Monday, 18 June 2018

The Innocent by Ian McEwan - review

I was disappointed reading Amsterdam (reviewed in March), how the hell did that win the Booker Prize? I thought I'd better try a different Ian McEwan book, to see if he was still one of my favourite authors or if I should demote him. I went shopping, came home with The Innocent, written in 1990 but set in the mid 1950's.


The Innocent has been published with a number of different covers, trust me to buy the least interesting (the one on the right). Book covers are important but in this case had no influence on me, I was buying for the author.


It's sort of an espionage story, set in divided West Berlin during the 1950's. I was there as a teen-ager some time later so I decided I had to read this particular book. The setting is pretty real, a city still struggling to recover from the second world war, whilst suffering under the domination of the cold war. Although set before the Berlin wall was built, it felt familiar enough, I'd seen the check-points, the bomb sites. The main character is Leonard, a GPO technician seconded to work on a top secret project in the American sector of the city. I won't tell the story, impossible without spoilers.

The Innocent is very well written, as all McEwan's books are, he's a professional in every sense. The narrative is tense, a very good story. It does take a bit of digesting... hmm.  Maybe digesting is the wrong word. Is it a good read? Oh yes, definitely but maybe don't read the second half just after a large meal. 

Has it restored my faith in the author? Yes, it has. Although a very different story it takes me back to his first book, The Cement Garden which was also about innocence.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Danny Kirwan - Desert Island Discs


Fleetwood Mac's fantastic heavy rock number, 'Oh Well' was my previous desert Island choice a few days ago. Danny Kirwan, one of three guitarists in the band at the time the recording was made, has just died at the age of 68.

It's very sad, he was a talented musician and songwriter who never quite made his mark after he left the band in 1972. He was just 18 when he joined Fleetwood Mac, after his own band, Boilerhouse, had supported the Mac at several venues in London. Drummer Mick Fleetwood invited him to join the Mac, he then became Peter Green's protégé for a few gigs before as a fully fledged band member his passion for blues music combined with his creativity, he contributed his own compositions to their repertoire and their next five albums.

I saw him play with Fleetwood Mac twice, at the Leas Cliff Hall in Folkestone, in 1968/9 when the band were at their very best. I have his autograph.

Farewell Danny Kirwan, blues boy.

Triffids - The Fair Weather Gardener


Things that I don't recognise still come up in the garden. The latest, looking like triffids, appeared in April, pushing up through the undergrowth by the pergola. Several stiff stems with dark blueish green leaves arranged regularly up the stems. I believe the term for the leaf appearance is glaucous, good word! So, glaucous leaves, stiff straight stems and once three feet high, it produced thin branches with softer bright green leaves.




My triffids were interesting looking and quite architectural so I left them for quite a while as I didn't know what they were. The soft green leaves became bracts around tiny yellow flowers, which insects seemed to like, so I continued to leave the triffids alone. Hover flies seemed especially keen on the miniscule flowers and last weekend I saw my first wasp this year, also showing great interest in the triffids.





Then the flowers began to produce large, green berries, each with three lobes. At this stage I decided I really should take them more seriously, they were about to produce seed, did I want them to spread? I'm not in principle opposed to immigrants, but the garden's quite small so invaders are another matter, I have enough trouble with hops and ground elder.



I asked a few people, posted a pic on Facebook, but nobody seemed to know. So in depth research was in order. How did people ever do this type of thing before the internet? Google is an amazing research tool, almost everything you can think of is out there, somewhere in the aether!

After a few hours going through a range of search terms and looking at hundreds of photos of plants with green leaves, I came across the euphorbias. Now I've admired euphorbias in other people's gardens, but the triffids didn't much resemble any I could remember seeing, until I saw a photo  labelled Euphorbia Lathyris. So my triffid is Euphorbia Lathyris, otherwise known as caper spurge, also known as the mole plant because it's said to repel moles - old gardener's wives tale?

Caper spurge facts - it grows over much of Europe and Asia but has probably been introduced to the UK. It's now widespread and often comes up in abandoned ground. It's a biannual so that makes sense, it like to be undisturbed. I remember seeing the stems and glaucous leaves last year, but the bed was overgrown and anyway they weren't nearly so tall, so I didn't register that they were something unusual.


The other important facts about caper spurge: when ripe the seed heads expel seeds quite explosively, scattering them far and wide. Also the berries, which are said to look like capers although I can't really see it, are very poisonous and the milky sap is also poisonous and corrosive, causing skin irritation and serious harm if it gets in your eyes. In days of yore, beggars were said to have rubbed the sap into their skin to cause sores and so get more sympathy - another old gardeners tale? 

Anyway the caper spurge is now in the bottom of a garden bin, waiting to go to the dump. I compost a lot of things but decided this toxic plant might be unsuitable. I did enjoy watching it grow and I've no doubt that there are more triffids seeds lurking in the soil, just waiting to spring up. I might once again let them grow for a couple of years before they seed, because they're interesting plants.



Saturday, 9 June 2018

Bedside Reading - American Teenagers

Reading in bed is serious reading, not just for putting me to sleep.  There's a small pile of paperbacks on a precarious triangular shelf by the bed, and three of them have bookmarks a few pages in, meaning I have actually started them.

With one the bookmark is at page 32, that's as far as I've got in three weeks and I'm not likely to get any further. In one of Waterstones' three for two deals, I picked it up in the shop because I quite liked the cover but mainly the title intrigued me - Paper Towns - by John Green. Shows how important titles are!  I read the blurb on the back and a couple of the reviews, but I should have read them all. It's not a badly written book, in fact the use of the language and structure is fine, but it hasn't really engaged me. It's my problem, do I really need to read yet another coming of age story set in small-town America? 

It's not as if there's been a shortage of them over the years. I've read some of the best - Catcher in the Rye when I was an actual teenager and To Kill a Mockingbird which made an impression as it's actually in the POV of a girl - very unusual at the time. My favourite is Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees - a strange, beautiful, dramatic story of a lost girl being cared for by three beekeeping ladies.

Anyway, American teens are always all over the TV/cinema; I've enjoyed Buffie the Vampire Slayer, The Breakfast Club, The Lost Boys and even Heathers. But now I've been there, a very long time ago and I have far too many tee-shirts to really care about the self-obsession of American teenagers!

I should have read all the reviews of Paper Towns, it's described as, "A coming of age American road trip that is at once a satire of and tribute to its many celebrated predecessors."  OK. For me there's only one road-trip book - Jack Kerouac's On the Road.  And so the answer is I probably don't need Paper Towns - by John Green, so it's likely to find it's way to the Oxfam shop. I'm sure it's a perfectly good story and I don't suppose the author will really mind that it's not for me, I hope not as my lack of interest isn't a judgement on his book. I have paid for it, so he gets his probably miniscule royalty, and it will be passed on to benefit charity and for others to read. I hope they do enjoy it.


Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Mini Beasties in May - the Fair Weather Gardener

Plenty of bees around now which is good, my foxgloves are just flowering and the bees love them. Also hover flies around, which are not only good pollinators but have nice fierce larvae, which the same as ladybird larvae will happily munch through loads of aphids. I like hover flies.

Male orange tip feeding on cranesbill flowers

Early in the month the butterflies began to appear, the first one I saw was an orange tip, flew up from the geraniums and away over the wall. They're quite unmistakeable, or the males are, the females are more discreet and have no orange tips, so they look more or less like another white butterfly.

Next, there were a few nests of untidy silk with small caterpillars in them. The first one I found was on the car, which was a bit weird. Then one or two appeared in the garden on the apple tree and I started finding small brown hairy caterpillars in random places. I wasn't worried until the cat sitting on my lap suddenly stood up and stated intently at my shoulder. I found a caterpillar on my collar, I just brushed it off, but too late. I came up in a horribly itchy rash all round my neck! Online I found a few hysterical headlines about toxic caterpillars. I took a closer look at mine, they're brown tail moth caterpillars, not toxic, they just have irritating hairs. So I kept away from the apple tree until they had dispersed.

Brown tail moth nest with caterpillars hatching -
photo from the Forestry Commission

Loads of ants, there are some tiny ones living under the patio by the house, which is fine, they excavate little piles of sand and I don't mind, I just sweep it away from their holes and down between some other stones. But I do have to discourage them from coming into the conservatory, found several in the cat's food bowl. Am keeping the floor cleaner and have blocked a couple of small holes from the outside. It's working so far.


Lily beetles mating on the stem of my fritillaries -
blooming cheek!
My current garden infestation is spiders - tiny ones just hatched out and clustering in small mobs in unexpected corners. Slightly larger, more independent minded ones are hanging out all over the clothes lines. My laundry will soon be covered in silk or, more problematically, the remains of dead flies etc. I do have a bit of a spider phobia, but can live alongside them most of the time without freaking out.

Every time I move a flowerpot the woodlice hurtle around in panic and sometimes a few springtails too. I just let them disperse, they're quite harmless. Wish I could say the same about the snails. There are hundreds, I sometimes gather them in handfuls and lob them into the vacant, nettle filled lot behind the house, but I know its a waste of time.

None of the creatures in my garden are going to be fed or sprayed with anything toxic, not even the pretty scarlet lily beetles which have devastated my poor fritillaries this year.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

World Turtle Day 23 May

To celebrate World Turtle Day, make sure you know the difference between a Turtle and a Tortoise - they are not the same creature.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Fleetwood Mac, 'Oh Well' - My Desert Island Discs - 2

I loved Fleetwood Mac as a blues band, long before they became a pop group. I saw them live more often than any other band apart from John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, where three of the band originated anyway. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie were Mayall's rhythm section when Eric Clapton left and Peter Green stepped in. It was an improvement! Clapton is technically brilliant but his guitar playing has no soul. Peter Green has a true bluesman's soul, his voice and songs are from that soul and his guitar is sublime.

All three musicians - Greeny, McVie and Fleetwood - subsequently left The Bluesbreakers and became Fleetwood Mac.  Mayall didn't miss them, that band has always been about him anyway, I don't think he ever really liked others in the limelight. He frequently changed his line-up and he's still touring today.

The last time I saw Fleetwood Mac live, at the Leas Cliff Hall, Folkestone in 1969, they played 'Oh Well', written by Peter Green, which was on its way to becoming a hit record - it reached no.2 in the UK charts. For the live version they were loud, though not as loud as Led Zepplin who I'd go to see a month or two later. However by this stage Fleetwood Mac had three lead guitarists - Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer and Danny Kirwan. As a live band they were unsurpassed and though the opening riff and the major part was played by Greeny, the others joined in - the intensity of the sound was incredible. As far as I remember, they didn't play the eight minute full length version.

As the rules don't allow me to take my copy of Fleetwood Mac's first album (known as the dog & dustbin album) to the desert island, I chose  'Oh Well', because of that live performance and for the defiant lyrics -

"...don't ask me what I think of you,
I might not give the answer that you want me to!"

I didn't love Fleetwood Mac after the three guitarists had left and the Mac became just another pop group.