Monday, 29 June 2009


Palm Shadows in Valencia

'Eeeeeh, it's too 'ot!' said the van driver when he delivered the Photographer General's new Dyson. And he was right. Temperatures have shrivelled my garden pinks and pinked the more tender bits of my skin.Yesterday, when I was in Norfolk, it was one of those dreamy mornings which dawns in fog and then lightens to a soft, milky, misty haze making ugly things look pretty and pretty things look sublime.

'Why don't you photograph all those beautiful boats reflected in the harbour,' I suggested to the PG who responded with scornful glance. I agree that we were looking at a pictorial cliché, but it was achingly lovely, all the same.

It's a crime to be blogging, in such heavenly weather, but I promised to give you a few more notes on Valencia:

First, especially for Phoenix C - more horticultural tilework, at the station. I love the way Spanish working women are made to look like someone's Mum doing voluntary work.

Now, then! Ahem! Ahem!

1. There's a botanic garden, designed on the lines of 17th century Spanish physic gardens, with beds in systematic grids and a nicely renovated cool house. But the place is desperately in need of a budget and good curator. (The curator is doing a good job within the limits of the budget, I'd guess, but a garden like this deserves a lot more love and care. They should take these things more seriously. Botanic gardens, especially historic ones, are living museums and a valuable part of our heritage.

2. Street Art is magnificent, in Valencia. Officially approved, semi-approved and downright illegal graffiti can be seen all over the city. It is creative, thought-provoking and often, fun.

The eyes have it! A graffito, on an otherwise bare wall in Valencia.

3. The feast of Corpus Christi preoccupies the entire city for some days. Details are here but what impressed me most was the vast tableau, of biblical characters made entirely from dried flower petals; the carnival 'floats' some of which are centuries old; the chairs with which the streets were lined and the fact that some people sat in them three hours before the main procession passed.

Tourists and locals begin to gather for the parade.

Waiting for the parade. Nice to view it from one's own balcony, even if one rather disapproves.

4. Large pieces of masonry began to fall off the top of the building opposite our hotel. At first there was much concern and the police put up lots of barriers to prevent people walking through a rain of stone and plaster. But later, passers-by impatiently shoved the barriers to one side and strode through, puzzled but not at all concerned at the smashed building fragments all around them. Next a motorbike rider kicked a barricade over after which a car driver, illegally negotiating this pedestrian street anyway, moved the rest of the safety barriers aside so that others, too, could risk their lives and illegally drive down the street.

5. The ceramic museum (picture above) has the most over-the-top rococo façade of any building I have ever seen. It transcends excess - if that's possible - and is worth gawping at for some time. Luckily, there's a cafe opposite, so you can sit and stare. Such detail, such fine carving, such a wealth of craftsmanship.

My Left Foot - detail from the Museo Ceramico

I'm listening to the PG's new Dyson which can extricate cat hairs from close-pile carpets and sounds like an Airbus 380 leaving for Singapore.

This week's film was Vidor's Gilda with Rita Hayworth gloriously hamming it as a vamp with a wicked past and a youthful, sardonic Glenn Ford. Delicious Hollywood ending. And for once, a pretty good print, on DVD. (I HATE, HATE, HATE DVD recordings which have been cropped for television so that the stars look like Ed Astaire and Ginger Roge and the titles look like Klahom, One with the Win or Ing Kon, or Asablanc -- OK OK OK, point made!

This day in 2006 it was boiling hot. On a bike ride, I found two newly emerged Privet Hawk Moths which were calm and docile enough to walk on my hand.

I'm disappointed in the low response to my plug-ugly plant contest, two posts ago. I need more, darlings, more! Meanwhile, the PG threatens to despatch the Turds on Sticks.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009


Plaza Del Ayuntamiento, Valencia

I promised to tell you about Valencia. But pictures speaklouder than words, they say, and everyone knows that a picture is worth a thousand of those. Indeed, if you look at what photographers get paid, compared to writers, most commissioning editors would say that a single pic is worth a good deal more than a thousand, carefully chosen, thoughtfully arranged, crafted, honed, cherished words. But enough, already! Let the pictures speak.

I'm amazed to say that I shot no fewer than 317 images which is depressing when I see how absolutely crap most of them are. The Photographer General did rather better at 115 and has about three times as many usable pictures as me.

Meanwhile, to spread the pics out a bit, here are some things I noted about this remarkable visit.

The Torres de Serranos, gate tower at the northern end of the city makes an excellent set of goalposts.

1. Valencia is in Spain, where football and bull fighting are taken extremely seriously. The city issues 600,000 parking tickets per annum, but only 90,000 offenders bother to pay the fine.

2. Notices in the Metro and elsewhere are in two languages - Valencian and Spanish. Valencian sounds like a hybrid between Portuguese and French; Spanish, in Valencia, sound like machine guns going off.

The ceiling in the basilica of Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados - what a Anglican like me would call a Lady Chapel.

3. The best orange juice I have ever, ever, tasted - and yes, I've been to Florida, and California, and Cyprus but there is absolutely nothing quite like Valencian Orange Juice.

4. Got there in time for the feast of Corpus Christi (11th June) - wait for Part 2 for the pictures of that!

5. El Cid was born in Valencia. (Can't erase visions of Charlton Heston from my mind, when learning about El Cid.)

6. The best art galleries, like everything else, are closed on MOndays in Valencia - regardless of what it says in the guidebook.

Horticultural Tile decorations at the Estacion del Norte Railway Station.

7. The cathedral - built on the site of Valencia's main mosque after Spain had zapped the moors, again, - is a charming architectural dog's breakfast with Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles. The barrel tower is a delight, as are the decorated doorways.

8. Owing to a water shortage, the Turia Fountain, in the Plaza de la Virgen, was seldom turned, during our visit on but doubled as a pigeon perch.

The pigeon perch - Turia Fountain, which is more dramaticwhen it runs.

9. The Mercado Central is one of the finest food markets anywhere. Walking among such superb mixtures of fresh, dew-speckled fruit, fragrant hams, colourful sausages, glistening sea food and luscious vegetables made me ponder on the works of Tesco - and despair.

Your actual, proper, market. What have we lost in the UK?
Oh yes, we have posh markets, but my dear, the prices!

10. Valencia is not a gourmet's paradise. Cheap restaurants seem to cater more for tourists than locals - pizzas everywhere. The best lunch is a 'Bocadillo' or hunk of bread, moistened with crude olive oil and filled with a slice of Manchego cheese and a slivver or six of Serrano ham. The best place for breakfast, we discovered, was a bakery which also had a tiny coffee bar and, of course, the obligatory orange squasher.

The PG sizes up paella dishes. I'm proud of having spent 4 days in this city and managed to avoid eating Spain's most over-rated dish. Anyway, the best Paellas contain rabbit. Nuff said.

11. The mediaeval (1498) silk market, La Lonja has the most elegant barley sugar twist columns and most exquisitely vaulted ceiling of any building I 've ever seen, apart from Kings College Chapel, in Cambridge, and is built in the warmest, most huggable honey-coloured stone. It also has some extremely rude carvings. Bestiality was a bit of thing, among 15th Century Valencians apparently!

Barley sugar columns and ceiling at La Lonja, above, and naughty carvings below.

12. Smoking is encouraged in Valencia's restaurants and cafes.

I'm listening to Beethoven's 7th Symphony, inspired to do so by the soundtrack of the extraordinarily beautiful film The Fall - last week's film.

This week's film was The Departed, Scorsese's version of the the Chinese Infernal Affairs. I'm not a great fan of either Leonardo di Caprio or Matt Damon, but both were totally convincing in this strange 'through the looking glass' thriller. Clever of Scorsese to cast it so that the two were so doppelganger-ish and typical of him to have so much graphic bloodletting.

This day in 2006 it rained. On a bike ride, the PG and I discovered wild sweetbriar growing in a hedge in Morton Fen, Lincs. I noticed the apple smell first, then spotted the Rosa rubiginosa flowering among ordinary dog roses.

And finally: a wildly enthusiastic horticultural sales lady, desperately trying to persuade me to buy a plant.

Episode numero dos soon. . .

Friday, 19 June 2009


The Photographer General's Favourite Perennial

Well I have to say that Valencia was wonderful fun.

Haven't time to go through the pictures or think about what to say yet, so just to keep in touch, here's notion for you to ponder upon.

I see that the RHS, has kicked off its publicity machine for the magnificent Tatton Park Flower Show with details of an ugly plant competition. Some of the plants they nominate are a bit peculiar, but many of them strike me as being extraodinarily beautiful. And when you consider what remarkable adversity some of them grow in, the beauty, as seen in their adaptation over millions of years, is sublime.

But there are plants which, let's face it, are just plain hideous. The Mediterranean horror, Dracunculus vulgaris looks like hell on earth and smells like a dead donkey that has been left in the Cretan sun for six weeks.

And on top of that, we know we can always rely on plant breeders to make a bad thing worse. Bearded irises, for example, were once gorgeous but nowadays, you can hardly find a single hybrid that hasn't so many frills and furbelows that each bloom resembles underwear purchased at dubious lingerie stores and worn by certain ladies of the night.

So I hereby launch the Silvertreedaze Ugly Plant Contest. For starters, will you please welcome Rudbeckia occidentalis in its 'improved' and 'selected' form 'Green Wizard.'

The name is ridiculous, since the flowers are neither green nor wizardlike. They are brown, nasty, scatological in shape and as they age, they lengthen and curl, making them even more faecal.

The pictures are by the Photographer General who violently objects to this plant growing in my garden, and who calls them, succinctly, 'Turds on Sticks.' She dislikes them growing in the little border by the lawn where we drink our afternoon tea and is demanding that the be composted forthwith.
Turds on sticks.

I'm listening to Beethoven's Violin Concerto, having recently purchased it from the iTunes store, one of my children having pinched my CD version.

I'm reading Little Dorrit - the Dickens' account of the Office of Circumlocution describes to a tee what will happen to the Iraq War Enquiry.

This time last week I was in Valencia - pictures and story soon, I promise.

Finally, this week's film was The Fall, by Tarsem Singh, recommended by James A-S, on this blog, and thoroughly enjoyed. Stupendous film locations, in Spain - Seville, I think - South Africa, China and so on. Exquisite colours, glorious bodies - though most frequently male - and clever interior sets. The child actor was utterly natural, with such things as nose picking and 'desperate-for-a-pee-but-too-distracted-to-go-to-the-loo' jiggling left purposely in the narrative. Distinctly un-Hollywood, but it strengthened the artistry. BUT, the story structure was weak, the screenplay clunked along a bit painfully and I really couldn't give a toss for the stuntman character who seemed a weak-minded twat, by and large. Luvverly film, though and I'm glad to have seen it.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


A quick interim post.

Strange fruit, on the magnolia.

I was, having a peaceful time writing copy upstairs in my office when a neighbour banged on our door to inform the Photographer General that our house wall was crawling with bees, and that they seemed rather agitated.

We've had honey bees nesting in the cavity of our wall for some time, so I wasn't alarmed until I went out to have a look and walked smack into a whirring, buzzing mass of bees. Some were beginning to cluster on a branch of the Magnolia x soulangeana 'Rustica Rubra' which a predecessor, here, had stupidly planted smack against the wall of the house. (And I'm too stupid to cut the gorgeous thing down!) They looked like a strange fruit - though not in the sense of Billie Holliday's horrible and lugubrious song about lynchings.

A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon.

'They're just swarming,' I said, breezily, 'They won't harm anyone, when they're doing that.' This was not based on knowledge, but on a tendency I have to put an apron over my head, in any kind of a crisis, and go straight into denial.

The PG, made of much sterner, more rational stuff, immediately phoned round until she discovered the whereabouts of the nearest beekeeper. Soon, an impressive lady called Beverly arrived with all the necessary kit, glad, no doubt, to have another swarm of bees to add to her apiary.

She donned something left over from the Apollo Mission to the moon and asked for a step ladder and a pair of secateurs. Moving slowly but deliberately she advanced on the bees, snipped off the grape-like clustering swarm and deftly transferred it to a large cardboard box.

This, she inverted over a board, wedging one side up a little, with a stick to allow bees in and out. The bees were agitated in general, but quite unperturbed by her handling them, and began to go in and out of this makeshift hive as if they had been born and bred there.

Beekeeper Beverly, with her booty.

'Is the queen at the centre of that lot?' I asked.
'I won't know that until later, when they've settled down,' said Beverly.

Apparently, it is usually an old queen which leaves the colony to start an new one, leaving a younger queen(s) behind. I was anxious for at least some of the bees to remain in the wall. I like having them there. Indeed, I'd keep bees myself, if I didn't react so very badly to their stings. Having bees on the premises - but at their behest, rather than having to look after them in a hive - is a happy situation, for us, although it would be good to have the honey.

The swarm, about to be lowered into the box

Beverly returned in the evening and gathered up the box, containing the bee swarm and, presumably, their queen. Meanwhile, there are plenty of bees left and normal traffic is buzzing in and out at the hole in the wall. Beverley says they may swarm again, later in the summer. Not so good, I suppose, because the rhyme goes: A swarm of bees in July, ain't worth a fly.

I'm just off to Valencia.

I'm listening to cock blackbirds having a singing duel outside the office window.

Monday, 8 June 2009


Sunday's rainfall - a welcome 25millimetres.  Lovely!

Look! Before I start, let’s be absolutely clear. I have NOT fiddled my expenses. I have a perfect right to build a scaled replica of Blenheim Palace to use as a bird table, at a cost to the tax payer of £17,049.51, since this will greatly enhance the local environment. Furthermore, it’s only fair that those who benefit from my political wonderfulness should foot the bill for the extensive make-over at my new London Residence. The fact that the aforementioned London Residence is just outside Torquay, and happens to be occupied solely by my niece’s cat, is my affair an no one else’s. (And by the way, rumours that she’s not really my niece are totally vexatious and as fallacious as the notion that Ursus arctos might even think of parking his breakfast in a tree-rich landscape.)

Rain-spattered Lady's Mantle - Alchemilla mollis.

Phew. I’m glad we’ve got the air cleared on all that.

Well! First the fire, then the flood! Are we in for another biblical deluge?  Is that what climate change really is?

Sahara-style sunshine has toasted my head, hands and legs to an alluring golden brown. But they’re the only bits of me regularly exposed to weather so when I stand naked before the bathroom mirror – not something one should do very often, when over 65 – I resemble a rather oddly shaped, sagging liquorice allsort. 

Since the heatwave, a vicious, keening easterly has smashed all but the stiffest perennials down and torn swags of clematis from their supports. I’ve tied some of them back, but what were once handsome plants now resemble mangled bedsprings.

The rain that followed was sweet and welcome, of course – rain almost always is in East Anglia and Lincolnshire – but I rather wish it had fallen overnight, so that I could have spent my one free day, yesterday, weeding. The sowthistles are just coming into flower and as they say round here: One year’s seed equals ten years weed.

Lobelia pedunculata - was Pratia pedunculata, being a carpet, a pool or a living baize cloth.

I’d like to say a word on behalf  floor plants. The path which leads round our terrace has been planted up with some rather good-natured things which form durable mats over the gravel. Most of them tolerate being walked on and all are prettier than plain gravel or paving. Best of these – better even than the various coloured-leaf clovers and the aromatic wild-occurring hybrid Geranium ‘Biokovo’ – is what was called Pratia but is now Lobelia pedunculata. The galaxy of tiny, sky blue flowers is a joy, resembling a pool of water from the distance. At one point, this has pleached or merged with a naturally occurring ivy-leaved toadflax, Cymbalaria muralis to create a melange of subtle blues. All good to look at.

Speaking of pleaching, I’ve been trying to persuade the climbing rose ‘Madame Gregoire Staechelin’ to weave herself into one of our silver birches. The blowsy pink flowers look wonderful against the silver-grey trunk but unlike a rampageous rambler, this rose appeared to lack the necessary thuggishness and kept falling out of its tree. But at last, this year – after death-defying ballet performances atop our rickety step-ladder while tying in the main stems – I think it will stay put. Already, the tarty pink blooms look pretty among the birch leaves - talk about a busty barmaid among the bovver boys.  This variety produces big hips, too - very barmaid -  so I’m hoping for an autumn show as a bonus.

Rosa 'Madame Gregoire Staechelin' aka 'Spanish beauty' 

On a sadder note, the swallows that began to build in our garage took umbrage, for some reason and again, have given us a belated bum’s rush. Why? The conditions are perfect, I’d have thought. That means a 3 year gap since swallows last hatched off chicks on our premises. Sigh!

I’ve just read This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson, a more than 700 page whopper of a novelised or fictionalised account of the life of Captain Robert FitzRoy who was Master of HMS Beagle which carried a young but already egocentric Charles Darwin as its ‘Natural Philosopher. A great read, but I worried all the way through about the authenticity of the information. I think I’d have preferred a straight biography. It is obvious that Mr Thompson’s research was impeccable and exhaustive. What a monster project!!

Last night’s film was John Schlesinger’s golden 1970 ikon Sunday, Bloody Sunday. A love triangle set among affluent Londoners with wealth, privilege and newly liberal values but against a background of brewing economic crises. (Hang on – isnt’ that just a teeny bit now-ish?) Every scene exudes remarkable qualities: a bold, but not oppressive symbol structure, impeccable casting, screen play as sound as a bell, photography beautiful at times and edgy where needed – what a masterpiece! I don’t understand why this is has not become as much a cult treasure as Withnail and I did, when it came later.  And what a terrible loss when Glenda Jackson left the acting profession – and for what?

I’m listening to Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash singing Girl from the North Country.

This day in 1991  I visited the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, accompanied by the PG and was impressed by an Elisabeth Frink sculpted head.  Afterwards, to the cinema to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Bees are swarming outside my window  - but another post for that.  Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!  Help, I'm getting buzzed to blazes!

Monday, 1 June 2009


Ridiculous to be writing a post when the golden sun is kissing the burgeoning sowthistles in my borders and my pot plants are gasping their last because no one can be arsed to get out there and water them.  In this heat?  You must be joking!   It must be, ooh, at least 22ºC out there!

So, instead of honest toil – a few little pensées.   Oh, and apart from the top one, the pictures in this post have nothing whatever to do with the text, so please don't waste time trying to find a connection.  There isn't one - not a conscious one, anyway.

My semi-retired Clarke's Extra Wides - decorated to celebrate their new career in horticulture.

Pensée 1.  I was amused by Peter Seabrook, complaining in Horticulture Week, about being made to wear reinforced shoes, during the Chelsea build up. Harrrumph! However, I'm not going to rant, even though the Health and Safety Executive are obviously an F1 hybrid, raised in some hideously dark and hush-hush Government Laboratory using the Taliban and Spanish Inquisition as parents.  

The safety shoes, I gather, hurt his feet whereas his preferred, old, comfortable footwear had served him, without injury or pain, for many a long year.

Now as any infantry officer will tell you, feet are damned important and for gardeners, choosing up with the right footwear is a challenge.  Wellingtons are fine for a quick winter foray, but are hopeless for extended work because they can't breathe, and the fit isn't snug enough.  Smelly feet and back ache result.  

As a teenage garden nerd, I used to work in plimsolls (tennis shoes) until, one day, I plunged a large fork straight through my left one, and through my foot into the ground.  I thought it was a hospital job, but when I gingerly, but with difficulty, withdrew the implement, and then removed the plimsoll from my throbbing and bleeding foot, I discovered that the tine had slipped neatly between two toes and although there was much blood, the injury was no more than a graze.  My parents were astoundingly unsympathetic.   Plus sa change. . .   

I confess to working in trainers, very occasionally, but only when doing delicate, girly things like dead heading or watering.  (That previous sentence is not intended to be either sexist or prejudiced.  I just like the epithet 'girly' and use it liberally.)  They also won't do for long term, serious gardening.

Melittis melissophyllum the delightfully named White Bastard Balm - not a racist slur, I promise.  My cats can't leave it alone.

Boots are a possible answer, but my feet are shaped like a couple of frying pans, and I have the damnedest time gettting them on and off.  If the phone goes, while I'm outside, the caller will usually have given up and hung up before I've managed to the first boot undone.  Stamp through the house with mud-caked boots, though, and you risk the wrath of the Photographer General, which can be more scary than the aforementioned Taliban and Spanish Inquisition put together.

So my preferred garden footwear are Clarke's Extra Wide Fit, lace-up shoes.  But at almost £70 a pop, I'm not about to buy new, just to wreck them outdoors.  So I've developed a kind of rotation system.  

Shoes, as I'm sure you'll agree, reach a point where they are perfectly moulded to your feet.  So loved and comfortable do they become, that parting with them is unthinkable, even when you know that for Posh London Meetings, dinner parties and the like, they are getting a bit shabby.

When such shabbiness begins to draw sidelong looks from svelte colleagues, I know it's time they were put out to grass.  So this week end, I have promoted my current favourite pair,  let's call them Rodney and Lionel - actually, on second thoughts, let's not! - to spend the rest of their lives in horticulture.  I couldn't do this until I'd found suitable replacements - a couple of young whippersnappers from Clarke's in Victoria Street - also Extra Wide - which will do very well. 

So my new garden shoes which have walked me through Singapore, Hong Kong, Capetown, Seattle, San Francisco, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Doha and lots of places in Europe, are now enjoying a vigorously active old age in my garden.

The first flower to open on our Dianthus cruentus

P 2.  You may have noticed that there has been a remarkable influx of Painted Lady butterflies in the past week or so.  They have been flying through the garden as if pepped up on something, barely pausing to sip nectar but zooming purposely on.   Most seem to be flying towards the north west.  They will have come up from North Africa, I believe.

P. 3  The swallows are definitely nesting in our garage.  They gave us the 'bum's rush' over the past two years, so we are flattered and delighted to have them back.  There is also a male blackbird - a tatty old thing - which is so tame that when I'm weeding, it comes within a couple of feet of my hand.  As we already have a robin which behaves in exactly the same way, I'm never alone in the garden.

P.4  I tried to watch Springwatch on television but gave up after the first programme.  There's much going on, in the wild, but most of the programme seemed to consist of assinine studio banter, sickening anthropomorphism and dodgy values.

That's more than enough pensées.

Self-seeded ragged robin, Lychnis flos-cuculi in the wood garden.

Im listening to the Ice Cream Van which arrives in our village every evening and tinkles out either the theme music from Match of the Day or Popeye the Sailor.  I'm always reminded of that lovely indie film Trees Lounge. I'f you've seen it, you'll know what I mean.

Yesterday's film was Pulp Fiction.  The PG wanted to see it, so I reluctantly agreed to watch as well.  Critically applauded, I gather, but include me out of that accolade.  Unconvincing story lines that didn't work, gauche casting, bloodcurdling violence for no apparent reason and it was so long!  I did NOT like it.  Clearly, I'm a Philistine, but so be it.

This day in 2006  I was showing Ian Hodgson, Editor of The Garden round my still somewhat embryonic, still relatively new garden.

Enjoy the summer gorgeousness.  Byeeeeeeee!