Friday, 26 August 2016

It’s Pouring . . . . . . .

Both Beloved and I belong to the generation which has life-long ‘Saving’  with a capital ’S’ as part of their genetic makeup. We, that is me in particular,  have in recent years been a little less dogmatic about the rainy day vision and the need for having a large umbrella to catch the inevitable downpour, and I have persuaded us to allow ourselves the really rather modest luxuries we indulge in; in other words, becoming skiers, spending the kids inheritance. All the same, just as well that the Boomer years have meant well for such as us, because the rains have started to fall in earnest.

On top of the newly necessary sums of money we need to spend on carers, assistance in house and garden, etc. the property itself is falling down around us. In the case of trees literally so.We had very high winds during the weekend and when Millie and I went for our morning walk on Monday we found a huge chunk had fallen out of the beech tree. As we are on the edge of the castle grounds this was cause for concern. Had somebody been walking in the moat at that precise moment they’d never walk again, they’d be dead. As it was the second time within a week that a branch had come adrift I thought I’d better call Jonathan, a proper, bona fide, letters-after-his-name arborist. First of all to remove the part-corpse from the path, secondly to cut it up and chip the unwanted bits, and thirdly to give me an idea of the state of the patient’s health or otherwise.

Jonathan hedged his bets. “Well, hm, I can see none of the funguses (fungi? or is that only for mushrooms?) associated with large trees. “  ( The beech is at least 70 feet tall - it’s massive).  “On the other hand, there is some die-back which might indicate that the tree is stressed.” The tree is stressed? What about me? I am stressed just thinking about his hourly rate! “On the whole the limb sections look normal, it could just have been the high winds. Or mechanical weakness”. Deep breath out . “On the other hand. . . . .” Renewed intake of breath on my part. The noughts are simply tumbling into place following the initial figure, in itself a fearful thought!

We’ve left it that I keep a very  close eye on developments and call him the minute I see anything untoward, like a white blob or a tarmac-like black blob on the stem near the ground. Mind you, Jonathan says,  sometimes these blobs come out and immediately withdraw into the tree again, like they are some delicate violet shrinking away from the light of day.

A definite help, that.

This is the third and last of our large trees threatening imminent departure. We’ve lost the sycamore and the horse chestnut to a deadly fungal disease, I really don’t want the beech to go as well. It’s also the last of the beeches, there were three originally, two before our time; we have merely the stumps left, one of which has thrown up  a large new limb which might not be viable for long, coming from a diseased parent plant. We still have more normal sized trees, like maples, a few ash trees,  ancient hawthorns and a thirty year old walnut, mere Johnny-come-latelies compared to the big boys who may have seen a few hundred years of tourist activity around the castle since the Normans first threw it up to ward off those Welsh barbarians, thinly disguised as tourists but really after Norman damsels. And loot, of course. As well as the land the Normans stole from them. 

Seriously, my garden is not some suburban plot with a few newly planted decorative specimens. even the plum and apple trees are groaning under the weight of considerable agedness; they really are in need of chopping down!  Everything in Valley’s End is old, including the human inhabitants, so we should all be left in peace and allowed to disintegrate  into the ground gracefully, as nature intends for all of us.

To quote Jonathan once more :  “if the beech were in a field or a wood somewhere it could just shed limbs as it went along. It might take another hundred years over it. As the saying goes:  A hundred to grow, a hundred to stay and a hundred to die.”   Lovely. 

Friday, 19 August 2016

The Remorseful Day

When I heard young Morse (in a repeat of Endeavour)  recite the last two stanzas of A.E. Houseman’s  “How Clear, How Lovely Bright"  I realised that my attitude has lately changed to a calmer, lighter mood. Not that there have been any great differences in our circumstances, it’s simply that I am perhaps coming to terms with what cannot be altered. At least, I hope so. What lies beyond our control must be endured. Sitting, like Mimir the Dwarf in the hole at the foot of the dead sycamore tree, plotting, worrying and endlessly turning the same problem over in my mind won’t bring relief.

I’ve also found my material feet, which helps. All the legal formalities have been dealt with - and paid for. ouch! - . I have a brand-new, fat file full of solicitors’ letters, legal documents and official declarations. Neither one of us likes it but, there you are. It was necessary.

Most of the long neglected jobs around house and garden have been tackled; I have assumed responsibility for them and, being a rather methodical and tidy person, they have been initiated, if not completed. Beloved is more the type who puts jobs on lists, where they are allowed to grow whiskers. In his opinion, collecting items on a list means that the job is half done. Not so, as far as I’m concerned. Now there’s only the large-ish stain on the sitting room ceiling to be dealt with; the bath in the room above overflowed and the stain is most unsightly. I dread the thought of emptying the sitting room of furniture; let’s see, perhaps I can organise a couple of hefty chaps to do it. Painters are notoriously slow in coming, so maybe I shall have to live with the stain for a while yet.

Another thing which has helped enormously is that I have taken to gardening again. I know I’ve rather been going on about gardening recently, but the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. The same applies to keyboard and fingers, in this instance.  The place already shows signs of improvement, which spurs me on to get out there and labour.

There’s one other thing which has gone by the board, i.e. unresolved issues with people, family and acquaintances both. Up to a few months ago these issues would pop into my mind at the most unsuitable moments, I’d fret and worry at them and allow them to depress me. No more. When you are faced with a situation which goes right to the heart of existence itself, anything else becomes mere ballast, an irritation to be shed until such time as you actually have the strength - and time - to bring it up again from the depths. I am, of course, hoping that these issues will  have disappeared into outer space by then anyway. Never to resurface. Going back to the first paragraph: it’s best not to burden yourself with things you cannot change.

So, dear old A.E. Housman, who wrote the haunting poem "A Shropshire Lad" and whose ashes are buried just outside St. Lawrence’s Church in my county town of Ludlow, sent me a timely reminder on how to avoid The Remorseful Day. I cannot promise that every day I shall see the bright new morning, or that I shall be strong every day granted us, me and Beloved, but I shall endeavour.

How clear, how lovely bright
How beautiful to sight
    Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
    Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
    Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
    I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
    Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
    Falls the remorseful day.

Friday, 12 August 2016


Tea break and Paul, Beloved and I are sitting in the conservatory over a cuppa. It’s eleven a.m. We’ve been depressing ourselves thoroughly, talking about politics and the mess current and future politicians are creating. We’ve roamed from national crises to the apparent willingness of a particular prospective politician to drop nuclear bombs as a means of emphasising a point.

Paul laughs, “this is depressing, have we had enough?”

I have been meaning to talk to him about a particular matter, which you already know but he doesn’t.

“I want to change the subject” I say, " it’s confession time”.
Paul sits up. “Oh dear?"

“Yes, my confession time.
You must have seen that various jobs have been done in the garden, but not by you?”

“Yes, I have,” Paul is all ear and I can tell he is getting nervous.

It comes out in a bit of a rush. “I have been very unhappy with the state of the garden for some time, as you know. It looks like we’re never going to get on top of it. I can’t do as much as I once did and your three or four hours a week, with interruptions because of weather, illness, other obligations, don’t cover the work there is.”

I carry on talking, noticing a bit of a pink glow on Paul’s face. But I need to say it all, I can’t allow misunderstandings.

“So what I did was ring Austin, my previous gardener and ask him for help. I asked him to chip in with two or three sessions a month, mornings only and he agreed to come. Do you mind awfully?

Paul swallows hard, I think he thought I was going to dismiss him.

“Not at all,” he said quickly. “Not a bit. I do as much as I can but I never thought I could do the garden all by myself during the hours I have available and I can’t give you more time.” He repeated himself. “I do as much as I can but I always said that if you need someone else that’s alright with me.” I’m not sure that he said that about someone else in so many words before, but I’ll take it as fact.

We’re both relieved. Wisely, Beloved has kept out of it. Paul does his whole speech again,  and I redo mine about being unable to do as much as I’d like to do, about being sad and having lost interest because of the uphill struggle, about even Paul's and Austin's combined mornings not covering as much ground as a fit and healthy Austin and me used to cover over a monthly average.

We’ve finished our tea, Paul and I get up and say “Best crack on.” We drop the subject and instead talk about the newly pruned hedges. The hedge cutters came yesterday and there’s a bit of their mess left behind, although they cleaned up after themselves as well as they could.

Paul’s going home time is one p.m. He collects his bags and I stand at the backdoor with his pay and some magazines I keep for him during the week. As he turns to go he says  “Thank you for being open with me, I noticed that you had had work done but I thought you weren’t going to mention it.” He gets a bit pink again and I go a bit mushy myself.

“Of course I needed to tell you”, I say. We’re both a bit touched at how well we understand each other. “See you next week,” we call out in parting.

After Paul has left I tell Beloved about his comment. “Well, you did that rather nicely,” he says. “You spared Paul’s feelings and still got what you wanted.”

Tuesday, 9 August 2016


held on the meadow
between he castle
on the hill

and the shady river
lined with stately water balsam

is an annual village event.
For some the highlight is the Show,
where villagers vie with each other
for first prize for best blooms, produce, jam and cakes,
artistic efforts like painting and photography 
and WI best decorated shoe boxes or some such,
all exhibited on long trestle tables covered in white paper cloths
in the huge Show Marquee.

The Show tent gets very hot on a summer’s day,
so tea tent, open BBQ and beer tent,
the amenity which attracts the greatest custom among young farmers,
are close by.

And right next to the beer tent is the First Ad station.
Could there be a connection?

These racing bicycles haven’t been used for a long time,

neither has there been a village cobbler making shoes for many years,

but the chainsaw wood carver has only just packed up the tools of his trade,
leaving behind a pile of offcuts which disappeared quickly.
Firewood, anyone?

The general consensus was that
 Carnival was very lucky with the weather this year.
It was a day of glorious sunshine, people came out in great crowds.
Efforts by organisers and an army of volunteer helpers paid off
and healthy profits were made not only by the
Carnival Committee (of course there’s a committee - this is England)
but also local charities.

It’s all tidied away now until next year.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Lonely ?

In need of company? Desperate for a chat?

Get a dog, or, even better, get a dog and come and live in Valley’s End.

This morning I hadn’t even set foot in the road beyond the field and cattle grid when two gentlemen walking along stopped and hailed me. I was pushing a wheelbarrow full of stuff for the rubbish bin down the drive and one of the chaps came and pushed it the last five meters to the gate for me. One of them had been away on holiday, so we hugged a ‘hallo,-lovely-to-see-you-back” hug.  All three of us stopped for a chat and the holiday maker said he had something for us and would come round later.

They went off and I saw Dave leading Badger and Murphy, his two collies, on the other side of the road. I still hadn’t left my own drive. I hailed Dave and he came over. Millie greeted Badger and Murphy and I enquired why I hadn’t seen Dave for three weeks or more. Was he well? Had they been away? Yes, all was fine but “you know how it is. Sometimes we change routines.” Dave is normally someone I meet up with, via dog-walking, twice a week at least. He’s a kind chap, does neighbourly deeds for people in need without making a fuss. He’s helped Kevin in the past, or, as he likes to be called, Kev, the chap for whom the glass is always half empty. The ex-alcoholic who makes sure everybody knows that he is not long for this world. Kevin the wood carver.

Kev is a sad chap, even more so now that he’s lost Sam, his one and only true friend. Sam was very old and has been deteriorating for a while. All praise to Kev for having kept him alive for as long as he did. But now Sam’s gone. I knocked on Kev’s door to tell him how sorry I was and asked what had happened with Sam. “Thank you for calling, but I don’t want to talk about it.” Kev’s eyes are always a bit rheumy, this time they were more watery than ever, but he didn’t actually cry. Kev often used to call on us with Sam; Sam always got a treat. Now I won’t be seeing Kev out again. Some people say that there are plenty of dogs in need of a loving home, perhaps Kev will take on another reject, but maybe not just yet.

Sue and Joe, the retired vicar, weren’t sure they'd have another dog after Jake died, very recently. He was a beauty, a long haired golden retriever with a mind of his own. Jake insisted that he would go for at least one paddle a day, come rain or shine, hell or high water. The latter literally. He plunged in even when the river was running in spate and the water icy cold. Millie and Jake got on very well, both being old and a bit disdainful of these young whippersnappers racing round the field over and over again, yipping madly; then taking a break and pestering the older, more dignified generation, shoving their noses up under their tails and sniffing their bottoms. Most intrusive, no wonder Millie and Jake growled occasionally.

Now, less than two months later, I see Sue with a new golden retriever, Alfie, who’d lost his previous home. Sue and Joe felt their very small house wasn’t complete without a large dog cluttering up the bit of free space they own, and went looking for a living rug to shed his long fur over every surface. Sue and Alfie are a well matched pair already, she smiles all over her benevolent, round, face every time we meet and tells me how well and thoroughly Alfie has already settled into their routine. Alfie already has her sussed. “Every time he sees me handle the roll of blue poo bags he makes for the door. He knows a blue bag means walkies.” Of course he does, dogs aren’t stupid, no matter what cat lovers say. No doubt Alfie will accept Joe as his owner soon enough and Joe too will join the dog walking fraternity again.

Then there’s Robin, the part-time-post-retirement-brewer who works at the local pub but still has time to come out with mad Horace,  the speediest whippet-cum-lurcher-cum-unknown-hairy-creature who can cover the hundred meter field in two-and-a-bit seconds. Robin throws a ball for him with one of those long-handled contraptions, giving him and me plenty of time to chat, while Horace with the black eye patch flies off, stretching out horizontally, feet never touching the ground. There’s Jim-the-tooth with his whippet-lurcher combo, who isn’t quite as fast as Horace but still likes to run for Horace’s ball and nick it if he gets half a chance.

Or there’s the lady with the wild blond hair and her greyhound Archie; she also brings her husband who has suffered a stroke and lost the power of speech. Perhaps that’s why she always talks and talks and talks; I  rarely understand what she’s saying because she mumbles rather, flicks her hair out of her eyes and adjusts the tweed capes she wears, summer and winter, while talking. She’s rather sweet, her husband lumbers awkwardly across the field, grunting at her, encouraging her to help him to the bridge and back to the car long before she’s ready. She and I commiserate with each other about the boring and unpleasant side of being full time carers.

Jane, a large, sightly mannish lady brings Buster, an equally large chocolate labrador. Jane is unmarried and childless, an ex-teacher, who talks to her dogs like she must have talked to her pupils once upon a time, kindly but firm, pretending to be the boss, while all the time they run rings around her.

These are just a few of the regular dog walkers I run across, there are many others and all of them will stop to chat. And I haven’t even mentioned trips to the shop yet. Often Millie gets tied to the railings at the entrance, where she collects a circle of admirers in no time, all of whom first talk to her, then me, until a small knot of people, arriving and leaving, blocks the entrance and makes the traffic slow down where the road meets the narrow pavement.

Valley’s End is a very friendly place. From what I’ve written here it may look as if only dog walkers take the time to exchange pleasantries with each other. That’s far from the case. Even the surgery is a busy hub of social intercourse. But dog walkers are a special breed, and if they have nothing else in common they share the bond of love for man’s best friend.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Look who’s back!

Yes, it’s old gardener!

Making sense of what has turned into an overgrown jungle.

Paul, new gardener, has been busy doing his own thing.
What with arts and crafts, the odd bit of malaise of one sort or another,
his proclivity for doing himself accidental injury,
and summer visitors, 
he’s cried off many a Tuesday morning, his day for labouring in my garden.

So I took my courage in both hands,
and rang old gardener’s number.
Sure enough, the dreaded dragon, old gardener’s wife answered.
Being a dyed in the wool coward and ever so careful,
I didn’t give her my name, just asked if I could speak to her husband.
(She’d been the main reason for him dumping me.)

He was in, came to the phone and greeted me like a long lost friend.
(Oh dear, watch it, the missus might not like it!)
It’s not that she doesn’t like me personally - at least. I don’t think she does -
but she wanted him to cut back on work. 
As I had stupidly told her how much we like and appreciate him, 
I was the obvious candidate for discarding.
I had the impression at the time that she’s not overly keen on him enjoying what he does.

"Please, could you come and do the edges", I wheedled.
“Nobody does them like you.”
“the garden’s totally overgrown, I need you.
Maybe two or three mornings a months, 
"The other chap can do all the hard work, like composting, and digging, and such.
If you’d come and do the weeding and cut the edges, 
I’d be ever so grateful."

He chuckled. He likes flattery.

I carried on telling him all the jobs he’d not need to do, like cutting hedges,
replanting shrubs, clearing paths, lugging stones and pots, climbing up ladders.

“Just maybe two or maybe three mornings?”

“Alright”, he said, “I can do Thursdays”
we’ll see how it goes.”

After I’d had to screw up my courage and tell myself not to be a pathetic wuss,
and what could she say other than “on your bike, dear”!

It was as easy as that.

I know that he’s secretly nervous about her moods and her sharp tongue.
He’s also bored by inactivity and despite his 71 years he’s an active man, 
who likes to work and takes pride in what he does. So, we’re off. 
He’s already given me two mornings, making a great difference;
also, I’ve enjoyed being out with him.
We’ve got a very easy working relationship and we joke and tease and curse
those damned weeds and getting stung by nettles and entangled with long rose tendrils,
and ripped to shreds by vicious thorns.
It’s all in a morning’s work, and the best thing is that we have tea breaks!
Tea breaks, when, with a little gentle encouragement, I can guide him towards those gardener’s tales again.

I shall keep Paul on too. Between the two of them, I hope to get as much work done in a week as old gardener did by himself, when he still came for eight hours 
and worked like two men.  It’ll cost more, but “there are no pockets in shrouds”, and it makes me happy to restore my garden to its former glory. 
I had lost interest, because I simply can ’t work as hard as I once did and seeing
Enchanter’s Nightshade (in spite of it’s divine name it’s an evil weed with an insidious,
delicate white root system) colonise my precious flower beds makes me helplessly cross.

“Well, it’s not too bad”, says old gardener.
“I thought it’d be worse; sure, you’ve got weeds growing
everywhere, but it’s not too untidy at all."
Happy Days.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

. . . . a little western flower . . . . .

After all the raving and ranting I’ve done recently, not forgetting moaning and whining, perhaps it’s time I turned my attention to gentler topics. How about the humble pansy? Anyone interested? Thought not. See what I can do.

Let’s start with the common European wild pansy, viola tricolour, also known as Johnny-Jump-Up, heart's ease, heart's delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, or love-in-idleness. And that’s just a few of them in English.

In German the wild pansy is called, inter alia, Ackerveilchen (viola of the field), Muttergottesschuh (Mother of God’s shoe), Maedchenaugen (maiden's eyes), Schöngesicht (beauteous face) or Liebesgesichtli (Lover’s face).

The English illustrator, Cicely Mary Barker (28 June 1895 – 16 February 1973) was best known for a series of fantasy illustrations depicting fairies and flowers. The wild pansy is one of the flowers used by her in her rather whimsical drawings.
Shakespeare mentions the wild pansy in two of his plays:   In Hamlet, Ophelia, who is mad with grief at the death of her father, rambles on about strewing herbs:  “And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…” (Act IV, Scene 5.)
And in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon commands Puck to bring him “…a little western flower / Before milk-white, now purple with love’s wound / And maidens call it love-in-idleness.” (Act II, Scene 1.)   It is the effect of this natural aphrodisiac that causes the mayhem and entertainment of the entire play!  You could say that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is woven around the magical properties of heartsease.

Georgia O’Keefe produced a very beautiful painting of a black pansy and followed it up with a depiction of a white one.

Wild pansies were used as herbals, to cure venereal disease for instance, acc. to Culpepper; ditto headaches and dizzy spells. The ancient Greeks used it as a love potion and a symbol of fertility.

The violet has ever been the emblem of constancy. There is a French proverb which goes something like this: “Violet is for faithfulness, which shall in me abide, hoping that in your heart too, it shall not hide”.

The German name for the garden pansy is 'little stepmother’ Stiefmutterchen. There is a very sad tale attached to it:

Stepmother, symbolised by the large lower leaf, only allows her own children
to adorn themselves in colourful array.
Her stepchildren, the upper two leaves of the flower, have to remain in the background, clad in modest colours, or plain white.

Sorrow at the poor treatment his own children receive has turned the pistil, representing the father’s hair, white.

Lastly an explanation for the name in English, which is, as so often, a mispronunciation of a foreign name.

A small bouquet of pansies, given by a lover to his love, was called a pensée, - hence pansy - a thought, symbolising devotion and faithfulness, remembrance, honour, even humility.

But mainly it means: "I am always thinking of you".

In other words, the pansy is an all-round excellent fellow; humble though it is. we should plant many more of them, in spite of their dowdy image with some gardeners. The pansy will brighten any spot and is at home equally in the ground as in any kind of container.

Still reading? Well done. I’ll stop now.