Friday, 9 December 2011


I'm dreaming up horrible destinations for the undeserving.  Here's one (described below in reddish type by my good friend J Milton) that I had previously planned for certain bankers.  

However, I feel, now, that perpetrators of mindless bureaucracy have the prior claim on this choice region of hell.  Details on the particular piece of catastrophically silly, pointless and – thankfully – unenforceable piece of pillocky legislation will follow in a mo. . . 

First the pome fragment . . .
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace flamed; yet from those flames
No light; but r
ather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe,
Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery deluge, fed

With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed.

Yes, that would do nicely for faceless ones who stride past, staring through me with their dead eyes, some mornings, when I'm alone and palely loitering in the vicinity of Whitehall.

And then,  a pretty thing. It's cold, nasty winter but not yet Christmas – so we need tropical pictures to warm up our cockles – whatever they are.  (Hope it's not rude.)

Here's the first. . .

 A Common Birdwing butterfly, Troides helena photographed when we were last in Peninsular Malaysia

Oh, and answers to the last film quiz which was here, are these:  
The film was the Coen Brothers' Fargo and the man who did the stamps was Norm Gunderson, played by John Carroll Lynch whose wife, Police Person Marge, was played by Frances McDormand.  When Norm grumbles because his painting was chosen for a small denomination stamp, Marge cheers him up by saying that when the postage rate goes up, his will be the stamp everyone will use, to make up the difference.

And now here's this week's film quiz.  

First an easy one
Who said:
'That's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.'  
Bonus points for the character name, and the star to whom he or she is speaking?

And now a nasty one for Victoria. . . 
Who said this:
You wanted a recording of my voice, well here it is.
And can you finish the quote?

Dahlia 'Fascination' - like a cheap, pink negligée.
Dahlias will be harder to overwinter, safely, for reasons you can read about below.

Now the rant.
If you want something to make you furious – I mean apart from the unbridled arrogance of the Merkozy cuddly snuggle-up which will NOT do much to stabilise the crumbling mess that was the Euro – look no further than the latest scriddick of asinine, anserine, indeed positive ovine legislation that directly concerns all good gardeners.  And I mean even organic ones.

From 1st January 2012 it will be illegal to dust gladiolus bulbs, dahlia tubers – or anything prone to the rots – with sulphur powder.  

That's right.  Sulphur may be one of earth's commonest elements.  It may, with carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and nitrogen, be one of the building blocks of our bodies, not to mention everything we grow and eat.  It may be organically approved and as safe, nearly, as tap water.  But its use as a fungicide dust will, from next year, be verboten. 

And anyone who so much as dangles a leaky packet of sulphur over a crate of over-wintering dahlia roots could be committing an offence under the Food and Environmental Protection Act.  

Now that, in itself, is totally bloody silly.  But it gets even more barmy when you realise that gardeners will still be allowed to buy and use sulphur to sprinkle on their gardens if they want to increase the acidity of their soil, or to use it as a plant nutrient. 

WHAAAAAAAAT?????  So it's not banned because it's considered dangerous.  They don't mind you having it but forbid you to use it in any way but the one they prescribe.  And that's sulphur.  Something  so abundant, in some areas of the world, that you could gather up a bucketful simply by dragging it along the ground.

So what panel of cretins dreamed up that one?  More to the point, how many pointless and tedious meetings, each squandering entire rain forests of paper, printed with impenetrable text, all in Civilservantese, had to be held, to come up with that particular piece of utterly pointless legislation?

And how will it be policed?  Will check-out staff, at garden centres, come over all officious, like Boots pharmacy counter assistants, and demand to know what the stuff you're buying will be used for?  

Perhaps the police – who, I'm told, are worryingly undermanned and overworked – will deploy burly constables to come and smash down our shed doors, hoping to catch us furtively sprinkling flowers of sulphur (posh name for sulphur powder) onto our begonia tubers while pretending that we were about to use the stuff as a rhododendron tonic.

I'm not sure where all this nonsense originates from.  It has a hideously strong whiff of Brussels about it, possibly coupled with Nannistate and New Labour and I DO NOT APPROVE OF IT.

The wise way forward is pretty obvious.  I can't tell you how to get round the problem, because even though the law, in this case, is an ass and should be strongly contested and objected to, the law as a whole has to be respected, don't you think?  

Or if not respected, obeyed until, by popular pressure, it can be changed.  So why don't those bodies with muscle - the RHS, the HTA, Garden Organic and others unite, get together and tell the legislators to stop being so bloody silly and repeal the stupid law this instant!

Here's another nice Asian plant, Amherstia nobilis, a superb member of the pea family which grows as quite a large tree and is native to Myanmar (Burma.)   The racemes were nearly 60cms long.  I fell in love with this while visiting the Kuala Lumpur botanic gardens.  There were Long Tailed Macaque monkeys,  Macaca silenus, playing in a stream nearby.

I'm listening to Erik Satie Gymnopedies 1 -3

This day in 2005  The PG and I visited Hanson's Chocolate Shop in Folkingham to buy expensive but delicious chocolate things for the Christmas crowd. The shop is still going strong. Even Lincolnshire, it seems, has a certain amount of Sloaniness, enabling a business like that to survive in such a small village.  Mostly, though, it's the three Ms, round here – Money, Muck and Misery.  That evening, we went to a cocktail party in Rutland.

This week's film was John Boorman's Hope and Glory, a little classic much loved by the PG and me.  We had a Boorman relative to stay, and since she had not seen the film, used that as an excuse to play it again and watch it with her.  It's an exquisite glimpse at middle class suburbia in wartime, through the eyes of a school boy who learns the rudest word in the English language and how to bowl a Googly, all in the space of a few days.  Ian Bannen plays his irascible grandfather to a tee. I've a feeling, had he really existed, that he'd have enjoyed this grandpa's awful blog.

(If you need to know what a Googly is, look at one being delivered here.   The knack is not to give the game away to the batsman - but then, a clever bat will usually spot a googly in time and play it accordingly.)

Bless you for your patience, and bye bye for now!

Friday, 2 December 2011


And a very happy Advent to y'all!  It's a time of expectation, waiting and hoping, I'm told.  And also a time to contemplate death.  Hurrah!

And a huge THANK YOU to the scads of you who so kindly sent messages of congratulations on my AMAZING, SURPRISING and MOST GRATEFULLY ACCEPTED - though wickedly undeserved - gong, at this years Garden Media Guild.  Yer could 'ave knocked me dahn wiv a fevver, yer honour, 'onest!

London, despite the strike, was still a joy to visit, despite the police closing the West End for the strike, and despite my being stuck, in traffic, in a cab with the cabbie who could even out-talk me.  When the diatribe began with 'I'm not a racist, but. . .' I knew it would be a long, hard ride.  It took 76minutes to get from Oxford Circus to the Barbican.

But hey - how lovely is London? Where else are there so many theatres staging good productions? So many art galleries and museums absolutely free to enter?  Such a range of restaurants from absolutely terrible to sublimely good.

Click any picture for a larger view.  (Perhaps you'd prefer not, though,with the 'bottom' picture.)

As daffodillydallier and lake-lover Bill Wordsworth wrote:
'Earth has not anything to show more fair.
 Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
 A sight so touching in its majesty:'

Well, OK, fair enough . . . you're right – this is not the view from Westminster Bridge and the piccy was not snapped by Wordsworth but by me.  But you can still see that. . .
 'Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
 Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
 All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.    Well, nearly, anyway!

I shot it on Hungerford Bridge on my new iPhone 4S camera which is not a bad gadget.

On Tuesday night, I dined at Chimes in Pimlico, a decent eatery which specialises in English food and serves a range of draught, flagon and bottled ciders.  Yorkshire pudding, eaten as a starter with onion gravy, is one of our tastiest dishes, if properly done.  Chimes offered a variant - with grilled prawns in a sauce - which sounded so disgusting that I simply had to try it.  What a delicious surprise! The flavours blend and contrast beautifully and their Yorkshire pudding was exactly as it should be - a puff of red hot hot air, packed in thin, crisp, fragile, aromatic, flash-baked batter.

Liver, bacon, mash and gravy followed –  a favourite of mine and since the PG abhors liver, is something to go for when at a restaurant.  It was lovely, too, but I was sad about the mash.

People don't understand the subtleties of a good mashing potato and either adulterate it with flavour too strong for the potato, or cream it into a slick, slimy gruel or don't add anything to bring out the 'spuddiness.'  I like it mashed con brio but always by hand.  You have to knock air into it.  Butter is better than marge and you must add milk, too.  For seasoning, I use a small pinch of mustard powder per double serving and – this is really important – freshly ground nutmeg.  You don't necessarily taste the spice in the mash, but it tones up the gorgeous potato taste.

I drank Chimes own house cider, which was draft, semi-dry and had the necessary borderline taste between an abandoned apple box and old stilton rind.  (This is meant to be complimentary and not at all an adverse criticism.  To me, good cider tastes like that, whereas bad cider tastes like sick.)

I also drank a very dry, strong cider from Biddenden, in Kent, which was arresting, challenging and actually extremely pleasurable, despite the stilton rind.  By the end of the glass, I didn't really care about anything.

Not exactly the Thames but one of the fen drains, near us, romantically known as The Forty Foot.
Fenland drains, despite the intensive agriculture round here, are important wildlife corridors.  We have leaning telegraph poles, too, thanks to depth and quality of our easily worked soil.  Anyone can garden here!

Now a rant:

If you ask me, the whole thing is utterly and irrevocably a huge pile of humungously bad taste pants.  And I'm not talking slinky Sloggi jobs, here, nor Jermyn Street boxers and certainly not those disturbingly thigh-hugging, nearly knee-length Calvin Klein things.  Oh no! I'm talking slack-bellied, man-made fibre, Y-front style, unlaundered, luridly dayglo green or purple, bearing obscene double entendre slogans on their crotches type pants.

That's my informed analysis of the West's economy.  There's nothing more to say except that if we thought we were all utterly shafted before, when the credit crunch began, we were wrong.  That was just the starter.  

The main course is yet to come, apparently, and the only important question is this:  when everyone in Europe is having to carry their cash – be it NeueDeutschmarks, NouveauNouveau Francs or Thanatodrachmas – to the shops in wheel barrows, will £50 be enough, here in Britain, to buy a can of baked beans?  My suspicion is that it won't, and we'll end up well and truly in the cack.  

Perhaps we deserve it, but really, I do wish Merv could, well, you know - get a bit of life into his deliveries and cheer up a bit.  At least things wouldn't be quite so suicide-inducing, then.

Lia Leendertz, in her fantastically brilliant blog Midnight Brambling  describes quince and star anise ice cream.
What she hasn't said, though, is what voluptuous-looking, curvy, erotic fruit a quince, Cydonia oblonga is.  

I'm listening to Berlioz'  L'Enfance du Christ.

This time on Wednesday I was still reeling from having been given an award, my first ever, at the Garden Media Guild Awards Lunch.  I was guest of Thompson and Morgan - thank you thank you thank you T&M -  and was privileged to sit next to the frighteningly handsome, erudite,  jolly and award-winning James Wong, author of Grow Your Own Drugs.  We were treated to one of his pieces to Camera, about the biochemistry of the daffodil, which could have been awkward and ridiculously stagey, but which flowed like a ballet solo at Covent Garden.  To make such a contrived piece appear so natural and spontaneous is seriously good television.

This week's film was the first part of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander.  We often watch this in early December because the first act takes place at Christmas in the house of a large, wealthy family, in 1907.  The photography, the staging, acting and direction are faultless.  And there's more Scandinavian, self-destructive Angst per scene than you could throw a lorry load of sticks at.  What more do you want, in Advent, than Protestant gloom and a veneer of festive fun laid over a morass of despair, hate and sexual impropriety?

And that's more than enough from me.  But look at the picture below, and then tell me a quince isn't a suggestive thing!

You can stop looking now!  Bye bye!

Friday, 25 November 2011


What cheer, my hearties!

No proper film quiz this week - but a double one next time.

However, here's an easy interim question:

Who whinged about his duck illustration ending up on the wrong US postage stamp??  And what did his wife say, to cheer him up?  (No need for the actual quote - a paraphrase will do nicely.)

It's been so long since I posted so today's nonsense is what you'd call an 'interim' or 'holding action' in a bid to cling onto the few friends I have left.

I turn my back on the garden for a matter of days and what happens?  It breathes a huge sigh of relief, to have me out of the way for a spell and flourishes.  The tuberose which has been sulkily  in unmoving bud for about two months suddenly blooms - well, nearly - my Daphne bholua 'Darejeeling' has bursting flower buds and the first if the winter bulbs, Iris reticulate are already pushing their sharp-pointed little shoots through.  The lawn has grown at least an inch, in less than a week and the meadow grasses are nearly 6 inches high.  It'll need another light topping with the non-rolling Hayter.

The 'tache,  grown for 'Movember,' is lopsided but the violence are genuine Viola odorata 'Governor Herrick.'
The tie is by someone called Duchamp or Dechamp - but not to be confused with that famous urinal.  Or maybe.. .
It has been eventful.
Last Thursday I witnessed, along with the PG, my brother-in-law's wedding.  The Registrar, who was younger than any of us, gave the couple - both coming in to bat for a second innings, and both grandparents  - a stern lecture on the solemnity of the marriage vows, before making them man and wife.

I wore a bunch of sweet violets in my button hole, as did the PG.  You'd probably call hers a 'corsage'  but mine was, distinctly a coarse-arge.

Afterwards we went to a pub in Barnes to nibble whitebait and later to the Groom's flat for a small party before moving on to a superb Italian restaurant not far from the Thames for a big, posh dinner.

A three-year old Ukrainian boy smeared red caviar over my suit trousers and then ate an entire plate of the stuff, spread on discs of toast.

On Friday we went to Eugene Onegin at the London Coliseum which has a better roof than the one in Rome.  Onegin was a complete sh1t but I have to say, Tatiana was a bit of a pillock and Olga should have been thoroughly spanked for her wantonness.

On Saturday, after a day with our grandchildren, we sat in the Old Vic to see Synge's Playboy of the Western World.

Since then, and since my mother moved to a retirement home, we've been sorting out the contents of her house.  How can you concentrate on packing up stuff when confronted by a trunkful of old family photographs?  We spent a morning gawping at the past.  My brother's shorts, at 4 years old, were much worse than mine when I was 7.

I'm listening to Eugene Onegin.  The music is pure Tchike but none the worse for that.

This day last week We were sampling a pre-opera pint of Youngs bitter.  Not what it was, now it's no longer brewed in Wandsworth, and now that Youngs is no longer independent.  Good pubs, in London's West End are rarer than hens' teeth.

This week's film was Rebecca another Hitchcock gem, though not particularly 'Hitchcockian.'  A magnificent Mrs Danvers.

Bye for now!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011


A supremely happy November to you all.
And deep apologies for being so tardy in producing a new post.  The delay is inexcusable and I'm thinking of sacking this blog's editor for indolence, sloth, lethargy, procrastination, work-dodging, goofing off, slacking and general idleness.

Now the film quiz.
Who said, in which film? :  
You're a good-looking boy: you've big, broad shoulders. But he's a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.
You must promise not to cheat, by Googling the quote. 

Bourne Woods on 5th November.  This year's colours have been slow to develop but are lasting wonderfully.

I do have a micro-excuse in that we've a new baby in the family.  It's neither girl nor boy but a MacBook Air.  I've pampered and spoilt it hideously already and have also begun, after teething troubles, to grow accustomed to the latest Macintosh operating system which is known as 'Lion'.

Now it's clear that the good marketing folk at Apple are none to familiar with zoology, and don't really get it about cats and their relative status.

A lion, I'd say, is probably the least desirable of the big cats, especially a male one – despite the majestic mane and swishy tail.  King of the Jungle he ain't!  The males are bone idle and spend most of their time sleeping, copulating or trying to kill other male's offspring so they can give their own genes preference.

Apple's last OS was called 'Snow Leopard' - quite the rarest and most attractive of the cats, being lithe, lissome and graceful in every way and able to survive in the most hostile mountain environment.  When they launched Snow Leopard I said - as in that annoying song from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma - 'They've gone about as far as they can go.'

The Fly Agarics have popped up at last.  The ones I found seemed a little short of the familiar white spots, though.  They were growing under birches, as usual, and always pop up in the same place each year, from huge mycelia.

The fungi have begun at last - hurrah!  After months of drought, recent rains have not been nearly enough to re-constitute our desiccated land.  But they have dampened things enough to kick the  fungi into action.  Several times, we walked in the extensive and biodiverse Bourne Woods, hoping to find interesting toadstools, including fly agaric Amanita muscaria, but have been disappointed until this week end.

Since last writing, we've had visitations, on the our Fen, of a Merlin, a Peregrine and two Short Eared Owls.  Each one a joy and privilege to watch and to admire.  Wonderful birds.

And ...  I've been angered by a couple of minor things recently. . .

1. The Health Police have been issuing edicts about booze again.  As I'm over 60, I've been told that I shouldn't drink more alcohol than comes in HALF A GLASS OF WINE at any one time.  Any more increases the risk of my falling down.  Well, I wonder how many of the puritans who pontificate on such things have been down in our local town of a week-end evening.  Because I think I can safely say, based on the most casual of observations, that the vast majority of people falling down after about 10.30pm, are definitely under 60.  In fact, I'd say they were all well under 30.  And pardon me, if this seems sexist, but I'd say that a majority of the fallers down were female.  And those females not falling down are usually suffering from hypothermia, since they seem to be dressed for a Caribbean beach, rather than a draughty Lincolnshire town.

2.  The honey industry - though it hardly seems right to call such a delightful and beneficial activity an 'industry' - is about to be further handicapped by the EUrocrats.  They are hysterical about the risk that a genetically modified cell, even one that is dead as mutton, might sully the purity of Europe's honey. So they're going to insist that honey is analysed for the presence of GM, before it can be considered fit to sell.

The government officials - if they've got time before they retire in early middle age on pensions that we self-employed folk can only dream about - might be better employed spending the money on desperately needed research into bee health.

Beleaguered by mystery disorders which have nothing to do with GM; threatened worldwide by habitat loss, misuse of agrochemicals and attacked by widespread parasites, pollinating insects are having a very bad time indeed.  And if we don't soon find out how to stop the decline in their populations, we might well all starve.

The army of Brussels sprouts is advancing for Christmas. These grow within a short bike ride of our house.

People often ask me why I don't grow more vegetables at home.  Well, one answer is in the picture above.  When I can buy superbly fresh, top quality produce so cheaply, why would I want to waste valuable plant space by growing it at home?

And finally - may I please remind you that the disgusting growth on my face, as shown below, is causing me deep discomfort and not a little pain.  So if you want to make my agony and embarrassment all worthwhile, kindly bung a fiver or more to The Bristling Gardeners over at Movember.  The money goes towards research into prostate and testicular cancer - two areas of mens' health which are shamefully under funded.  THANK YOU SO MUCH.

I'm hoping to grow a Ned Flanders but think it could take a year or more.
I'm listening to  Number 1 of 14 Bagatelles by Béla Bartok - it sounds a bit like a piano being tuned. No really, it does.  Ah, that's better  - a sort of mad scherzo-ish bit.  It's making my feet twitch.

This day in 2005 I was packing for a trip to London, to celebrate 33 years of marriage and was writing a biggish book for Harper Collins.  I also recorded birds on a tetrad, for the BTO and purchased lamb chops for dinner.  We watched the BBC drama series Rome and according to my diary, I was pretty unimpressed.

This week's film was a French 'Comic Strip' style derring-do thingy called Wasabi which stars Jean Reno, was written by Luc Besson and directed by a geezer called Gérard Krawczyk.  It's spectacular nonsense, but slickly done and wonderfully funny as well as exciting.  I loved it, but any analysis or thought-out critique would be a complete waste of time.

EXCEPT that being French, there had to be A POINTLESS VOICE-OVER NARRATION at the beginning.  What is it about the French, that they have to do that.  I HATE it and they should STOP DOING IT.  AT ONCE.  (Remember Last Year in Marienbad? I've still know idea what that film was all about.  But I digress, as per. . . .)

That's all!  Byezeebye!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


 'Especially when the October wind with frosty fingers punishes my hair' 
Good afterdoodah!
What a lovely series of gales we've been having.

First, the movie quiz.   Remember - you have to answer it here, in the comments, not merely as a tweet.  And if you want to follow this blog, now you'v found it - please, please do!

This first dialogue is from memory, so I may not have it right, but you'll get the gist.  It's easy peasy:
Actor 1. . . FBI, CIA, ONI - we're all in the same alphabet soup.
Actor 2. . . well you can stick this in your alphabet soup. I had nothing to do with that United Nations murder.

And a tougher one:
Actor 1 - You're funny.
Actor 2 - I've been called a lot of things - but never funny.

Nerine bowdenii and Aster lateriflorus on our kitchen table.  
The walnuts came from an Ely back garden.

I'm going to get cross, in a minute.  But first –  a quiver full of happy recent events and something sumptuously artistic to look forward to.

1. The fieldfares are here.

2. A delightful visit to York, to speak to the Askham Bryan Gardening Club on Autumn Gardening.  The conference centre was pretty full and the Club members turned out to be a wonderfully jolly lot. I hope they all enjoyed their evening as much as I did.

3.  I've fallen so deeply in love with Salvia leucantha that I want to share its bed. 

4.  I had a crash with my electric razor which I absent-mindedly drove through part of my nasty little new moustache - see Movember link elsewhere on this blog.  Who says asymmetrical 'taches are unfeasible?

5.  The PG has had a birthday.  I presented her with hand made rose and violent cream chocolates. We have champagne in the fridge but I haven't manage to catch a sturgeon, yet, so no caviar.

6.  I spoke at my old school reunion at Ely. Haven't experienced such cold feet for years and was nauseous with stage fright. It wasn't helped when my introducer said:  'And now our guest speaker, Nigel Colborn, will give us a brief address.'  The outgoing President of the association had already sidled up me and said 'You're not going to speak for too long, are you?  You will be, er, brief, won't you?'

And during the dinner, someone from a nearby table crept over and whispered, 'Can you tell me, roughly, how long you'll be speaking for?'  I said 'you've got a sweepstake, haven't you?'  At which he went rather red and sidled away.

But it went well enough – well, they laughed and clapped a lot – and ended a delightful day, most of it spent with my brother or reminiscing with old friends.

7 Wonderful news that an exhibition by David Nash will come to Kew next year.
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!
Nash does things with wood; Nash really understands wood; Nash carved a huge wooden ball and let it trundle on an oft interrupted journey along Welsh streams and rivers to the sea. Wooden Boulder.  

When I think of the runes burnt into Wotan's spear, cut grom the World Ash, I also think of Nash. He does amazing things with fire and wood.  And what are we all, if not fire and wood in a different form?  More Nash stuff here.

Crocus speciosus. I love the way the stigma peeps out - as if the flower is being indecent.

Having said all that, I'm bothered about Kew. 

It is, after all, one of the world's most important and historic botanic gardens.  Until the Maggie era, it was government funded and as such, I've no doubt that there were Civil Service-connected inefficiencies and everyone had a lovely, cushy ride.  

But you could get in for a penny and spend the entire day immersed in history, botany, horticulture and applied science. Not bad value, that.  

Kew was where I began, as a child, to appreciate the wonders of the Plant Kingdom and to understand the purpose of science.  We lived within easy reach, until I was eight, and my parents frequently took me and my little brother.  One of my earliest memories was seeing black swans with red bills, huge carp rising to gulp air and living loofahs.

On each visit, my father would see that we focused on a specific part of the gardens.  The world's oldest pot plant, collected by Francis Masson in the 1770s, became an old but rather inscrutable friend.  And has remained so.  Kew bumbled along, after our depature to live in Africa but was there, waiting, when I grew older and became even more besotted with plants and nature.  It was busy at weekends but otherwise, was a place which absorbed you; a place of quiet learning; a living museum of plants and botanical history; the world's flora crammed into a few acres by the Thames.

During the Reforming Eighties, the comfy blanket of government finance was pulled off.  Pardon the mixed metaphors but the teat which had sustained poor old Lady Kew for so long was suddenly snatched away, leaving her to starve or take desperate action.  

So instead of continuing her dreamy existence, at the tax payer's expense, she found herself having to 'go on the game.'  The only way she could continue was by prostituting herself.  Entrance money jumped from a penny to prohibitive prices – compare the free entry to the British Museum and National Gallery – and the publicity machine was rolled out.  Big events took place.  Massive exhibitions occurred; a ridiculously impractical but prestigious Alpine house was built; herds of school kids were, and are, dragged round the glasshouses; tropical rainforest style tree walks were constructed and in time the Royal Botanic Garden became an expensive and rather exclusive pleasure park.

Salvia leucantha  the petals and calyces are so furry one wants to use them as cuddly toys.

Perhaps you have no problem with all that.  And I have to admit, I'm not quite sure why I have found it all so offensive.  Financially, and to improve efficiency, 'going pop' was possibly a good idea. But I've never got over the feeling that the taxpayer didn't get a good deal on this.  

Just compare: 
each year, £107 is taken from each and every adult citizen in Britain and handed to farmers, regardless of the size of their businesses or the level of their needs.  (Needs?  Needs?  What bloody needs?) The total cost to the nation, of that subsidy, is around £3.5 billion.  Would it starve agriculture if a wafer thin slice were diverted to the RBG Kew?  So that research into medicinal plants, into molecular biology, into taxonomy, into ground-breaking analytical methods could continue without the distraction of Kew's having to flaunt the tarting kit all the time?

Kew's globally important scientific work continues, of course. And long may it do so.  And these comments are absolutely in no way critical of those who work so hard in the place.

I boycotted the much vaunted Chihuly at Kew exhibition, a decade ago, because of these feelings so clumsily expressed above.

But I'm going to the Nash.  At least he is working with a natural substance, much of which actually lives and has its being in the RBG.

And perhaps I should stop moaning and grow up.

I'm listening to Brünnhilde, heilige Braut from Götterdämerung.  Windgassen singing; Solti conducting.  I'm trying not to weep.

This day in 2006 I was writing a difficult conversation piece for The Garden and half dead with bronchitis and conjunctivitis. Disgusting to be with, my diary says.

This week's film was Soy Cuba  (I am Cuba.)  The Kalatazov/Yevtushenko agitprop job on Cuba's transition from oppressed and thug-ridden, offshore knocking shop for Americans to Castro's long-lasting regime.  I loved the edgy, unnerving camera work and felt great sympathy with the stories but hated the soundtrack.  I have such fond memories of Cuba's superb street, bar and club music that the din on screen jarred badly.  The heroic Russian style conclusion was such cheezy totalitarian propaganda that I burst out laughing.

Oh gawd  - another endless rant and ramble.  A rantle?  Whatever!

Bye bye!

Friday, 30 September 2011


Good Morrow, all!    I write under intolerable pressure, since I should be tackling the usual Sisyphean task of trying to catch up with uncompleted tasks, having been to Germany and dealing with Mother.

The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin 

We have drought, still.  No rain expected for another ten days; my autumn perennials drying; the lawn dead; the paperwhite bulbs which I promised to plant in gravel in a pot are still in their packets and the gravel is still under weeds, weeds in the drive.  Why doesn't drought kill weeds?

And now it's hotter than Jeddah, here, and the sycamore leaves are burning up.

If I bump into any climate change deniers over the next couple of weeks, I shall probably hit them, if they're smaller than me and if their bigger, I'll slip vine weevil pupae into their pockets and pee into their petrol tanks when they aren't looking.

Part of the Holocaust Memorial, Berlin.

It's been eventful.

I have spent a week in Berlin, attending Der Ring Des Nibelungen at the Deutsche Oper.  It was utterly bloody brilliant.  The Rheingold kicked off to a rollicking start with the Rhinemaidens dressed in slinky, skin tight, shiny wetsuit type things that showed off everything to erotic perfection.  They sang pretty well too and Alberich had a voice like Guinness - dark, full, creamy but with a bitter edge.

In Die Walküre both Siegmund and Sieglinde were achingly wonderful and Wotan acted with such conviction that we thought he really was having a heart attack on stage.

Siegfried began Siegfried as a thick, spoilt, twat of a child, bullying the odious Mime but puzzled about how to put two pieces of Lego together.  He finally grew up.

The last act of Götterdämerung and its conclusion had the entire vast audience stunned to silence for a full minute before shocked applause began tentatively, swelled slowly and finally grew to tumultuous acclamation.  The entire cast, stage crew and orchestra too curtain calls.  I have seldom been so moved at any theatrical production anywhere.

The stagecraft was amazing, intricate, complex and it all worked to a tee.  And the music, conducted by Donald Runnicles, was fine.

Looking into the Memorial to the Nazi Book Burning in the 1930s

Berlin was a city one instantly takes to.  Since reunification, it has united with a vengeance and the best bits of architecture, by far, are all in what was East Berlin.  We saw the various museums - Pergamon has to be seen to be believed and Nebuchadnezzar the Second's glazed bricks and sculpted, processing lions blew us clean away.

Other thoughts about Berlin:
1. Everything seems to function as it should.  Unlike London, there were several streets where the road was not being dug up.

2.  House sparrows, virtually gone from London were widely abundant, all over the city. Now why would that be?

3.  The street trees, a mix of various species of oaks, limes and one or two other interesting specimens are allowed to grow much more freely in London, partly because streets like the Kurfurstendamm or Unter den Linden are so much wider, longer and therefore able to accommodate them without nuisance.

4.  Berlin's parks really are rus in urbe.  The Tiergarten is a restful, green forest with the river Spree snaking along one side and the city's superb Zoo on the other.

The PG has announced that we will be returning.  So much more to see, to do and to achieve before then, though.

A modest lunch, German style - ham knuckle, spuds and sauerkraut.

Last Saturday, we were taking our seats for Götterdämerung.  But this day last week, I tackled a monstrous Kaiserschmarrn and got a round of applause for finishing it.  I also got indigestion.  You can find a pretty good recipe here .

This week's film was Wild Strawberries.  The first Ingmar Bergman Masterpiece I ever saw and having spent two days seeing to a sick, ageing mother, I felt it was appropriate.  Anyone who approaches old age must watch this film - it's a vaccination against age-related misanthropy.  Look and learn.

I'm reading the incomparable Roger Deakin - Notes from Walnut Tree Farm.  That man is on a par with Richard Jefferies and produced some of the finest nature writing of the past half century.  So sad that he died before giving us more.

This statue of Prometheus was found in Albert Speer's office, apparently.  I've forgotten who the sculptor was, but clearly not an ornithologist.  It's a vulture about to eat out his liver, rather than an eagle.

That's it for now.  Bye bye.

Friday, 16 September 2011


Autumn glory - Tim Miles' creative planting at the Cotswold Wildlife Park
Click any image to enlarge.

What ho!  Top of the whatsits to y'all!

The drought continues.  Our autumn perennials are dying before they flower, the lawns are brown and I think I'm suffering from tomato overdose.  I never thought I'd say this, but frankly, I'm glad summer is over.  Roll on porridge mornings, woolies and mud.

A juvenile cuckoo is still hanging round one of the few thickets, down on our fen.  It looks out of place, and I fear for its ability to make it, down to Africa.  Our swallows are also being terrorised by a hobby which is lurking about the village in a most ungentlemanly fashion.  It's a tiercel, I think, ie a male – smaller than the female – and flies with frightening speed on sharp, curved wings.  When the swallows move south, it will probably move with them nothing like having your lunch accompany you.

I believe some of you had a struggle with last time's film quiz, and got cross when you discovered that the film was not exactly mainstream.  So this time, I thought we'd have two questions, one totally easy; the other perhaps a little more challenging, but still, I hope, elementary.

And remember - No Googling!

First, then for dyed in the wool cineastes, what film does this line come from?

What we have here, is failure to communicate.

Second, for an easier ride:

Who said this, in which film?  And for brownie points, to whom was it said - and that, in a way, is a kind of a trick question, except that it'll make it easier for you.

That evening I had to run nearly all the way to the station. I'd been to the Palladium, as usual, but it was a terribly long film and I was afraid I'd be late.

Actually, on balance, I think they're both as easy as each other.  Anyway, good luck, and the usual tray of home-baked eBrownies to the winner.

A ring-tailed lemur, Lemur catta in the Madagascar Enclosure, at Cotswold Wildlife Park.

I spent one of the most delightful days of the year, on Tuesday, at Cotswold Wildlife Park.  We – that is, members of the Royal Horticultural Society's Tender Ornamental Plants Committee – were guests of the park, just outside Burford, of the A361.

We were greeted by Reggie Hayworth, MD, and then escorted by fellow committee member and Head Gardener Tim Miles, first on a train ride, round the estate, and then on a more detailed walk.  Tim has a long experience of zoo gardening.  He once showed me round London Zoo, when he was head gardener there, and we ended the day cuddling baby chimps and discussing the picky eating habits of dormice with the then Director, Joe Gipps.

In his 13 years at Cotswold W P, Tim has achieved a quiverful of miracles.  The park retains much of its 'parky integrity' with mature trees and grassland unspoilt, despite having white rhino grazing behind the ha-ha, instead of cattle.

He has also managed to develop the most naturalistic planting possible in the animal enclosures.  In the tropical rainforest hot house, for example, the lianas and shrubs  and monocots all blend perfectly, despite being from disparate regions, and look perfectly at home.  Bromeliads jostle with old world plants but it doesn't matter.  The feel is the same and the animals and birds clearly thrive in the most home-like conditions possible.

Tim's planting prowess has resulted in spectacular borders, containers and the biggest, and  most tastefully colour-coordinated hanging baskets I've ever seen.  You can be rude as you like about hanging baskets – and the likes of Roy Strong usually are – but these are really special.  Soft, bricky colours in one set, sky blue and white in others, all the picture of health, all vast, all set to last until November.

Mike Holmes, of Double Eight Nurseries gave us a talk on biological and integrated pest control on industrial scale glasshouse production and then, after our meeting, we all went home.

 A collared brown lemur Eulemur collaris (I think!) Check out that tail!

I'm listening to Laura Marling singing Salinas from her latest album A Creature I Don't Know which is really interesting - a bit Joni Mitchell-ish.

This time next week, I'll be watching and enjoying Der Ring Des Nibelungen in Berlin.

This week's film was Monsoon Wedding.  It's a delicious portrait of an extended Indian family wedding written by Sabrina Dhawan and directed by Mira Nair.


Thursday, 1 September 2011


What ho, my lovelies!
Goodbye and good riddance to August, the month I usually hate.  February is next from bottom but at least it's shorter and contains my birthday – though that's nothing to celebrate at my age. No one likes November and March can be a bit of a swine, especially if the wind turns east.

But August, groan, is horrible.  It's like waking with a bad hangover on what should be a beautiful day but turns out to be a slutty, shabby and badly foxed day.  One should be loving the late summer, but all August does is give one a head ache and makes one feel lethargic and unsuccessful.

But now comes my favourite 30 days.  Heavenly September, when the lazy old sun can't be arsed to pull itself up out of the frowzy mist until it has enjoyed a restorative ciggy and a scotch.  September days can be like late Billie Holiday recordings – voice is going, but the old glory is still there, gold-hazed, sleepy, seductive but strangely invigorating.

O Lor' what a load of utter tosh.  Please pay no attention.  Now then.  To work, to work,

My autumn border begins to wake up.  Four rudbeckias, front to back: R. fulgida (self sown)  R. subtomentosa 'Henry Eilers' - barely visible on right, spiky flowers,  Rlaciniata 'Juligold' further back, hanging ray florets, and Rlaciniata 'Herbstsonne,' tall, right at the back.  Asters and chrysanthemums dominate later.  Dahlias dead. [CLICK TO ENLARGE PICS]

And now, the FILM QUIZ
Some of you Tweeted your answers to the first quiz – one of you within minutes.  Thank you.  But if you want the gold star reward, you have to write the answer in the Comments section, on each post – though tweets are welcome as well.

Victoria got it first, on this blog, so the first golden ePrize goes to her.

It was Rod Steiger (Chief Gillespie) speaking to (Virgil Tibbs) Sydney Poitier in the Norman Jewison classic, In the Heat of the Night.

ANOTHER rule, I've just made up, by the way,  is:  No Googling. You're on your honour not to cheat.

So, here goes.  A bit of a stinker, this time, since you were all so speedy with the last:

Who said this, and to whom:

You're the type women fall in love with . . . I'm the type that interests them.

I'll give you a bit of help:  The above is a translation.  The original dialogue was in a European language.

I learn, today, that as part of the drive to reduce the use of veterinary antibiotics, £1.7million of tax payer's money is going to be spent on research into homeopathy for cows.

Well that's another £1.7million of our hard-earned down the tubes.

The British Veterinary Association refuses to endorse homeopathy which is hardly surprising. Veterinary medicine, after all, is based largely on applied science, rather than faith or magic.

I believe homeopathy to be about as logical and effective as bone pointing or sacrificing virgins. It works for humans who believe in it.  However, it's going to be tricky explaining the concept of Similia similibus curentur (= likes may be cured by likes) to lactating Holstein-Friesians.  And if they don't understand homeopathy, how will it work for them?

And now you'll tell me how wrong I am and give me a raspberry for scoffing at this branch of 'alternative' medicine.

A pelargonium - looks really sexy enlarged!

On Friday, a riveting lecture was given in our village church, about rhino conservation in Kenya and, in particular, the black rhino Diceros bicornis.  Having spent part of my childhood in that spectacularly beautiful country, I was smitten with nostalgia, especially when we were shown slides of the landscapes around Mount Kenya.

Wildlife conservation faces challenges enough in sophisticated regions but in parts of Africa, where so many people live on the edge, priorities are different and it's hard to see how threatened species, in these areas are going to survive.  Eco-tourism is a great motivator though, and when governments see biodiversity as a valuable resource, they are more likely to support conservation.

But what impressed me most was the dedication of the conservation workers.  These are people who have devoted so much of their lives to species preservation, despite the hardship, frequent danger and constant battle to keep nature at the top of everyone's agenda.  We should salute such folk - they are doing so much to prevent damage to our world.

The wrong end of a white rhino, Ceratotherium simum which I photograped in Hluhluwe Game Reserve, Kwa Zulu Natal.

Also last week, a delectable late afternoon and evening at the famous Peterborough Beer Festival.  It's alway fun, but this was a vintage year.   Tasting companions included my great friend Robin Thain – a frighteningly tall Viking of a man to whom a 12 mile walk is little more than a pre-breakfast stroll – and the legendary laughing archaeologist Francis Pryor.  In his early career, Francis was a professional beer taster and knows a thing or two.  He also has a delicious sense of humour, a sharp brain and grows all his own vegetables plus much of his own meat.  An all round good egg – a double-yolked one, in fact.

The evening was fair and mild; the mild was dark and toasty; the bitters were wonderfully varied.  There were too many 'modern' extra-super-hoppy blond ales but just enough deep amber, gentle, barley-hop old fashioned brews to keep us happy.

Top jaw-drop moment was when an innocent young man, looking neatly dressed and out of place, asked one of the burly barmen if he had any lager. The barman was dumbfounded; a startled silence fell on all within earshot – a classic Bateman moment, Francis and I agreed.  But I felt sorry for the young man who was at first, confused and then crimson with embarrassment.

The beers were in pristine perfect condition and the company was all one could wish for.  Three old men behaving like small boys let loose in a sweet shop.  I tipped quite a few of my 'tastings' on the grass in the huge marquees, but still had a slight headache next morning.

And in case you're wondering, I travelled in on the bus and the PG came to take me home.

Hops in my garden.  I would be without their heavenly, beery September smell.

I'm listening to  Beethoven - an early quartet.

This day in 2006 the PG and I were in the Little Karoo, admiring the South African Spring flora with the mighty Swartberg Mountains in the background.  We stayed at Oudtshoorn.

This week's not-film was David Hare's  TV drama, Page Eight, starring Bill Nighy.  What a perfect combination of two giant talents!  I had looked forward to it all week but sorry, chaps, I thought it was lukewarm, off the boil and sleep-inducing.

All the stuff of wicked conspiracy was there: dishonest politicians manipulating the secret service for their own ends; PMs sucking up to the Americans; our Government conniving with them in Special Renditions – a vile and obscene euphemism – ; Blairish fibs and... oh, I'm getting exhausted trying to remember it all.  I may have dozed a bit, anyway.

Compared with the slickness of the Le Carré stories, particularly Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this TV drama limped, for me.  The oblique dialogues didn't float my thingy – though, even in the Le Carré, one never got them first time round –  and Ralph Fiennes struck me as being more like an East End thug made good, than a PM.  And to cap it all, it the drama ends with a cliché - but I won't spoil it for you.

Perhaps real current drama, in Libya and Syria, made this all look cardboardy and contrived.  But the more likely problem is that without a Cold War, spy stories just don't work.

(We're also re-watching Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson in the Olivia Manning Levant Trilogy,  The Fortunes of War.  Now that's good television and a pretty decent dramatisation of some fantastic novels to boot.

Bye all!  Thanks a zillion for reading.

Friday, 19 August 2011


FIRST, A NEW IDEA:  A fun but completely pointless 'Who said that?' series.

On each post, there'll be a quote from a well-known film.  The first person to say which film it's from will be rewarded by an electronic waft of floral delight.  If you get the name of the speaker and the listener, you might even recieve one of Apple-Burberry's newest, sparkliest gadget, the iClapp and thereby store your moments of triumph on a sleek, envy-arousing gizmo. You can play them back to yourself whenever you reach a low point and need cheering up.

So here goes:

Quote quiz number one.

Who said:
'We have the motive, which is money, and the body, which is dead'
And a bonus point if you can name the person(s) to whom it was said.

My wild cornflowers, Centaurea cyanus.  The plants in my garden originate from seed collected nearly thirty years ago – from the wild, in the Touraine, France – and have been propagated by me every year since.  I brought seed to our new home when we moved. Truly wild cornflowers are deep, sapphire blue, single and are smaller, thinner stemmed and lighter than the galumphing things you get from packets of seeds.  They fade to this paler blue when the season has advanced and the plants are growing old.


Now then, where were we . . . . Oh, yes,

My good friend James Alexander Sinclair confesses to an attack of August lethargy in a recent post and how right he is.  Three weeks ago, I was eating my heart out about the sow thistle seeds blowing across our autumn border and trying to pull up as many of the plants as I could reach; today, I've just been gazing at them in a dreamy trance.  I blame the late J. A. Baker, whose exquisite nature book The Peregrine is an exquisitely minute study of the bird of prey. He takes gazing in dreamy trances to new levels and when you read his lilting, poetical prose, you are profoundly moved, even though reading it is extremely hard work because you need to take each sentence at a slow, ambling, pace without for one second, losing attention.

The air, in our garden, especially around the dead meadows, is full of wafting detritus.  Insects by the million float about thinking that summer will last forever.  Thistledown and willowherb seed drifts everywhere and the smells of ripened wheat have given way to that wonderfully hot, almost baked bread smell of newly turned land.  Round here, disc harrows or cultivators rip up the stubbles within hours of harvest, and new crops are soon drilled.

The swifts are gone, totally gone; the black headed gulls have barely any of the chocolate breeding colours left on their crowns and the late hatch of holly blue butterflies are searching for enticing evergreens.

We have an embarrassment of hoverflies and a wasps' nest in our house wall.  We've decided that if we don't disturb them, they'll not harm us so will take no action.

Autumn flowers are beginning to stir.   We have an eruption of what used to be Leucojum autumnale in and is now Acis autumnalis in one of the gravel screes and very pretty they look.  Each flower is frail and tiny, so you need lots to make an impact.  Mine are now in their 7th year but I still dig up about three clumps, every September, and divide up the bulbs.

Acis autumnalis, formerly Leucojum autumnale.

Yesterday, the PG and I went to London to make arrangements for some future travel and to 'do' the Miró exhibition at Tate Modern.

The best bit of my day was nothing to do with Miró and was entirely unintentional as perhaps the best and most sincere art is.  We were in the excellent Tate Modern café which, you may wish to know, stocks bottle-matured real ales.  Huzzah huzzah!

At a large table close to ours, about half a dozen of the yummiest mummies I've ever seen were lunching together with their babies and toddlers.  These were pretty obviously chattering class mums and it was fascinating to see how animated, alert and engaged all the little ones were. Watching their antics, while I ate a respectable tuna sandwich and the PG downed a very green green pea soup, was better than being entertained by a jazz combo. I felt quite sad to leave them all.

After that, the Miró seemed almost anticlimactic.  I wrote this about my experience in yesterday's diary.

Joan Miró had a long, productive life, living part of it in exile, enduring the hateful Fascist regime under Franco which lasted from the late 1930s to his death in 1975.  His work is riddled with pain, fear, agitation and hunger for better things.  But the most accessible stuff was painted between about 1918 and 1925. His paintings on copper are staggeringly colourful, for their era, and look almost like modern acrylics.  But the surreal weirdities, with dangling parts - both male and female bits dangle on stalks -  barely recognisable features, inexplicable blobs, squiggles and shapes - some of which he labels ‘personages’ - are impossible for a Philistine like me to understand.
Miró has no feel for anatomy at all, right from his earliest work.  His ‘suckling mare’ for instance, is a peculiar beast whose legs are anything but horsey and whose tail is not attached to its spine, but stuck up its arse.  And his ‘calligraphy of the trees’ as he calls it, suggests that real palms and woody plants are merely a stepping off point for beautifully designed arboreal-ish shapes which bear little resemblance to the real thing.  But, gosh, they are beautiful.
In one early painting, there’s a palm with hopelessly wrong morphology which makes it look as though  one trunk has been stuck on top of another.  And yet, the painting has far greater beauty than would have been seen in a more faithful depiction of the actual scene - his nondescript farm garden in Catalonia.
The works of his old age, dare I say, seem to me to be largely crap.  He had clearly become part of THE  ART ESTABLISHMENT and was then able to churn out inexplicable squiggles and splodges and have a damn good secret laugh.  ‘Hope for a condemned Man’ for instance, is three big white blobs with a single, smaller blob of a different colour in each.  The ‘Fireworks’ triptych was achieved by hurling tins of black paint at a white canvas - but only in the most ‘artistic’ way.
When an artist calls his painting 'Woman with a Blond Armpit Combing her Hair by the Light of the Stars' you cannot help but feel he's pulling your wire - isn't he?  I came away scoffing, but have to admit, I've been thinking hard about Miró ever since I got home.

A sunbursting gazania - they only do this in sun and sulk at other times.

I'm listening to England making a convincing start, in the 4th Test Match agains India.  A 4 - 0 win would be sweet indeed, but our team needs to beware of hubris, and of the weather forecast.

Around this day, in 1952, when I was eight, I was tooling around the bush in Kenya where, for a time, we lived.  My family were staying on a farm close to Nyeri (whence cometh some of Africa's lightest, subtlest flavoured and most fragrant coffees) and I was out 'hunting' with my mate who was my age.  We were on a quest to find the biggest preying mantis possible and also hoping to catch some chamaeleons.  These make the most wonderful pets, when you're eight, and provided you keep them well fed with grass hoppers, will cosy up to you and amaze you with their independently swivelling, goggly eyes.

Despite fixing our elasticated, snake-buckled belts round our heads and sticking feathers in them, with grubby handkerchieves fixed over our necks, to ward off sunstroke, I don't think we quite cut the mustard, as true hunter gatherers.  If you stood us up against, say, a Kalahari bushman, I think we'd probably have been found just a teeny bit wanting.

But we got our chameleons!

This weeks film was  Everlasting Moments a nicely shot, faultlessly directed piece by Jan Troell about a woman who finds solace in photography despite living a harsh, working class life. She pops out children with scary fecundity, is alternately brutalised and, sort of, loved by her Finnish husband - played by Mikael Persbrandt who looks and acts like Sweden's answer to Oliver Reed.  She also has an innocent liaison with professional photographer played by Danish Jesper Christensen - clearly the Scandinavia's answer to Donald Sutherland.  I loved this film for its gorgeous sepia photography and faithful, non-romanticised portrait of life for the underclasses in the early 20th Century.  And I can even forgive it for a slightly unconvincing conclusion.

I'd planned a short post, but this one has been endless.  If you've read this far, I admire your doggedness and thank you profoundly for your kind perseverance.

As that weatherman used to say: bye bye for now!