How Does Your Garden Grow?

Whichever way you look at it, the Coronavirus pandemic has been a real pain in the neck. I’m pretty lucky I suppose as I’ve not been furloughed because I work for a government agency. I’ve not lost any loved ones to the virus either but like I say, generally speaking, the whole experience is one I’d rather forget.

Things are looking up a little bit here in the UK. We can now go out and visit the pub, table service only though mind, no standing at the bar chatting. What really gets on my nerves about table service is that when the pubs opened up last time before the second wave there always seemed to be plenty of staff about to take your order and bring over your beer which was actually pretty nice. In one particular pub where the service has always been dreadful, the service actually improved. Now, every pub I go into they seem to just want you to order via the app.

Now not long ago I deleted a lot of apps from my phone. I just had too many of them. Now, pubs don’t want to serve you in the traditional way, they just want you to use the app and order online. How hard can it be to sort out proper table service? Let’s say two staff members behind the bar and one touring the pub taking orders. Sounds easy to me.

The person who takes your order goes to the bar and hands in the order, two pints of bitter please or whatever, the barman pulls the drinks while the waiter is at another table. He comes back for order #1, hands in order #2 for table B and takes the drinks to table A while the bar guy is pulling table B’s pints. The second bar guy can either take orders or collect glasses or just help out with serving or pulling pints whenever necessary. Sounds simple enough to me. What actually happens is a bunch of people are pouring drinks and after fumbling about with the app someone will turn up with the beers. ‘Carlsberg and an Ice Breaker’ announced our server the other evening. ‘A What? I didn’t ask for an Ice Breaker!’ ‘Yes you did’ said the server confidently. ‘Look, I didn’t order an Ice Breaker whatever that is’ I say but the guy only believes me when I show him my app which clearly states Carlsberg and IPA. So off the guy goes to fetch a pint of IPA which comes back a few minutes later. That’s technology for you, it’s only as good as the people who use it.

Anyway, enough moaning for now. The pandemic has actually forced us to turn inwards. Less going out, more staying in and when we get tired of the TV what else can we do? Well, we can go into the garden for a start.

Big or small, the garden can be a little pool of tranquillity and even if it is just a small balcony and a window box, plants and flowers can bring a little extra something into your life.

What I’d thought I’d do for this post is to take a few pictures of the garden and write a little about each one. I should say that’s its not really my garden, it’s actually Liz’s garden. My only contribution is to cut the grass and to light the barbecue but anyway, here we go.

This first picture is of Mr Blackbird. That’s him up there in the eucalyptus, shot with my Nikon D100 and zoom lens. He and Mrs Blackbird have started a nest in a clump of bushes not far from our breakfast table just by the back door. The eggs have been hatched and he goes out many times each day returning with some juicy worms for his chicks. He’s a wily fellow. First he lands on the big tree and does a quick survey. If the coast is clear he will fly into the small patio and land on the fence before hopping down to the breakfast table or one of the chairs. Then if all is still clear, he’ll hop down and fly up to his nest in the bushes.

There’s a distinct hum in the background. Yes, it’s the local bees. This garden seems to attract them and here at the beginning of summer there are plenty of bees about landing on flowers and looking for nectar and just doing what bees generally do.

As we’re not far from Blackpool airport there are other objects flying around like light aircraft and helicopters, I love both, especially the sound of small aircraft, that lovely lazy drone that you can hear from many small airfields. Up above there is a yellow helicopter that I see regularly and one afternoon I managed to put down my book and snap a few frames off with my camera. I have the feeling that the pilot actually knows I want to photograph his aircraft because when I leave my camera inside, that’s when he comes by flying low right above our house and when I have the camera just by, he always does a wide berth.

Back to the garden and out by the breakfast table Liz has planted tomatoes, peas, mange tout, broad beans and potatoes. There are also some cabbages and purple sprouting broccoli down there and a couple of herb pots with sage, thyme, chives and rosemary to name but a few. Next door is some garlic. Over by the table the large pot of strawberries are doing pretty well with some berries just about to change from green to red. Also over there is a chilli plant grown from the seeds of a chilli. In other parts of the garden are raspberries, runner beans, carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, aubergine, green peppers, sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes, butternut squash, padron peppers, globe artichokes and asparagus.

My lemon plants are doing pretty well. (Top right of the montage picture further up)They were grown from lemon pips a few years back but sadly have not yet borne any fruit. This year I’m feeding them with bone meal fertilizer and I’m firmly hoping that one day I might just grow a lemon. It does take at least three years for a lemon plant to fruit but I’m hoping this might be the year.

Years ago Liz and I stayed at a rented villa in Spain. The owner was an elderly chap named André, he was a Frenchman of Russian heritage and in his garden were many lemons and oranges. Spain of course is the perfect climate for citrus trees; perhaps I need to get myself a green house or perhaps even move to Spain!

I do have two olive trees, both of which were gifts and they are both looking good and I do love olives, not that either tree has provided me with any yet.

In the picture above we’ve got cabbage, potatoes and butternut squash.

Further down the garden we have a barbecue and it is so wonderful to light it up and cook outside on summer afternoons. It’s almost like being in France. Well, almost, but not quite. We have a big outdoor table down at that end of the garden and usually I’ll light the barbecue and we’ll start off with salad while the coals heat up. Tomato and onion salad with olive oil is my favourite and recently we have also had home made coleslaw and a rice, chive and cherry tomato salad. A typical meal might be homemade chicken kebabs (chicken marinated in lemon juice, chilli and garlic with a touch of tamarind sauce and cooked on skewers with peppers and onions), sausages, steak and of course burgers. Liz makes her own burgers from minced steak mixed with chopped onion and seasoned well. I like to serve mine on a lightly toasted bread bun with tomatoes, onions and mustard or tomato sauce.

A frequent visitor when we barbecue is this fella above. He or she always appears just at eating time. He makes his presence known by giving us a regular squawk and if nothing happens he will just carry on making a racket until Liz leaves some bit of meat on the garden fence for him. He’ll do a cocky sort of strut along the fence, pretty much like you’d expect a seabird version of Mussolini to do and then he’ll gobble up whatever we have left for him or if he doesn’t like the big guy getting too close and snapping away with his Nikon he’ll take it across to the adjacent roof and sort it out at his leisure. What he does for food when we are not barbecuing, I really don’t know.

When the food has been eaten it’s time to settle back with a glass of red and take a last peek at my book before packing up and going inside. As usual I’ve got a few books on the go. I’m reading the second volume of Sarah Miles’ autobiography, Serves Me Right. Sarah is an actress you might remember from Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or Ryan’s Daughter. At the same time I’ve started the first volume in the Hamish Macbeth series, Death of a Gossip which I turn to when I fancy something a little lighter.

As usual I’ve tried to think of a link to books and films, bit of a tough task with the subject of gardens but here we go. Being There was a short book I read years ago by Jerzy Kosinski. It’s about a gardener, a pretty simple guy called Chance who has spent his life working for the owner of a large house and when the owner dies, Chance is left homeless. He knows nothing about the world except for the garden but he becomes popular as his simple observations about gardens are mistaken for great wisdom. After a random series of events, he even gets to tell the President of the United States his solutions for world problems, based on his understanding of gardens. You may not have read the book but it was made into a film starring Peter Sellers. Sellers based his own performance on a combination of his own gardener and Stan Laurel, a comedian that Sellers admired greatly.

So, how does your garden grow?

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.


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Actors, Lemons and The Big Sleep

I was going into work the other day and remembered that I didn’t have anything to read. I do like to have a read on my break so I looked around and picked up The Big Sleep. If you haven’t read the book by Raymond Chandler you must surely have seen the film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I love the opening scene where Bogart meets with General Sternwood and has separate encounters with his two daughters. Sternwood, an old former general lives in a sort of greenhouse where the heat that keeps his tropical plants alive makes Bogart wilt. That was a great opening and sets the scene for the rest of the film.

When I sat down on my break and flipped open the book, a small cutting fell out. It was a newspaper cutting dated November 14th 1995 from the Daily Express. An Actor Bombs went the headline and went on to tell the story of an actor:

An out of work actor was amazed when his agent rang and offered a part in a Shakespearean play. All he had to say was ‘My Lord, I hear a cannon.’

For weeks the actor rehearsed his line, giving it a variety of interpretations. Walking down the street (My Lord, I hear a cannon.) In the bath (My Lord, I HEAR a cannon.) In the shaving mirror (My LOOOORD, I hear a cannon)

The day came and the actor strode on to the stage and turned to the audience

The cannon went off with a terrifying bang and he shouted ‘What the *** was that?’

That newspaper clip really made me laugh and sometimes we all need a good giggle. That’s one of the things I love about second hand books; who put the clipping in the book? Did they find it as amusing as I did? I hope so.

Anyway getting back to The Big Sleep. The book was written by Raymond Chandler and he had this really fabulous talkative way of writing. You can almost imagine hearing Humphrey Bogart’s voice as you read the book. Here’s a quote from the text, an example of Chandler’s descriptive style:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stocking. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony or sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong looking. Her head was against an ivory satin cushion. Her hair was black and wiry and parted in the middle and she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall. She had a good mouth and a good chin. There was a sulky droop to her lips and the lower lip was full.

Not bad eh? Dilys Powell called his writing ‘a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry’ and it’s easy to see why. Mrs Regan was played by Lauren Bacall in the film and up till now I had always thought this was the film where they had met. Wrong! A quick check on Wikipedia and I see the couple met on the set of To Have and Have Not in 1944. Bacall was 19 and Bogart was 45 and married to his third wife Mayo Methot at the the time. Sparks apparently flew between the couple and Bogart divorced Mayo and married Bacall the next year, 1945. Despite the great on screen chemistry together the couple only made four films together.

The film version of The Big Sleep was a brilliant adaptation of the book and some of the differences are interesting. For instance, early in the book detective Philip Marlowe played by Bogart meets General Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. She looks at Marlowe and remarks how tall he is. In the film, Bogart of course wasn’t that tall so the dialogue is reversed ‘You’re not very tall are you?’ comments Carmen.

Carmen was played in the film by Martha Vickers and Chandler felt that she seemed to overshadow the performance of female lead Lauren Bacall. For that reason many of Vickers’ scenes were cut. Release of the film was delayed by Warner Brothers and in fact another of Bacall’s films shot after The Big Sleep, Confidential Agent, was released first. Reaction to Confidential Agent was so good Jack Warner, the studio head, decided to beef up Bacall’s part in The Big Sleep so new scenes were shot and added to the film including a new ending.

The plot of the book and film are pretty complicated, although having just read the book I think that the book is easier to follow. During the filming the director and his stars wondered who killed the character of Owen Taylor, the Sternwood’s chauffeur? They sent a cable to Raymond Chandler asking him. Chandler told a friend later ‘Dammit, I don’t know either!’

One strange element in the film, certainly for me, is a scene where Philip Marlowe (Bogart) is watching blackmailer Geiger. Geiger has a shop that sells rare books in Hollywood and Marlowe asks for information in another bookshop opposite. There he chats to a bookseller played by Dorothy Malone who, if you are old enough, will remember her from the Peyton Place TV series. Malone and Bogart seem to hit it off well in the film but he never returns to the bookshop and Dorothy is never seen again in the film.

Every time I watch the film I always expect Malone to reappear but that’s one of the many dead ends the film leads us down. I think it was Hitchcock who said that every scene in a film should lead the audience somewhere and Quentin Tarantino of course said the reverse. Perhaps director Howard Hawks favoured Tarantino’s view. Over on YouTube I found a clip from that scene. It was titled, The Big Sleep, best scene ever. I wouldn’t go that far myself but see what you think.

As I write this I have spent the day at my Mother’s house in Manchester. She is suffering from dementia and is being looked after nearby but sadly, because of Covid 19, I am unable to visit. Lately, every time I have visited her house with intentions to sort out the garden it has done nothing but rain. Today dawned nice and sunny, at least it was when I awoke at the ridiculous time of 6:30 am. After looking through my e-mails and planning my daily social media broadside into Twitter cyberspace I arose, had a wash, made a quick breakfast and got cracking. I mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges and cleared the sharp and unruly brambles that have appeared at the end of the garden. I strimmed the path and finally, everything seems to look neat and tidy.

The apple tree in the corner, a birthday present from me to my dad who died 20 years ago this year is looking well but unlike last year I couldn’t see any apples. My mum used to make apple pies from the apples from this tree but after my dad died I came home to visit one day and was shocked to see the council had chopped down the tree. I was absolutely fuming and while I silently planned what I would do to the nameless official who had perpetrated this tragedy, my mum mentioned casually that it was she who arranged to have the tree chopped down. What on earth for I asked? She had been worried that the tree, which grew at an odd angle might trip her up.

Today the tree has  grown again, this time straight up and I can look forward to one day making apple pies again.

While I am on the subject of trees I might as well mention my lemon trees. I do love taking a stone or a pip from a fruit and growing something. I’ve grown quite a few lemon trees and I have two now, both grown from pips and both growing strong. They look good, I keep them well watered and fed but, no lemons. Liz bought me another lemon tree a while back. It was small but it came with about three small lemons. After a short while each of those lemons dropped off but no more have grown. It seems as though when it comes to lemons, I’ve got the kiss of death but if I could just grow a lemon, just one, it would really make my day.

My brother is planning to join me later. I’ve got a couple of lagers in the fridge and a chilli on the go in the slow cooker (gardening, blog writing and cooking: it’s been a busy day!) Tuesday, not much on TV tonight. Think I might just dig out my DVD of The Big Sleep!


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