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.