Monday, 20 December 2010

ENJOY THE WARMTH OF A REAL FIRE

A happy Christmas to everyone, and a blissful New Year
Our garden looks neater in snow, but infinitely more boring. I'd rather have a the usual mess, with pretties blooming bravely, than all this Narnia stuff. One expects the nasty Snow Queen at any moment.


Well, I promised words and pictures about our fire, so here they are, scobbed from my diary entry for Saturday 11th December.

At about 2.15 in the morning, I was awakened by a strange light shining through the dressing room curtains. When I got up to investigate, flames were belching out of the side of the window frame and the venetian blinds were just catching fire. As I reached full wakefulness, it became obvious that the room was full of smoke and we had a fire. But how come it was issuing from such a strange place?

I beat the flames out quite easily, with a damp bath mat, but it was clear that a fire was working deep in the chimney breast. I leapt into a pair of trousers, while [the PG] phoned the fire brigade.

Within half an hour, we had two fire engines outside and eleven firemen in the house. They put out the most obvious fire, by the window, and then began to chip the masonry away from the chimney breast. The building fabric is hopeless - brickbats, rubble, clay and lime mortar - and they soon had a sizeable hole.

A long beam, it seems, ran from the window all the way across the back of the chimney void. Why? Who knows. It doesn’t seem to be fulfilling any structural need but had been in contact with the chimney liner.

So in spite of the vast volume of fire-proof, insulating vermiculite, the liner caused the beam to smoulder and eventually, up it went. It could have been smouldering for weeks.

They were soon able to control the spread, but needed to lift off part of the roof, to get at southern end of the beam, and promised to return, at about noon, to check that the fire was truly out.


The remains of my what I pretentiously call my dressing room with the new hole. The black cat decided that there was no longer any risk, and took up residence there as soon as the firemen had left, despite the disgusting smell of smoke and soot.


The firemen were absolutely fantastic. They were polite, calm and helpful. We kept plying them with tea; they kept any damage to an absolute minimum. And they cleared up as best they could before they left.


You can see where the fire crept along the timber, to emerge at the window frame. The buried beam was possibly a tie, incorporated during the building process to improve structural strength.


A Couple of points come out of all this.

1. Waking up to see your bedroom on fire is a little unnerving.

2. Smoke alarms aren't all they're cracked up to be. Ours go off if the PG roasts a chicken, or if I burn a crumpet, but did not begin sounding, that night, until the room was pretty smoky and the fire rattling along nicely.

3. We were unbelievably lucky. Our normal bedroom was being decorated, which is why we were sleeping in the room where the fire began. Had we not been there, much of the house could have been destroyed, before the fire was discovered.

4. Everyone involved in helping us to deal with this crisis - the firemen, the insurers, loss adjuster and and particularly our surveyor – you all know who you are! – have been supremely helpful and supportive. That means an awful lot when the roof over one's head is under threat.

5. Watching soppy Xmas films like White Christmas and Love, Actually is fun, but not so jolly when you're wrapped in blankets and wearing woolly hats, while the beautifully designed modern wood-burning stove sits, impotent and frigid, waiting to be re-instated. We have ordered a big, electric, oil-filled radiator!

6. Er. . . that's it, really.


I'm listening to Elizabeth Poston's sweet carol, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, sung by Saint John's College Choir.


This day last year we were delivering goodies to our children and grandchildren in Surrey. We planned a similar expedition this year but chickened out, thanks to my accurate weather forecast. Being a farmer for 10 years has its advantages and one is being able to interpret weather. BBC Radio forecasting is atrocious these days, by the way - subject for a rant one day soon.


This week's film was Holiday Inn. I love the Berlin songs and the perfection of Fred Astaire's footwork.


MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL AND GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE ETC. ETC.

(Am I the only one who thinks that it might have been better in the story if Tiny Tim had actually died? Dickens almost always kills off his ailing pauper children, so why did this one escape?) Bah Humbug!




Monday, 13 December 2010

OAKHAM ALL YE FAITHFUL

Catkins in the snow - Alnus incana 'Aurea.'

Well, that was a nice break from the snow! Two mild days in a row - my goodness we are being spoilt!

Prettiest thing in our garden - well, the only pretty thing - is the Gold Leaved, Grey Alder, Alnus incana 'Aurea' pictured above. The gold in the summer foliage is so subtle as to be almost undetectable but the beauty of the tree lies in its winter contrasts - the startling red of the catkins, the warm coppery parchment hue of the young bark and the dark fruit clusters which resemble miniature pine cones.

The rest of the garden is dead, apart from a primrose which rashly produced a flower, under the snow, to be ahead of the game after the melt, I expect.

Tuesday was a jolly day. I was asked to take part in a carol concert at Oakham, in aid of the NSPCC - odd, isn't it that animals, via the RSPCA, enjoy Royal Patronage whereas children do not?

The evening was a rollicking success and great fun. I was asked to 'do a reading' along with hip and thigh expert Rosemary Conley, an utterly charming young antique called Lars Tharp who is something to do with an Old People's Road Show, a delightful QC and several other sparkly TV people.

My reading was from Elizabeth Goudge's Towers in the Mist, an historical novel about Elizabethan Oxford limbering up for Christmas Eve. Ms Conley gave us a heartbreaking passage from Vera Brittain's superb autobiography Testament of Youth and Lars treated us to a gloriously hyberbolic load of old balderdash about the hard winter of 1708-9 relayed by Virginia Woolf in her batty book Orlando. We had a bit of Adrian Mole, in whom I never really believed - though I'd rather not tell you why – and a delightful piece about a small Jewish boy enjoying an illicit taste of Christmas, despite his parents stern disapproval.

And, apart from those Twelve blasted Days which palls horribly after rather more than 60 Christmases, we sang and had sung to us some lovely music.

The choir was small but beautifully precise and tonally pretty much on the button. And there was - oh rapture! - a brass band. Brass bands sound deliciously fruity, in church acoustics, and this one was proved to be the aural equivalent of a Carmen Miranda hat.

We readers had to don Dinner Jackets - Rutland always did have ideas above its station - and I have to say that the aforementioned sparkly TV ladies had made themselves magnificently glamorous.

The concert was utterly exhausting, though, not because of having read in a pulpit, but from leaping up and sitting down as the audience sang those Twelve Bloody Days antiphonally, in four sections - or was it five? We were supposed to jump to our feet every time the line in our verse was sung. My hip went on strike, just before the Five golden rings, so I sat down and stayed put, looking, no doubt, like a moody spoilsport.

Afterwards we repaired, for drinks and 'ot canapés, to Oakham Castle which is not a castle at all but a magnificent mediaeval hall, built in the 12th Century. The interior has wonderful Romanesque arches and interesting decorations, not least of which is a collection of enough horseshoes to equip a cavalry regiment. But another example of the contrariness of Rutland folk is their insisting on fixing their horseshoes to the walls upside down, so that all the luck runs out.


One other thing:
I've come to the conclusion that I'm so hopelessly out of touch with the Zeitgeist that there's no chance whatever of getting into the swing of anything. I failed to see any of the flying Widdies, on Strictly Go Ballroom and must have been absolutely the last to hear of the cast changes on Gardeners' World.

There has also been talk of something called an X Factor and a God-like creature – or at least an omniscient one – called, I believe, Simon Cowell. I haven't seen sneer or hide of him on television, or indeed, in reality, but I did see something that appeared to represent him, once, on The Simpsons. He - or someone like him - was depicted as a superior educationalist, I seem to recall. His comeuppance arrived in the form of a double punch to the hooter by our hero, Homer S.

The Simpsons is, as anyone with a brain cell knows, the most thought-provoking and subtly scripted drama ever produced on TV. I watch it daily, as a kind of mental exercise, before gearing up for the evening. You have to pay close attention, to get all the anarchic gags, and no one will ever come to terms with Marge's bizarre hairdo or Lisa's terrifying intellect.

Quite accidentally, this week, I also found also myself watching a TV programme called Come, Dine With Me which seems to be about people who dress extremely badly and then behave atrociously at other people's dinner parties. Then, when their turn comes, they proceed to give the Dinner Party from Hell.

On the programme I watched, the climax - or nadir - happened when a youthful and uncharacteristically active, semi-albino python defecated smack in the middle of the table before the guests had tasted their dessert. Nice!


This week's film was Ying Xiong (Hero) directed by Yimou Zhang. It's an action adventure about ancient Chinese war lords, but strikingly beautifully shot. The most memorable scene takes place in autumnal woodland, actually shot in Mongolia, where the leaves turn gloriously yellow. Frustratingly, it wasn't possible to identify the trees but boy, were they lovely!

I'm listening to Drink to Me Only, arranged by Roger Quilter, sung by David Wilson-Johnson and accompanied by David Owen Norris.

On Saturday Morning at 2.10 am I woke to discover that our house was on fire. Picture and story to follow.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

HORRORMUMS IN JAUNDICE AND PEUCE

Well, I hope everyone enjoyed the Garden Media Guild luncheon today. I've been thinking of changing my deodorant because no one invited me. And being too much of a tight-wad to fork out my own ticket, I didn't go. All you lovely suppliers and hortifolk that I mention in the Mail and Garden News and other places, and who were at the lunch? Hope you enjoyed it. Meanwhile, I've I made a little list of the names!!

But I'm not sulking. I'm sure it was lovely nosh and there were obviously lots of gorgeous lovelies to talk to, but it was fine here, in the cold and snow, shivering, lunchless and so very, very, very lonely.

I had hoped to scoop the announcements of the GMG awards, but by 5pm. They still hadn't been posted. But congratulations to whoever won anything, anyway. I'm sure the awards couldn't have gone to better, nicer, more deserving. . . well, you know the sort of thing.


I took my baby brother to Wisley last week, for a seminar on Plectranthus. Despite being an RHS member, he had not yet seen the glasshouse. I think he was pretty impressed.

We were addressed, in the lecture room, by the bubbly and aromatic Jekka, who described Plectranthus as culinary and medicinal herbs. And then taught the basic taxonomy of the genus by Diana Miller, a botanist for whom most plantspeople have massive respect and who was Keeper of the Herbarium, at the RHS, before she retired. Her monograph Pelargoniums - you can get a copy here - is worth every penny.

When Diana had spelled out the anatomy of this plant group, we all wandered over to the glasshouse to be talked and walked through the collection. I left wanting to know a lot more, and also wanting to build a newer, bigger greenhouse, so I could accomodate more varieties. My favourite, for the day, was Plectranthus saccatus 'Wisteria' which you'll find illustrated here , I hope

The plants are dotted about but most are assembled in the corridor which leads from the main glasshouse to the service area. This is a fascinating and varied plant group and has particular attraction for me for several reasons:

1. They're smelly, and not always in a nice way - rather like salvias, hemp nettle most and other members of the deadnettle tribe, Lamiaceae. I derive a perverse, and probably perverted pleasure from sniffing such plants.

2. The are easy to grow, but challenging at the same time. Cuttings will root as soon as you drop them onto soil, but getting the little blighters to flower before November takes guts, pruning skills and a lot of good luck.

3. They dangle gracefully - no one could resist a delicately attenuated fop of a plant like these.

4. They come from Africa, mainly southern Africa - all of which is beautiful, gorgeous, fascinating and must be visited. Repeatedly.

5. The leaf colours and flower colours are subtle, seductive and charming.

The Picture is a Japanese chrysanthemum, at Wisley, snapped on my iPhone - whose camera is pants, as I believe I may have said before - on our way to the Plectranthus. Some of these classic Japanese varieties are superb. This one looked like granny's knickers after they'd got ripped up in the spin dryer.

I'm listening to the paint drying in my proper office - we've had the decorators in - and writing this on my knees in a cupboard which is serving as my 'jury rig office.'

This day last year my friends and I organised a special showing of Casablanca to other friends, who, we felt, needed a little cinematic education. I'm not sure that they were that impressed, but any excuse to watch Hollywood's greatest film ever, ever, ever!

This weeks film was The Wild Bunch. I'm not a massive Pekinpah fan, but love this dark tale of clapped out bandits. One of William Holden's greatest roles, I suspect, and what wonderful teaming with Ernest Borgnine!

I'm thinking of turning the 'this week's film' slot into a semi-regular, brief hagiography – or, from time to time, whatever the obverse is, of that term – of a person or persons who worked in films, and who I admire. Might be a runner.

Hope you don't get dyspepsia from the GMG lunch!
Toodle Oooh!

Monday, 22 November 2010

WENT TO PARIS WITH MY LOVE: RETURNED WITH AN OLD BOILER

Well, that's not strictly true, actually, but it makes a jolly title. Ten days or so ago, the PG and I went for a romantic though not quite Ruby Wedding trip to Paris. After putting up with me for 38 years, I thought she deserved a treat.

Then, on Friday, I popped over to Calais to do a little essental pre-Xmas retail therapy with my brother. We each picked up an old Poule each at the Coquelles Carrefour. At a mere 5 Euros each, it seemed a good deal, despite the obvious advanced age of both birds. Their thighs, though strangely wrinkled, were pleasingly plump and their breasts could only be described as magnificently matronly. We will each be preparing Poule au Pot for our spouses (spice?) come the weekend.

The Isle de France, with the peerless Notre Dame. Three minutes stroll from our hotel.


We travelled posh, to Paris, by Eurostar. Swish and you're there, stepping out in the Gare du Nord full of hope and expectation after a tolerable breakfast but with disgusting coffee. La Vie Parisienne! Ooh La la!! La belle cité - si charmant, si romantique, si cher!!!!

At the Gare du Nord, where Eurostar decants you, it took half an hour to buy our 'carnet' for zooming about the city by Metro. The queue wasn't that long but only one guichet was manned and the saleswoman was having far too important a chat with her friend, to be able to break off and sell any of us a ticket. I think two of them were moaning to each other about the iniquity of the age of retirement being increased to 45.

Oh, but don't lets rant! Paris is so lovely! After London - which I adore more than any city on earth, and I've visited a great many - Paris is so feminine, so charming and so alluring. The Parisians manage to be brusque without quite crossing the line to downright rudeness and in the streets and cafés, they often make eye contact and will speak, or comment, or even smile. London hasn't been like that for decades.

View from our hotel bedroom. The Hotel Mont Blanc is in Rue de la Huchette, just of Place Saint Michel. Wonderfully central but boy, is it basic! The room had no mirror or pictures on the wall, but it was clean. And the lift (elevator) was like something borrowed from a Marx Brothers movie. The breakfast bar was atrocious - a tv and a radio, both blasting away in the tiny space. We walked out and breakfasted far more pleasantly in the boulangerie across the street.



A view from the top of the Louvre, of the Arc de Triumph, with that horrid pylon thing in the background. I can never see it without thinking of Alec Guinness and the Lavender Hill Mob.


A creative shop window, in the Latin Quarter, clearly catering for shoe fetishists.



The left bank book stalls, exactly as I remember them from 1960, when first taken to Paris. The salesmen were just as enthusiastic in those days. All the merchandise looked damp.


With a two night stay, we had a lot to do in a short time, and since it rained more or less continuously, we spent most of the visit in the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay and the Orangerie in the Tuileries.

I'm not a huge fan of the Louvre building - an arrogant structure built by a doomed monarchy. I know Cromwell was something of a swine, over here, but our Civil War and Interregnum did, at least, put a stop to the grandiose ideas of monarchs who really did believe they had a Divine Right and became absolutely corrupted by absolute power.

But as a museum, the Louvre palace works superbly. And I do quite like the funny glass Pyramid they plonked into the middle of the space enclosed by the wings. You can see through it, and that's charming.


A peep through the Pyramid, at the Louvre museum.

The collection will move even the most cynical of spirits to tears of admiration and wonder. The PG, believe it or not, had never been inside. Various attempts to do so, in her life had been thwarted by perverse opening hours or other circumstances. So we did the 'must sees' first. The Winged Victory, Leonardo's quite decent portrait of that smirking girl, the armless venus and so on. But we continued with all the other stuff until my hip and leg cried 'Enough!'

One is allowed to take piccies inside the Louvre, without flash, but I couldn't really see the point. Except for couple of hilarities. Here's a detail from the Florentine, Lorenzo di Credi's Madonna hanging round with a couple of saints. Not the male pattern baldness and sideburns on the babe. Hilarious! It's rumoured that the anti-smoking lobby had the ciggy painted out, leaving him making a rather dubious gesture.




Braccesco's Annunciation. Gabriel's zooming down from Heaven on a surfboard frightened the living daylights out of the BVM, hence her shocked stance and expression.

Leaving the Louvre at dusk after a hard day's art watching.



Paris by night. Romantic and sexy, but can you afford the restaurant prices?

We went home on Eurostar but managed to take in a couple of super shows. J B Priestley's When we are Married - farcical but brilliant. Roy Hudd is a particular delight as a drunk photographer. And Oscar Wilde's , An Ideal Husband with the peerless Samantha Bond. Oh what a wonderful Anniversary Break we had!

I'm listening to Benjamin Britten's 'Rejoice in the Lamb'

This time last week I was rather better off, but the poorer for not having yet visited the staggering collection of impressionists at the Musée d'Orsay. Never have so many Gauguins, Van Goghs, Renoirs and so on be gathered together in such concentration.

This week's film was Burke and Hare starring Simon Pegg. I love his work, but he only acted in this one. Doesn't know whether to be a biopic, a comedy, or gothic horror. But like sweet and sour pork, it's fun once in a while, even if you feel a bit sick afterwards.



And finally: A light lunch of Choucroute d'Alsace being enjoyed by a diner in Cité Europ, Coquelles, Pas de Calais. No, it isn't me, but I had something quite similar. Shocking, isn't it?

Friday, 29 October 2010

THE FASHIONISTAS WERE FORCED TO EAT SNAIL PORRIDGE

Well, hello! What joy to greet the Emperor of China again.

Chrysanthemum 'Emperor of China.'
This is one of my favourite chrysanthemums. It's practically impossible to grow, having hopelessly lanky stems and growing 2 metres high, but the flowers are so beautiful and the leaves go beetroot red as the year dies. Gorgeous!


We've had what I believe are called, in posh parlance, our 'Rainwater Goods' replaced. Our roof is now properly drained and guttered, instead of gushing waterfalls onto the walls, into one window and through the stonework.

In gardening terms, that meant two burly blokes working round the house, banging and rending and, when not up their ladders, dancing a hobnail two-step on all the little pretties which I had planted in the narrow beds along the house walls. Many of these were clearly marked with printed, aluminium labels but both the pretties and the labels are now bent out of shape and flattened.

But they were nice blokes, and they had the goodness to cut away all the climbers which had gone up from the walls, under the pan tiles. And they also made sure that all the 'making good' still left plenty of access for the swifts which nest in our roof year after year.

In the process, one soakaway was discovered to be ruinously silted up. So a new pipe has had to be laid but can't go underground because of other services. A shaded raised bed, therefore, is among my short term design plans, to hide the new pipe and to grow ferns and dwarf rhododendrons in.


Some of the petals open spoon-shaped on 'Emperor of China'


Now then. Ahem, ahem!!!
What, exactly, is all this nonsense about fashion? Clothes? OK. They go in and out. Those who care about such things will gaze in admiration at the preposterous nonsense-garments the big 'Names' put on at fashion shows and worry themselves into a depression if they cannot be 'hip' or 'zeitgeisty' in their threads.

The rest of us have grot clo' for gardening, fishing, or whatever, and classic smart stuff for posh events including the trusty DJ for formal events. The most downcasting words on invitations, for such people, are 'Smart casual.' I still don't know what that actually means.

But fashion, it seems, now runs to other things. Fondues, I read, are now 'acceptable again' and 'fashoinable.' Sales of fondue sets are on the rise. Well, hoo-bloody- ray!

The concept is RIDICULOUS!! You can't say a Swiss dish consisting of melted cheese and wine is a fashion item. It's just a traditional dish. We have Lancashire Hotpot and Jugged Hare; America has Cajun and Pennsylvania Dutch; the Swiss have Fondue and Plat Froid Valaisanne. And that's that. Fashion doesn't come into it.

So over the past 25 years, while the Fashionistas have been sniggering at fondue sets, the PG and I have regularly enjoyed the delectable cheesy treat on the coldest winter week ends for the entire 38 years of our marriage. And we've run through three 'fondue sets,' the current and easily the best being a Tefal electric one with accurate temperature control and a Teflon lining.

My brother lived and worked in Valais for a time, in his youth, so he also has the long term fondue habit, too.

And now fashionism has spread to carnations. These, writes Victoria Summerley, here, have been 'deeply unfashionable for decades.' (She goes on with some fascinating information about them, so do read the article.) But were carnations ever really fashionable? They're just flarze, as far as I'm concerned, immune to the vagaries of trend setters, never in fashion, and never out.


My John Bratby Tie, admired by Royalty at Chelsea.

At least, I hope that's so. I couldn't bear to think of such things being part of any trend. They're uniform for blokes at weddings, of course, and can be a bit funereal to boot.

For years, I've had a rather nice silk tie, designed by the Royal Academician John Bratby - biog here. I think the Queen liked it, when I wore it at Chelsea, but hope I've never made the mistake of donning it as a fashion item.

It still has some life in it, but must stay in the cupboard, now, until I'm safe from being spotted wearing it, and then told that I'm 'trendy.' That simply wouldn't do.

And then there's porridge.

Again, the Independent comes up with an article which, ludicrously, says the stuff 'used to be a pauper's food.' Did it?

And we're told that Tim Henman, David Cameron and Kate Moss all start their day with porridge. Well, how unusual is that???? Golly gosh, porridge?? Well I never!!

So that's why I've been seeing scads of people, down our local Morrisons, putting packets of oatmeal into their shopping carts. They all want to be like Dave and Tim and Kate. They're making porridge, not just to have at breakfast, but to be like their heroes!!! And there was me thinking they were planning to make bricks out of flapjack and use them build extensions to their houses.

And as with all newspaper foodie articles, 'top chefs' have to be wheeled in to provide words of wisdom on how to cook, well, er . . . porridge. One recommended doing something disgusting with oatmeal, chicken stock and scallops. For breakfast??? Yeccchhhh!

But you don't need a chef to show you how to make ordinary things like porridge. For that you need a cook - vastly different animal - or better still, your Mum, or just any ordinary person who eats and can manhandle a saucepan.

So, as an ordinary person who eats porridge every week day morning, from mid October to April, here's how I do our breakfast:

1 Fill a small wineglass with good quality porridge (porage) oats.
2 Tip it into a large, glass mixing bowl.
3 Add one wineglass of milk and two of water.
4 DO NOT ADD SALT.
5 Give it a quick stir and put it into the microwave for 15 minutes at 600 watts. (Stir once, about half way through the cycle.)
6 Serve, with a spoonful of black treacle (optional) and receive polite laudation from the PG.

(For a single portion, exchange the wine glass for a sherry glass and reduce cooking time.)


I love this little Korean chrysanthemum - it's called 'Peterkin.'

I'm listening to Nina Simone singing Don't let me be misunderstood. She takes the tremulous voice technique to hitherto unexplored extremes in this number.

This week's film was Giulietta degli Spiriti - Fellini's first colour feature. I last saw it at Cornell University in 1966 or 67 and was gobsmacked, then, by the colour and sensuousness. It has lasted well but I missed so much, then. Now, I was more saddened than ever by the protagonists' emotional plight, and so much more impressed by Fellini's complicated set-ups and scenery. We were a colourful lot, back in the 60s - how dull and righteous we've all become!

This day in 2008 I went to London and it snowed! Properly, with white over the fields north of the city.

Bye bye for now, and happy porridging!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

MEGALACTATIONAL HUBRIS COMING UP ON THE STARBOARD BOW

What ho! What news? Wat Tyler! What?

Listening to Farming Today on BBC Radio 4 each morning at 5.45, as you do . . . what? Yes, that's right, 5.45am. Why? Well, I haven't actually farmed since 1986, but old habits die hard and it's good to keep in touch. Besides, farming is just gardening, only bigger.


If you try milking me you'll get a nasty surprise!

Anyway, as I was saying: –
Listening to FT, one of the few programmes in which BBC journalism seems to have kept its cutting edge – and no, I'm not being sarcastic, we live in the post-Hutton Whitewash era, remember – I was struck by the bizarre and positively La-la-land nature of a couple of the stories.

First, the Irish one.
I gather that some government bright spark in Dublin has discovered that the Emerald Isle isn't so named because of green precious stones in its rocks but rather, because it grows better, lusher grass than anywhere else - apart from Kentucky where, apparently, it's blue. This is hardly surprising, since it rains every dam' day, in Ireland. And what eats grass? Why cows, of course! And Bingo! Up pops this absolutely brilliant idea. Cows make milk, you see, as well as eating grass.

So Ireland has decided that it will step up its production of . . . yes! Well done! You're there! Milko!!! The government aim is to increase Irish milk production by a staggering 50% and thus, with this new-found, tuberculin-tested, brucellosis-free white gold, the troubles of the recession and economic Euro-ruin will simply surf themselves away to bliss on a tidal wave of rich, double dairy cream. Brilliant!

And ye-e-e-t. Just a couple of minuscule little cautionettes occurred to me as I lay in bed, cocking an inquiring eyebrow at the wireless. First, doesn't Ireland already have the highest per capita milk production on earth? And doesn't she already have, thereby, a massive surplus of dairy products to dispose of? And is not the Western World increasingly resistant to the White Stuff, particularly as butterfat has this slightly annoying tendency to clog up people's arteries and stymie their hearts?

Oh, and another little questionette: Ireland's neighbours, the British dairy producers,are already dropping OUT OF BUSINESS at the rate of approximately two farms per week, partly because the current cost of producing a litre of milk is around two pence higher than the average price paid by the processor who in turn is being squeezed by the supermarket which flogs milk as a loss leader.

What will they do with the even more massive Irish surplus, I wonder. It's an awful lot of stuff, even for buttering up Brussels officials as much as they do.

Can you run cars on cream? Or will those vast lakes of cow-crap end up having more value as a potential source of natural gas, than Kerrygold butter? Maybe they could use that and stop burning 7.5 million tonnes of peat, each year, in their power stations?


Got your tulips in yet? If not, it's time you did.
Nothing to do with farming, but this is a gardening blog!

And just before we finish our milk, FT has been covering news about planning applications, in Lincolnshire, to build massive, intensive dairy farms at Nocton Heath (for 8,000 dairy cows) and at South Witham for 3,000. Plans for the former are temporarily withdrawn, but I believe will be re-submitted. In response to these grandiose farm schemes, one of the BBC producers has been to see even bigger - much, much bigger - intensive dairy operations in Indiana USA.

I have to admit to horrendously mixed feelings about all this. Having been directly involved in agriculture, for a very long time – both in the feed industry, and as a farmer – and having seen lots of livestock operations of all sizes, both in Britain and in other parts of the world, I'm unable to take a simplistic view.

The townsperson's notion is that cows will happily munch grass in fields, and that will be turned into pure natural milk. But in the real world, the worst cases of animal neglect, abuse and downright appalling husbandry that I ever saw were almost always on small, under-capitalised family operations. On one or two of such apparently fairy tale grass farms, I've seen superannuated dairy cows prostrated with oedema, or with quarters agonisingly inflamed with mastitis, wallowing hock-deep through a mix of mud and dung, twice a day when they come up for milking.

When, in such a herd, you spot a couple of Jersey or Guernsey cows, among the black-and-white Holsteins (And it's pronounced HOLSTINE for Gawds sake, NOT, repeat NOT HOLSTEEN) you know that they've been bought in because their butterfat is higher, and will lift the herd's average. And that means the herd's overall nutrition is marginal, and the Holsteins are 'milking off their backs,' ie, emaciating themselves to provide what they've been bred to provide.

That is bad husbandry. That is animal cruelty. And yet, it's likely that on such a farm, calf mortality will be high, the bank will be unhappy to cover the year's fertiliser bill and the poor bastards who work 16 hours a day, running the place are probably earning less, for their family, than a kid who does 20 hours a week skivvying at Pizza Express.

On the other hand, it is intensely worrying to see vast, intensive livestock operations where the animals appear to be nothing more than parts of the machinery. They're components, just like the electric motors and slurry pumps. But the welfare and hygiene at such places is usually pretty good. It has to be, because if anything goes slightly wrong, animals can die like flies and massive financial losses can result.

The American operation described in this morning's programme has a huge and elaborate visitor centre which cost $millions and has attracted a good deal of public approval. But over here, I've heard very little in favour of big dairy units and a great deal of adverse comment from all the usual pressure groups.

Gosh, I'm being boring.

But let me leave you with this thought: to feed the expanding population, we will have to double yields of practically every agricultural commodity by 2040. And that growth in output must come on top of phenomenally rapid growth in farm efficiency already achieved since the last World War. So the throttle is already half way to the floor. Will there be enough ooomph to feed everyone?

Perhaps those Irish milky boys have got a point, after all!

I'm listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams The Fen Country having just bought a massive compendium of his work on 30CD, all in a box for £40. You can't say fairer than that!

This day in 1976 In my first year of farming, I was struggling with the wettest autumn on record, after the driest summer. By 18th October I had only drilled a quarter of all my winter cereals. Not an encouraging start.

This week's film was Madeleine - living proof that even the mighty David Lean was capable of directing an absolute turkey. The protagonist, played by Lean's wife, Anne Todd, looked older than her years and was cold as a slab of raw salmon. Nice minor part played by the indomitable André Morell, though.

Milk, anyone? Bon Appetit!



Friday, 8 October 2010

CLOSE-BOSOM FRIEND WITH FISTS OF TURNIPS

Wotcher! - or rather, What cheer! For those who love orange. . .


Leonotis leonorus – a beautiful dead-nettle relative from South Africa – which I planted in various parts of the garden has flowered superbly this year. Most of them are over, and being tender, I'll abandon them. But a late-rooted cutting was plonked into the ground just outside the greenhouse in late summer and has grown a number of sturdy stems with instensely burning orange, furry flowers.

It's not hardy, but if you hold a severed stem over damp compost for more than five minutes, it will probably grow roots while you watch. Well, a slight exaggeration, but few things are easier to strike as cuttings.


The small prize of an Electronic Button-hole for the first person to identify both poets in the title. I'll need the titles of both pomes, too. You'll get the first, easily, but possibly not the second - it's one of a, ahem, a mediocre poet's best efforts. (Hint - the person is dead and wasn't English. And you're NOT to Google it! I'll know if you have, so don't even try.)

I was moved to poetical thoughts while watching Channel Four news last night and listening to the previously unpublished piece by the late Ted Hughes, on the suicide of his wife, Sylvia Plath. It was read with sublime skill by Jonathan Pryce. (It's here, in case you missed it.)

It's been quite a week for the arts. The PG and I went to see Noel Coward's Design for Living at the Old Vic last Thursday. It's a brilliant revival, much raunchier and more energetic than the restrained TV version I saw previously. Gilda loves Otto who loves Gilda but she also loves Leo who loves her, but Leo also rather fancies Otto who adores him back. No wonder the play was banned when Coward first wrote it. Interesting to speculate who does what to whom and when and where and how.


The curiously furry flowers are produced in whorls, on long, straight stems. When I was eight and lived for a while in Kenya, we used to break off Leonotis stems and use a section, with a dry, dead whorl at each end, as toy vehicles. You had to cut yourself a forked stick and then zoom about the school playground, wheeling your Leonotis vehicle with all the speedy haste at your disposal. These exertions had to be accompanied by ear-piercing Grand Prix type motor sounds, including squealing of brakes on corners and realistic sound effects of true-life and death crashes. That takes some doing, when your lungs and larynx are only little, but it's amazing what a din you can make if you really try.


Then, on Friday last, we went to the opera at the Coliseum. English National Opera were making a pretty respectable fist of Janacek's The Makropoulos Case (details here) and since it's a seldom performed thing, it seemed mad not to go, particularly as a good friend of our virtually instructed us not to miss it.

He was right. It was not to be missed but a strange tale. The heroine was some 300 years old, thanks to being guinea pig of a former lover and Emperor who made her drink a dodgy elixir. It was all performed on a set that resembled some vast bureaucratic institution within a totalitarian regime - papers flying about, desks, and a zombie like chorus which didn't sing or dance, but just mooched about menacingly. The music is magnificent - you'll never go wrong with Janacek.


I love the way the flowers peep out of their calyces, like fag ends, at first (fags are cigarettes in English!) and then, like day-glo rabbit paws or fluffy boxing gloves, ready to pack a colourful punch.

Daytime artistic endeavours included a walk round the V&A to see the Raphael Tapestries, loaned by the Vatican and hung with the Queen's Raphael cartoons of the same subject. Two things struck me. 1. The cartoons are far lovelier than the tapestries, so her Maj obviously has the better deal. And 2, the tapestries are all mirror images of the original drawings. Why?

Buying new trews from Marks and Spencer was almost as aesthetically inspiring as the Raphaels - only joking - but an impromptu call on the National Gallery soon woke one from post shopping torpor.

And then it was back on Tuesday for the RHS Great Autumn Show which was quite good. I particularly loved the fruit exhibit from Wisley, their lordship's grapes - so perfect they look better than a Dutch Still Life- and a bizarrely impressive thing by the flower arrangers, in the Old Hall. They'd done the arrangement, like a wall hanging, and then suspended it above the show, just under the ceiling. I was reminded of an exploded compost heap, caught mid blow.

I'm listening to the prelude to The Makropoulos Case by Janacek.

This week's film was - well, you've had enough already with all that opera, theatre and stuff.

This day in 2005 I made a raised bed shaped like a grand piano, for growing Mediterranean bulbs and small plants. The rock, I discovered in our drive. Previous owners had used good quality stone instead of hardcore, but luckily, they hadn't broken the lovely big pieces up. (What possessed them?) I dug out all the huge chunks and replaced them with real rubble, which was lying about in squalid little heaps all over the darker corners of the property.

Toodle-oo!





Thursday, 23 September 2010

WAS ORSON WELLES THE FANNY CRADOCK OF CINEMA?

This post is published as an apology and an explanation.

But first, an announcement:

I am not a garden designer.

Thank you.

Now the picture:

My micro pond last autumn.
This was not designed at all, as you can see. It was the result of mad Saturday impulse, motivated by the sight of a lonely frog which seemed to be in search of somewhere to swim. Construction involved feverish digging, by hand, lots of black plastic, spirit levels, sweat and pain. It was begun at about noon and completed by tea time three years ago. I'm staggered that it still holds water and breeds things that hop, wriggle and slither.

(The apples were carefully arranged at the request of the editor of a certain large circulation gardening magazine who wanted pictures of a 'natural looking water feature, warts, apples and all' but who then rejected the images on the grounds that the apples floating in the water might set a bad example. He was right; they do and I'm proud of it.)


Now then. . .
Yesterday, when browsing through my favourite blogs, I discovered my excellent and respected friend's latest post which you'll find here - if you haven't already seen it.

J A-S made some extremely well observed comments on gardens at Chelsea and elsewhere and elicited some interesting responses. His experience with show gardens is immense and his coverage of almost every garden-based event is deeply impressive. He has an eagle eye, a strong and unerring aesthetic sense and phenomenal designing talent. Also, less common than it should be among designers, he knows his plants really well and has an unerring knack for assembling them to their best advantage.

In short, his designs allow the plants he deploys to speak with eloquence. Furthermore, he's willing to accommodate effete objects like the weak-kneed Rudbdeckia 'Herbstsonne' and not break into a sweat if the stems drunkenly subside, when in full autumn flower.

But instead of commenting, politely, about his views, with which I fully concur, I suffered from a hot flush - or in American a 'hot flash' - and reacted rather emotionally to something else.

It happened like this:
He mentioned that he's been included in a list, drawn up by a magazine, of what they call The Twenty Best Designers, or something along those lines. He deserves to be lauded, and if there has to be a categorisation of this kind, I'd expect to see him absolutely up there. In the top five, even. But that's not the point.

This is the point: there's something about the current fashion for ranking things that really gets my goat. Broadcasters are particularly bad at this, holding big surveys of viewers, or getting gangs of intellectual knobs to discuss and come up with the best of this or that.

But how can you do that with something as disparate and multi-faceted as garden design? Indeed, how can you possibly rank the arts - and garden design is certainly one of them - at all?

Obviously, some artists achieve their objectives more successfully than others. Some have more original ideas than others; some are better at expressing themselves than others and so on and so on. But I just don't see how you can rank the people per se.

This does not mean that I'm against awarding prizes, or that I dislike the idea of competition - far from it. But although it's fine and healthy to have prizes, I just don't think it helps to compose lists of people. Prizes and accolades, I suggest, should be for specific works, or for collections of works.

It's pretty pointless, trying to line up Ibsen with, um, Shaw, say, and Chekov, and then try to rank them. And you have to remember that even Shakespeare wrote some turkeys as well as the finest literary gems. Supposing he was judged by King John, rather than Hamlet.

I suppose the thing that worries me most, about this kind of ranking is that it tends to spoon feed people, telling them what to think, instead of making them look and search their inner selves to find out which gardens/symphonies/films/plays/paintings/novels/tasting menus really, really, really get to their souls.

And if you stop being analytical, you are in huge danger of simply following the herd. I'm told that when a production goes to Broadway, its survival in the first weeks may depend entirely on the reviews of one or two key critics. What a shame, to condemn without even waiting for more information - more word of mouth from folk who paid to see the show and approved. In the West End, I gather we're a bit more adventurous. I've gone to plays or operas with stinking reviews and loved them; and also to things with rave notices that have disappointed.


And now I've probably offended absolutely everyone.

James - I love your designs.

That's it, really.



Tuesday, 14 September 2010

TURNING DROSERA TO GOLD

A fly struggles in vain, on an American sundew, Drosera filiformis, at Hampshire Carnivorous Plants' nursery.

A jaunt to Hampshire recently, mainly to visit the Hampshire Carnivorous Plants Nursery but more on that in a moment.

We also toured the fascinating Silk Mill, at Whitchurch – surely the world's most elegant factory – and strolled along the banks of the River Test. (Piscators among you will acknowledge that the Test is probably the world's finest chalk stream and therefore offers the best brown trout fishing that a shedload of money, or the having the right relatives, will buy.)

We watched several large trout lying in wait for floating flies, their thrush-speckled flanks showing against the fluorescent green of the water crowfoot. Wickedly, I imagined how sweet and delicate their flesh would taste, if swiftly cooked as in Truite au bleu and served with a flinty Pouilly Fumé, or perhaps flash-grilled in foil on a barbecue, right there on the bosky river bank, helped down with a light summer ale.

Anyway, with tea and Whitchurch behind us, we arrived at our B&B, a working dairy farm of some 90 milkers, nestling in the beautifully folded, wood-sprinkled Hampshire country side. We knocked on the door but no one answered. We wandered round the house, calling. Suddenly, I was reminded of those aimless wandering scenes round the gardens in Last Year in Marienbad – what was that incomprehensible film all about???? – and began to feel rather silly. A horse hung its head over the fence and nodded sympathetically and outside the back door, an enormous shaggy cat lay, relaxed but with one yellow eye open and suspicious, fixed on us.

Suddenly the back door burst open and a small boy of about nine emerged. He had a wafer cornet in one hand with a huge, precarious mound of vanilla ice on top. Adults and girls open doors to enter or exit; small boys explode through them, just as they crash land into chairs.

'Ah!' he exclaimed, looking startled. 'Um. . .'

'We've come to stay,' the PG explained. I could see that she was about to go motherly.

'Yes . . . I'll . . . um, have to phone Mum,' he said, dubiously, taking a quick lick at his ice cream and eyeing us. He darted into the house and was seen juggling the unstable ice cream and a mobile phone. The angle of repose, on the cornet reached critical point, but miraculously, the vanilla blob stayed in place. It's a wonder he didn't shove the thing in his ear and munch on the phone.

There was a brief exchange and he re-dialled, another feat of co-ordination. More phone conversation, for some reason, yelled. The signal was bad, he explained. Mum was at Tesco's. He showed the PG the bookings list and said 'Would you know if you were on this list?'

'I think we probably would,' she replied, with exemplary diplomacy. 'I think that's our name, there.'

'Then I'm to show you your room,' he said, and with the icecream melting by now, and running over his small, starfish hand, he replaced the phone and rummaged for a key. It was rather sticky, when he handed it over.

Moments later, his father came charging over, presumably from the milking parlour, it being late afternoon, and took over. He made us a cup tea, chatted briefly to make us welcome and scarpered back to his beasts. Mum double checked that we were all right, and that our room was acceptable, as soon as she returned from Tesco. She also recommended a fine local pub for dinner and then left us to soak up the beauty of rural Hampshire.

So, which would you rather have? A family reception like that, or to check in at an impersonal, sterile, overpriced hotel chain dump?

You know the sort of thing:
"Welcome to – insert choice of hotel chain – your satisfaction means everything to us! Later, we'll flog you cheap supermarket plonque at £8.75 per glass, service not included, in the 'Ride 'em Cowboy Saloon, or the 'Rinky Zinky Cocktail Lounge' or the 'Low-light Fake Library with Hunting Scenes Bar' at £8.75 a glass, service not included.

After that, you can tackle and inedible meal chosen from our recently ponced up menu! We use important words like 'jus,' 'coulis' and 'drizzled' and, more recently, 'local' and 'from sustainable sources' to make you think our crap is prepared by imaginative chefs and not slammed from freezer to microwave to table, every portion controlled to the nearest milligramme. YOUR PLEASURE IS OUR BUSINESS!"

Drosera aliciae - I think. The droplets are exquisite when they catch the sun.

Anyway, as I was saying, the PG and I had driven down to spend the morning with the remarkably plant-erudite but refreshingly un-nerdy Matthew Soper, and with fellow guests - all members of the RHS Tender Ornamental Plants Committee.

Matthew owns and runs Hampshire Carnivorous Plants and has a comprehensive collection of pitcher plants, bladderworts, sundews, flytraps and so on. He likes to get his hands on pretty well any member of the plant world that is non-vegetarian and showed us some of the secrets of propagation, management and breeding of these potential cast members of Little Shop of Horrors.

The key to all is rain water. The slightest trace of chalk or chlorine will do his plants a terrible mischief, so he has elaborate rainwater gathering devices and grows everything in soil-free mediums - or, if you must, media.

And his plants are anything but tender. They have evolved successfully by adapting to mossy peat bog habitats where soil nutrients are virtually unavailable. Catching insects provides a source of nitrogen and other mineral elements and enables them to survive where other plants would perish. Some of his plants come from as far north as Canada - I've seen one species of Sarracenia wild in upstate New York, myself, so I know he speaks the truth. So it would be wrong to assume that these toughies need mollycoddling in a greenhouse at home.

Matthew showed us bladderworts which spring traps for catching tiny invertebrates in wet ground, or in water, using tiny hydraulic trap doors which snap open on a hair trigger and suck passing creatures in, to a slow death. We photographed beautiful, but deadly sundews, sinister Venus' fly traps and greatly enjoyed learning so much from Matthew. After our visit, he joined us in the local pub for more 'teach-in' over a pleasant lunch.

Moment of demise, a greenbottle being caught by a Venus' Flytrap.

I'd like to be listening to Wagner's Wesendonk Songs, sung by Jessye Norman, but think I've accidentally dumped the file.

This week's film was Sin Nombre, Fukunaga's finely crafted but dark work about gangs in Mexico. In view of the awful recent bloodshed among drug gangs, it was an apt choice. The horrors of gang violence and their inverted morality have been covered again and again, since cinema was invented, but this was a deftly told, beautifully shot piece which pulled no punches.

This day in 2007 we had the plasterers in, to 'do out' our new utility room. They were months late but worked superbly. And I was writing a book for the RHS about the new Glasshouse.

Bye bye for now.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

FROM EXCELLIUM TO INFINEON IT WAS AN UTTERLY BRILLIG AVIVA

(A friend, Lucy, has pointed out that it's difficult to post comments. Has anyone else had a problem? Lord knows how you'll tell me if you have, but if you're having trouble connecting, my apologies! If I find a fault, I'll try to put it right.)

When visiting Gill Richardson's wonderful garden at Keisby, the other day, I was shown this absolutely MUST HAVE perennial, Serratula bulgarica. It was growing almost 9 feet tall, in semi-shade, towering above big persicarias and proving irresistible to bees which fed greedily on the white, thistly flowers.

It flops and slumps a bit drunkenly, as does Rudbeckia 'Herbstsonne' but is not so hopelessly collapsible as Lespedeza, which I love, but whose habit can be a little challenging, especially to neighbouring plants. Gill very sweetly gave me a seedling which has gone into a place of honour in my Island Bed (the bed is a tribute to the late Alan Bloom who invented the things.) Soil there is moist and retentive.

I now grow two Serratula - the other being the low-growing, rosy mauve-flowered S. seoanei. Nice little seed heads!

The mysterious late-arriving swallows - a different pair from the ones who brought off five bouncy babes - which seemed obsessed with our garage had, in fact, occupied an ancient nest in a concealed part of the building. To my amazement, yesterday, two young, fledged birds flew out into a vicious northerly wind, coaxed by their anxious parents. I doubt they'll make it, to South Africa - the odds are horribly long, even for mature birds (try this link) - but I hope they do. It's so heartening to have had two pairs nesting with us, after such a long absence.

I've also cut our meadows and hauled off the 'hay.' A hard task, even though they're tiny, but my timing for once seemed right. This morning, the first colchicum showed a tight little bud. And on the thin bits, of which, I'm glad to say, there are plenty, I can see yellow rattle seed lying, ready to pop up and impoverish the grass next year. Cowslips are now at plague proportions, still seeding with staggering fecundity.


Ahem. Hrrrrh Hmmmm. I was moodily putting diesel into my car, the other day, when I saw something that made me want to kick the pump over and drive off furiously, crushing the bunches of lurid dahlias on sale, and knocking over the racks of unsold barbecue charcoal (shite summer, wasn't it?)

It was just a word, but it pushed my nuke button with a vengeance. The word was 'Excellium.' What is that supposed to mean? Would my car go faster because I had been filling it, not with smelly, overpriced, HIDEOUSLY over-taxed diesel, but with sleek, smooth, accomplished and feel goodish stuff called Excellium? Then I noticed that the petrol dispensers were also called 'Excellium.' So it isn't so much a diesel as a kind of over-all blessing. Not only am I buying Total fuel, but, thanks to their wonderfulness, I'm also receiving a special honeydewed gloriosity called Total Excellium. Total bullshit, more like.

What is it with these Graeco-Latin-cum-Chartered Beancounterish neologisms? Why do they all have to copy each other? I used to pay my electricity bills to the East Midlands Electricity Board in Nottingham - where England's most beautiful girls come from, apparently. Now we pay some distant, anonymous giant called E-on. Might as well call it E-off, for the number of powercuts we have, in my part of the world, or Eyore, for intellect of those who run this ex-nationalised heap.

I used to know an insurance company called Norwich Union. I believe a certain Norfolk turkey person worked there, before he began to twizzle. Now it's Aviva. Then there's that bus firm called Arriva, when their vehicles frequently don't arrive.

The Germans are at it, too. I spotted a headline about a firm called Infineon which has fallen prey to the massive chip manufacturers (silicon, rather than potato) Intel.

Intel is guilty of the most enfuriating little musical catch phrase ever transmitted on television: dumb-dumb...dumb-dumb! unless you also count that nauseating little 'Mmm-mmm - Danone' on the bowel bug ads.

Then we have Expedia, I wish they'd all stop, because it's very irritating indeed.

And another moderately interesting thing is that when I Googled 'Excellium' I got this: So there's another lot doing the Excellium thing. Might those two get cross with each other over copyright or anything, or is Excellium a real word?

For the future, I can see some likely name changes coming along. Here are a few that I've heard are being tried out with certain Focus Groups and potential target audiences:

Nappi-on - a well-known supplier or baby accoutrements.

Ex-Hortia - a certain August Society which used to be connected with Horticulture, now re-structured as a children's theme park company.

Pretentia - the new name for the Granta publishing company, also being considered for the re-vamp of the Simplon Orient Express.

Mediocreon - the post Coalition BBC. (Don't get me started!) Sherlock was quite good, but not that brilliant. A sort of Dr Who meets Doyle with Sonic iPhones. By the way, why is the music in TV drama serials so awful, nowadays? Indeed, why is modern film music so rubbish? Remember Ry Cooder's wonderful soundtrack in Paris Texas? Lawrence of Arabia, or the Zither in theThe Third Man?

Stagger-homeum - new name for the massive Peterborough Beer Festival which I attended last Tuesday.

That's enough neol0gisms (ed)

NEXT WEEK: Lincolnshire rhyming slang and a review of the Jonathan Ross Encyclopaedia of Advanced Vegetable Gardening. Watch this space.

I'm listening to some Schubert Lieder, sung by the incomparable Ian Bostridge.

This day last year, was Bank Holiday Monday. I stuck my first cuttings, in my beautiful new greenhouse, Wendy and we watched Lawrence of Arabia - the director's cut.

This week's film was Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice. It's a masterpiece, but I won't burden you with a comment. I'd need to watch it a second time, because I feel I've missed more than half of what's there. I did not sleep easily, for thinking about it. You might find this link of interest, though!

Happy September.







Friday, 20 August 2010

I REMEMBER EVERY DETAIL - THE GERMANS WORE GREY, YOU WORE BLUE.


Victoria Summerly wrote, on Friday 13th, an inspired article in The Independent entitled Colour Prejudice in the English Garden.

It twanged a deeply sympathetic chord with me, as well as making me laugh like a drain. Quite rightly, she singles out the English as being the worst perpetrators of colour and style Fascism in their gardens. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, she suggests, are immune from such idiocy because of climatic or topographic limitations.

I'd narrow her geography down even further. The worst of the hortipuritans hang out south of Watford and East of Christchurch. There are pockets of creative inhibition elsewhere, of course. Harrogate is not exactly free of garden fascism and parts of the Cotswolds are highly suspect. But by and large, it seems to be a 'southern' thing and Victoria's piece reminded me of how much I hate such haughtycultural red-neckery.


Echinacea 'Art's Pride' with Scabiosa 'Chile Black' - hot colours for August and early autumn. Hues too shocking for Surrey gentility?

This is not a rational hatred, of course, and there's no virtue in it. Consider it on a par with wanting to fart in church, or, on being presented to the Queen at Chelsea, undergoing a wild fantasy of ignoring the outstretched, gloved hand and instead, throwing one's arms around the majestic personage and shouting, 'Come on, Grannikins, give yer loyal subject a big, sloppy kiss!!'

But doesn't it ever give you a sense of crashing hopelessness and despair, when you see yet another 'English Paradise' of genteel, colour co-ordinated, tastefully confined borders and lawns? Clippy-clippy yew allees; gracious planting schemes with refined and subtle lemons, creams, pinks or mauves; yards and yards of bloody lavender; tasteful obelisks furnished with pink roses and pale violet-blue clematis – these are the essential ingredients of a 'good' garden, we are told. By implication, a garden which does not exhibit these features is not good.

And don't forget the Chinoiserie garden seats, cherubic nudes – usually born minus genitalia – concrete greyhounds, chicken wire geese or faux Grecian urns, not to mention pointless sundials or lions' heads which drizzle water into upturned concrete scallop shells.

Modern additions to such 'refained' embellishments include snap-on conservatories or timber summer houses which must be painted thyme green and have that abomination of the 'noughties,' sedum sodding roofs.

It's all so bloodless. There's no passion, no wild abandon, no spunk. And there's certainly no risk.

What also narks me, about some of these Country Life Mag, Good Taste, Roy Strong-pleasing type gardens is that they're so smug and comfortable with themselves. No nasty innovative ideas, please, we're Surrey! Climate change? That doesn't affect us – we fly Business Class.

Trees and shrubs, in such places are 'correctly' pruned, as prescribed by the RHS. Border plans are still Jekyllic or Sissinghurstian, a century on from when such styles were innovative and exciting. In musical equvalents, it's like being stuck in a time-warp with Franz Lehar, Harry Lauder and Marie Lloyd.


Genuine nautical knick-knacks in a working chandler's yard. Potential garden ornaments?

Colour control seems to be at the very core of all this. Get out and about, in what's left of our countryside, and you'll find the most extraordinary colours working together like a gorgeous dream. Bluebells with red campion; an orange tip butterfly perching on pale lilac cuckoo flower; the bubblegum pink husks of Euonymus europaeus contrasting startlingly with the bright orange of the exposed seeds; strident yellow charlock and scarlet field poppies - there are countless wonderful and sometimes shocking combinations.

But in a garden, persons of delicate sensibilities might feel faint if they encounter a strident orange Geum, especially if it grows too close to a pink Sidalcea. I even knew rather grand gardener, female, who grew variegated London Pride in broad bands along her border front, but who cut off all the flowers before they emerged because their pale pink hue 'didn't go.' That, to her, was good colour discipline; to me it was sick and perverse.

And while we're on the subject, here's a bit of colour fascism from me: most variegated plants are about as sick and perverse as it's possible to be – specially the ones with stipples and blotches rather than well-defined cream or white lines. When I was learning to garden, back in the early seventies, I planted a variegated zone. It soon became known as 'the vomitorium' because every plant looked as though it had been chundered upon.


Lobelia speciosa 'Fan Rose' - another beauty for rude colour in late summer, provided you have moist, fertile soil. Almost nothing 'goes with' that shade of pink - wonderful, isn't it?!

And now that I've offended virtually everyone, I can conclude by saying that, thank goodness, there are plenty of gardeners, even in the Home Counties, who ignore all this nonsense and have exciting, vibrant, thought-provoking and emotionally moving gardens.

Fergus Garrett carries, with panache, the banner first raised by Christo Lloyd and as a result, the colours are more glorious than ever at Great Dixter, despite a strong presence of yew-hedgery and home counties posh. And Fergus' wild meadows are an inspiration to all of us. See them in early June and if you fail to be profoundly moved by the devastating beauty of such pristine flowery meads, you have a heart of carborundum.

The Hyde Hall Dry Garden, from a crushingly inauspicious start when a pile of rocks was dumped outside the main garden, has developed into a dazzling example of how to turn an unforgiving site into a horticultural gem. Not only that, it has never been watered and is as environmentally correct as can be.

Oh, and perhaps I should add, here, that my own garden is absolute crap, style wise. But it's mine and I love it and I'll do what I bloody well like in it.

I should admit, too, that there is just the teeniest bit of yew clippery in the form of two big bobbles. Each had a ridiculous nipple on top, when we move here, and both were too small. So I sheared off the protrusions and grew the little green boobs into big egg-shaped tumps. I think they're out of place - but as Victoria Summerley might say, they're there as 'ironic statements,' so that makes them all right.


Crocosmia 'Bressingham Blaze' and other varieties in gloriously violent colours. They flower when the delicately pastel-hued June flora is long gone. Far too red-blooded for some tastes, but what autumn drama!

I'm listening to Britten's Peter Grimes Act Two, would you believe? And look what prejudice and self-satisfaction did to him, poor sod!

Last Night's film was Almodovar's Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces.) Penelope Cruz, I'm sure, is at her best when she's being Hispanic. A crackling performance, and what startling glamour! The usual brilliant Almodovar mix of sexual ambiguities, misplaced fidelity and inverted values. I enjoyed it very much, but didn't get quite as caught up as with All About My Mother.

This Day in 2006 the PG and I flew to Amsterdam for a two day stopover before flying on to Cape Town. We stayed on Prins Henrikkade and sipped van Konink's ale by a Canal.


Lawks how I hate August! My garden looks knackered, pox-ridden and repugnant.

A belated Happy Lughnasa to all!

PS - in case you didn't know, the title is from Casablanca - Bogey says it to Ingrid Bergman.