Thursday, November 19, 2009

For Craig

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever
Deep in heart-wrung tears I'll pledge thee
Warring sighs and groans I'll wage thee

Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest
Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest
Thine be ilka joy and treasure
Peace, enjoyment, love and pleasure
Robert Burns

In memory of my husband, Craig Orr, 4 September 1937-19 November 2008

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The god of manure-spreading

At the risk of sounding like Michael Caine, did you know that the Romans had a god of manure? No, neither did I. What sensible people those Romans were. Before they started invading everybody else, they were an agrarian society and all their gods and goddesses were involved in some sort of agricultural activity. The god of manure-spreading was Sterculius, sometimes known as Sterquilinus or even Stercutius.
I discovered this by flicking through a Christmas books guide that came with one of the newspapers. One of the books featured was Philip Matyszak's Classical Compendium, billed as "a collections of incidents, wisecracks and curious facts from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Whether it's wry observations by Socrates or information on the god of manure-spreading, this is the book for you".
It certainly sounds the book for me. How could I resist "information on the god of manure-spreading"?
Sterculius was one of a panoply of gods and goddesses, led by Saturn, originally a fertility god and the Roman god of agriculture. Others included Pomona, goddess of fruit trees, gardens and orchards; Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime; and Sarritor, the Roman god of weeding and hoeing. (His name is commemorated today in the Canadian company Sarritor, who produce herbicides.) Jupiter had a crucial role as the god of weather, which is why he has a thunderbolt.
The name Conditor, that of the minor god who oversaw the storage of crops, now usually signifies Creator, as in the Advent hymn Conditor alme siderum. Its original meaning was someone who builds, by laying one thing on top of another. Think of apples stacked for winter, or a hayloft.
Mars, now better known as the god of war, was originally the god of fields and boundaries and a protector of farmers. As the Romans moved away from being an agricultural society towards the status of a world power, they decided the Greek gods and goddesses were posher than theirs, so they simply imported them wholesale. Where they had an equivalent, they substituted their own name - such as Jupiter for Zeus, or Minerva for Athene, or Mars for Ares.
Before any of you classical scholars out there complain, I'm aware that I'm simplifying all this in a major way. But I find it fascinating - and it's amusing to speculate on which particular deities the Romans would come up with if they were alive today. Would there be a god of allotments, for example? Or a goddess of organic husbandry? Or perhaps an immortal guardian of sheds?

Sunday, November 15, 2009


It was a lovely, mild afternoon so I went for a walk on Wandsworth Common today. To get to the common, you go down the street at the end of our road, turn right and then down a footpath that leads along the back of the very grand Victorian mansions that back on to the common itself.
These are imposing red-brick properties, costing millions, and bristling with turrets and twiddly bits. It's more or less impossible to walk past a row of prime London real-estate without seeing some sort of "improvement" going on, even during the credit crunch, so I wasn't too surprised when I saw the back gate to one of these houses was open, and a couple of men were laying a new lawn in the large garden.
I'd nearly walked past when, having given it a moment's thought, it struck me that it was an odd time of year to lay turf. I looked again and noticed that there were some offcuts of turf lying by the back gate. I took a third look and realised that the "turf" had what looked like a rubber backing.
Maybe they were laying a bit of fake turf in a very shady area, I thought. Maybe they were constructing a place to hide the rubbish bins and were using fake turf to disguise it. I carried on with my walk.
On the way back, I noticed the men were laying paving slabs as stepping stones through the lawn. I could see one of them mark out the area where a slab was going. Then he took a sharp knife and cut out a neat rectangle, throwing it on the discarded offcuts of artificial grass.
"I'm sorry to bother you," I said, "but are you laying fake turf?" He looked at me as if I was mad. "Yes," he said. "Over the whole garden?" I queried. "Yes, of course," he said, rolling his eyes at his mate, who shrugged in a kind of "there's always one" sort of way.
What happens when it rains? Is the rubber backing permeable? And how do you sweep up leaves? (With a blower, I'll bet.) Or do you have artificial trees as well? And doesn't it come as a huge disappointment to blackbirds and robins? And what happens if anyone drops a cigarette on it? Does anyone else think I'm mad to think this is a bonkers idea?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

You got to have friends...

This isn't a post about gardening, I'm afraid. Stick with me, though, because although it's not about ferns or foxgloves or fuchsias or freesias, it's about friendship. And that's just as valuable as gardening advice.
Last night, Friday night, I went on a girls' night out with my NCT group. Yes, the National Childbirth Trust, the UK charity who organise ante-natal classes, post-natal support, and anything, basically, that helps make parenting a better experience.
And yes, that means we first met 20 years ago, when we all had large bumps. Mine turned out to be my son. Now those bumps are at university and in the meantime, we have seen each other through all the traumas life can throw at you (and then some).
We try to meet at least every six months or so, usually at Cafe Rouge in Clapham. There are seven of us - me, Penny, Frances, Dorothy, Liz, Deborah and Sue. (Sue's moved out of town, though, so we don't see her so often.)
I was at work yesterday, and arranged to meet Penny at Clapham Junction to share a cab to the restaurant. I don't often go out, mainly because of the hours I work, so I was really looking forward to an evening with old friends.
As we climbed into the taxi, out of the howling wind and pouring rain, after journeys that had revealed to us both the full horror of public transport in London on a stormy Friday night, I said to Penny: "I need a glass of water, a glass of wine and a steak." We got to the restaurant, I managed to get halfway through a glass of water and my phone went. It was my 15-year-old daughter, who had been mugged on her way home from a school music competition.
My daughter was, understandably, hysterical, so Frances gave me a lift home immediately. She asked if I wanted to meet for coffee next day, but I didn't think I'd feel up to going out so she said she'd drop round.
I found my daughter huddled under her duvet, crying bitterly. She felt she had played very badly in the school competition, and had made a mistake at the end of the piece, so instead of waiting to hear the results at the end, had fled.
She was supposed to phone her father (my ex) for a lift, but decided to walk home instead. On the way, a guy had stopped her and demanded her phone and iPod. The school gives the kids strict instructions to hand over items like this without arguing, so my daughter did so. She wasn't hurt, but was terribly shocked.
Her father and I told her that losing the phone and the iPod didn't matter at all as long as she was all right. And if she'd played badly in the music competition, it didn't matter either. Penny, who has a wicked sense of humour, texted me to see if I was all right. "Steak really good," her text said, which made me laugh for the first time since I'd got home.
The last thing I did before we all went to bed was to email my daughter's music teachers to explain what had happened.
The next morning, at about 11.30am, there was a ring at the door. It was Frances, with Penny and Deborah, bearing a huge box of croissants and Danish pastries. A few minutes later, Dorothy arrived. She didn't have any steak, but a home-made cheesecake still warm from the oven. I made some coffee and we sat down and recreated our evening out as a leisurely brunch. It was lovely.
Twenty years ago, our conversations centred around buggies and stretchmarks and gas and air versus pethidine. We still talk about the kids, but today the conversation ranged from student loans (non-appearance of), medication (we compete to see how many prescriptions we each have for our various ailments), and art exhibitions we'd seen or were about to see (Ed Ruscha and the photography exhibition at the British Library) to the drinking habits of students at Bristol University (I won't go into details).
Liz had joked the previous evening that we'd all still be meeting up when we were on Zimmer frames and I suggested that perhaps we should all try to get into the same residential home.
I was only semi-joking - I don't know what I'd do without them.
Oh yes, first thing this morning, my daughter's music teacher emailed me back. Apparently there had been a bit of puzzlement when the results were announced and my daughter had failed to come forward.
She had won the competition and was the school's Musician of the Year.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Peace, perfect ... KA-BOOM!!!

It was the kind of autumn day you dream about here in London today. Crisp, cold air; blue, blue sky; copper-coloured leaves crunching underfoot. Just the sort of day you want if you need to get out in the garden to do a bit of tidying up.
For me, the day began rather musically, with a rehearsal of the St John Passion by J S Bach. My daughter's school is performing it in the spring so the parents' section of the choir met this morning to get our heads (or should that be voices?) around it for the first time. Fabulous.
After that, it was a quick whizz to the King's Road to do some shopping, then home to the garden, which seemed incredibly peaceful after choir practice and the bustling Saturday crowds.
Now that the clocks have gone back, what used to be an afternoon in the garden is really only a couple of hours. But I made the most of it, fishing dead leaves out of the ponds, and sweeping up the droppings from the ash tree in next door's garden.
I'm not a huge fan of ash trees. Like all unwelcome guests, they seem incapable of taking a hint, sprouting seedlings that resist your attempts to unroot them with a tenacity that would be admirable if it wasn't so annoying.
In Norse legend, the Tree of Life, Yggdrasil, was an ash tree, and in northern Europe ash is considered to be a charm against evil. In my garden, however, I would quite like a charm against ash trees. Ash leaves remain on the stem, so they get tangled up in everything, and getting rid of them feels more like combing the garden rather than sweeping it.
But even sweeping ash leaves was a pleasant task today, as dusk fell and the flowers of the fatsia glowed in the last rays of sun. You could have heard a pin - or even an ash leaf - drop.

Just as I was standing back to admire my newly-tidy plot, the first one came. KA-BOOM!!!
*@$+%*&@*! (I said). Bonfire Night. Time to go inside and put in the ear-plugs.
When I was little, Guy Fawkes Night, 5 November, consisted of a few rockets and sparklers and perhaps a Catherine wheel or two. You had your fireworks and bonfire ON 5 November, or the nearest Saturday thereto.
These days, Guy Fawkes celebrations start somewhere back in October and extend until nearly Christmas. The ordnance involved is astonishing, consisting mainly of bomb-like projectiles with the ability to shake a whole street. Another favourite is a kind of whining, whistling thing. The end result is the same, though: KA-BOOM!!!!!!
The public displays are fantastic, with lots of exploding stars and sometimes fairgrounds alongside to pull in the crowds. But the private parties seem to be limited to the KA-BOOM!!! variety.
There's only one thing to do when the Normandy landings are being reenacted outside. Go inside and watch a war film. So I'm going to settle down and watch Ice Cold in Alex, which, unbelievably, I've never seen, and which came free with the Daily Telegraph this morning. What a lovely day it's been.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The return of Mr T?

So, have you heard the rumours about Alan Titchmarsh returning to Gardeners' World? According to the Daily Mail, he is to make a triumphant comeback following endless complaints about the current format for the show.
However, according to Matthew Appleby at Horticulture Week, it's not true. Mr T is indeed talking to the BBC about gardening projects, but will NOT be coming back to GW.
Personally, I am inclined to trust the incisive Mr Appleby's information rather than the Daily Snail, but whatever the truth is, one thing is for sure. The BBC will be guaranteed to take the opinions of viewers into account when they make any changes to the format. (Only joking!)