Friday, 27 March 2015

The Night Watch

It's 3.45am and I should be tucked up in my beddy-byes, but instead I've given up pretending that I'm going to go back to sleep anytime soon, I've thrown on my dressing gown and I'm sitting in the kitchen.
It's very warm in the kitchen, the fire is still glowing in the stove, but the Models, after an initially enthusiastic welcome have retired to their beds and SuperModel is groaning periodically - the canine equivalent of: 'Turn that light off! Some of us are trying to sleep here!'
Sleep? What is that?
A fable from some far-off land.
I'm having breakfast.

My poor, fevered brain keeps returning (unbidden, I might add) to the knotty problem of the mural.
There is a mural in my Bloom garden.
When I say it's causing me sleepless nights, I'm not exaggerating.
I'm not as concerned about the front of the mural as I am about the back, which must sound odd, I know.
The front of the mural is in Nik's tender hands, and as there are no better hands in which it could be, I have happily excised about 90% of anxiety on that score.
It's the fixing of the mural that is bugging me.

It was my contractor who first flagged it up. We spent a long time talking about the where's and whyfor's a couple of weeks ago and I thought we had - basically - sorted it.
Then I discussed it with Nik (who is inconsiderate enough to be wintering in France, enjoying himself) and he seemed happy enough with the overall plan. He pointed me in the direction of an engineer he knows.
So yesterday - no, the day before - I spent a profitable hour or so discussing it with this enterprising individual. When I asked whether he'd consider Sponsoring the required edifice, he looked at me speculatively and said it wasn't up to him, but he'd enquire.
I came home and triumphantly announced to the In-Charge that the mural was - at least in theory - sorted.

However, today - yesterday, I mean - I went to see the other engineer I've had in my sights.
He was fairly short and sharp and immediately pointed out several flaws in my newly hatched Grand Plan.
He also whacked a pretty hefty price tag on the whole operation, and when I asked if he'd Sponsor it for the greater good of the world and mankind - Yeats and Sligo in particular - he gave me a somewhat old fashioned look and said No. He then re-considered and said he'd throw in the cost of the labour.
It was a morsel, for which I was suitably grateful.

I'm not quite so grateful to find myself - at some ungodly hour of the morning - back at the design drawing board, having not passed GO and definitely not having collected 200.
The whole mural clock has, it seems, been turned back a month, with more questions now than I had at the outset.

I don't like lying in bed listening to the high-pitched squeal of my brain in overdrive.
It is not a restful way to pass the night watch, nor has it even provided any engineering solutions.
But at least I did pause to notice how beautiful my daffodils are while the kettle boiled. I picked them without even looking yesterday.
So the night is not entirely wasted.
And thank goodness the poor Models have managed to snatch a bit of kip, despite all.
That's something to be grateful for.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

To Tree Or Not To Tree

NOT what I need for the Bloom garden, but Lucy and I quite fancied these as patio umbrellas

I spent a good bit of last week looking at trees.
In fact, I find myself looking at trees all the time. In hedgerows as I'm driving, in other peoples' gardens, in the woods with the dogs. And they are no sooner seen than categorised.
Too big - too small - good shape - not enough branches.
Birch - willow - hazel - alder. Sycamore even. Beech - if only.
And then there's the ash.
There are a lot of ash. They are beautiful trees.
I often find that the perfect specimen I've just eyed-up is an ash.
I was offered three perfect young ash trees, well - in fact a horse tried to eat them some years ago, but, having recovered, the resultant shapes were perfect - but it ain't gonna happen.
It is illegal to even lift an ash from the ground at the moment, let alone transport it to Dublin.

On Saturday, Jack took me to see some apple trees.
I have been on the hunt for a likely apple tree since January.
We walked around an old orchard just a couple of villages away.
The owner has kindly said I can borrow one. And a couple of cherries too - if I bring them back, and help Jack set the orchard to rights, which is fair enough. Jack is kindly going back to lift them on Thursday, which knots my stomach uncomfortably. I hate the thought of lifting these trees. Suppose they don't like it? Suppose they curl up their little torn roots and die? They are a bit neglected, and a bit overshadowed by a row of massive sycamores, but they aren't dead. Yet.

But if the garden at Bloom is to be made, trees we must have, and a) I haven't got the budget to buy them, and b) I can't find the right ones to buy anyway.
It's all very difficult.
I wish I'd known this was 'Go-go-go!' last autumn. At least then we could have trenched around these trees, let them make some little rootlets, steadied themselves against the shock.
But you know what they say - if wishes were horses...(they'd eat all the ash trees).

Anyway, there's no rest for the wicked.
On Sunday we loaded the Models into the car and headed off to Leitrim, to see a man about a cabin.
It's a bit of a puzzle, Leitrim. In my head it's sort of northeast of here, but to get there we drove an hour and a half down the road to Dublin.
Hmm. But it was a good day and the sun shone.

We ended up in the middle of a forest, talking to two lovely people while I secretly admired the way they live in such close connection with the land. Their garden was a delight - and the antithesis of mine. It has grown, bit by bit, into spaces that were once woodland, and most things that want to grow are allowed to grow. (Which doesn't happen in gardens that belong to control-freaks.) Their old cottage, in the middle of the clearing, has had a bit added on here and there, and is hunkered down seamlessly into its environment.
Outside the door - every door - flowers spilled out of old clay pipes and scillas spread across the ground like pale, early bluebells, while the dogs - ours and theirs - ran around like kids at a party.
It was a place of ease in the best sense, a place of welcome, and letting-live.

Niall weaves hazel and willow and makes all kinds of things from wood, including yurts frames - his own is pictured here, waiting for its sedum roof this spring - as well as chairs with character and traditional hay rakes and all kinds of other things.

He is going to build Yeats's cabin for me (the bit of it we need), from 'clay and wattles'.
I'm delighted.
If he weaves the magic of his homeplace into it, it will bring all the zen I could wish for into my little garden at Bloom. 

Saturday, 21 March 2015

A Yeatsian Twist

I'm probably the only person around who hasn't got a picture of the eclipse.
I was in the woods with the Models at the time. It was mizzling and then it went dark - ish.
The dark didn't last as long as the mizzle actually.
Squinting up at the sky, I managed to blind myself with a fingernail, a crescent moon of white-hot sunlight.

Not that it shows in this photo.

Last time there was an eclipse, we were in the south of France and it was all much more dramatic.
The sky really did darken, birds rose screeching from the trees and the world seemed to go out of sync for several minutes, an untimely wind whipping out of nowhere to whirl briefly around the market square and cathedral tower in the town where we were shopping.

Today's event wasn't quite so cinematic, although the official pictures from elsewhere are rather amazing.
Watching them, a snatch of Yeats twisted in my head, describing the photos perfectly:
'The golden aura of the moon, the silver crescent of the sun...'

I daresay Yeats is groaning in his grave, but there you go.
As it happens, my son has the original, correct version of those lovely lines tattooed on his body.
I wonder if that would make yer one groan even more loudly, or would he be quite pleased?

Thursday, 19 March 2015


It's been another beautiful day. Not a pet day like yesterday, but still lovely.
I actually left my desk and went into the garden to pot up a few weeds - as you do.
I shall need them for Bloom.
I don't think the weeds could believe their luck. When I grabbed them by the neck and yanked, they hunkered down as usual, digging their root-nails in for dear life. But today, instead of hurling them into the waste bin, I nestled them instead into trays of compost and soil and watered them in.
I expect they are beaming out there under the stars.

During this operation, the Models lay on the grass, blissfully soaking up the rays. I paused in my potting to admire my hellebores, and to notice the violets tucked in along the cobbled path. My favourite little scillas are poking out on the bank and everywhere the softer blue anemone blandas are suddenly opening. The camellias are even more beautiful than I remember.

Beautiful hellebores

It was good to see them all, but I didn't linger very long.
There were calls to make and work to do on the computer.
Two fliers to put together, and somewhere I have to find an apple tree...
And a beech...

My new friend Lucy took me to a fabulous nursery yesterday. We drove half-way across the country to one of her suppliers and spent hours walking round the horticultural equivalent of a top-notch thoroughbred stud farm - everything immaculate, manicured and beautifully clean. It was wonderful.
I even found the perfect beech tree.
Until we discovered that it was a copper, not a green one, that is.
Back to the drawing board.

This morning, back at my computer, I talked to Jack on the phone about the ban on moving ash, about transport vehicles and how best to protect plants for long journeys. He's done it hundreds of times before, and was generous with advice and offers of help.
As we chatted, I watched the rooks in the drive. They are busy nest-building, and - as always - it's a noisy, lengthy business that involves a lot of argy-bargy, not to mention full-scale attacks on all the shrubs in the vicinity.

After breakfast, I'd given Hobbes and the Models a good brushing, separated the resultant wad of soft fur into little bite-sized puffs of thistledown and left them lying all over the gravel. As Jack and I verbally fleece-wrapped trays of plants, I watched a rook hopping madly hither and thither, trying to gather up as many of the little puff-balls as she could manage in one mouthful. Her mate was busy showing off his latest courtship dance moves, but she only had eyes for the fleecy nest lining she'd just discovered.
I pictured her later on, needle-felting it into position with her great back beak, high above me in the ash tree.
And speaking of trees - I'm still looking for a beech.

Hobbes loooves being brushed

Monday, 16 March 2015

Blooming Gardens

I can understand why teenagers are constantly tired.
They are in the novitiate of life, and it's all exhausting.
I know, because I'm a novice at the moment.

This year is Yeats2015 - it's the 150th anniversary of the great poet's birth and there are events going on all over the place. You might have spotted one near you - Harp Concerts every full moon, Yeats on the London Underground, poetry readings at 1pm every day in Hargadons in Sligo, Yeats at the NLI in Dublin - and tomorrow he might pop up in Paddy's Day celebrations anywhere in the world, who knows!

I seem to have been living and breathing Yeats and I haven't even been to a concert or a reading yet. I haven't had time.
I was asked - last year - to design a Yeats Garden for Bloom 2015 and, knock me down  with a feather, it's been accepted and now I have to make it happen!
That's where the novice bit comes in.
Much as I love all things to do with gardens and garden festivals, I've never been involved in building a show garden before.

I've had plans, lists, phone numbers, websites and emails coming out of my ears.
I dream in square metres and my heart beats to the rhythm of plant names in Latin.
I am no longer seeing landscapes and backyards - everywhere I go, I am eyeing up possibilities and potential specimens.
And discovering how incredibly generous people are - with their time, their support, the contents of their flower beds...

Today, stomach muscles clenching in case I was making a mistake - I appointed a contractor. I wanted to appoint two - well, three actually. All of the ones I'd approached.
I think they'd all do a fantastic job, and each had something special to bring to the (potting) table. But of course it doesn't work like that, so I had to choose. I wish they knew how hard it was to make the decision - I'd much rather we all mucked in together, but life isn't like that unfortunately.
I hope I've chosen the right one. Time - as in all things - will be the judge of that.

And meanwhile, my own garden is abandoned and neglected.
It will forgive me, I daresay. In fact, in my absence, it will party its way through Spring and early summer, inviting in all the less salubrious types to dance through my borders and stay for indeterminate sleep-overs - you know, the docks and dandelions, the goosegrass - oops, sorry, the rumex obtusifolius, taraxacum officinale and galium aparine, I ought to say...

It'll be nice when I get past the tired and stomach-clenching bit.
Maybe that should be 'if' - 
My contractor said: 'It'll get worse before it gets better', and he ought to know.
But there again, by his own admission, he does go back and do it all over again year after year...   
I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Je Suis Moi-même

So far January has been a callous month. It has brought endless rain, a sprinkle of snow followed by brutal hail, terrifying winds and excessive violence.

I have found myself barely able to speak about the events in Paris ten days ago.
Even less able to comment on Nigeria - stunned by the lack of official comment.
Large sections of the British media appeared to move, lock stock and barrel to Paris for days on end to bring us every nuance of what they wanted us to know of events in France. Nigeria, it seems, only merited a bit of a mention by comparison.

And now everyone has hoisted a Je Suis banner of one sort or another.
It's not hard to do, hoist a banner. I would hoist one too, if it was simply about showing sympathy - my heart goes out to those who have lost their beloveds in Paris and Nigeria, as it does to the victims of Syria - victims everywhere.

But what actually happened in Paris last week?

Yes, I believe in freedom of speech. I believe, too, in not kowtowing to terrorism.
But while we're shouting about freedom of speech, where are the parallel core values that render it a human right?

Personally, I don't mind what people believe in, however dingbat their ideas might seem to me (or mine to them, for that matter). Someone's dingbat belief probably gets them through each day.
It's where freedom to say what you think (and thus to believe what you want) becomes the freedom to harm that's the problem. And how do you measure or quantify these things?

Being the complex creatures that we are, we can all wax lyrical on a thousand ways wherein we differ from the next person, but ultimately it's how we deal with difference that matters.

If I'm honest, I'm not that bothered about what cartoonists depict or journalists write, they are looking for maximum impact, after all. I daresay I'm pretty average in feeling ambivalent. I have the choice - I can read it/buy it or ignore it/tear it up - it's up to me.
I'm pretty average in other ways too: middle-aged (my kids might say old) middle-class, from the west, well fed and well educated. Not surprisingly I'm pretty happy to live and let live - it's easy for me. My biggest gripes in life are the weather and the government. I'm not going to go out and kill over either of them.

It's not like that for everyone, we are all different. Especially the young, who are passionate, hot-headed and know that they can change the world. Throw in underprivileged, marginalised and disaffected and you have created a bomb, just waiting to be detonated by something. When there is nothing else, an extreme belief system might be just the thing to make their lives worth dying for. Hello fundamentalism.

I have nothing against 'belief', and what people believe is entirely up to them, but I'm not keen on 'religion' which seems to me largely a tool for manipulating unwieldy masses. And any kind of fundamentalism makes me back away in haste. I once read the words 'we all make God in our own image', and I find them to be more true, the older I get - never more so than with fundamentalists of any faith. Marx is often misquoted, but what he actually said lies at the heart of the matter: Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. 
In today's world, I would happily replace the word 'religion' there with 'fundamentalism', and the very fact of being a fundamentalist seems to impose it's own obligatory jehad - literally, a crusade for an idea - not exclusively a Muslim concept by any means. People who knock on your door and try to convert you are on just as much of a jehad as any terrorist.

Amongst much interesting comment, there was  one article this week that left an impression on me. It pointed out that by forcing murderous distortions of Islam on the world, Muslim fundamentalists make violence their religion, 'a blasphemous interpretation of Islam, which in its truest expression is a religion of peace' By its very nature, this is 'an 'identity theft' of the Muslim faith'. 

The article also quoted Dyab Abou Jahjah, a Belgian newspaper columnist, who is Muslim, who tweeted: 'I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.' Dyab Abou Jahjah (@Aboujahjah)

Which brings me back to the core values that need to underpin all our freedoms. The core values, that at the start, underpinned most religions.
Yes, I believe in freedom of speech.
But what happened to respect for others, for their beliefs and personal choices?
Where is the line drawn between freedom of speech and causing harm - on either side of the line.
As another good article, Five Days On intimated, it is about personal responsibility - in this instance, self-censorship. Perhaps this is a facile question, but why is it necessary to prove that we have freedom of speech by ridiculing and humiliating any culture or faith? Isn't that just a form of bullying, dressed up in suavely sophisticated clothes? It doesn't just provoke fundamentalists to acts of terrorism, it carves deep and painful fissures in the tentative bonds that grow - oh so slowly - between all the multi-ethnic communities in our increasingly homogenised world.

In the end, if we can't control ourselves and decide what constitutes a freedom of speech that does not cause harm and allows everyone to live in dignity, we leave the way open for governments and their military to control us, which they willingly do - with greater surveillance, new laws and tighter reins, none of which are ever rescinded. And let's not beat about the bush here - it seems a symptom of the human condition that those in power will always seek security in office via the old adage, divide and rule. They may have marched in Paris, they may profess to want unity, but unity doesn't serve them, and the ways of all political parties have become too tangled to allow for any single truth - so while, in the public gaze, governments train their hoses to put out the fires, in the background they are often busy fanning the flames. Politically the convolutions are endless, and nothing is what it seems; so we are told what they want us to hear and left to puzzle over the all too frequent anomalies afterwards.

Who can say with any real confidence what actually happened in Paris last week, and why?
More and more, we are taught to live in fear - something we have learned from America, and taken to our hearts.
All of which causes more 'distress' as Marx phrased it, which ultimately leads to more protest, more radicalisation and more problems - the endless vicious circle.

As Jim Wallace said in the Sojourners article, the only way to change fundamentalism is from within.
That's for the leaders and followers of all religions to address.
But everyone needs to address what the humane parameters of freedom of speech encompass, and what we can expect in return for our ability to express everything we think.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Bah, Humbug, New Year!

I'm not really a New Year person.
Despite the In-Charge's cousin talking me through 'the year is a circle, New Year joins seamlessly onto the end of last year' - that still doesn't work for me.
It's always seemed like a straight line, the year - so 31st December appears as some sort of awful cliff that you fall off, willy nilly. Yet another leap of faith.
Sadly, I guess that makes me a member of the flat-earth society.
I'm not proud.

I have tried.
Indeed, I do try.
No doubt my family, at this point, would say 'you're very trying' - but despite all, something isn't working.
It's all a bit like this really, New Year:

Whatever, this circle thing just isn't happening for me.
It's about colour somewhere along the line. (There you go - 'line' - see what I mean?)
Colour, whether I like it or not, is the be-all and end-all.
Christmas teems with colour. It jumps out and socks you one, grabs you round the neck and sucks you in until you drown in it, until colour has replaced the blood in your veins, the air in your lungs, the thoughts in your brain.
New Year isn't about colour. It is clean and cold and brightly, icily blue.

Or - as in today's case - wet and grey and rather down-at-heel.
But whatever the reality, it's a chilling contrast to the warmth of Christmas, and definitely outside my comfort zone. It's all about new beginnings, starting all over again - like Maths homework that you got wrong the first time round. 'Return to Go' and definitely do not collect 200...
It's the point when, were it not for the chocolates, empties and new socks lying around, you'd wonder if Christmas had just been some sort of tantalising dream.

Sorry, all you New Year fans out there.
Please tell me, where am I going wrong?

We went to some lovely parties over Christmas, and even had one here, but last night was a quiet night in.
I didn't go to bed - I couldn't be that Scrooge-ish. We watched a movie (an excellent, if rather distressing one, as it turned out - The Flowers of War, with Christian Bale), but then we had an unexpected treat.
Queen and Adam Lambert live at Central Hall, Westminster.
I've not exactly been switched on this last while, so Adam Lambert and I haven't been personally introduced until now. As with most things, I'm behind the times, but it's never too late to catch up.
Last night's gig was, to quote an old friend, 'bloody-marvellous'.
Freddie Mercury - sleep on, sweet singer, rest in peace. Miss you as we do, your legacy is in safe hands. Adam Lambert is a worthy heir.

And just in case you missed it - here's a little snippet for you

And if you need any more convincing:

Still not sure?

Here's one for the road:

Oh, and London's New Year fireworks were amazing too.
Queen thoughtfully paused to let them take centre stage at midnight.

Happy New Year everyone, from rather a dark, damp, colourless west coast.