Monday, July 31, 2006

Level playing field, smoke tree, toad

"On a level playing field it is easier to move the goal posts." From the sayings of Joe Plutarch.

There is a shrub in two neighbouring gardens, which has dark copper, almost purple foliage. and feathery flower or fruit stalks which seem to hover over it like little clouds. It is called, as I discover to day, Cotinus or smoke tree.

On my way back from the vegetable garden I meet a toad on the terrace. It sits dead still and I think at first it is a garden ornament. I look at it and speak to it gently but it ignores me completely.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

No rain, nicotiana, bumble bees

It was supposed to rain this morning. Instead, a fine, blowy summer day with sunshine and white clouds. A good day for pottering in the garden, and potter we do.

There are two varieties of nicotiana, which I grew from seed this year. Both are now in flower. One has small cup-shaped flowers, pale green on the outside of the petals, and inside the colour of old claret, almost brown. The other, more unusual variety, has a remarkable corolla, cream on the outside, joined to form, above the calyx, a longish tube, which opens to form small, dark green, trumpet shapes, where carpels and stamens nestle, deep within, barely larger than pinheads. Green flowers, these.

There are lots of bumble bees around this year, such lovely creatures, minding their own business, in the lavender.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Romeo and Juliette, pub, ignorance

I do not claim to be a smoker, but every now and then, I have a cigar. Once a year I am given a box of 25 Romeo and Juliettes; they last more than a year. We'll put you down as a non-smoker says the doctor, which is fine by me. But what a pleasure, on day like to day, to taste the mellow tobacco, while sitting in the garden with book. The nicotiana, which is just coming into flower, looks on with interest.

In the pub a young man, settles onto a bench, a pint on the table in front of him, with the words: "There's nothing better than a pub on a summer evening." He is right.

The more I read Montaigne the more I love him. He is balanced, entertaining, witty and, though he purports to make judgements only about himself and based on his own experience, modest, honest and unpretentious. Just now I note: "to recognise one's own ignorance is one of the best and surest signs of judgement that I know."

Friday, July 28, 2006

Rowan, dog walks alone, herb fragrances

You might say that it's a premature sign of Autumn. The rowan berries are turning orange. A starling, plunging into the tree, has noticed too.

I meet a dog walking on its own, very business like. What sort of dog?I would say that there is something in its gait that suggets a Staffordshire bull terrier, but it lacks the machismo to qualify for the whole works. As it enters the Grove it raises a leg and pees agains a bollard which bears the notice "Keep your dog on a lead".

I sit surrounded by herbs, rub leaves between finger and thumb and breathe in.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

a couple of drips, why do I like Flaubert so much? camoflage

We're sitting outside a pizza restaurant in the High Street. It is overcast and humid. Water seems to be condensing in the air. A waitress approaches us: "A couple of drips!" she says. "Oh, I didn't mean it like that!."

This morning I read, in Flaubert's letters to George Sand (written June 1867), where he is talking about the hatred that all "champions of order" feel for those who are outside the core of communal life. "Being always on the side of minorities, " he writes, " I am infuriated by it. It's true that many things infuriate me. The day I stop being indignant, I'll fall flat on my face like a puppet when you take away its prop."

In the garden, I pick the climbing beans with difficulty because they are so well camoflaged by their similarity in colour and appearance to the stems of the plants. This goes for the purple stems of the Blauhilde beans and the green stems of the Cobra beans. Even the flowers of the Blauhilde are of a rich purple. The difficulty of spotting the beans adds to the pleasure of picking them. It is like looking for and finding semi-precious stones or fossils.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

a dish of vegetables, bhudda, long laugh

Unlike their supermarket equivalents, the carrots and turnips from the garden, are marred by the occasional worm hole and come in different shapes and sizes. I cut round the holes and chop them into equal cubes. I soften these in a deep frying pan with olive oil, some finely chopped shallots, and seasoning. Next are added this morning's crop of little green and yellow courgettes sliced into tidy disks and these too are sweated for a little until the final stage of the dish, which is to add a liberal quantity of home made chicken stock, and some basil leaves. The heat is turned up and the stock is reduced while the vegetables continue to cook. In a few minutes the stock has become an unctuous glaze in which the vegetables rest. The dish goes well with grilled chicken. If I had had a bottle of dry Alsace Riesling, that is what we would have drunk with it, but the last one had gone, alas.

At the corner of a lawn in front of one of the houses in Mount Sion a little fat Bhudda has appeared to turn our minds to higher things.

As I pass an open window I hear a woman's prolonged laughter, then catch sight of her, smiling, phone in hand; the laughter continues, much as an engine may continue turning after it has been switched off.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

watering, sarcasm, swallow's wing

The pleasure of watering is to see the stream from the can absorbed by the dry soil, and to sense roots reaching for the moisture under the surface.

There is a regular spot in The Independent newspaper called Days like These, consisting of brief extracts from letters and diaries. Last week, on July 21 to be precise, it surprisingly described Thomas Macauley as "the French novelist". In today's paper is a letter from Bernard Sharp: "So was Voltaire a Welsh acrobat?" he asks.

A solitary swallow comes into view in the sky above the roofs for a split second. The evening sun catches the underside of its wing and shows it, golden brown, as it wheels and disappears.

Monday, July 24, 2006

linked by music, purple and green, cherry stones

Two little teenage girls share an ipod-type portable music player tucked into the top of the jeans of one them. Separate wires take the sound to their different ears, as they walk, side by side, though Calverley Park, joined by a sound that others can't hear.

In the vegetable garden I pick the first climbing French beans, a dark purple variety and a green. The purple is called Blauhilde and the green, Cobra. Once upon a time, a witch called Blauhilde fell in love with a prince called Cobra, and ...

Eating cherries in the garden and throwing the stones into flower beds is bad behaviour, in theory at a rate. But I am grown up and the flower beds are mine, and the cherries too; and the worst that can happen is that cherry trees will grow there.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

sounds of a summer night, flying seeds, sad flesh

I sit in the semi-darkness and listen to the sounds of people living - in gardens, courtyards, patios, by open windows. The warmth of the summer night mutes ordinary sounds. You hear: relaxed voices, gentle laughter, the occasional yap of a dog, cry of a child, voice of a tv news presenter; on some soundtrack, you detect, its source unexplained, the last post; overhead, an aeroplane; on the road a car passes, its tyres mysteriously hushed by the heat.

Late at night, I hear a wind get up, a prelude to a storm, and, through the bedroom window, open beneath the blind, which is not quite lowered, catch sight of winged seeds from the lime tree, floating past in the light from the street lamp, like snow flakes.

Just at the moment my favourite poem is Brise Marine ( Sea Breeze) by Mallarme. I can't get it out of my head.

The flesh is sad, alas! And I have read all the books.
To get away, far away! I sense the urge of drunken birds,
To swoop through unknown foam, and distant skies...

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Fish and chip queue, notes in the dark, meal in the rain

From the pub opposite, I watch the queue outside the fish and chip shop. A mixture of old, and young, bright and faded. The straggling crowd seems relaxed in the warm evening, though there does seem to be a straightening of backs, a more upright and eager angle of inclination in people as they near the counter. Service is inevitably slow; orders are large and complex; and then emerging from the shop door in the opposite direction to the queue, comes a succesful purchaser bearing in his arms, as though it were a treasured baby, a pile of tidily wrapped parcels.

In the garden, I write notes in the dark. Heavy drops of water condense in the humid air. Later I will be interested to see what I have written.

To day on the terrace outside the Spotted Dog, Heidi, Toby, Kim Jet and I , sit under a sunshade in the perpendicular rain and eat fish and chips. Through a gap in the trees over the nettles and pink and white policeman's helmet, we can see through more distant hedges and trees fragments of Penshurst and the weald in which it lies.

Friday, July 21, 2006

streams meet, spot-lit moths, paired words

In the bathroom basin I notice that the shiny convex plug reflects the stream of water from the tap, coming up towards it. At a certain rate of flow, the reflected and the real streams seem to meet and to flow into one another.

Remembering Fidelio on Wednesday evening, I recall moths flitting in and out of the spotlights, as Beethoven's music floats up toward them.

Anomalous words, which sound attractive at first glance, are often paired, some in hope and some in error, some in both. In Morrison's supermarket the words "succulent mangoes" used to describe rock-hard, unripe fruit, fall so neatly into both categories, that I cannot withold a frisson.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Shades of youth, sheep and people, let gravity take the strain

Watching people of my own generation milling about outside the opera house, I see in their aged faces, shadows of their former youth.

On the main lawn at Glyndebourne are groups of people with picnics. Beyond them, separated by a ha-ha, is a field of sheep, and beyond that, woods and downland. England on a warm summer evening. Something to be sentimental about? Perhaps. But certainly a pleasure to be there.

There seems to be a new development in design. First, it was toothpaste tubes, which once you had to roll up at the bottom to extract the last squeeze of paste .(Does that age me?) Now you have plastic containers withbroad-based caps, which can be stood on end so that the last remnants of the paste flow into and reside in the nozzle. Mayonnaise and salad-cream manufacturers seem to have copied the idea. The bottles, though more or less of the traditional shape, now have wide tops, and the label invites you to stand them on their heads, and so avoid the frantic shaking necessary when you get to the end of a container, which has been standing on its base. To this end, even the labels on the containers have have been reversed, so that at first they appear to be upside down.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Flying ants, swinging lavender, stopped clocks

The early evening air is full of flying ants. The sunlight catches their wings so that at first the ants, in their uneven flight, resemble thistle down.

A single stem of lavender swings in the still evening air as though it is moved by the wind. A bee has just left it for another.

From my Dictionary of Common and Uncommon Sense: Even when they have stopped clocks are right twice every 24 hours. But not for long.

Monday, July 17, 2006

wood pigeons, swifts, Typoo's tyger

Says the wood pigeon: " Coo, cooo, coo, coo. Coo." Every bloody morning.

In one window of the sky this afternoon there are swifts, high above the lime tree and the roof of the house opposite, advertising their presence by their sharp cries. In the other window there are house martins.

A life size wooden tiger with an organ-like mechanism inside it simulating predatory roars and the screams of a doomed European pinned by four huge paws, apparently attracted the attention of Gustave Flaubert at the East India Company museum in Leadenhall Street, when he was in London in 1851. It is mentioned in the new biography of Gustave Flaubert by the American Frederick Brown.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

plastic buckets, silence, shade

I like the plastic buckets (especially the green ones) now available for gardeners. They are good for collecting rubbish and transporting compost and the like, but cannot compare with traditional, Sussex trugs, when harvesting fruit and vegetable and cutting flowers.

Listen to silence. It can be informative.

The pleasure of sitting in the shade and doing nothing.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

scallops and potatoes, fuschia, dead fish

A dish of newly lifted, very small potatoes, rubbed, scraped, and boiled, tossed with lightly sauteed scallops and dressed with a cream and tarragon sauce.

The scarlet and purple flowers of the fuschia hang and tremble like earings.

Proverb of the day. Only dead fish swim with the tide.

Friday, July 14, 2006

solitary skateboard, hydranger blue, hoodie

I see a skateboard abandoned on the grass. It is distinctly lonely.

The blue of blue hydrangers is the blue of Mediterranean skies and says everything that needs to be said about blue.

I see a hoodie. I've nothing against hoodies. In the winter when it's cold I might be inclined to wear a hood myself. It seems a good way to hide your identity, and why shouldn't you? But I am glad that I am not a member of the Conservative party whose leader wants its members to hug hoodies. Even if I were a member, I wouldn't. Even if there were a hoodie I wanted to hug, I wouldn't hug it until it adopted a less intrusive item of a headwear. And if I were hoodie, the last thing in the world I would want is to have a chubby conservative envelope me in its arms. So where is the beautiful thing that has given rise to this observation? Not entirely beautiful perhaps, but it's amusing ( isn't it?) to spot what is ridiculous in the slogans which assault us from all sides.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Maltesers, thistle, leaves in cobweb

I suppose I have known Maltesers, those spherical chocolates with honeycombe centres which melt away in your mouth, for most of my life, though I haven't eaten one for years. Today, those taste memories are sparked by something I didn't know existed - Malteser ice cream. On one of those spikes, which are fixed on walls to stop intruders, someone has speared an empty Malteser ice cream carton. All those years ago, when I used to buy the little packets of Maltesers decorated with photographs of the chocs, it never would have occurred to me that someone would one day merge them with and sell them as an icecream.

What a magnificent thing is the thistle, in particular the Spear Thistle, which stands tall and upright pricking the air, surmounted, by its bold, purple crown-like flowers! My flower book lists no fewer than 18 varieties of thistle, of which the Melancholy Thistle appeals rather for its name than for its appearance. The flower head droops at first, hence the name Melancholy.

In a newly woven cobweb between the wing mirror and the door of a parked car are three yellowing leaves vibrating gently in the breeze.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

blackbirds again, hazels, bubbles

For the last two years, blackbirds have nested in the wisteria next to our front door. On both occasions nestlings hatched on the last day of Wimbledon. In the build up to Wimbledon we watched, carefull not to disturb any birds that might be nesting, but no one appeared to be there. Now it seems that a female is sitting on a well hidden nest, but in contrast with previous years, she has seemed nervous every time the door is closed, and flies out straight into the neigbouring bay tree. Is she sitting on eggs? Will she continue to put up with our comings and goings, as have previous tenants of the wisteria? And is it too late to raise a family if that is what she is doing?

Squirrels invariably pick and crack open the hazel nuts which grow agains the wall of the vegetable garden before there is any sign of a kernal. In vain do I look every year for just one nut filled out to maturity. This year however I see a branch bearing several nuts pushing through the roof vent of the greenhouse. Perhaps a nut or two will survive.

Bubbles float across the Grove from somone's garden. At first, they catch the sunlight and shine like fine silver, then, as they reach the end of their brief lives, they lose their reflective qualities, and become stark circles before vanishing.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

In the gutter, turnips, namesake

Some days a go I referred here to a narrow strip of front garden which had been sown with wild flowers. This mini-meadow has died back in the dry weather and its dead remains been raked up and left in an unsightly heap. A few yards down the road, however, some of the seed have found a new home, grown up and flowered in the gutter. Parked cars must have prevented the seedlings being swept up by the road cleaners. What did Oscar Wilde say about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars?

What a lovely contrast in colour are the turnips which I planted in the Spring and are now ready for harvesting! Beneath an umbrella of coarse, green leaves, the upper part of the root is purple, the lower part, white.

Opening at random the Penguin Classics edition of Montaigne's essays, I find a passing reference to my namesake. Of Plutarch, he says, "of all the authors I know, he is the best at combining art with nature, and judgement with knowledge". Something to live up to!

Monday, July 10, 2006

The mouse and the frog, embrace, lavender

A photo and short paragraph quoted in The Week shows a mouse taking a lift from a frog. Apparently the mouse escaped drowning by leaping on to the back of the frog, which was passing, when monsoon rains caused a river in Lucknow, India to burst its banks. It's the sort of story children like to hear and which you like to tell them.

Coming down the hill I see a couple engaged in an embrace. Or perhaps they are dancing accross the pavement. As I get closer I see that it is a girl carrying a large wicker laundry basket.

Lemon balm smells good by a path but tends to take over. Ruthless surgery is required. I halve the space that the clump occupies and plant some lavender Hidcote bought from the farmers market. Every time I pass the newcomer I feel a sense of satisfaction, and there's still plenty of lemon balm.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Footballers, soul, fundamentalist

During the line up at the beginning of international football matches I find myself wondering how many players get to sing the words of their national anthems. And how many know the words?

Definitions come to me early in the morning.
Soul something you are supposed to possess, but you just can't put your finger on where it is.

And another one:
Fundamenalist someone who studies the structure of bottoms.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

face to face, hands free, pigeon builds

The clock above Tunbridge Wells station is a landmark you tend to take for granted, but today I see it for the first time face to face. On the top floor of Hoopers department store, they have left a fire door open for the sake of cool air, and across the roof of the building there at eye level is the familar clock from an unfamiliar angle.

A woman appears to be talking to herself as she walks towards me in Mount Pleasant. As she gets closer I realize she is on the phone. A mouthpiece must be somewhere on her person. A few years ago, there would have been no question that she was insane.

In the Grove, I watch a wood pigeon pick up a twig of at least its own length, and fly awkwardly to a tree where it dissappears in the direction of what must be a building site.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

radio reflections, dog watch, seasonal forecast

From the arcade, which runs beside BBC Radio Kent, you can look into the studio. This morning the picture window of Hooper's menswear shop on the opposite side of the arcade, is reflected in the window of the radio station, so that I have a vision of an announcer with microphones and computer screens, who appears to be sitting among rails of hanging shirts and the word "sale" in red letters repeated without apparent end.

A dog with a terrier face but very long pointed ears such as you might expect on a hare sits on the pavement beside a table outside a cafe. At the table sits the dog's owner, a large man with two rounds of toasted sausage sandwiches in front of him. He eats the sandwiches with relish, breaking off bits before putting them in his mouth. Now and then, he bites a piece in half and feeds it to the dog. The dog watches the man as his hand moves the food between plate and mouth; so intent is its concentration that its head moves in time with the man's movements.

The fruit of the rowan tree appear. You do not immediately notice the green berries at this time of year, but they anticipate autumn in high summer as tightly closed buds of certain trees and shrubs anticipate spring in mid-winter.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

skateboard ramp, viola, courgettes

A boy skateboards up a portable ramp and flies through the air in the Grove.

Among the newly sown grass at the edge of a pathway in the Grove is a loan viola peeping through the blades, a garden escape, and mysteriously far from its source, with no other flower, even a daisy, to keep it company.

Courgettes have got off to a poor start, but today there are four - two green and two of the yellow variety - among the not yet fully developed plants. I cut them and slice them into fine disks to augment a salad.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

lime flowers, rain, privet petal

The flowers in the lime tree opposite are in full bloom; they have the colour and texture of clotted cream, made to look even creamier by the contrasting caves of green darkness within the tree's canopy.

Rain after extreme heat is followed by moments of coolness and the wonderful smells released by leaves and flowers into the refreshed air. Now the air becomes heavy and humid again getting ready for the next shower or more likely the storm, which is forecast.

There is a privet hedge on the corner of Mount Sion and Berekley Road from which grows a privet tree, left one suspects deliberately to assume its natural shape and purpose. It is at present covered in small white flowers, which are scattering their minute petals on the pavement. I notice one of the petals motoring steadily across the brick pavement. It has been snapped up by an ant, which is carrying it away.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Lettuces, wasp goes free, stuffed olives

Before it gets too hot, in the vegetable garden, I cut plump lettuces, spicey oriental leaves and rocket all reservoirs of cool water drawn out of the soil.

A wasp buzzes madly behind my head between the venetian blind and the window when I am trying to read. I am not the sort of person who takes pride in kindness to other creatures, but rather than kill this one, I raise the blind, and drive it towards the other window, which is open. It doesn't take advantage of it and goes instead to the closed upper window where it starts buzzing again behind the blind. With a rolled newspaper I urge it onto the lower part of the frame of the raised sash. All it has to do to escape is crawl down and under. I nudge it, but it goes in the other direction, until at last I push it, through the slats, with the newspaper so that it is forced to crawl under the frame and so fly free. Up it goes, and I feel a sense of release myself, and not just from the buzzing.

At the Compasses they serve bowls of big queen olives stuffed with feta cheese.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Talking heads, after the football, pigeons and doves

A young man and woman walk side by side down the High Street. Both are talking into mobile phones. To each other? Probably not, but an interesting thought.

In the silence that reigns over the town after the football match, a child's voice in the street beyond the hedge:
How many good players do England have?
Man's voice: Lot's really.

Received idea: Doves are pigeons which have been to school. One eats pigeons but never doves.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

House martins, football spectators, passing ladder

House martins are nesting under the eaves of a house on the opposite side of the road. They seem to have replaced the swifts, which occupied the air space above our garden last summer; the young keep the parents busy, popping in and out of the cup-shaped nest. But I miss the shrieking of the swifts.

Football spectators have a strict dress code. Bare chests and flags painted on face and body.

A ladder passes above the hedge, it appears, without human intervention.