Sunday, February 26, 2012

A stroll down Ocean Drive

So, Miami Beach. What a place. It's like an assault on the brain, especially for a pair of sun-starved Brits, wan of face and weary of winter. It seems ludicrous, in hindsight, that I was so stressed about what the weather would be like. My daughter and I were greeted by blue skies and more or less non-stop sunshine - the kind that wraps you in warmth the minute you emerge from the air-conditioned hotel.
Not a day went by when we didn't sit by the pool. And rarely a day went by without me wandering off to take some pictures, only to find that, ten blocks and two hours later, distracted by some piece of architecture or an elegant shop (Hey! A miniature Art Deco Barneys on Collins Avenue!), I was still in my swimsuit and sundress. It only takes a few rays to turn me into a slob.
If you've ever read A Tale of Two Cities, you'll be familiar with Charles Dickens' famous introduction. Since it is his bicentenary this year, I shall bore you with it here:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."
That pretty much sums up Miami Beach. There is elegance and there is tawdriness, there is beauty and there is sleaze. There is wealth and ostentatious display and there is poverty and squalor.
There is a distinguished history of community action and conservation, and yet a rather chaotic approach to issues such as traffic management and street furniture. There is an astonishing mix of cultures and yet a very traditional American sense of sun, sea and surf celebration.
In short (as Dickens himself was fond of saying), it is like very many other big cities, but with blue skies and palm trees. It's very like London in lots of ways - the person next to you won't automatically be an English speaker, for example. I had to polish up my phrasebook Spanish muy rapido.

We were staying in a hotel in South Beach, on Washington Avenue, so we were only two blocks from Ocean Drive, where the surf meets - well, surf and turf. Ocean Drive is where people go to see and be seen. It's mainly lined with restaurants, so unless you want to slalom your way through breakfasting tourists and beseeching waiters, it's best to walk on the ocean side, a strip of green called Lummus Park. Beyond that is the beach.

The colours want to make you laugh out loud from sheer pleasure, but I refrained. I saw a notice, below, that stated that Excessive, Unreasonable, Unusual and Unnecessary Noise (their capitals) was Not Permitted.

I liked the way this couple's baseball caps pick up the yellow of the Art Deco building in the middle of the picture. I couldn't get a very good shot, however, because they started giving me strange looks. They obviously thought I was indulging in Excessive, Unreasonable, Unusual and Unnecessary Photography.

I had to photograph this clock too, to remind myself that it really was February.

And the architecture lived up to its reputation. To think they nearly pulled all this down!

But I did snort with laughter when I saw this bar sign, below. It obviously doesn't mean the same thing in the US of A. Or maybe it does! This is Miami, after all.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Miami, here we, erm, come

Well, here I am, it's ten past nine, the cab's picking us up at 10 am tomorrow and I really should be packing for my trip to Miami. In time-honoured fashion, however, I am not packing. I am faffing.
I always suffer from a sort of premature home-sickness just before I go on holiday. I'm fine once I'm on the way to the airport and never give it another thought. But for the few days before my holiday, I start feeling wistful and wonder whether it would be nicer to stay at home. Mad, or what?
This has been an interesting week in the horticultural world. My second post on changes the RHS is considering making to the judging rules regarding show gardens has just gone up on Thinkingardens, Anne Wareham's website.
The first one generated a huge response, which is fantastic because the whole aim was to start a conversation.
Thinkingardens debates all sorts of issues surrounding gardening - philosophical, social and aesthetic. You may not agree with the viewpoint of every contributor, but I guarantee that it will stimulate the little grey cells, to quote Hercule Poirot.
And that's why I'm a passionate defender of Thinkingardens - and of Anne, come to that - and that's why I volunteer to write for her.
I like - no, I love - the process of discussing ideas. As a journalist, I've spent most of my career attending daily conference, and it is astonishing how many times the germ of a concept is polished and tumbled to a shiny finish by the input and constructive criticism of colleagues.
Not everyone enjoys it, of course. Some people feel threatened if their views are questioned. Others might wish that media mosquitoes like me would just buzz off and leave them to prick out their seedlings in peace.
But I believe that without questions, there is no progress. As Albert Einstein said: "To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science."
Wow, quotes from Agatha Christie and Albert Einstein in the same post. Whodathunkit?
I'm off to pack.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sunshine, show gardens and winds of change

So, there I was, thinking that this week would be a gentle wind-down to my long-anticipated holiday.
I'm heading for the United States of America on Sunday, with my daughter, who is recovering from glandular fever, and we are spending a week at Miami Beach.
I would say the aim is to chill, but in fact the aim is to get away from the chill (in London) and hopefully find some sunshine (in Florida).
So have I packed? No. Have I stocked up on sun cream? No. Have I unearthed my swimsuit? No.
Have I stayed up until 2am writing pieces about gardening, or left the office at midnight after a busy day? Yup.
Still, it's been fun. I wrote a piece for Anne Wareham's website, Thinkingardens, about the forum I attended on Monday at the invitation of the Royal Horticultural Society. This was reviewing the rules concerning the judging of show gardens, and it was fascinating.
The RHS was looking for feedback on issues that its own committees had found difficulty in resolving, so the audience was composed of interested parties in the form of judges, designers, plantspeople, and the gardening media. You can read my piece here.
There's already been quite a bit of reaction to this, so before everyone gets too excitable, I would like to make a few things clear.
First, I am not criticising the judges. I have no quarrel with them whatsoever. Some are even friends of mine.
Second, I am not criticising the RHS. My point was to suggest that, while the RHS was looking at making changes, it might like to make public the judges' comments on why each garden was given a particular award. This was not because I personally think there is any skulduggery going on. I just think it would be interesting.
Third, a lot of people seem to be very sceptical about the RHS - "it'll never change, it will always be run by gents in panama hats and ladies who lunch" seems to be a common theme. Well, it is changing. Not a howling wind of change, exactly - but a cool, gentle breeze is gently wafting through the Horticultural Halls.
The RHS was under no obligation to hold a forum on Monday. In the old days, it would have sent out a couple of closely typed sheets of paper on the subject - which we'd all have thrown in the bin.
I didn't have to wear a false moustache and a hat pulled well down over my face in order to get into Monday's forum. No, I was invited - AFTER I told the press office that I was writing a piece for Anne's website.
Indeed, I wore a down jacket with faux-fur trimmed hood - as did just about every other woman there. It caused a lot of confusion on the coat rails afterwards, as designer Sara Eberle can testify ...
OK, that's enough of being sober and responsible. All through Monday's forum, the sight of the RHS judges huddled together at the front of the hall nagged at me. It reminded me of something - and it was only hours later, after I'd got home, that I remembered what it was. The painting by Rembrandt of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.
James Alexander-Sinclair referred to them during the forum as Statler and Waldorf, the two grumpy old men from The Muppet Show. There was a whiff of Burghers of Calais (the sculpture by Rodin) about them too. Were you there? Have a look. See what you think.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The apple never falls far from the tree...

My children aged three and seven, on holiday in the Cevennes, in southern France

Families always love to identify similiarities between children and the rest of the clan. "Oh, she has Grandma's nose", they'll say, or "He looks just like Grandad did when Grandad was a baby".
My family are particularly bad at this. They draw comparisons where I can see absolutely none at all, and yet resolutely refuse to entertain the possibility of any likeness that is not an accepted part of family lore.
For example, my younger sister is very fond of saying that my son is like our brother. To me, he looks absolutely nothing like my brother. But he does look quite like my uncle, my mother's brother, and when he's standing next to my cousins, this family similarity is very obvious - to me. But not to anyone else.
The most notorious example of this "likeness resistance" came when my mother found an old photograph of my great-grandmother. I was about 16 at the time, and for some reason we were rummaging through some old family photographs (as you do). "Goodness," said my mother, "look at this photograph of Grandma as a girl. Doesn't it look like Victoria?"
"Don't be so silly, Denise," said my grandmother, reprovingly. "My mother was considered a great beauty!" (It is yet another tradition in my family that I am the ugly duckling.)
I'm quite glad that my children don't look like me (at least, I don't think they do). For me, one of the most fascinating things about having children is spotting the differences between you. I love that sense of surprise and delight you get when you discover your children can do something you can't (such as add up (ahem), or hit a ball with a bat).
And I'm rather against the idea that they can't display any kind of talent or creativity without having this skill instantly attributed to some dusty ancestor. Surely they deserve some credit themselves?
So where did I stand when I discovered that - like me - they both had blogs?
My son's blog is about video games, and you can find it here. He's been writing it for quite a while, and has more than 100 followers.
My daughter has just started her blog. She has been diagnosed with glandular fever, which means weeks of rest at home, and she wanted something that would stop her going mad with boredom. Her blog is about classical music, and you can read it here.
Neither of my children want to be journalists. Neither wanted to study English literature at university. My son, indeed, would protest loudly at the mere idea of having to put pen to paper throughout most of his time at school.
Yet here they are, writing about the subjects that most enthuse them. Do they get that from me? Or is blogging simply the response of any intelligent person with a healthy curiosity about the world around them? I like to think it's a bit of both.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A hardy annual: the obligatory garden-in-the-snow picture

Thanks to Benjamin Vogt, I was recalling the other day that the first time my son saw snow was when he was three years old. We were touring around the south-western USA, and we'd pitched up in Cedar City, Utah just as it started to snow.
Rory, who's now 21, was fascinated and stood in the middle of the street trying to catch snowflakes on his tongue. We were desperate to get into a nice warm restaurant and have a hot meal. He just wanted to eat ice crystals.
In those days, we didn't get snow in London that often. Indeed, only about five years ago, I got rid of our sledge because we never used it - it just hung in the garage gathering dust. Now we get snow every year.
It's always important to make the distinction between a weather event (such as a heatwave, or a snowstorm), and a climatic trend. But it does seem as if our climate really is changing - bearing out this report in The Independent yesterday.
I'm fond of saying I hate snow - I hate the disruption it causes, and the fact that everyone else seems to be able to take the day off while we journalists have to scramble into work somehow. Like the Pony Express, we always get through.
But secretly, I love it - I love that telltale white light after a night of snow, and the peace and quiet that seems to descend on the city.
Anyway, here's the picture of the garden.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sick as a parakeet

"Sick as a parrot" was a popular phrase in English football (not soccer, please - the game is called football in the UK) during the 1970s and 1980s. It was memorably used by Liverpool's Phil Thompson in 1978, after his team were beaten in the cup final by Notts Forest.
It means - as you can imagine - that one is not too happy with life. (Thompson had committed a foul which led to Forest being given a penalty, which won them the game.) The opposite is "Over the moon", which was also a popular phrase with footballers and football managers.
No one is entirely sure where the phrase came from in the first place. Several origins are suggested, which I won't bore you with here. And these days Premier League footballers seem fonder of using racist abuse than eccentric catchphrases.
But I think if anyone can be said truly to look as sick as a parrot, it is these disgruntled parakeets in my garden this afternoon.
It's very cold here for London - it was -5C when I went out first thing this morning and we're expecting snow tonight. So the garden is full of birds hanging around, waiting to fill up at the bird feeders.
Ring-necked parakeets are naturalised all over south-west London - there are loads of them, and they like to flock together. So it's not uncommon to see four or five sitting in a tree, or screeching overhead, or gobbling up the food in the feeders as fast as I can fill them.