Friday 29 October 2010


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.
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


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


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.