Friday 20 January 2012


Well hello!  It's been ages, hasn't it?

Somebody phoned me this week and asked if I was devastated about the demise of the Busy Lizzie which has succumbed to Downy Mildew.
I answered, 'No, I'm absolutely delighted.'
'But what will people put in their hanging baskets,' asked my questioner.
'Nothing, lets hope,' I replied, 'but since there are, let's say, 50,000 other dangly plant varieties available, they should be spoilt for choice.

The RHS has flogged the lease on the Lawrence hall and will have lots of lovely dosh to blow on big projects.  One is a massive prairie or meadow garden at Hyde Hall, to be developed under the guidance of the incomparable Nigel Dunnet.  But here's a piccy of relatively self-made, natural 'upper saltmarsh' at Cley, in Norfolk.  The flora, here, is rather nondescript, but in my view, sublimely pretty.
As often happens around here, the pictures on this post bear little or no relation to the text - hurrah for lack of an editor!  CLICK THE PIX FOR A BIGGER VIEW.

Now, where was I . . . Oh, yes -–
I was sitting in an extremely posh kitchen, not a million miles from London having admired a rather delightful garden.  I was supposed to be politely listening to my hosts, while sipping coffee of herculean strength and admiring one of the most beautiful and characterful cats I've ever seen.  This cat had a sharp sense of humour, as well as spotted fur and unnervingly frank, pale green eyes – a micro-leopard.

But instead of living the moment, I had to endure a sustained vibratory assault on my left nipple.  The iPhone 4S – to which, I'm told, you can speak but which I've always felt too embarrassed to – was leaping and jerking about in my breast pocket like a March frog.  It was receiving a severe twit-storm of tweets.

The whole drama was sparked off by a certain illustrious editor (tweet him at @SeeWhyGardens) who confessed to dreaming that he had co-hosted a posh dinner party with me, somewhere oak-pannelled and clubby where we ate scallops and behaved raucously while being funny and charming.  There was talk of decanted wine and various clubbable guests who, says the tweeter, 'loved us.'

(I believe 'clubbable' means suitable for belonging in a club. However, some of the 'clubbable' people I know would benefit from being bludgeoned into oblivion.)

I haven't yet asked my co-host who, specifically, was there but it seems to have been a rollicking good party and we must have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Soft Cranesbill, Geranium molle, such a tiny, insignificant weed that you wouldn't think twice before yanking it out of the ground. And yet John Clare would rave over such a plant.  Is it time we tolerated beautiful species like this in our gardens, perhaps even making more space for them, and for other species which benefit from their presence. 

Meanwhile, I've been a bit worried about Phenology.  

A yellow crocus popped out in my meadow, just after Christmas and now someone is tweeting about swallows and asking if we've seen any yet.  I put this down to misguided optimism in both cases. The crocus got eaten by a sparrow, by the way and the swallow tweeter is almost three months early.

The wonderful sightings of winter migrants continues on our local Fen, however.  The PG and I admired a superb male hen harrier, cruising along the dyke yesterday and since Christmas, 'ring tail' - ie, female or juvenile hen harriers and short eared owls have been spotted almost daily.

But back to phenology.  Weird climates - and ours has been abnormal for so long, now that we've forgotten what a normal year is like - should be blowing a howling gale of fear up all our skirts big time.  Climate change – or rather Global Warming – if you read the GM, hormone-treated, fungicided straws in the abnormally strong and capricious wind, is accelerating.  At some point, maybe soon, we reach a point of no return.  What happens after that isn't nice.

Personally I believe, as humans, we deserve all we're going to get.  The idiotic mantra 'Save the Planet' keeps being chanted, as people recycle tokenistically and eat imported organic bananas, but I'm pretty sure the planet is absolutely fine and is in no way under threat.

Earth, as we call it, will probably continue to be an insignificant fragment of a universe that blew itself apart, a while ago.  And to think that we, as humans, can have the remotest shred of influence on its ultimate outcome is a shining example, wouldn't you say, of the Sin Of Pride.

No, it's just us folk who are under threat, as we fully deserve to be.

Except that it isn't just us, is it?  It's a pretty huge hunk of terrestrial life that will perish, when, as Johnny Cash would say, The Man Comes Around.  It'll be good-bye to life as far as we and a good number of cohabitee taxa are concerned –- but by no means good-bye to life itself, I'd suggest.  The Earth will still be here, doing what planets tend to do, long after we've buggered it all up and gone.

I suppose I should be censured for such a dark attitude but I don't see this as bad news at all.  From primordial slime to Leonardo da Vinci, Beethoven, Shakespeare and Newton is not a bad bit of progress.  But when you move on to, say, the Birdy Song, MacDonalds and Damien Hirst, it's perhaps time to say enough already – bring on the fire and brimstone!

Field scabious, Knautia arvensis, which I regard as an essential meadow plant.  I wonder whether it will feature in in the Hyde Hall prairies?  I also grow it in my gravel garden where it seems happy and has not, so far, become a nuisance.  It's far prettier than Knautia macedonica and doesn't get mildew.

This week's film was ... but first, I have to tell you about THE SHELVES  

In our house, DVDs are stored haphazardly in all sorts of odd places.  But in one room, there are shelves reserved strictly for what we know as film classics. These may not be high art, as in, say Bergman's Seventh Seal or the perplexing Last Year in Marienbad - though both are there.  Instead, the shelves are reserved for titles which the PG and I regard as great, ie films that we can happily watch on a regular basis and seldom lose interest in.  Casablanca is there, of course, as is In the Heat of the Night, The Life of Brian, Brief Encounter, Fargo, Tokyo Story, Seven Samurai (next to The Magnificent Seven,) Withnail and I, Cabaret, Dirty Harry and many more.

Few films get transferred to this place of honour after a single viewing. It takes time.

BUT-  A Separation, written and directed by the Iranian Ashgar Farhadi is an exception.  It has gone straight onto THE SHELVES.

The story structure is, in my view, faultless.  A married couple in oppressive Iranian society, find themselves impaled on the opposite horns of a hideous dilemma.  One partner wants to emigrate, to make a better life for their child; the other feels duty-bound to stay behind to nurse a parent with advanced Alzheimer's.

The film opens at the point where the problems are sparking off a divorce.  Events occur, through the ensuing two hours which get you so caught up with the agony of the main protagonist – the husband – that you feel you are there.  There are Kafka-esque courtroom scenes showing a shambolic judicial system; moments almost of farce, when things go wrong; deep tragedy as mistakes and deceits bring unwelcome consequences and, above all, acting and directing which gives the characters and their situations amazing clarity.

Before seeing this film, I hadn't a clue what life might be like, for a middle class family living in urban Iran. It's 40 years since I last visited Tehran and the Shah was in charge then, but this immaculate portrait and riveting story has filled me with information as well as providing two hours of fascinated absorption.

Do watch it, if you haven't already.

Good Lord!  If you've read this far, you deserve a candlelit dinner in a romantic location with the date/partner/friend of your dreams.

Bye bye for now!

Tuesday 3 January 2012


A sublimely happy, prosperous, productive, creative and exhilarating New Year to you!
May your boiled potatoes never degenerate to a mush; may your roses remain black-spot-free and let's  hope your carrots will run straight and true next summer.

Now then.  I'm afraid I have to deliver a raspberry to certain folk, out there, who have been extremely rude about Lincolnshire, the county in which I'm proud and delighted to live.

Land near Thurlby, Lincolsnhire - An example of atrocious fenland landscape which offends so many sensitive eyes.  Note the rotting cabbages, abandoned car wrecks and chemical-mad farming practices.

It began with a Twitterstorm of rudenesses including such comments as 'Does the whole of Lincolnshire smell of rotting cabbage?'   There were unkind references to people getting depressed, as soon as they saw the landscape and even unkind comparisons made with Holland which, one twitterbug asserted, induced similar feelings of misery.

I've no intention of being rude about Holland – a country which I love to visit, whose horticulture is second to none and whose history is long and distinguished.  But I would like to correct those who, out of ignorance and a rather limited experience, are unkind about my particular corner of England.

May I begin with a little list?

Isaac Newton (maths)
Joseph Banks (botany)
Matthew Flinders (Australia)
Alfred Lord Tennyson (pomes)
John Harrison (chronometers)
John and Charles Wesley (Methodism/Hymns)
Henry the Fourth (King of England who nobbled Richard the Second)
Jennifer Saunders
Jim Broadbent
Dame Joan Plowright
Margaret Thatcher (politician)
Neville Marriner (conductor)
Malcolm Sargent aka 'Flash Harry' (conductor)
Nicholas Parsons (ancient broadcaster)
William Cecil - Lord Burghley (counsellor to Elizabeth 1)

These are just a few notable people who originated from Lincolnshire.  For a county with a reputation, according to some, for inbreeding, Lincolnshire seems to have produced a lively quiverful of notables.

And now, I'd like to smash two seriously wrong, but widely held beliefs:

The first is that Lincolnshire is flat.  This is nonsense.   A sizeable proportion – the southern third – of this huge county is undoubtedly flat.  But much of the remainder is gently rolling, with a high proportion of woodland, pasture and some fine rivers.  And if you travel northwards, into the Lincolnshire Wolds, the landscape becomes distinctly hilly.

The second fallacy is that flat landscapes are ugly, depressing, featureless, boring and undesirable.  This is a pernicious misconception and can lead to disastrous planning decisions.  Flat, fen landscapes can be more beautiful than the Alps, more pastoral than the Sussex Downs and are far more bio-diverse than, say, the Yorkshire Dales or the Lake District.

Fen landscapes are dynamic, with wonderfully dramatic skies, multiple reflections from lying water, subtly changing colours and intriguing lines.  The blend of manmade patterns - networks of dykes, patchworks of partly worked land, differing crops - makes a moving harmony with with the natural elements of sky, water and light.

The Dutch Landscape paintings of artists like Ruisdael, Avercamp and Cuyp capture these dynamics perfectly.

There's no question that a puckered or folded topography has its own, widely recognised beauty.  But rudeness about flatness comes from prejudice, rather than careful observation.

I think part of this prejudice stems from the dismal state of the land which borders some of Lincolnshire's main trunk roads.  The drive from Spalding to Kings Lynn, for example, can induce a suicidal impulse - especially on a drizzly day.

Ugly pack houses, light industry, filling stations and hideous ribbon development disfigure the area in all directions.  Yet even round there, within a short ride of such curiously named but unpretty places as Saracen's Head, Tongue End, Pode Hole, Whaplode and Cowbit, there are examples of bird-rich wetland, fascinating washes and, in the older communities, interesting architecture.

Stamford, at Lincolnshire's south western end, is one of Britain's finest limestone towns with much of its architecture still unspoilt.  Lincoln itself has a 12th century cathedral which compares favourably with York and is imposingly set, atop the steep hill round which the city is built.

Other Lincs places dear to my heart include the Grimsthorpe estate (Vanbrugh; Lancelot Brown) where Duke of Burgundy butterflies breed; the limestone region north of Stamford, where pyramidal orchids, rock roses and other jazzy wildflowers make the road verges brighter than gardens; the desolate salt marshes which border the Wash, east of Boston - the original Boston, that is, not the repro one in Massachusetts; and Grantham, where Richard the Third once slept, and which really does have a police-friendly road called Letsby Avenue.

 Two shots of Crocus imperati which flowered in our garden in late December 2011.

I'm listening to rain and wind lashing my window.

I have been watching the latest BBC adaptation of  Great Expectations.  Being a Dickens lover, I had looked forward to it with eager anticipation.  What a disappointment!  What had been a rattling good yarn, full of wry humour and warm relationships – as well as cruelty, betrayal and revenge – was transformed into a dreary, humourless drama.  Gillian Anderson was a good Miss Havisham, and I didn't have a problem with her being so young.  But the other characters were rinsed out and spun dried until they became little more than wallpaper.  And what on earth was the idea in making Pip look like a some sort of a gay pin-up?  As for Messrs Wemmick and Drummle – don't get me started!

Happy Epiphany!