Archive for April, 2019

Pompous Windbag, Moi?

It’s bank Holiday. And, unusually, a warm, clear-blue skied Bank Holiday. There are jobs to be done up at the allotment …

… and, wouldn’t you know it, everybody and his dog has had the same idea.

On one hand; absolutely brilliant.

On another hand: irksome.

See, back in the day, before gardening and allotments became en vogue, people on our allotment farmed more than one plot. Indeed, suspiciously one person occupied six plots* (and grew only onions and runner beans; go figure). Parking was oh-so-simple.

In addition to that the committee had a ruling that each row of plots had parking space at the end for people with plots in that row to park. Simple and rational. However, given the patchwork nature of the plots, where some –even in the same row – are lengthways and some are edgeways, the fact that there are half plots, quarter plots and, in one case, a three quarter plot, this system was, sooner or later,  going to break down or be deliberately abused.

A couple of months ago and, rather embarrassingly, I had to confront a fellow who had parked his shining 4X4 SUV so that I could not get a wheelbarrow down the path that runs from the central roadway to my plot. I ask you! A wheelbarrow; that most essential of allotment workmates! He had the good grace to see his error, apologise and shift the truck.

Now, accepted practice is to park, nose in to the fence down the bottom end of the site (where, you’ve guessed it, our plots are). Parking in this fashion allows more parking spaces, but doesn’t quite solve the problem.

Especially on a bright Bank Holiday morning. We slide down the hill; a steep slope, poorly maintained (committee responsibility) and grab a space. I am puffed up with pompous, righteous indignation (unnecessarily because, after all, we have got a space where we need to be!) but am amazed to find a new car, new plotholders –perhaps- fumbling down the slope and coming to rest perilously close to the driver’s door of our car.

“Enough is enough!” I think. “This pair don’t have a plot down here, I’ll just, forcefully, explain the state of play to ‘em.”

The driver’s door shivers open, a huge paw grasps the top and a massive frame hauls itself out of the cockpit. My nan would talk about people being “big in the shoulders”. This guy was that all right. Big in the chest too, forearms like an apes and covered with tattoos.

“Yo aw rite mucker**?” he booms (big in the voice, too) as he ascends to his full height.

I’m not – exactly – intimidated, but am rapidly re-thinking my decision; stood there with packets of peas in one (relatively tiny) hand and a compost bucket of kitchen scraps in the other.

Then the passenger door squeezes open. Out of this side merges a lady as small as he is tall. Small but, as my nan would have said “big boned”. She is panting, her shoulders spasming up and down jerkily. Red faced and grimacing. She looks at me, looks down.

“Bluddy ‘ell!” she groans, “got ‘ammered*** last night! Still feelin’ it!”

I look back at him. He shrugs.

Discretion, suddenly, becomes the better part of valour. If they do this again, I might, gently tell them about parking (though, honestly, probably not).

Happily we manage to get shallots, which we have grown on from sets, planted out. As well as a first row of radish, which should be ready quickly and give us that peppery taste in salads, and a row of main crop peas (Hurst Green Shaft).

And that bubble of ridiculous need to confront a fellow plotholder has been properly tucked away.

* traditionally, it should be noted a single allotment could provide yearly food for a small family and covered 250 square metres, roughly the size of a doubles tennis court.

** Fairly standard, if thickly accented greeting hereabouts. Can be translated, roughly, as Good morning, are you alright my friend?”

*** = drunk.


Here Comes the New Boss …

OK, so it was further to walk from the local garden centre (which we’d visited to show Young’un the fish in the attached pond, tank and home aquarium business*) and I, at least needed a sit-down.

But, while I’m sitting, with grandson – his first visit, incidentally- happily munching on some biscotti-snack, I couldn’t help but think about all of the other grandchildren, over time, that have sat here with grandparents; their circumstances – and hope that this trend continues.

No photo description available.
  • Trust me, in most places you’d pay exceedingly good money to see the range and number of species and tanks they have in this place.

Piper at the Gates of Dawn

As a child, I loved stories that featured animals as central characters, Tarka the Otter, a series of books written by one of the circus owning Chipperfields, and The Wind in The Willows (irreverently referred to later by one of my rock and roll heroes as “Flatulence in the Forest”)

It was read to us as a class of ten year olds by our teacher, Mr Clarke. Who, it must be said, read it well. But I remember one particular section that seemed over flowery and -as I would say now (not a little cynically “very hippyish”). Mr Clarke, however, seemed to go into some kind of transcendental state while reading it.

To set the context; the various critters in the Wildwood and surrounds are summoned to search for a missing otter cub/child, who disappeared sometime during the night.

Over then to the (somewhat abridged) words of Kenneth Graham:

“The line of the horizon was clear and hard against the sky, and in one particular quarter it showed black against a silvery climbing phosphorescence that grew and grew. At last, over the rim of the waiting earth the moon lifted with slow majesty till it swung clear of the horizon and rode off, free of moorings; and once more they began to see surfaces—meadows wide-spread, and quiet gardens. Their old haunts greeted them again in other raiment, as if they had slipped away and put on this pure new apparel and come quietly back, smiling as they shyly waited to see if they would be recognised again under it.

Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness.

“It’s gone!” sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. “So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worthwhile but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!” he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound.

“Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,” he said presently. “O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.”

The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. “I hear nothing myself,” he said, “but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.”

“Clearer and nearer still,” cried the Rat joyously. “Now you must surely hear it! Ah—at last—I see you do!”

Breathless and transfixed, the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade’s cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there, brushed by the purple loosestrife that fringed the bank. And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvellously still.

On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold the air.

A wide half-circle of foam and glinting lights and shining shoulders of green water, the great weir closed the backwater from bank to bank, troubled all the quiet surface with twirling eddies and floating foam-streaks, and deadened all other sounds with its solemn and soothing rumble. In midmost of the stream, embraced in the weir’s shimmering arm-spread, a small island lay anchored, fringed close with willow and silver birch and alder. Reserved, shy, but full of significance, it hid whatever it might hold behind a veil, keeping it till the hour should come, and, with the hour, those who were called and chosen.

Slowly, but with no doubt or hesitation whatever, and in something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals passed through the broken, tumultuous water and moored their boat at the flowery margin of the island. In silence they landed, and pushed through the blossom and scented herbage and undergrowth that led up to the level ground, till they stood on a little lawn of a marvellous green, set round with Nature’s own orchard-trees—crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe.

Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror—indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy—but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side, cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that hailed the dawn.

As they stared blankly, in dumb misery deepening as they slowly realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed the aspens, shook the dewy roses, and blew lightly and caressingly in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.

Mole rubbed his eyes and stared at Rat, who was looking about him in a puzzled sort of way. “I beg your pardon; what did you say, Rat?” he asked.

“I think I was only remarking,” said Rat slowly, “that this was the right sort of place, and that here, if anywhere, we should find him. And look! Why, there he is, the little fellow!” And with a cry of delight he ran towards the slumbering Portly.

But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties; so Mole, after struggling with his memory for a brief space, shook his head sadly and followed the Rat.

Portly woke up with a joyous squeak, and wriggled with pleasure at the sight of his father’s friends, who had played with him so often in past days. The Mole ran quickly to comfort the little animal; but Rat, lingering, looked long and doubtfully at certain hoof-marks deep in the sward.

“Some—great—animal—has been here,” he murmured slowly and thoughtfully; and stood musing, musing; his mind strangely stirred.

“Come along, Rat!” called the Mole. “Think of poor Otter, waiting up there by the ford!”

“I feel strangely tired, Rat,” said the Mole, leaning wearily over his oars, as the boat drifted. “It’s being up all night, you’ll say, perhaps; but that’s nothing. We do as much half the nights of the week, at this time of the year. No; I feel as if I had been through something very exciting and rather terrible, and it was just over; and yet nothing particular has happened.”

“Or something very surprising and splendid and beautiful,” murmured the Rat, leaning back and closing his eyes. “I feel just as you do, Mole; simply dead tired, though not body-tired. It’s lucky we’ve got the stream with us, to take us home. Isn’t it jolly to feel the sun again, soaking into one’s bones! And hark to the wind playing in the reeds!”

“It’s like music—far-away music,” said the Mole, nodding drowsily.

“So I was thinking,” murmured the Rat, dreamful and languid. “Dance-music—the lilting sort that runs on without a stop—but with words in it, too—it passes into words and out of them again—I catch them at intervals—then it is dance-music once more, and then nothing but the reeds’ soft thin whispering.”

“You hear better than I,” said the Mole sadly. “I cannot catch the words.”

“Let me try and give you them,” said the Rat softly, his eyes still closed. “Now it is turning into words again—faint but clear—Lest the awe should dwell—And turn your frolic to fret—You shall look on my power at the helping hour—But then you shall forget! Now the reeds take it up—forget, forget, they sigh, and it dies away in a rustle and a whisper. Then the voice returns—

“Lest limbs be reddened and rent—I spring the trap that is set—As I loose the snare you may glimpse me there—For surely you shall forget! Row nearer, Mole, nearer to the reeds! It is hard to catch, and grows each minute fainter.

“Helper and healer, I cheer—Small waifs in the woodland wet—Strays I find in it, wounds I bind in it—Bidding them all forget! Nearer, Mole, nearer! No, it is no good; the song has died away into reed-talk.”

“But what do the words mean?” asked the wondering Mole.

“That I do not know,” said the Rat simply. “I passed them on to you as they reached me. Ah! now they return again, and this time full and clear! This time, at last, it is the real, the unmistakable thing, simple—passionate—perfect—”

“Well, let’s have it, then,” said the Mole, after he had waited patiently for a few minutes, half-dozing in the hot sun.

But no answer came. He looked, and understood the silence. With a smile of much happiness on his face, and something of a listening look still lingering there, the weary Rat was fast asleep.”

Reading it back now, inspired, unexpectedly by getting up early last week (see, I can, maybe, understand the tone with which Mr “Nobby” Clarke read this segment of the story (so adult in nature, where the rest of the book is humourous, dramatic, or terrifying (Mole lost in the Wildwood in the snow!)by turns). There is a quality and depth in the loving description of the wildflowers. Indeed, an understanding of the nature of dawn that so few of us experience these days, so busy are we with breakfast TV or getting somewhere faster.

And the connection with the Greek god of wild places (Pan) from which we get the word panic (the edgy feeling that something powerful is watching us, yeah?) and my twenty first century knowledge and accumulated experience.

Thanks Mr C.

The Gates of Dawn

He wakes up from a recurring dream: the one that has his two daughters still living at home. Are infants, indeed! While the truth is, that at this very moment, his oldest daughter is staying for a few days – with his ten month old grandson! Both, by the sound of it, still blissfully asleep.

It is six o’clock in the morning, false dawn is lightening the sky. In his dream he knew he had to be awake so he could organise the family breakfasts. But the very moment he fully awake (past the mental shrug, the turning over and going back to sleep) he realises both of his daughters are well into independent lives now. And it makes him smile widely, proud of the job they have done, that they still have great relationships with the two of them.

But, determined not to waste the early start and the positive feeling, he slides from the bedroom, pulling on jeans and a denim shirt.

He can get some seeds sown. It was going to be a warm day, that much could be felt in the air. The weather forecasters had mentioned bank Holiday temperatures of twenty two degrees Celsius. Maybe later, he shivered, the cold of April still lingering in the dawn.

He boils the kettle, throws some instant coffee granules into a cup and a couple of minutes later he stepping out into the bright, quiet early morning back garden, strolling along the windless path. If only each new day began like this …

The greenhouse needs tidying, he thought, knowing he had thought this at least a dozen times each spring for the past four or five years. New staging, cleaning the glass, replacing the gravel flooring, disinfecting the seed trays and nooks and crannies. Knowing, even as he thought it, that it would wait for at least another season. Which would become another year.

As he rolls the door open he is aware of the mechanical voice of a crow. The only sound, the only bird about so early. Possibly one of the pair that regularly harassed the resident magpies; though whether these actions were generated by spite, hate or for fun he hadn’t been able to work out. Why are some species just naturally, instinctively the enemies of others?

One of the resident magpies had no tail and he automatically knew the bird as Stumpy. Not through some desire to give the bird a human character but because he was always inclined to give nicknames.

The sixty litre bag of compost still leaned against the greenhouse. It had been a bargain but there was so little room in the greenhouse. Because, yes, I know the greenhouse needs …

He stopped himself going back down that route again.

In trays in the greenhouse seeds planted earlier were already showing first leaves above their compost beds. Sunflowers, lettuce, sweet pea, cucumber (for some reason he couldn’t get past “snozzcumber” from The Big Friendly Giant by Roald Dahl) and cauliflower.

He reached into his back pocket for the seeds he was sowing today. Pumpkin, though fair enough, they’d already planted some (which were, when he deigned to read the packet information those that produce enormous pumpkins) and he wanted some that’d just grow reasonably sized ones for the girls and his grandson (just reaching the ten month milestone).

Courgettes, though his wife had informed him these were the “wrong sort, no good for cooking” when he’d just liked the look of them (and the name Summer Holiday) from the photo on the packet.

More tenderly than usual he cleans old spider webs and dry autumn leaves out of the seed trays, adds compost, packs it down plunges in the seeds and writes labels (wiping pencil marks off last year’s plant labels and over writing this year’s types). Then, placing the trays on the floor, waters each tray and places them to catch the sun.

He sits on a chair on the first mown lawn by the cowslips and drinks the coffee. This looks like being a good day.

New Tech for Trad Jobs?

I am one of those people that never knows what to ask for on the run up to their birthday*. Or Christmas. Perhaps you know the type? Or, just maybe you are the type.

It used to be an LP. My favourite bands of the day would be releasing at least one a year. Then, when technology changed a CD, next a DVD (of a live concert perhaps). Or books. I’ve always loved books. But some people, like my mother (bless her) would want to know exactly which one. So, for a while I’d spend time in a bookshop (what a lovely hour or so I can spend in these places) and jot down titles, authors. Or I’d lamely suggest just buying a book token. By the way I know just how unsatisfying it can be to buy somebody “just a book token”.

When we got the allotment, it meant a whole new array of requests: it was plants, tools, ornaments, pots, compost …

But, eventually we were lucky enough to have all of the things we actually needed. Plus some of the more exotic, outlandish ones.

And, although I’m not – usually – an impulse buyer, I was tempted last autumn by bargain sales of nets of mixed daffodil bulbs. We could establish a load of these in our lawn, allow them to bloom in the long grass. Down by the “spring garden”, where cowslips have naturalised. Linked to my dislike (being polite here) of mowing the lawn.

This gave the opportunity to ask for one of those stand-upon bulb planters. Like a spade with the business end replaced with a cylindrical blade. Perfect!

So I gratefully received one … and I couldn’t get it to piece the surface of the lawn (and underlying rowan and apple tree roots). Too compacted, resisting even my whole weight and meaning we got the massive amount of perhaps ten of the bulbs planted as planned.

The rest remained in the net until this spring when we planted them in five or six big, empty pots. They look great and we can move them about to where they look best. An unplanned bonus.

But, faced with planting umpteen potatoes, a job we have usually done one by one with a trowel, I had a brainwave.

That damned bulb planter! The soil, having been rough dug in autumn has overwintered and been hoed and raked flat. After more than twenty years of adding organic matter and removing the largest of the stones I am proud of the state of these three plots now. Friable, lots of earthworms and other essential wildlife and, I daresay, microscopic bacteria. easy to till, so – presumably – lightly packed enough to use said bulb (aka tuber) planter.

So, dragging the fruit boxes of seed potatoes from the bedroom where they have been chitting we prepared to plop them into the soil.

Making beautifully short – and easier on the back – work of the whole process. Mark the line, plunge the bulb planter in (from a comfortable standing position), remove the plug, move on. The whole line of hole staking less than two minutes. earth from each successive hole pushes out the plug from the previous one. Once the spacing was established. Some organic potato fertiliser into each hole, then the potato.

Repeat until all seed potatoes planted. Recommended.

Finished sooner than we expected we sit in the shed and drink tea poured from a flask, congratulating ourselves on the accomplishment. Okay, so the shed roof needs re-felting. And, the planking in some sections is rotting away, letting sunlight and wind in. Maybe more places when you start to look.

A shed for my next birthday?

Now there’s a thought.

*October, in case you’re wondering.

There’s Risk in the Balance.

The water butt by the shed is filling up with blossom (plum and damson). It looks attractive, but there is still that risk of frost.

As always we wonder, will there be fruit?

“Hi-Ho Silver (Birch)!”

Just back from the football match and needing a moment or two he steps out into the back garden. Hoping the cool air and the space will calm him down a bit: the team’s performance was up there, the result not. And driving home, listening to the inane local radio sports reporter had increased his frustration and the inevitable traffic jams hadn’t helped at all.

Damn these people who didn’t indicate or understand lane discipline at roundabouts.

But, he’d decided as he drove past the golf club, a few moments to check on the frogspawn (or was it toads?) would give him the pause and the perspective he needed. Especially after he’d bought the season ticket for next season on a wave of optimism brought on by the lovely spring sunshine and unseasonably warm blue skies. And now the team were flirting with relegation. Again.

Stepping down through the back door, the pond under a blossoming (bracts to be technically correct) Pieris bush. The Canada pond weed still spreading despite his wife’s regular attempts to banish it. He smiled. And at his eventual success in donating some of the jelly enveloped eggs to the local school. There had been some prevarication. The need to check health and safety policies, animal rights. Bu, he firmly believed, children needed to have these experiences. And he remembered all of the years, as a child, when he and a range of friends had hunted out the magical spawn. Learning at one and the same time how to calculate risks and about the natural environment. How could that not feature in twenty first century curricula?

Refusing to be put off, when the caretaker eventually told him yes, there were requests for three separate loads. Brilliant. And still more than enough left in the little pond in the back garden. Laid later there was also a bunch the size of a football (must you?) in the pond on the plot up at the allotment.

But he was aware of something different in the garden. The wind? The shape of …? The shape of the sky, he intuited. How as such a thing possible?

Slowly he spun on his heel. Noting that he was now accustomed to the new fence put up by the neighbour’s grandson (what a fuss that had caused). And that, at the same time she had had a number of trees cut down in her own garden. The sunlight that had tumbled in had improved the lawn and greenhouse germination rates.

But no …

Ah yes. The ancient silver birch in the corner of a garden next door to next doors (follow that if you can)! He had watched it rocking back and forwards in the storm a couple of weeks ago. Leaves still encapsulated in purple skinned buds. None of the attractive spring catkins yet. Indeed, this is a tree for all seasons: beautiful sparkling bark in winter, with dark triangles marking the bases of branches. Lovely delicate twiggery, tracing dark star nights. Catkins, bright new laves and dappled shade in summer’s heat. Then the colours painted in the foliage in autumn. That wonderful yellow that the playing card suit leaves show when the chlorophyll is removed. Ancient? Insofar as he knows native silver birch trees here tend to stop growing at around fifty years old (this one must be at least that, he imagines, reckoning when these houses were built), then host  arrange of science fiction bracket fungus growths and begin to rot. Meanwhile they supply perches for birds and, in that mad rush-to-feed burst of blue tit nesting, must provide meal after meal of small, nutritious caterpillars.

If there are plans to pollard or remove this tree, the small leaved lime and rowan in his own garden will take on a new emphasis, the apple and pear tree too.

But the tree has been hacked about while he was out. There’s an aluminium ladder that’s seen better days trussed to some of the poorly butchered higher branches. Half of the canopy has been cut down. So it is now lop sided. Unbalanced. The branches cut from above have been left to tumble under their own weight so that jagged rips mar the cut end. He is not one of those people who attaches human feelings, emotions to plants and animals, but he feels a pain. Of the tree, trimmed  (if such a neat word can be applied) at a totally inappropriate time of year. Such work is for late autumn, winter better still. Planks have been nailed horizontally (or near enough) in the heights so that the silhouette reminds him of a prop from a Hollywood film (Mad max, Tarzan, Waterworld), a piece of modern “concept” art, a Viking sky burial (or was that the Apache?). Any road up, it is ugly. And incomplete. The branches that remain are the most difficult to reach, hanging over other gardens. Whoever committed this task had little or no idea how to finish the job, merely hacked off what they could reach.

Inevitably – and properly – garden trees must be managed. The risks to property (if not life and limb) from blown down branches, a blown down tree (!) must be considered. He understands this, of course.

But still, instinctively, he resents this disorganised butchery.

Cowboys with a chainsaw.

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