House. Charles was nice and friendly and approachable, but nothing compared to Diana, who was joking and laughing with the people she had been delegated to meet.

Finally, the service in St George's Chapel, Windsor has started. And so ends an era. What history has to say we will find out in due time.