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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YouTube and The Final Cut

Ok, settle down, put your feet up. It’s time to reveal a great new slice of visual entertainment that has finally been released. Yes we know, I can hear you say, the new Bond film!  Bond film? No no, no. Forget about the Bond film, I’m talking about some serious movie making, my latest YouTube video!

Way back in the spring and again in the summer Liz and I motored off to France in our Ford Transit based motorhome. As usual I had my GoPro camera affixed to my driver’s window and along with my trusty Canon GX7 I built up a fair few reels of video footage.

I kept looking through it with a view to making it into some kind of video project but various things seemed to hold me back.

Firstly on our first trip to France we travelled through the French Jura and got caught in some spectacular and unseasonal snowstorms. I thought I had shot some spectacular footage only to find that the video files from that day would not play when downloaded to my laptop. I wasn’t happy.

My GoPro camera doesn’t seem to like to play ball when it has been left alone for a while and I’ve found just charging it up isn’t enough, It needs to be attached to my pc and and updated with the correct date and time and made a fuss of before it will function properly.

I slapped in a new memory card and the camera seemed in better shape for the rest of our travels but losing that video from the snowstorm still really winds me up. At one point it felt as though we were in a whiteout, the snow was falling so thickly it was like being inside a ping pong ball. Happily the snow cleared and an impressive army of snow ploughs and gritters cleared the area and we were soon back on route. No video footage though to liven up my videos.

Over the summer I started to put together a video but although I had a lot of film, not much of it was particularly inspiring and the loss of that snowstorm video really put a dampener on my enthusiasm.

Another thing that made the production difficult was that I like to use the old Windows Moviemaker which is why I’ve hung on to my old laptop. It’s easy to use and gives you a lot of control over your clips both visually and in terms of the sound track. The original soundtrack from the video can be edited as well as an additional music channel and a voice over channel. I tend to mix and match these channels so I can add a narration and music as well as adding sound effects all of which enhance the finished product.

Editing that sound!

Windows 10 comes with a new and completely different HD Movie Maker which I have never really got to grips with but I thought it was high time I did so I started the project off using the new software.

I have got the advanced rather than the free version and initially I found it pretty easy to use. Adding clips is pretty easy and they can be trimmed or split into two or more sections just like on the old program. There are various fades that can be used and just like the old version there is a music channel as well as a narration channel.

In the summer we visited the Retro Grand Prix in the village of Le Puy Notre Dame in France and I filmed a lot of stuff with my Canon GX7. The Canon is a really versatile camera both for still photography and video. In fact on the Internet it is noted for being the best vlogging camera around which is really why I bought it. Instead of bashing away at my laptop knocking out a new post every week I thought hey, I can just film a vlog instead. Well, I’ve since found it’s not so easy creating a vlog. To start with I’m not so good just talking off the cuff, I need to plan what I’m going to say which entails bashing away at my laptop once again. Vanity also comes into play as my youthful good looks are just not what they once were. Anyway, even though vlogging is not for me the GX7 is a great camera and I took some pretty good shots at the Retro Grand Prix with it so I decided that for my video project I would just concentrate on our trip there.

It’s vital to review your raw video footage first when creating a video project so what I tend to do is this; I’ll troll through everything I have shot and anything that I either like or think will add to the narrative I will add to the project. I tidy things up a little, eliminate the bad shots and then start to think about what I am going to say in the narration. What I usually do to start things off in that area is review the blogs I have written on the subject and start to see if they will fit the video. Then I will add to them and rewrite and finally a clearer picture of the project will begin to appear.

Next I usually record my narration direct to the video then export that as a sound file to my sound mixer where I cut out all my mumbles and ers and ahs, beef up the bass and the volume and then add it back to the project.

A big problem that appeared here was that when recording the narration on my new HP laptop on HD Movie Maker, my voice came out all tinny and clipped so it was back to my old laptop with the old Movie Maker and I recorded the narration again. Maybe the microphone is better on that older laptop. Next I produce the audio file in little sections, little clips, so I can move the narration about to fit the video. On the old Movie Maker this is easy as you can move the clips about with your mouse so they can be placed exactly where you want. On the new HD Movie Maker this is not possible although you have a delay button so you can move an audio file forward for however many seconds or milliseconds you want. Anyway after some time moving between laptops and editing programs I felt I was finally getting somewhere. Even so, a good few months had passed by at this point but I sometimes think it’s good to let a little time go by and so the project will coalesce in my mind resulting in what I like to think of as an organic result.

George Stevens was a Hollywood director who always edited his projects in a similar way. He directed among many other films Shane, the classic western with Alan Ladd and Giant the Rock Hudson/ Elizabeth Taylor film famous for being James Dean’s last film.

Stevens apparently received many threats on his life if he dared to cut any of Dean’s final scenes. He took his time and his films were always a masterclass in the art of editing.

Anyway, back to my little video. I finally reviewed the final cut and noticed that my narration, now slightly shortened after the excision of various mumblings now seemed to expose a typical piece of cheeky banter between myself and Liz. A little fun, but not something for the general public. Now on the old version of Movie Maker I could have faded out the video sound at that point but on the new version that wasn’t an option. I could either silence the whole clip but not fade it out. The solution was this: Silence the whole clip and add a sound clip, that of our motorhome exiting the car park of the french supermarket Intermarche, no doubt after purchasing a good few boxes of French wine ready to export back to Lancashire. A quick addition of some copyright free music from YouTube and there you have it, a new video for my YouTube channel.

Such a pity that Microsoft have seen fit to mess with Movie Maker. No doubt just when I manage to master the new HD Movie Maker they will replace it with something new.

It’s called progress . . .


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Every Picture Tells a Story

The world of digital photography is so easy and convenient. Point your camera and shoot. Upload to social media or your cloud storage and there it is. If your picture isn’t quite right you can lighten or darken it, straighten it, crop it, even delete it if you want and start again.

Things weren’t so easy in the film age. I used to be a pretty enthusiastic amateur photographer and I used to like taking pictures of, well anything really. I’ve tried my hand at portraits, still life and pretty much everything.

When I was a schoolboy my parents got me an Instamatic 126 camera for Christmas. Bit of a mistake on their part as they had to shell out for film and developing too, which must have been painful for them when they saw my first efforts at photography, and probably more so when the fruits of my ‘experimental’ pictures came back from the chemist.

In the 1980’s I had an Olympus OM10 then moved up to an OM2SP. The SP stood for spot programming where instead of accepting the average reading the camera’s light meter gave you, you could choose a particular spot in the image and take your light settings from that. Very useful in a picture with light and dark elements for instance.

I also used to have quite a few long lenses which I used at race circuits, particularly Oulton Park where I spent many a weekend watching and photographing racing cars. I must have looked really professional clicking on my wide-angle lens in the paddock and then switching to my 200mm long lens back on the circuit.

The big difference with photography today is that back then in the film era, you took your shot and then sent the film for developing and and printing and sometimes the results were good, but then sometimes they weren’t. To the developer though there was no difference between a bad shot and a brilliant one, they both cost the same!

Today you can shoot as many pictures as your memory card will hold, free of charge, no developing charges and as for printing, why bother? Just upload to your favourite social media page. If you take a bad picture you can edit it with imaging software. If the picture is too bad, delete it and shoot more. In fact the best way to take a great picture today is to take multiple exposures just like a professional, shoot a shed load of pictures and just delete the bad ones!

Four of my Favourite Pictures.

It’s hard to choose favourite pictures because I have so many of them, anyway, here are four chosen pretty much at random.

Bob the Dog.

I took this picture years ago with our old dog Bob with my Kodak Instamatic. We had such a lot of fun with that dog as children, me and my brother. He went everywhere with us. We took him on coach trips where he was always sick and my brother, my dad and I would deny ownership of him, all looking fixedly through the windows whilst my Mum apologised to everyone and cleaned up the mess.

Ayrton Senna Hockenheim 1988

Here’s a picture taken with my Olympus at the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in 1988. Senna was one of the great drivers of the day. Today he is revered as a legend of the sport but I think it’s fair to say that back in the day he really wasn’t that popular. I remember him being soundly booed at Silverstone in 1989 or 1990 but his talent was unquestionable.

The Greek island of Kalymnos

This is one of my favourite pictures and I did have it blown up and framed once but I must have lost it during various house moves. It was taken on holiday on the Greek Island of Kalymnos. I remember flying to some other island and having to take a ferry over to Kalymnos. The ferry though had to wait 2 hours for a delayed flight from London (those bloody southerners) and when we reached the island it was dark. Our apartment was up the side of a steep hill, right at the top and the rep told me lights would come on by a sensor when we got to the steps. After jumping up and down wildly for 10 minutes the lights did come on and I asked the rep to wait till we got to the top and found the keys. He assured me the keys were there but then drove off. Just at that moment the lights went out and stranded us in a deep velvety blackness. More jumping about and waving and the lights came on so we climbed the steps and finally bumbled into our apartment. Inside I opened the door to the patio and in the darkness of the all-enveloping night, I could sense something over the way. It was not until we awoke in the morning that we were finally able to take in the magnificent view.

Blackpool, Lancashire

This last picture was taken in Blackpool during a drive through of the Blackpool Illuminations. It’s a lovely colourful snap which captures the atmosphere of the lights. I took the picture with my GoPro camera but I have a confession to make. I was trying making a video of the lights and when I set up the camera I didn’t have my reading glasses with me and couldn’t quite make out the tiny menu and accidentally set the camera up to take stills instead of video. The resulting pictures were actually a surprise!


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

 

 

Adventures with a Camera

Instamatic

My old Kodak Instamatic

I have always been a photographer. My first camera was either a birthday or Christmas present and it was a Kodak Instamatic 126. I still have the camera somewhere. From my point of view that was a wonderful present; from my parents perspective, perhaps not, because back then in the late sixties cameras needed film and film had to be developed and printed which was fairly costly, especially if you had a child that liked taking pictures and also, whose first attempts were not so good. These days if you take some dud pictures with a digital camera- delete them! It’s no big deal. Back then it was expensive!

I remember getting a major verbal lashing from my Mum when we had gone to Boots to collect my photographs. I was using colour film and Mum had to shell out for my pictures of my action man in various poses in the back garden! (Action man? Hey, I was 12!)

Bob the Dog.

Bob the Dog.

Here’s one of my favourite pictures, it’s our old dog Bob. You can read more about Bob in this previous post but he was a lovely dog, part Manchester terrier and part something else. My brother and I, well the whole family really, had a lot of fun with him and one day I caught him sitting in the sun in the back garden, slipped a pair of sunglasses on him and there he is, saved for as long as that black and white snap will last.

imageZenith TTL

I was in my twenties before I got my next camera. I bought it from a work colleague who was upgrading and the camera came with a huge 200mm lens, some filters and other bits and pieces. As you can see by this next picture I became really hooked on photography and starting buying camera magazines and books and really learning how to use a camera. I enjoyed taking special effects shots such as double exposures and hand firing the flash in darkened rooms with the camera shutter open. Also I used to take a lot of still life shots such as this one of my camera kit and books.

Olympus OM10Olympus OM10

As I gained more confidence I naturally wanted to upgrade. The camera I chose was an Olympus OM10. As time went on I gradually accrued quite a collection of lenses and filters. In the 1980s I was really keen on motor sport and I spent a lot of Sunday afternoons at Oulton Park racing circuit in Cheshire. Silverstone, the home of the British Grand Prix is not so photographer friendly with high fences and the spectators kept back from the track in the interests of safety. Hockenheim, the venue for this weekends German Grand Prix was a circuit I visited in 1988 and I took some great pictures there.

Prost

Alain Prost, McLaren Honda 1988

I had a motorwind and a zoom lens and I took some great shots of cars out on the circuit as well as some with my wide-angle lens in the paddock. (Not the paddock at Hockenheim I might add, even in 1988 it was far too expensive for me but Oulton Park’s paddock used to be pretty easily accessible, and fairly cheap.) Later, I bought an Olympus OM2SP, a little more sophisticated than the OM10 but still pretty easy to use.

Nikon DSLRDigital

I started the digital era with a canon powershot camera and then a Fuji that I picked up second-hand. My first and so far only digital DSLR is a Nikon D100. It’s still a fairly old-fashioned camera; it has the old style flashcard. I bought it on e-bay and I’m really happy with it. I do so love the digital camera age. With digital you can shoot like a professional, bracket your shots and take those extra frames to make sure you have captured your shot perfectly. No need to hold back or worry about running out of film, no need to worry about developing and printing costs. Cover yourself by taking shot after shot and just delete the unwanted ones. Even if they are not quite right, once the image is on your laptop or pc you can re-size, brighten, sharpen, add or take away colour. I’m so glad I have kept all my older, slightly poorer shots because now I can scan them and sort them out with my ten-year old version of photoshop or even with free editing sites like picmonkey. You can even take some of your pictures and convert them to a gif at sites like http://gifmaker.me/

As a blogger, photographs brighten up my blog posts and pull the reader in. On Twitter and Facebook, posts with images pull in 94% more views than posts without a relevant image. That’s a pretty staggering statistic so get out your camera today, even if it’s just your smartphone camera, and get snapping!


If you liked this post, why not try my book, Floating In Space? Click the links at the top of the page for more information or here to go straight to my amazon page.