Wednesday, 30 June 2010

You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am going to plant an orchard.

I can hardly express the soaring pleasure that one simple sentence brings me.

It started with the pot table. Once I got all the chaotic pots onto the lovely table my kind sister gave me, I realised fully what a mess the front of the house had become. Fired up, I roared off to the garden centre and found three enchanting apple trees (two Spartan, one Charlie Ross) and a winter flowering cherry, which I have put in big terracotta pots to the left of my front door. Now, when I walk out in the morning, instead of a weedy old drive, there is a heavenly row of enchanting green trees. They arrived at breakfast time, and I cannot stop gazing at them.

Looking at the beauty, I suddenly thought that four trees was not nearly enough. There is a pointless bit of unsatisfactory grass outside my shed. I have always thought I should put something there, but never quite knew what. I had vague thoughts of a shrubbery, in homage to Monty Python, but another whole bed to look after made me feel a little weak. At ten o'clock, the brainwave struck. I would plant fruit trees.

By half-past ten, my landlord was at the door with his two landscaping gentlemen. It is sheer dumb luck that I happen to have a landlord who builds houses and makes gardens. By eleven o'clock, the whole thing was planned, decisions were made, and the orchard now exists in my mind's eye. There will be a quote, I shall swallow hard and hope the book goes on selling, and before I know it, the plums and cherries and apples shall arrive.

Joy is unconfined.

Small addendum on human psychology:

One of the landscaping fellows was the most confident man I have ever met. One reads a lot about confidence; self-belief is a bit of a holy grail in our psychobabble age. Many people write books about how to get it. There is all that self-help nonsense about saying one's affirmations in the morning, standing in front of the glass insisting: I am a worthwhile human being. I get glimpses of it in myself, occasionally, but mostly I mainline doubt. I live on uncertainty: am I good enough, clever enough, ethical enough? Shall I ever write as well as I want to?

This gentleman had none of that, at least not so it was visible to the naked eye. He had the surety that comes from being an expert in your field. He knew exactly which trees to choose, what I should do with my leggy elders, how the winter-scarred ivy on the dry stone wall should be saved. At first, it was quite startling. I realised how rare pure confidence is, in action. Once I got used to it, it was marvellously soothing. All decisions could be quickly made; there were no ums and ahs, no head-scratching, no pondering. (I spend half my life pondering.) Everything was quick and straightforward. How lovely, I thought, to have that gift. I wonder if it is something innate, or whether one can learn it, like French or playing the piano. I am going to go away and practice.

In the horticultural theme, here are some garden pictures for this balmy Wednesday:


My lovely new scarlet rose, with a little Hidcote lavender, also new. You can see I have been going crazy at the plant shop. Those wild drifts of mint are old, and growing like gangbusters. Everyone says you should never plant mint in a bed because it takes over, but I love that it does, and encourage it in its colonial ambitions. There are so many things that won't grow here, because of the hard weather. When the mint comes back each year after the hardest of winters, I feel like clapping.


The only thyme that survived this year's endless snow, with a little salvia beside it.


Another salvia. Sometimes I think I would like a blue garden with no other colour in it at all.


A lovely geranium.


I have been so excited about the new planting that I sometimes forget the old friends. This brave sedum has been here since the garden was very first planted six years ago, and it goes doggedly on, through all weathers, and my occasional seasons of neglect.


The honeysuckle was also here from the start, and is gearing up for a wild, gaudy show this year.


Another new arrival, the gorgeous, delicate astrantia.


And through it all, runs the sturdy, reassuring presence of the dry stone wall.

PS. For those of you who subscribe through Google Reader, I do apologise. I pressed publish halfway through writing this post, so you will have got one half-finished article with no pictures. Please forgive the muddle.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010


Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am back. I took three days off in an attempt to calm my raging brain. This is how I described it to my sister yesterday:

'I don't wake up and think hello sky, hello birds,' I said. 'I wake up and think OH MY GOD OH MY GOD I have to write a thousand words NOW because the deadline is looming and I did not do enough last week and I need to read twenty-seven more books on ten different subjects and what happened to that good idea I had last night but now cannot remember and oh oh oh OH.'

She looked slightly surprised.

'So you are a bit stressed?' she said.

'Yes,' I said. 'But it's excitement as well, if I think of something that really interests me and I think will work in the book. Although then I get a panic that I shan't be able to write it well enough.'

'I see,' she said. She is very serene at the moment. She is doing a lot of gardening, which appears to be therapeutic.

'So basically my adrenals are buggered,' I said.

Then I made her and my niece some homemade lemonade and we talked about apple trees.

My brain is, of course, absolutely no calmer than it was three days ago, but I have managed to get rid of almost all the ground elder and plant two delightful varieties of salvia and three different lavenders. I think I have to accept that I shall never be a calm, happy go lucky, mildly slapdash kind of writer. It's always screeching full blast go go go, all the time. This is why I stock up on Floradix iron tonic. It is also why I especially bless the dogs, who are scientifically proven to lower my blood pressure.

It is also why I never take this place for granted, because I can go for a morning walk and hear swallows singing and feel the clean northern air on my face and look at things like this:


This was the sky this morning. It was heavy with dark blue clouds when I went out, and by the time I walked back the clouds had lifted and a clear light was shining through. Not sunshine, exactly, we can't hope for miracles, but light.


Foxglove, fern and an unidentified wildflower which I saw on my walk.


The beech avenue, in different lights.


I sometimes think they are wasted in real life. They should surely be in the movies?


Although I do love them posing for their close-ups, sometimes I just like candid snaps of them doing their own dog stuff, which this morning was mostly composed of loping, sniffing, staring at distance specks which might turn out to be rabbits, rustling about in the long grass, and digging for moles.


PS. Thank you so much for all your lovely and thoughtful comments of the last three days, especially the ones on the Armed Forces Day post.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Armed Forces Day

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am officially having a day off, but I could not let Armed Forces Day pass without a word.

When I was young and stupid I thought that the army was composed of raw squaddies, hollering sergeant-majors, and honking hoorahs.  I read a lot of Bertrand Russell, and inclined towards being a bit of a peacenik.  I think I vaguely disapproved of the very idea of the forces.

It was only during the long horror of the Balkan wars that I started to see how idiotically wrong I was. Now, I am slightly obsessed by the army and its extraordinary gallantry. It is in the ninth year of a shooting war, and it shows vast reserves of determination and courage in the face of a very nasty enemy. Every day I read the brilliant Helmand Blog, and all too often I see the profoundly moving obituaries that are posted there. What is so striking about them is not just that they always mention the bravery of the fallen soldier, but that they so often talk of laughter and zest for life. The commanding officers use the word love without embarrassment: love for the job, love for the unit, love for fellow fighting men. (This and this are typical.)

The other thing that impresses me so is the intelligence and thoughtfulness of the officers in charge. It goes along with a charming modesty and understatement. My current number one in the bravery and brains stakes is Lt-Col Roly Walker of the Grenadier Guards, who raced to the top of my hit parade when he featured in an excellent BBC documentary on the Trooping of The Colour. (You can read an interesting interview with him here.)

It's a fat and hoary cliché to talk of 'our brave boys', but they really are brave boys, and girls too. So, on Armed Forces Day, I send out a cheer to all the fighting men and women. And the brilliant fighting dogs, as well.

Talking of which, how could I ever forget this fellow?

Treo the dog

We should not forget the old soldiers, either:

Chelsea pensioners by Roy Costello

(Wonderful picture by Roy Costello.I love the Chelsea pensioners. When I was a teenager, I used to watch them sitting on the benches at the front of Markham Square, sharing their sandwiches with punks sporting foot-high green Mohicans. It was one of the great sights of my young life.)

I also think of the incredibly young, going out to fight at the age of eighteen or nineteen:

Kingsman Jason Dunn-Bridgeman by the MOD

(Photograph of Kingsman Jason Dunn-Bridgeman, who died in Helmand Province at the age of twenty, from the Ministry of Defence.)

I think of the appalling conditions in Afghanistan:


(Photograph from The Telegraph.)

I think how amazing it is that the troops are able to face all that, and still keep their sense of humour, even when having to go through the agonies of watching an England World Cup match:

Graeme Simmonds and Ryan Hall from Camp Bastion Fire Section from Helmand blog

(SAC Graeme Simmonds and SAC Ryan Hall from Camp Bastion Fire Section in their England wigs; photograph from Helmand Blog.)

I think of the families, waiting for news:

Staff Sergeant Kevin Vaughan with his sons photograph PA

(Photograph of Staff Sergeant Kevin Vaughan with his two boys by the PA.)

I think of the women:

Infantrywoman with horse

(Photographer and subject sadly unknown. I wish I knew who this very smart soldier is, but I am glad she has got such a lovely horse, and even gladder that soldiers still do have horses, and it's not all tanks and armoured trucks.)

In my more whimsical moments, I think of the splendid uniforms:

Welsh Guards trooping the colour from Welsh Guards online

(Photograph from The Welsh Guards Online. I have a particular soft spot for The Welsh Guards, because my dear godfather fought with them during the Second World War.)

I don't know what will happen in this war. I hope, desperately, often against my better judgement, that the politicians and strategists may be proved right. In my darker moments, I can see no good end in sight. Then I see a picture like this, and hope that the campaign may make a difference:

British soldier with Afghan Children photograph by EPA

Anyway, it is a day to remember the troops.

Christmas Eve reassurance patrol

Based near Musa Qala in the north of Helmand, a small team of 2 YORKS soldiers live and work alongside Afghan National Army warriors.

Their patrol base is only two kilometres from what is called the FLET or Forward Line Enemy Troops. It is somewhere you need to be vigilant at all times.

Each day they patrol the surrounding area talking to the locals, meeting with the Afghan National Police and reassuring their rural community with a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign.

On Christmas Eve they set out on a typical patrol. The Taliban do not take Christmas off, so neither do the soldiers. 

Picture credit: Major Paul Smyth, RIFLES

Armed Forces Day Parade by PA

(Patrol in Afghanistan from Helmand Blog; Armed Forces Day Parade by the PA.)

Friday, 25 June 2010

A tiny post, after all

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Really can hardly type, but for some reason I feel compelled to share a small avian drama with you.

This morning I saw a small rook that had, I assumed, fallen from its nest. It appeared unhurt but unable to fly and was just sitting in the rough ground under the horse chestnut, blinking at the world. I kept the dogs away and hoped that it might get up the energy to fly off.

Just now, I took the dogs out and there was the little black bird. It had moved about thirty yards, which I took as a good sign, but was still doing the hapless sitting and blinking thing. Its parents were roaring about overhead, shrieking madly at me if I got too close. Also, amazingly, one of the oystercatchers, who acts as a decoy while his mate is on her nest, was circling about the chick, as if watching over it. (This might be sheer sentimentality on my part.)

I went in, unsure what to do, and called my sister.

'Can you put it in a box and feed it milk?' she said, vaguely.

'I'm a bit afraid the parents might dive on me in a terrifyingly Hitchcockian manner,' I said.

'Yes, yes,' she said. 'Much too scary. Probably let nature take its course then.'

'Red in tooth and claw?' I said.

'Red in tooth and claw,' she said. I could tell I no longer had her full attention. 'Poor little rook,' she said, vaguely. 'Really, all I can think about are my new curtains.'

The curtains, it transpired, were a triumph of unparalleled proportions.

'Maybe take it some bread dipped in milk,' she said.

In the end, I took it some Dundee cake which my gorgeous friend Matthew had brought me yesterday afternoon. Let it eat cake, I thought.

I scattered the crumbs around, as it watched me with its shining black eyes. Once I got close up, I could see it was not a rook at all, but a jackdaw. It sat very still, its feathers all puffed up. The parents and the oystercatcher immediately set up a tag team of diverting cries, so I moved away before I completely freaked them all out.

It is red in tooth and claw. I was brought up on a farm, so I should not be squeamish about this, but the poor tiny thing looked so puzzled and fragile and vulnerable. I am afraid the wily old dog fox who lives in the park will have it for his midnight snack.

I still feel a bit guilty about leaving it out there, but the RSPB website says you should not take in wild birds. I keep thinking of The Pursuit of Love; I am perfectly certain that Linda was always adopting jackdaws with broken wings, and feeding them with milk out of a fountain pen. Or perhaps that was Northey in Don't Tell Alfred. Unfortunately, I do not think I should let Nancy Mitford be my guide in this.

Poor little chap. I did not want to bother him any more by taking a photograph, but he looked a bit like this:

Jackdaw fledgling


Posted by Tania Kindersley.

So sorry no proper blog today; fingers too tired to type.

I leave you with a couple of welcome to the weekend pictures:


Wild evening sky.


The view from my garden, looking due south.


The little white dog rose, which I had completely forgotten I even had, so its appearance felt like a birthday surprise.


Soon, soon, soon the honeysuckle will burst into flower.


More crazy tree bark, with which I am now almost as obsessed as I am with lichen. (Hard to imagine now that I once knew every after hours tranny bar in Soho.)


An incredibly brave clump of thyme, which weathered the long snow.


I really must stop taking pictures of the chives, but I am quite astonished that such a workaday herb produces such magnificent flowers.


Happy Friday.

I hope the sun is shining on you, wherever you are. I am going to take a couple of days off, because I am overtired, but I shall return on Tuesday. In the meantime, have a glorious weekend.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

What you have

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I am an absolute rubbish gardener. This is not British self-deprecation; it is hard, empirical truth. I let the garden get out of hand, and then I panic and hide inside while the ground elder does its worst. I actually get an acute moral guilt about the whole thing: because I forgot to prune the buddleia at the right time, I must be a bad person. This really would make my old shrink's day: magical thinking and wrong construction, all in one sentence.

There is always a tipping point, beyond which I feel overwhelmed. Because the weeds have reached a certain level, the only way to tackle them is to clear them all, every last one. Since I seem incapable of doing that (I do have a book to write, dammit) I do nothing.

The miracle is, since the glorious new pot table arrived, I seem able to brush off the dark wing of shame, and restore some rationality. Because I was suddenly excited about making all the pots look pretty, I started to believe I could take a stab at the rest of the garden. I thought: perhaps I will just pull out that sticky willow, since I'm here. Instead of recoiling in horror and confusion from the jungle the beds had become, I thought: I'll hoe that little patch there. I discovered that I did not have to make the whole garden look perfect that very minute in one massive intervention. I could just pull up that pesky infestation of nettles, or this small patch of mad buttercups. (Buttercups are the very devil. They look so innocent and innocuous, with their nodding yellow flowers, but their roots refuse to budge, and have to be dug and hacked out of the ground, and even then you can't be sure you've got them all.)

In one unexpected twist, I have forgiven myself for being a crummy horticulturalist, and realised that the existence of a few weeds does not mean that I am pointless, feckless and useless. Now I move into a new and possibly more dangerous phase, which is plant envy. I have reminded myself that I can tidy up, and get the soil back to a presentable state. With the weeds going, I can see the bare patches that need filling. There is a mystery to gardening which I shall never quite understand, which is: every year, some things simply disappear. Last season, I had glorious white foxgloves, and two huge euphorbias, which were seeding themselves everywhere. This summer, there is only emptiness where they once were, as if some evil elf came in the spring and dug the things up. I can find no trace of them. It is an enduring puzzle. But the point is: I need new plants.

So I am in a fever of desire. I dream of chocolate cosmos and dark velvety blue delphiniums and delicate little astrantias. I want to leap in the car now this minute and rush to the garden centre and spend hundreds of my Scottish pounds.

I stopped myself. Calm, calm, I said to the crazed plant voices in my head. I do not have the time to go shopping, and there is a recession on; I can't be throwing cash about at random. I have my old age to think of.

Instead of yearning for what I did not have, I decided to have a close look at what I did. The psychologists always say this is the secret to happiness. Do not want what you do not possess, but love what you do. That is my mantra of the day.

And you know, the amazing thing is that it turns out I have quite a lot.

I have the wonderful blowsy elders:


And the delicate little salix:


The oriental poppies, which I once hated because they were so big and vulgar and floppy, now fill me with fondness and wonder:


The crazy hydrangea, which I forget to cut back every year, so it is now SIX FEET HIGH, is still, despite my neglect, getting ready to flower again:


While the brave hellbores, which have to struggle against a north-facing wall, have been blooming since March, and are still going:


This little rose is charging up through the lilac bush in a most pleasing manner:


And the dog roses are out too:


Three different varieties of geraniums are giving keen pleasure:




The tiny, fragile dicentra amazingly survived the worst winter we have had for ten years:


And even though the big euphorbia died a death, the dwarf one goes rolling on:


The lilac lilac is over, but the white lilac has life in it yet:


There. It's not nothing. I can take a deep breath and calm down.

I would love a chocolate cosmos, though.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Things I do not understand, No 1

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Every blog should have a running series. The very interesting John Rentoul over at The Indy has an excellent one: Questions to which the Answer is No. I think he is up to about No 378 now.
A lot of head-scratching goes on in this house, so I am going to dignify it by making the whole show a formal element of the blog. There will be the Things I Do Not Understand in capital letters for all to see. I used to think not understanding was a red badge of shame. Now I am more fatalistic: no one brain can understand everything. It is the human condition, and I'm all about the human condition. Sometimes I think we should try to embrace our flaws, rather than battle against them in mortal combat.

The things I do not understand take many forms. There are the very big ones, like dark matter and the origins of the universe. (I can just about manage the Big Bang, but I find the concept of billions of atoms suddenly appearing where there was nothing impossible to comprehend.) There are the very small ones. I can never work out why it is so much quicker and easier to make a mess than to clean one up; I am mystified by the fact that hideous smells like bleach or rotting matter are so much stronger and more prevalent than delightful smells like lemon and rosemary.

There are the things I should understand but don't. However much I studied it, I never quite got to grips with Rousseau's Theory of the General Will. I'm a bit of a dunce when it comes to philosophy in general, even though it fascinates me. I wish I understood my garden better, instead of bumbling along in a mild haze of ignorance. (I did try with all those gardening books, but for some reason it never took.) I don't understand why misogyny still exists. I have absolutely no understanding of how the technology I use every day works; even the telephone is still a mystery to me, all those human voices carrying through the air.

So here we go, with the very first in the series. It's a little parochial, I am afraid, but it's been preying on my mind for ten days now, and I can't shake it. Who knows? - perhaps one of you genius readers out there might even know the answer.

It is:

I do not understand how the England football team can be bored.

There have been myriad explanations for the dire performance of a collection highly-paid, internationally renowned athletes, who should have the skills and motivation and national pride to dance all over the park, instead of stumbling about like donkeys. The one which keeps coming up, and which completely baffles me is: they are bored.

No one challenges this. When it is mentioned, everyone just nods their head, as if precious words of wisdom have been uttered. The players can't train all day, they are not allowed to leave their hotel for some reason, there are no wives and girlfriends permitted, so they can't even divert themselves with sex. They've been away for three whole weeks, everyone keeps saying, as if I should know what that implies. They feel isolated and incarcerated, apparently, in their five star hotel.

I could get all high horse-ish about men who earn thousands of pounds a week complaining about anything, but that is not the part that interests me. That's an old argument. Besides, the players are not saying any of this out loud; it's all coming from reporters and pundits.

What I really don't understand is: if boredom is a problem, there is such a simple solution. GIVE THEM A BOOK. I mean, seriously. It might be a little sad that they can't go sight-seeing, in such a storied and ravishing country, but they are not there on holiday, after all. If they are confined to barracks, all they need to do is read. I don't really understand why they can't chat, as well. It's not as if they have nothing in common. They could play poker or backgammon or chess. But the number one antidote to any feelings of dullness is a damn good book.

So: I don't really understand why they are bored. I don't understand why all commentators appear to accept that boredom is an inevitable consequence of being physically in one place. I don't understand why no one in the entire squad of nutritionists, psychologists and various other support staff seems able to provide a remedy. I don't understand why some enterprising person at Waterstone's does not just send out a care package and single-handedly rescue the entire England campaign.

I don't believe that footballers do not read. It does not have to be Ulysses or The Critique of Pure Reason. A couple of cracking thrillers and the thing is done.

Meanwhile, in other news, my obsession with the new table grows. I went into the village this morning and bought some pretty plants to give the whole thing a little more va va voom:


The little red ones are a kind of salvia I did not know before this morning.


Here's a lovely new lavender. Lavender rarely survives the winter here; if the snow and frost do not kill it off, then the wet will. It's an absurd thing to try and grow in Scotland, yet each year, in hope over experience, I go and get some more, because I love it so.


The little green bushy ones are bedding plants whose name I have already forgotten.


I planted these this morning with mystery seeds. Almost every drawer in my house contains a tiny pack of seeds with no identifying marks. I have a terrible habit of ripping off the outer package, which tells me what they are, and then thinking Oh, I'll do that later, and later never comes, so into a drawer they go. The bright side of this shockingly lax behaviour is that I get the joy of not knowing what I shall get. These little pots could produce anything from lettuces to cornflowers. I am watching them like a hawk.


Here they are in moody black and white.


And here is a little chive flower, just because.


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