Monday, 30 September 2013


I've been an idiot.
I threw away all the bullace stones. If I'd thought about it, I'd have kept them and planted.
But then again, is it just greedy?
I surely have been greedy in my restocking of the orchard. Ten odd years ago, when we came here, there were a couple of ancient plum trees, a couple more tatty and useless old culinary pear varieties, and a pair of Bramleys. It was the fruit tree equivalent of a sad Old People's home. Fruit trees only last seventy or eighty years, as a rule. Those here were well into retirement, apparently nearing the end. There they sat, nodding in the slightest breeze.
One met its end. A large pear, it fell in a westerly gale. It slewed the tree, with the debris spreading like an aircraft crash, south by east. If the wind had had a touch more south in it, the tree would have crashed through the southwest corner of the house, doing God knows what damage. When we inspected it, the tree was old, and rotten to its core. The inner wood was orange dust. Brittle, like the bones of an old person.
One of the Bramleys came down too. The story there has a different ending. The fallen tree, also apparently rotten, began shooting upward new boughs in a phototropic bid for life. Feeling sorry for the old lady, I selected the strongest looking bough, and cut back hard on all the others. Now it's eight or nine feet high, and very productive. Its roots are dubious, and the inner juices of the tree must run up from the ground through the old fallen trunk, big enough, old enough and mossy enough to sit a courting couple on it. It's really still an old, fallen tree, with one new limb which happens to point upwards. But now, the issue is stopping it. It is again so fecund. I need a ladder to cut it back and stop it interfering with the overhead electricity cable, which it threatens every couple of years.
To these few, I've added and added in a wanton combination of tree - pride, tree - gluttony and, most likely, more of the seven deadly tree- sins.
Plums, damsons, gages, eating apples, cherries, and even two mulberries as a kind of mad experiment, have filled the orchard. Only a walnut failed. Too much competition, I later discovered. And still I don't stop. Come an R in the month, and my mind runs feverishly to assess if there is any space for yet more. The Missus is mystified. It isn't as though we need the fruit. On the contrary, we're inundated. I bring back another young tree, or trees, for planting. She casts her eyes heavenwards.
A sensible family tree-fruit planting goes like this. One plum. One cooking apple (preferably dwarf or semi dwarf variety). One eating apple. At a stretch, two. Pears, nil. You'll never eat them. Cherries, forget it - the birds eat them all. More exoticism than that is not required. Anything more is just greedy.
And yet, and yet. Despite our gluts, there is endless pleasure in just having a various and copious orchard. Come May, its blossom is unspeakably beautiful. Its growth throughout the year is endlessly fascinating. In summer, it gives cool, shade, and places to hang a hammock. And right now all the fruit gives scope for tremendous artistry and experimentation.
I pause. I think about planting even more, If one is going to sin, an orchard is the original place to be tempted.

Saturday, 28 September 2013


When I discover something like this I get childishly excited. Nothing can prick the joy of the unexpected discovery. I am beaming.
I rarely spend any time at all in our meadow, though every time I enter its wild acres, it is time well rewarded. Today, in an utterly blue sky, three buzzards spread their white wing feathers wide and circled and cried at each other. A pair is commonplace. A threesome less so. And I virtually never see them above the meadow, because the rookery in the tall wood which fringes it on its south side contains enough avian hooligans to scare away pretty much any buzzard daring to come anywhere near. Oh, yes. Rook v. Buzzard. No contest. Rook every time. But the rooks were away, doing dodgy things, nicking stuff, raiding others, conning, scamming, roughing someone up, taking the piss, as only rooks can.
I stood awestruck, following the magnificent birds of prey cruising in the cloudless air. Stalling eastward into wind, then coursing in high downwind circles, they filled my attention. So that when I eventually turned my eyes more towards a normal horizontal, I almost missed the trees and their fruit. I'd never seen them before, but there they were, just at the edge of the rookery, and most probably established there by and because of the rooks themselves.
Bullaces. Blue, velvety, luscious looking treasure. For a moment I had a deadly nightshade moment - was I mistaking them? But I tentatively touched my finger into one, and then dipped it on my tongue. No mistaking that unique flavour. Then I was all over them, gathering the entire lot. And sucking quite a few there and then.
It was a discovery of treasure. It was a moment like on an African game drive when you suddenly see a big cat. Or a tiger in India. Wild. Natural. Nothing to do with you and all your works. Nothing you could or did make happen. Just wild England at her finest.
Tonight I squeezed out every stone, both my hands up to their wrists in bullace goo. An almost sexual thrill. And then I combined the goo with unreasonable amounts of sugar.
Tomorrow, on my toast, I will have butter and bullace jam. A treat which takes me back to childhood  and which I can't remember enjoying since.
My hands are stained. My skin is torn. There's bark and dust in my hair and eyes.
I am smiling.

Thursday, 26 September 2013


As an avid Greenland watcher, good to see an unusual export:

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


Langston Hughes can.


David Tress can.


If you are beating yourself up, who is doing the beating?
And who is being beaten?


Yesterday there was a fatality in the village. One of the local ladies died. The end was sudden. She was hit by a car, going northwards. The car could not stop in time. She was killed instantly.
I did not see the accident itself. But I had a gruesome look at the corpse. Not pretty.
The Mini Missus has been complaining recently that there are dangerous parts of this road. Indeed, aged seven, she has written to the Parish Council, to get some SLOW signs installed. Perhaps the death will galvanise the authorities into action.
I haven't told her about it. She'd be upset. She chases the ladies across our paddock. They, the ladies, are the guinea fowl. About a dozen or so in numbers, and spanning a couple of generations, they range freely about the village. Too freely, it seems. The deceased was of their number. Her body was being retrieved from the road by the farmer's wife, whose bottom lip was out, if not exactly quivering. I stopped. She looked at me with almost moist eyes.
"Casserole?" I asked.
"Casserole," she agreed.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013


Some of my friends are ill. Bad backs, aching joints, pulled tendons, torn muscles - a mini epidemic of tissue issues.
In all cases I have asked, "is there anything which seems to ease it?"
In all cases, the reply has been "well.... when I rest it."
But when I have then responded "well, why don't you just rest it?" the sufferers have looked at me like I come from Mars.
"No. That's just not possible," they say.
Instead, they opt for a range of medical interventions from physiotherapy, through steroid injections, to (at one extreme) multiple operations.
I find it difficult to understand this.
Everyone is in a rush to heal everything. This became obvious to me when I tore my rotor cuff muscles in my shoulder. I was beset with people advising me towards this or that or the other treatment. Not a single person said "wait for the body to heal itself" or "let the body take its own sweet time". But this was the advice I gave myself and I am happy that I followed it, in defiance of more invasive approaches.
I certainly have not always been adept at listening to my own body, and it's had its fair share of fags, alcohol, stress and other abuse. But the older, quieter, stiller I get, the more I believe the answer to ills comes, when heard, from within. This is clearly not a panacea. But it's a good starting point.

Monday, 23 September 2013

John Donne was wrong, I think.
Every man is an island.
We come in this world by parting connection.
We go out, all connection gone.
Throughout, we yearn for a primal intimacy which cannot be achieved.
Briefly we may experience it, but it slips forever beyond our lasting hold.
As the seabed connects islands, meaning no island truly is an island,
So, deeply hidden strata of connection are hinted at, and sometimes glimpsed.
But only when truly still and quiet,
Accepting everything that is,
Observing the unity in universe.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


The eight little gages which were the sole greengage harvest I stewed up with a little water into a hot sauce.
I ate this, poured onto vanilla ice cream.

Monday, 9 September 2013


I have a great admiration for swallows. They seem to have it right.
For a start, they summer in Britain and winter in North Africa. It is hard to know which bit of their life they regard as holiday. But at either end they have the best of things.
I believe (though some expert ornithologist will probably say I'm wrong) that the same birds return to the same nesting sites year after year.
It is hard to interpret their tuneful and clicking chatter as anything but happy.
Equally, though not given to anthropomorphism, they seem to exhibit a delight in the art of flying. And they certainly have to be admired for it. They're brilliant.
Then there is the Scandinavian belief that swallows only visit happy homes. Thus, at their arrival, as they shoot low along the hedges then soar and wheel, there is always the question, will they come to our place, do we qualify? Thus far, we've been blessed with their presence.
Now, with another change in the season, away from humid heat to a new norm of cool, clear sunny late summer days, spiced with each brown signal of Autumn's coming, and cooler, shorter evenings, the swallows gather. In large congregations, sharing the same wire, they click, tut and debate. Once again, it is difficult but to conclude that their debate now centres on whether to stay, whether to go. Whether their time here is done, and, by means we know not, it is the season for their navigation back to the Straits of Gibraltar, and across to the Atlas Mountains and beyond.
By coincidence, I am invited onto a yacht delivery. My leg looks as though it will from Portimao, Portugal to Palma, Mallorca. I am wondering whether I shall again meet my swallow tail friends.

Sunday, 8 September 2013


Last night. I stayed up making jam. The house was quiet. Just the odd owl hoot for company. I made two batches. The first, plum, in response to the glut hanging from the branches of the orchard. The second, plum and fresh ginger, an experiment.
Neither worked, adding to a list of niggling frustrations which have invaded the last few days and weeks.
Now I will have a couple of jars of short shelf life fruit spread. The rest will have to be junked. I think that to boil it up again, with even more sugar than the amazing amount already in it, will leave it tasting burned, stewed. More sugar, though, is what the recipe needs, even though it seems unbelievable that 2 to 1 fruit to sugar is insufficient to do the job.
When plums are ready, they are ready all of a rush. An orchard full of them creates a sense of panic in me, to get them in, consume them greedily, and concoct ways of getting their benefit. I've already made quantities of slivovitz and plum brandy. Stone fruit like plums seem to be year on, year off. It's a two year cycle, and knowing there will be an absence next year adds to the sense of urgency in harvesting. This year is year on for the plums. Year off for the greengages. I picked seven or eight yesterday and that's the lot. Last year, I took a load of gages onto a yacht, where they were greatly appreciated by the crew. One crewman cited them as a cure for seasickness. They are very special, green - golden little globes, but curative properties may be exaggeration.
I can remember my first acquaintance with Victoria plums. My Dad had an allotment. His next door neighbour had a Victoria Plum tree. It was adjacent to an untended, overgrown patch which was the only bit of ground left uncultivated by my Father. My sister and I called this the Jurma Bungle. God knows how we knew about Burma at that age. It was a play area for us, and therefore convenient for my Dad, as it created a space in our endless whining about how bored we were at the allotment. When in fruit, the neighbour's Victoria Plum tree was an irresistible magnet. We would lurk in the long grass of the Jurma Bungle and shoot out to steal a small handful of booty. Retribution in the form of the neighbour, who was a perennially grumpy sort, and from my Father, who, though never as far as I can recall, given to corporal punishment, was still to be feared. This just added shivers of excitement to an already enjoyable experience. I'm certain my Dad must have realised we were scrumping. There are times of course when the correct action is to see no ships. I can imagine this was one, as occupation of any kind for us kids meant that Dad could get on with proper gardening, uninterrupted.
I was puzzled about the name. Why Victoria plums? My Father explained. I remained sceptical. I thought Victoria plums were an invented over claim. The possibility that a plum would be named in affection for a monarch seemed remote to me. My Dad was often selling things to us with the notion that they were somehow special, in a way they plainly were not. For example, when we had ham, my Dad would sell it to us as Virginia ham. The exoticism appealed to us, and we'd cease picky eating and tuck in. Likewise, Garibaldi biscuits and other boring staples were sold as having, somehow, an exciting provenance. My Dad should have been in advertising. He had a copywriter's natural bent for simple yet memorable emotive benefits, wrapped in very few words.
It's not something I've inherited. But I have had a couple of compliments about my writing in the last week. One was from someone encouraging me to write a book. Very generous. The other came because a friend of mine lost his Dad recently. His Dad drove a Jaguar and I wrote him a letter about how his Dad resembled and fitted the marque of car he drove. Apparently, unknown to me, they read it out at the funeral. Not a dry eye in the House.
Now, jam. If one were into holistic metaphors, one could see my jam making as an analogy for how life is with me. Frustrating in circumstance though happy in mind. The experience of starting a new business over the last year or so has been in parts exciting, tasty, rewarding and deeply frustrating in that it has not yet tapped the deep rewards possible. To know one has cooked up a system which works brilliantly, is appreciated by users, and has huge benefits, is all well and good. But it is jam tomorrow. Why? Despite user enthusiasm, and organisation wide benefits, it gets closed down by gatekeepers who've never even bothered to witness it first hand. The jam hasn't set. The answer is plain to me. Like the jam, just adding more sugar would spoil it. Mere copywriting schmaltz will not hack it. Exoticism not required. More adjectives not needed. I'm just dealing with the wrong people. And that is a matter of positioning. So now, with efficacy in the bag, I need to go back to square one and reposition the whole thing to reach audiences who will listen and will care. Make a new batch. Then I think the thing will set solid. Jam, tomorrow, though, I'm afraid.