Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Guardian of the Garden

THIS is my Guardian of the Garden, who moved in on Mid-Summer's Day, after I found him in a charity shop. 

He plays his drum to scare away bad spirits and encourage the plants to grow and bloom - although it is so hot at the moment they all look a little sorry for themselves, despite the fact that I water them twice a day.

The garden is a work in progress.  It is very long and narrow, and was in a terrible mess (I have to admit, we had neglected it), so last year we created a pebbled hard-standing for the car at the end (there is access along an alley), put up new fencing and created raised beds with wooden surrounds around a lawn in the bottom third of the garden.  There is now a small vegetable patch there, beneath the elder tree, and so far this summer we have enjoyed three bowls of strawberries, with more on the way, as well as herbs - and the broad beans are flowering.

In the middle section is a path, with grey gravel either side, and a small wild-life pond, some grasses, bamboos, and silver-leaved plants, while at the top is a patio and more raised beds (edged with bricks) - where a sunny golden hop takes pride of place.

I have never taken much interest in the garden before, but since I was made redundant I have had time, and have discovered I love making things grow.  Friends have given me snippets of plants from their gardens, and I have been multiplying plants by taking cutttings and dividing roots.

It is like magic: from old plants I have brought forth new.  There are baby jasmines and honeysuckles, ivy, lots of chocolate-coloured heucheras taken from the broken roots of one gift, and two hydrangeas, 'layered' in pots beneath the overgrown bush which protected them over the winter.

All are flourishing and all were grown according to the phases of the moon though not, I hasten to add, by moonlight!

To aid me in my labours I have purchased a hose pipe on wheels, which stretches all the way down the garden; an old-fashioned push-along mower (it is a very small lawn) and a mini-greenhouse - a stack of racks covered with a plastic coat, perfect for seeds and cuttings.

Starlings, blackbirds, sparrows and thrushes visit my new bird feeder, and there are plenty of bees, butterflies and other insects on the flowers - some spinach which went to seed (I believe the correct term is bolted) proved particularly attractive, despite its insignificent blooms).

But the frog who appeared last summer has vanished.
I should have cleaned the pond out in the spring, and I should have pruned the hydrangea and the buddleia last year.  More net trellis is waiting to be fixed to the fences, to provide support for climbers,  more gravel is needed to cover the bald patches, a water feature would be nice - and I don't seem to have enough plants.

However, after years of looking at a wilderness, I begin to feel as if I have a proper garden at long last.  There is still a lot of work to be done but at least I can sit and read in my own peaceful haven.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

What Were Your Favourite Children’s Books?

CAN you name at least one book that you read as a child (ie 11 or under) that still exists in your memory as a perfect story?
You can say why if you wish, or simply give a list — it’s your choice. It can be a story that you are now uncomfortable about having loved, or were uncomfortable at some point and have now come back to, or one that you have always loved.

That’s the challenge issued to me by my friend Phillipa Ashley, a prize-winning romantic novelist (Decent Exposure, Wish You Were Here), who is as passionate as I am about reading and writing – see her website at

Actually, I always find ‘favourite’ lists difficult to compile: so much depends on memory, mood, location, people, events and so on. Then there’s the impossible task of trying to pare the entries down as the entries grow and grow.

Anyway, here is a far from perfect record of some much-loved childhood volumes.

The first book I ever had was AA Milne’s When We Were Very Young, bought for me when I was less than a year old, packed with stories, all in rhyme, and all just as perfect now as they were then. I can still recite many of them by heart, and I still make up my own tales about the King who liked a little bit of butter on his bread, or James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree’s mother, just as I did when I was young – although in some cases my perspective has shifted with the passing of the years.

Then there was Adventures of Mr Pip, about a strange goblinish little man, who loved the colour red, and was always getting into trouble. I remember one incident where he was invited to dinner with a friend, but the friend was some kind of lizard or frog or toad (or maybe a chameleon) so the dinner was flies, and he went home hungry. An Internet search revealed that this was written by Francis Barrie Flint but I could discover nothing else. The pictures stick in my mind because it was illustrated in colour, which must have been unusual at the time. Perhaps that is why I loved it so much.

Delightful illustrations by Margaret Tempest were an integral part of Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books, and of Joyce Lankester Brisley’s line drawings for her Milly Molly Mandy stories, which entranced me then and now. Even in my childhood they must have presented an old-fashioned and simplistic view of life, but that is what makes them so alluring. It’s a portrait of a nice, safe, secure world, where nothing really bad ever happens.

Already familiar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, at my aunt’s I read his Sylvie and Bruno tales, and when we visited my father’s parents I always sat with an old set of children’s encyclopaedias or guides to knowledge. I have no idea what they were called, but they had brown covers, with gold writing on the front, and seemed huge. The marvellous thing about them was that alongside the educational articles each volume had a series of stories on different themes – King Arthur, the legends of ancient Greece and Rome, Robin Hood.

On a similar note, I have treasured copies of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen. To this day I am still gripped by the magic of the Arthurian legends and I adore myths and folk tales, whether they are children’s versions, centuries-old recitations or modern interpretations.

Kipling remains a favourite - The Jungle Book, The Tale of Rikki-tikki-tavi, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rewards and Fairies and, best of all, the Just So Stories, especially The Elephant’s Child. Who could resist the lure of the great grey greasy Limpopopo river, all set about with fever trees, where the Elephant’s Child, filled with ’satiable curtiosity discovers what the Crocodile eats for dinner – and gains a trunk in the process. Absolute perfection!

Perfection is also achieved by JRR Tolkien with The Hobbit, which would definitely be on my desert island list, should I ever be asked to produce one. I was first introduced to Bilbo Baggins at primary school, and in my mind his voice is an echo of the teacher who read to us – slightly northern and a little gruff, but kindly.
If asked to choose one book, this would almost certainly be it.

There were more magical adventures in John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, as well as CS Lewis’ Narnia series, all of which I read again, and again and again.

The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, is one of the most enchanting stories I have ever encountered, and I love to think of them living alongside us, hidden from view in a secret, miniature world, making use of all the items we discard or lose.

Secrets and hidden lives also feature in The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which I return to time after time. However, much as I yearn for happy endings, the older I get, the more irritated I become by the sickly sweet finale.

The Family from One End Street, by Eve Garnett and Worzel Gummidge, by Barbara Euphan Todd, were also much-loved favourites, together with anything by Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes, White Boots, The Painted Garden) or Edith Nesbit (The Railway Children, The Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, Five Children and It).

There was The Swish of the Curtain, by Pamela Brown, about a group of children who set up their own theatre company; Auntie Robbo, by Ann Scott Moncreiff, about an exceedingly idiosyncratic old lady who travels the Scottish highlands with her nephew and a group of other children, and Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, which taught me more about the American Revolution than any history book.

And how could I forget Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables; Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth or James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O – this last, set in a land where the letter ‘O’ is banned, is a must for anyone who loves words.

Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine books; Arthur Ransome's Swallow and Amazons; Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer; Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Treasure Island; Dickens' Oliver Twist ;Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows; What Katy Did, by Susan Coolidge; Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter; Louisa May Alcott's Little Women... the list is endless.

My literary tastes must have been formed at a very young age (or perhaps I am a very undaventurous reader) because I still love the vast majority of these books.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Grumpiness is Good for You

I KNEW it! Being grumpy is good for you! While trawling the net the other day I came across an item on the BBC news site which revealed: “An Australian psychology expert who has been studying emotions has found being grumpy makes us think more clearly.”

Miserable people are better at decision-making and less gullible, according to Professor Joe Forgas, a researcher at the University of New South Wales. His experiments showed that while cheerfulness boosts creativity, gloominess improves attentiveness and careful thinking.

Grumpy people are better able to cope with demanding situations than happy ones, he told Australian Science Magazine. And he explained that it’s all down to the way the brain ‘promotes formation processing strategies’.

It’s good news for people like me, who enjoy moaning and groaning.  Now, instead of being regarded as ill-humoured and cantankerous, I can legitimately claim to be clear thinking and good in a crisis - although my nearest and deartest may deny the truth of this.

It is a well known fact that the British love grumpiness. Grumbling is a national pastime and, given half a chance, most people will complain about something - the weather, other drivers, queues, prices, roadworks, automated phone responses…
The Grumpy Old Women  stage and TVshows attract huge audiences, as do Grumpy Old Men and Room 101.

And some of our best loved heroes were grumps: Winston Churchill, for example, was regarded by many as more than a little curmudgeonly. And some modern politicians can be just as grouchy:  Ann Widdecombe has become a national treasure as a result of her uncompromising views on modern life.
Princess Anne and Prince Philip have both built a repuation for being irritable, while the disgruntled questioning of John Humphrys, and Jeremy Paxman has produced some outstanding news interviews.

Some comedians have built their careers on their crotchety personas: Les Dawson, Jenny Eclair, Arthur Smith and many others found their humour in railing against society's ills.

The same technique stood actor Richard Wilson in good stead when he played the iconic role of Victor Meldrew on BBC television’s One Foot in the Grave

Who hasn’t felt the pain of that anguished cry ‘I don’t believe it’ as he battles against the fact that life always seems to be against him.

Other fictional grumps include Eeyore, AA Milne’s gloomy donkey, who never knowlingly looks on the bright side of life - with good reason, for his home is stolen, he is bounced into a stream, and people rarely visit him.

Then, of course, there is Gumpy, the scowling dwarf in Disney’s classic animation of  Snow White, which has become as much a part of our cultural heritage as the original tale from the Brothers Grimm.
Finally, there is Samuel Johnson, one of the wittiest and most erudite grumps.  Best known for compiling the frst comprehensive English dictionary (published in 1755),  Johnson was a man of letters, an essayist, a critic, a novelist, a poet and a journalist.

His outlook was prolific and he expressed his opinions on a wide range of topics, including this, which is as good a description od grumpiess as you are likely to find:  "Writing about complaining he said:  "Every man may be observed to have a certain strain of lamentation, some peculiar theme of complaint on which he dwells in his moments of dejection."
And he also had some words of wisdom for those who get fed up with us whingers.  "To hear complaints with patience, even when complaints are vain, is one of the duties of friendship," he wrote.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

No Whinge Today

I HAD a Whinge all ready to post this morning, then I heard the news about the dreadful shootings in Cumbria, and somehow it seemed in appropriate to moan about the small, unimportant things in life when people were dead and injured.
My heart goes out to everyone caught in the incident and its aftermath.
It makes you appreciate that normality, however dull or annoying it may sometimes seem, is a wonderful thing and should be valued.  Let us all count our blessings.

The pictures were taken up in the Lakes last year.