Friday, 2 July 2010


What a gut-churning mix of sadness and joy this week!

On Wednesday, the PG and I paid our respects to friend and colleague Professor John MaCleod.

John died at 70, after a valiant fight with cancer, a few days before retiring from RHS Council and was about to become one of the Society's Vice Presidents. His scientific reputation was massive - he had been Director and later, Trustee, of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany as well as having served as RHS Professor of Science for almost ten years.

He was the friendliest of men, tweedy and leonine in appearance, with a fiercely honed intellect, effervescent sense of humour and a startling ability to absorb a mass of information, sift it, digest it and come up with a thorough analysis in a bewilderingly short time.

The church, in a Cambridgeshire village – nice rood screen and curious pulpit – was packed with friends and colleagues. No fewer than five speakers paid tribute to him, unfolding stories about the man, his times and achievements in such a way that his stature grew with every sentence and our sense of loss cut deeper.

But as always, with such experiences, there was great pleasure in remembering joyful moments with John. No one could demolish a plate of sandwiches with such speed and gusto, though his manners were perfect. And the thought of confronting him on the Rugby field - he was a front row forward - would have filled me with dread, if we'd met 50 years ago.

The 'story teller's chair' in the Teaching Garden at RHS Harlow Carr. The Bramall Learning Centre is in the background.

The bittersweet flavour continued to shape the week but at a far more trivial level. My time as a member of the Royal Horticultural Society's Council has come to an end.

Still wearing somber garb, we drove from John's service up to Harrogate for a tour of the brand new Bramall Learning Centre at Harlow Carr Garden. You can find details here but there's nothing like seeing it for yourself. What impressed was the way in which natural light floods the rooms. You feel that the garden is in the room with you, and when the trees lose their leaves and the skyline drops, in winter, the lower light source will create a different effect.

The library, in the Bramall Centre, is one of the most attractive I have ever entered. I kept sneaking back, pretending to look things up in books, but in reality, admiring the layout, the airiness and the accessibility. It's almost impossible to tear yourself away.

The building itself, we were told, is one of the greenest in Britain, complying with all the latest carbon-related diktats and recommendations. (Details here.)

At Betty's Restaurant, Harlow Carr, enjoyed a slap up dinner. This was given as a gesture of thanks to those of us who are leaving Council, and particularly to the retiring President, Giles Coode-Adams.

Giles was hastily handed the reins when Peter Buckley died so unexpectedly and so shockingly late in 2008, and found himself steering the Society through a rather difficult patch. He proved to be a strong, stable hand at the tiller, always maintaining a positive stance, always expressing calm confidence. I'm going to miss his wisdom and his positive attitude enormously.

At yesterday's Annual General Meeting, in a tent at Harlow Carr, I handed back my badge of office, along with the other outgoing Council members and walked away feeling a huge sense of relief, mingled with almost unbearable sadness.

There was also a sense of guilt – still is – because I had completed only eight of my allotted ten years. My dodgy physical condition, plus the need to take on more paid work than I expected to be doing at 66 – thank you, bankers, pension funds and other financial advisors! – meant that there was less time to give to the RHS. And it is never right to commit to any volunteer job, unless you are prepared to give it your all.

I'll still be doing lots for the RHS, but it will be less pressured.

I can also be far more objective when discussing the Society, or writing about it. And far less in inhibited about criticising, whenever I think it's going wrong. Perhaps some remarks about children? (But not now, not here and not - well, not yet, anyway.)

Thalictrum delavayi - my current favourite meadow rue.

The garden is a disgusting, weedy mess but some of the plants are looking wonderful and Wendy if busting out in tomatoes and cucumbers. I'm trying not to weep at the seeding sow thistles, but it's not easy.

I grow our native meadow common meadow rue, Thalictrum flavum which is quietly handsome, but not a patch on the delectable Asian species. It grows wild, in the Fen, so I feel it deserves its place on our side of the hedge, too.

T. delavayi is my current fave, though, pictured above. The tufted purple tassels of F. aquilegifolia make it a close second. There's also a double-flowered T. delavayi, but all I can say to that is why? When the single, lilac flowers are such a delight.

I'm listening to Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 59 no. 1 One of the Rasumovsky Quartets.

Film of the week was. Salon Kitty, a 1976 rudery by pornographer-cum-director (whoops, pardon missus) Tinto Brass. It's long, and dwells rather lingeringly on genitalia, perversions and abnormalities of a sexual nature. (Whatever normalities might be.) The piece also creates a preposterous vision of the Third Reich. But it is not nearly so bad a film as first appears. It begins with remarkably Cabaret-like sequences, borrowing from paintings by Otto Dix (also worth looking at here) and continues to undermine one's security with hideous visions of exploitation and deceit. Helmut Berger, as the immaculate, but repulsively degenerate 'model Nazi' is utterly convincing. The rest of the plot is weak as water, but the compelling, self-destroying process is hypnotic.

This time in 2002 I was in a state of mild shock, having just become a Council Member of the RHS. At Hampton court, that year, retiring member - Christine Skelmersdale and the ex-Treasurer, Martin Slocock wined and dined the PG and me, along with fellow council rookie and whizz kid landscape designer Michael Balston, at Hampton Court. No nancy table cloths or frilled waiters for us, thank you very much. No no! We formed our own little enclave, by the water, in a quiet corner, with our own hamper.

We had a table of sorts, and chairs, but more important than any of that, we had wine, wit, merriment and warm companionship. Two lasting memories of that night - apart from all the joy and stuff - was a gigantic basket of luscious, dark cherries and finishing the evening sipping a magnificent vintage white bordeaux. I'm pretty sure it was a Sauternes, but can't recall which estate it came from.

Oh, and here's the blushing confession: while everyone was watching the Hampton Fireworks, I discovered that I had absent-mindedly grabbed one of the bottles of the delectably raisiny, musty, golden wine and was swigging directly from it. Disgraceful! But then, at every good party there's always someone who just goes that bit too far.

Bye bye for now.

1 comment:

  1. I felt quite tearful reading your post - sad that you are leaving the RHS council but even sadder that I haven't had a slap-up meal at Betty's for a long while. (mmmm... eccles cakes).

    Rather envious of the Sauternes too - we once cycled around the Sauternes vineyards, stopping to taste the nectar at various estates. We looked cycling-scruffy and clearly shocked an expensive looking young woman in her marble-floored Chateaux by buying two of her more expensive bottles, packing them into our carrier bags and cycling off with our precious cargo.