Monday, 2 December 2013

A Travelogue: Disco Lightning and Other Stories

This is a not-necessarily-linear tale of a road-trip in France; there is the odd toll gate on the way. Quite a lot of ‘80s music and fast cornering. Tomatoes. Wildlife. To be honest, it is fairly abstract. You can leave if you like. 

The Beginning, Folkestone, later than anticipated, July
“It’s not the Nürburgring* you know!”  the man said, sternly.
Hurtled to a halt. Sheepish, muttered apologies....late...made check-in by clear 30 seconds....embarrassed cough...continued towards customs.


Disco Lightning – Paris and South, 2-5am, July

Surprisingly, underneath the most romantic city in the world is a labyrinth of dark underpasses, packed with fast moving traffic. Diverted off the motorway, I stuck to the tail of the crazed lorry driver in front. Screeching round corners, heading south. My great uncle’s theory was that if you get lost driving in London you should follow a taxi. Same difference in Paris (more or less), except that I was also following signs to Orly airport.

The 2am mid-summer sky had blackened and flashes of lightning punctuated the cityscape in a pleasingly cinematographic fashion, and intensified for 100km south until the downpour arrived. The autoroute turned into a river and the lightning became a continuous flickering illumination. The effect of driving through a very wet ‘80s disco, was enhanced by Wham! The Final** on the stereo.

Strange things happen when playing with itunes late at night after a few pre-holiday drinks. But there is more to this than purely atrocious taste in music.*** My early teen years were punctuated by trips to the Isle of Man where we and our cousins were turfed out of bed in London at silly o’clock, slung into the back of a campervan and driven to Liverpool. The soundtrack to this was in the hands of a younger relative who was massively into Wham! and our grandmother who favoured Abba, and The Beatles (other than that blasphemous John Lennon and his Imagine song****). I recollect some Chas and Dave as well, but it may have been delirium.
So. Not atrocious taste in music, just the lasting effect of atavistic dawn road trips. Honest. That, and having already used up any lively surplus of rock, metal, ska and more up to date pop. There was some sort of fight between Lady Gaga and The Scissor Sisters at one point. It was 4am by this point. Anything could happen.

Some notes on Natural History, France, Saturday
  • The French for bat is chauve-souris. (Discovered this last year. When I also told a friend’s daughter who was starting to learn German that bat poo is Fledermaus Scheiβe. Well, I was amused). Lots of ‘em about, anyhow.
  • The French for moth is Papillion du nuit. The debate on day-flying hummingbird hawk moths and cinnabar moths did not reach a satisfactory conclusion.
  • “Je regrette, nous sommes complet” said the garcon. “How can they be full when they have lots of seats and everything?” Asked my son as we went for icecream instead. Now that is what I call a formative cultural experience.

The Dordogne and Tomatoes, France, Saturday

The Dordogne is lovely. Just lovely.  All nut orchards and pretty villages, bread and cherries. They are thoroughly kinky about topiary in this region. Even the retail parks have crisp, crenellated hedging. Very exciting.

Also exciting are tomatoes: tasty, brilliant and they double as goldfish in a bag.

It was here that the cafetière met with an accident. Have you ever tried to buy a ‘French press coffee maker’ in France? Don’t bother, they don’t have them – or at least not in normal places like shops. Pour faire du camping, one must acquire a filter-thing and extemporise.

 Lascaux II, Sunday
When I was about nine, I had a book called Mammoths, Mastodons and Man. In fact I still have it.  I read it until it practically fell to bits. It spoke, amongst other things, of cave paintings in the Dordogne and I also had another book on how the study of palaeontology developed and key discoveries were made.

In 1940, a group of boys in France came across the most fabulous cave paintings in the world, while looking for a lost dog near the village of Montignac. I have wanted to visit the site ever since. But before I was born the caves were closed; with visitors had arrived algae, fungi and carbon dioxide which had affected the art and it looked like it would be damaged irreparably.
The slightly bonkers, but very effective solution was to build an exact replica of the cave, every curve and contour reproduced to within millimetres, and to recreate the original paintings using the same materials as the original Palaeolithic artists.

I am cynical of this sort of stuff, and dislike the Disneyfication of heritage enormously, but actually Lascaux II works. You can see it, experience it, comprehend how the artists used the contours of the rock to inform the shape of the animals they were painting. You are actually underground; the air is damp and cold. Ambition more or less achieved.

Further Notes on Natural History, Perpignan, three days later
  • The very south of France where it joins Spain is, relatively speaking outside my comfort zone. Unlike England, things are like, totally dry. Many plants have reduced or leathery leaves to limit water loss so it is a bit like pitching up in a Biology demonstration. And rather than strolling around contentedly scoffing plants, snails congregate like clusters of calcareous flowers on the twigs in the super-littoral zone, aestivating to retain water in the baking heat. It is a different world.
  • Turns out les garçons do not like it much when a lady driving a heavily laden seven-seater with roofbox and a GB number plate overtakes them. But this is not confined to France.
  • Swallowtail butterflies are too lovely to be real.

The Loire Valley, five days after that...

Visiting the Chaumont-sur-Loire garden festival was the fulfilment of another long-held ambition. I liked it so much I wrote it up for The Telegraph. I will probably go back. 


The Millau Viaduct

This is a viaduct that is so epic that if you type 'massive viaduct' into google it is the first thing that comes up. The A75 through central France is not the fastest motorway in the history of the universe but it is one of the most interesting. You drive up and up and up, eventually going through a mountain, then with no warning the ground just vanishes and you are suspended on a miracle of engineering shouting 'Wow! look at that! No, not you, you are driving. But wow!". If you ever get the chance, go.

This is some of what happened. There may be more but I doubt it.



* For those more into gardening than motor racing, the Nürburgring is a circuit in Germany.

** The Wham! Rap: “Wham! Bam! I am! A Man! Job or no jo-ob you can’t tell me that I’m no-ot. Do? You? Enjoy what you do? If not. Then stop. Don’t stay there and rot./Dancing shoes and pretty girls, boys in leather kiss girls in pearls.” He’s gay – who knew?

***I have broad musical tastes. Only some of it is atrocious.

****There is only so long that one can try and explain.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Retail Therapy

This is Dorney Court Kitchen Garden in Berkshire: a design-led independent nursery with equally good plants and cake

There is a bunch of new kids in town. Pretenders to the horticultural sales throne lining up for a slice of the plant-purchase pie; supermarkets and high street retailers are jostling into the base of a pyramid of gardening expertise which is topped by artisan nurseries and with garden centres, DIY sheds and their ilk piled up variously beneath.

So how are they doing? Donning a large hat and fake moustache dark glasses, I embarked on a little espionage.  First stop was a new budget supermarket that has opened in town I have been told great things about their simple, desirable range of stock nothing too complex...‘flying off the shelves’ was the message I got. I tend to champion specialists and the little guys, but I was open minded.

Until I got there. Exhibit A was a Dutch trolley of wilted petunias. The box cones at about a tenner...were just a bit too sad looking. Twine, wire and chemicals were well priced but the roses and fruit were desperate. A tragedy of etiolated shoots and withered foliage. Then I was tempted: Malus sargentii ‘Red Sentinel’ for £4.99. But it was illustrated with a picture of M. ‘John Downey’ and, given the time of year really should have been showing a little more life. No.

Warming to my mission, I proceeded up the high street to another budget retailer of (the sort of place, where you can buy everything from taps to cushions to dog food). In my capacity as regional horticultural busybody, have told them about their plants before, so the potatoes sprouting out of the packet were no real surprise. Unsubtly checking the cardboard tubes of perennials and fruit, one hit the floor. A nice assistant came to help pick it up. “Thank you” I said “By the way, I think you should know that most of your plants are dead”; “No, no they are not” he assured me “they are supposed to be like that. We don’t water them because they are...” “Dead” I finished for him. Not dormant. Really not. The olive was a withered stick, the cranberry was just a circle of miserable mould in the compost. Even the raspberries were dead and it is hard to kill those even if you want to.

 His expression combined ‘nonplussed and disbelieving’ perfectly as he thanked me for the feedback. I doubt the shelf will be cleared.*

My final stop was at the other end of town, both socially and geographically.** Here, the plants were looking much better. They were outside for a start and although the range was pretty limited, they had at least been watered.*** But the price for a similar (healthier) box cone was getting on for 2.5 times the budget supermarket competition, on a par with the average garden centre, which perhaps better reflects true costs - or maybe approach to profit, who knows.

Which brings me to my conclusion: £1.79 for a large tray of small plants or a fiver for a tree is a bargain, but It Is Only A Good Deal If They Are Alive.

I took this picture at Edulis Nursery in Berkshire which has fascinating edible plants and plentiful expertise.
And now, if you will forgive me, I am going to have a rant.

What concerns me is that the people who are buying these high street convenience plants are unlikely to be the experts, they are not likely to be the people who can coax a shrivelled specimen back from the brink. And let’s face it, after last year who wants to be bringing plants back from the brink? For my own part I want absolutely everything I plant this year to thrive, grow vast and lush, untroubled by slugs and laden with glorious fruit and flowers. As an experienced gardener I know that is ambitious at the best of times, but I can’t quite be doing with Lazarus plants right now.

Tempted by fashion for grow your own, a desire for a lovely garden or faux-bargainous-ness people will buy this stuff. They may not realise the plant is dead, particularly if they are assured to the contrary by ill-informed shop staff. It is an exercise in disappointment and de-motivation. The retailer risks turning off a sector of the gardening public who may believe that the fault is theirs, may never know that Saint Titchmarsh himself could never have made that particular stick burst into life. It is another small tragedy of crushed hope when gardening should be the very opposite. Nobody gains.

Like food and fashion, the buyer does not get a decent, wholesome or healthy product if prices are held artificially low and staff not even minimally skilled. Like food, you get a better plant if you buy it at a decent price from the person who grew it and can tell you how to care for it/cook it – or at least someone who met him once. To quote Captain Vimes’**** boots theory, if you spend good money on a decent pair of boots it will last you ten years. If you spend half as much on your boots you will need to replace them every year or so and end up spending much more. Captain Vimes would have had a few things to say about the false economy of spending money on boots that were not fit to wear.

I will hold my hands up, I have rescued (alive) plants from inexpert retail hands before, but until they sort it out I vow to harden my heart*****. I may, in passing, pick up some inanimate object such as twine or organic plant food on the high street, but in the same way as life is too short to drink bad wine, eat bad chocolate or wear wellies with holes in, life is too short to buy doomed plants. Fact.


*I went back ten days later. The plants were all still there.

**The first time I turned up at 9.30am it was shut though. Not yet up to speed with gardening o’clock.

***And to be fair, given the scale of their celebrity hook-up, woe betide them if they muck it up.

****Thank you Terry Pratchett

***** I’m sticking with traditional nurseries, garden centres and the mail order suppliers. If you tell them that a bulb, plant or tuber is dead on arrival they will pop another in the post rather than tell you that it is supposed to be soft and slightly fluffy at this time of year.


Friday, 1 February 2013

The Essential Apocalypse Skillset

Let me tell you a story.

Several years ago, I was painting the bathroom of a house in Bristol. The window was open and it was a pleasant sort of day and people were wandering past. Around about four o’clock I heard a couple of sets of feet come down the hill and then stop.
“Look, cherries!” said one voice (female, mid to late teens).
“No, I don’t think they are. They can’t be.” Said the other, doubtfully (ditto).
“Well, they look like cherries. Let’s try them!”
“No, they are probably berries. Completely different. Some of them are not red, they are blackish. They are probably poisonous.”
“Oh. Yes, I suppose so.” (disappointed)
The feet moved on. I looked out of the bathroom window at the large and heavily laden cherry tree leaning over the wall of the garden opposite and wondered what the world was coming to.

Red Sky in the Morning, Shepherds Warning ((c) N Slade)

I am actually still wondering. When my grandfather was a child, he and his brothers (and a dog) ran pretty much wild over north London from Wood Green to Hampstead in one direction and to the Lea Valley in the other. They scrambled and scrumped, fell in ponds, hit things with sticks and helped themselves to whatever was not nailed down or closely guarded by [insert early 20th Century Cockerney cliché of choice]
When I was a child, we picked nuts, mushrooms and blackberries from the fields and hedges; radishes and blackcurrants from the garden; bilberries from the hills and threw ourselves into every moving body of water or up every available mountain without let or hindrance. Once we even found wild honey in a fallen tree.
I read the blog of m’esteemed colleague Mark Diacono recently...well about last July... and very interesting it was too. It was all about sustainability, crop growth and if I busk over much of the content the essential survival of the human race*. In more recent news the story was that half the world’s food is thrown away. Seriously? How can this possibly have happened? (And, to quote Mrs Bennett in Pride and Predudice, what will become of us all?).
I was left thinking ‘when the revolution comes...’
When the revolution comes...what?

Well, the people who can’t spot a cherry tree at twenty paces (or more) and the people who won’t eat a turnip because it is a bit cracked, or a spotty apple, are going to be truly buggered.
When the revolution comes, the skills that go with finding your own food (or indeed useful parts of your anatomy with both hands), growing your own food, remembering that water is not necessarily clean, endless and drinkable are going to be quite useful, actually. Initiative and practicality – and frankly having a bit of old-fashioned common sense – are going to reap dividends. I am not being smug about an unorthodox upbringing which, retrospectively, seems to have involved spending a lot of time getting wet. I’m not for a moment suggesting that urban kids all need to know how to forage for pignuts or select the correct edible lichen. But I have no bones about encouraging an ability to spot luxury tree fruit without a polythene wrapper.

Apparently a society is only three meals away from anarchy, so in about two and a half meals time when we all sit up and realise that we have carelessly thrown away the next three, then what?
For those of a paranoid bent who revel in an imagined or real dystopian future, I prescribe gardening, foraging and cooking skills. Forget stacking tins of beans and petrol in a bunker. How long do you actually want to live and what will you do when your hoard runs out? Fundamental needs include food, water and shelter. So better add basic carpentry and rope-making to the list of common sense basics.**

In the meantime it is time for an idiocy review.*** When this much food gets wasted and thrown away – perhaps not even harvested – all other conversations about food security are rendered virtually meaningless. Throwing away veg because they are misshapen is lunacy: as my foodie friend Deborah Robertson says – it is food not a fashion contest. Or to put it another way, a knobbly potato looks just great souped, mashed, chipped or Dauphanoised. They are all the same under their clothes.
Vegetables are alive things grown outside. They are going to be uneven, cracked, blemished or even (whisper it) a little bit eaten by animals. Get a sharp knife, a good cookery book, light a fire if you need to and get on with it.

Art on Fire. (c) N Slade 

 PS, some time back I said my next blog post would be about the devastation slugs wreaked upon my squash crop. I’m bored of that now but let it just be said that it was not a terribly good year.


*I am not going to reiterate the science, apart from to say that it is a pretty complicated chemical, climatic, geographic and cross-species equation but anyone who thinks that the outputs of using chemical fertiliser on land are energy-neutral in terms of input should perhaps do a spot more research.

** they tell me you can use nettles to make rope, if you were wondering.

***While we are on basics and the apocalypse is still pending, and while we are waiting for the next e-coli etc outbreak, I would like to take this opportunity to mention that one can substantially reduce ones chances of pathogenic bacteria in food if you cook it hot, eat it fresh and don’t spray with faecal waste or raw meat juices before serving. Just saying.