Monday 20 December 2010


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.


(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


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 canap├ęs, 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


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!