Thursday, 28 September 2017

'Dead Famous' by Ben Elton, Book Review

There's been a murder in the Big Brother house, only it's not called the Big Brother house, because the fictional TV show is called House Arrest. The plotting is clever, keeps the reader in suspense, but apart from the inevitable, cynical old cop, the characters are not sufficiently different to always know who is speaking.

But my main objection to the book is nothing to do with how well or badly it's written. It's just that, I thought of it first!  Big Brother was obviously asking for a murder, or even several!  I'd conceived a parody of an Agatha Christie style murder mystery, but hadn't committed anything to paper before Ben Elton came along with Dead Famous... dammit!

Is it worth reading? Maybe not. This isn't Ben Elton's best book and Big Brother became a true parody of itself long ago so, really, who cares?


Monday, 25 September 2017

Four Haiku in September





Instinct makes the first

fine web; young spider waits

for the world to come.



Driven by luscious rains,

as the heat dies down

sudden grass grows greenest.



Swallows, ospreys fly South.

Night comes unready,

streets light up;  Equinox.



Raucous grey gulls cry

into soft, moist skies

where the summer sun has fled.




Thursday, 27 July 2017

London Suite by Neil Simon

I saw Neil Simon's play London Suite at the Stables Theatre in Hastings. A quartet of short plays all set in one suite in a London hotel. Well worth seeing, there's sufficient variety, from slapstick and verbal comedy to pathos and tragedy, for a wide appeal. The third of the plays, 'Diana and Sidney' came out the best of the four, with excellent casting - Jenny Lloyd-Jones and David Morley as a divorced couple who meet again in desperate circumstances.

Well worth seeing if you're in Hastings, it's on till the 29th.

http://stablestheatre.co.uk/




Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Haiku on the Beach

Living near the sea is beginning to help my waning creativity.


Haiku on the Beach

Flashes of soft grey, white

Stabbing yellow

Gulls fight over a fish head. 



Bathers, splash-happy in the surf;

The lone black crow

Picks flies off seaweed.



Pebbles sunbathe along

The vast, bright beach,

With memories of mountains.




Thursday, 20 July 2017

More Haiku in July



Bright light sheets behind the hills.

A stone trough cracks,  

There is no rain.               



The third osprey chick, 

Grown fat on trout, soars

Joy-high on new-found wings.



When earth is brown, sandy

the knowing slow-worm slips

beneath hot, white stones.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

On Green Dolphin Street, novel by Sebastien Faulkes.

I picked this book up because the title was intriguing, I felt I'd heard of it. This is the first Sebastien Faulkes novel I've read, and to be honest it maybe the last.

Basically a love-triangle, the story is set in UK/USA diplomatic circles in 1959. It was ok-ish, but it took me three false starts before I finally got engaged in the story. I found I couldn't empathise with the characters in the way that some other reviewers have said they did. The back stories got in the way, interrupted the immediacy of the narrative and I never felt the author was getting right the characterisation of Mary, the female protagonist.

The Washington/New York setting was ok, but I felt like an outsider looking in and the parts set in England didn't ring true for me. The best section was when Mary had to fly to the USSR to rescue her alcoholic husband, Charlie. Here her fear and Charlie's paranoia were well backed up by the setting. But back to the intriguing title, Miles Davis musical version of Green Dolphin Street is superior to this novel. Maybe I should try Elizabeth Gouge's 'Green Dolphin Street' next.

My review posted on goodreads too - "https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/2177722

Friday, 30 June 2017

To Weed or Not to Weed...? by the Fairweather Gardener


When approaching the gardener’s eternal task of weeding the first question is, what is a weed?  The simple answer is, a plant in the wrong place. Nettles are great wildlife habitats under hedges and on road verges, but do they belong in a strawberry bed? Probably not, although I’ve been known to let a few flourish between my tough old blackcurrant bushes and the big leylandii hedge. Grubbing most of the nettle roots out every autumn stopped them spreading.


Campanula on the steps
That leylandii hedge was another matter. I didn’t plant it, I didn’t like it, I definitely didn’t want to have to trim it three times a year, though somehow it got cut. So was that a weed? To dig it out would be a massive project and the wildlife loved it. Sparrows and wrens and spiders nested, so it served a purpose. I partly screened it behind a pear tree and a hazel, do I didn’t have to look at it too much.

Now I have a newer garden, smaller and 250 miles south. Actually it’s an old and overgrown garden, though new to me. Dandelions and nettles are the least of my problems, in fact there aren’t any nettles. I spent my first season here, which was spring into summer, battling massive brambles which took over a corner by the conservatory. They were so strong they were forcing their way through the seals on the windows and into the conservatory itself. These were undoubtedly weeds! And l have discovered that there’s more than one type of bramble, my Sussex ones have very tough stems and stiff, hooked, red thorns. I needed thick clothing and even thicker, leather gloves – they still got me. They made the West Yorkshire brambles I was used to seem like wimps.

overgrown with hops
The following season – summer into autumn, I realised there was a problem even bigger than the brambles, and much harder to get rid of. Hops. Not a calm little golden hop which you can see growing along civilised little picket fences beside charming, whitewashed cottages, this was a massive thug of a tough, green, bristly hop. And don’t tell me to make beer, the hop was smothering a grape vine and I prefer wine. To begin with I couldn’t tell the difference between the hop and the grape, their leaves when young look quite similar. It’s taken me two years but I now do know.

The thuggish hop bind was also binding its way around and through a fence above a six-foot retaining wall, it was crushing a small , sorrowful apple tree, trying to demolish a huge, beautiful rambler rose and flattening everything in between. It had to go. I slashed and dragged and tugged and disentangled. I filled sack after sack and took to the tip. Hops have incredibly tough roots/rhyzomes which go everywhere just under the soil and pop up little shoots wherever you’re not looking. And if you chop then up in the soil they have no problem whatever, I’m now in my third summer of hop destroying. Give me ground elder any day – and yes I’ve got that too!

After all the battles, one of the pleasures of a new garden is watching what unexpectedly comes up. I’ve never seen red valerian before, when it sprang up in awkward places I thought it was a strange seaside weed and I didn’t even know what it was called. Gardeners World list it as a weed, however it is interesting to look at and has some lovely names - kiss-me-quick, fox's brush, devil's beard and Jupiter's beard! It seems to love dry places and I’ve encouraged it in a couple of places, especially around the stone steps at the front of the house. The other plant there was a small, dense and ferocious climbing rose with misleading little pink flowers and vicious, which had been deliberately twined around the railings and handrail – making them unusable as a support for human-kind if you valued your hands. So the strange valerian stayed, the snarky little rose has been cut down. Which was the weed?

Of course the garden has all the usual, more unassuming weeds; groundsel, bindweed, goose grass, milkweed, sow-thistle, plantain, scarlet pimpernel, buttercup etc. All easy enough to pull out of the sandy soil. Apart from the afore mentioned ground elder I'm in luck, I haven’t found the tougher stuff like docks or either of the two banes of a former garden, creeping cinquefoil and wood avens. Creeping cinquefoil is quite a cheerful little thing, looking a bit like a small strawberry plant with yellow flowers when you first see it, but don’t be fooled. Turn your back and its runners have covered half the garden and set deep taproots which have to be dug or pulled out whole or they joyfully re-sprout. Mowing only encourages them. Wood avens has similar leaves but less initial charm and sheds its sticky seeds everywhere; if you let one seed this year, you’ll have two hundred next year.
How many weeds here? Dandelion, bramble, bindweed, goose
grass, couch grass and the elephant in the garden... ground elder!

I only have a little lawn now, small enough to be kept under control with a strimmer and hand weeding. In every lawn I’ve had, I always leave a certain number of dandelions because I like them. They cheer me up especially in early spring when the grass sulks and everything around is bare. I’ve always admired their stunning yellow flowers, fluffy seeds and toothed leaves, they are beautiful plants and great for insects; they spread like weeds... They’re also quite happy growing out of the cracked concrete on the patio, no matter how often I think I’ve pulled them up.

And I positively encourage daisies in my lawn, childhood memories of collecting armfuls of these delightful little flowers may be colouring my judgement! Anyway, the only time I really tried to have a weed-free lawn, some 20 years ago, I used a product called Feed n Weed. Everything grew twice as fast, weeds and grass, so the only result was far more mowing. I don’t like mowing.

So grass is a weed too, in the flowerbeds, under the lavender and beneath the new pergola. The grass here is couch-grass which is easy to pull, some oats have sprung up and some very tall, tough grass which I think has come from some birdseed. Then there’s the pink oxalis which isn’t really wanted there, it’s another one which springs up in determined clumps all over the place and has tough roots. Then there's the purple campanula which I’ve never had in any other garden. Here it grows prettily along the edges of paths and up the steps but is not really invasive, I don’t have to weed it out. I just trim it back if it’s coming out too far and pull the top off at the end of the season. I’ve decided that’s not a weed.
the amazing alien poppy
The last new ‘weed’ I’ve found is a poppy. We have moved a small amount of soil and rubble to an area by the front of the house where we eventually want to build the ground up. It’s hidden from the road by the steps (denuded of small angry rose) and a fuchsia bush, so I don’t look at it much. But it’s visible, just, from the front window, or rather the three foot high poppy plant which unexpectedly sprouted up from the debris is. Unlike the small, jolly yellow and orange poppies with green stems and leaves which I’m used to, this giant has silvery grey foliage and produced four huge many-petalled, carnation-like flowers in a delicate shade of mauve. It must have been seeded by birds, there are no poppies elsewhere in the garden. Neighbours down the road have purple poppies in their front gardens, but none with the same many petalled form.  This amazing weed now has four huge seed-heads developing, I’ll keep the seed. I wonder if they’ll come true to type, or if they are just some kind of wonderful alien mutation.


More Haiku in June


Invisible brown earth has
a verdant smothering,
weeds are growing.


Small sparrows and robins
abound across the grass;
food for hawk and stoat.



Furry, brown bumblers 
love the last forget-me-nots.    
What should I plant next?

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Haiku in May - Wild Swifts








Cries from circling wild swifts     

chase life up in high, warm clouds.            

It smells like rain.







Monday, 10 April 2017

Haiku in April


Brown snails on the green leaves
Move their tall eyes faster
When the sun calls out.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Fair Weather Gardener - Grandfather's Rhubarb

Greetings to all you fair weather gardeners, I've been one of these for ages.

It's probably in my blood somewhere, although my Grandfather was a completely serious, all-weather gardener. As well as mowing lawns, trimming many yards of beech and lavender hedges, cultivating herbs and flowers for cutting and brewing serious quantities of compost in huge pits, he grew all his own fruit - apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, you name it. He even had two small fig trees for a while, though I don't think they did very well in the chalky soil of West Sussex. He had taken those out by the time I was in my teens.
Pulled rhubarb - photo by Dieter Weber  

One thing he was certainly expert at was rhubarb - not a fruit in cultivation but cooked as fruit - he had a huge rhubarb bed and would straw it down in winter, then carefully begin to pull the edible stems from the ground early in the year. He'd trim the wrinkled, yellow leaves off with his special small, curved rhubarb knife, which was reserved for the purpose and put those into compost pits before taking the vivid pink stems indoors. Those early, sweet pink stems were beautifully cooked by my Granny.

When there was a surplus of pink stems for immediate needs, the bottling began, an exciting, mysterious process involving dangerously boiling syrup, occasionally exploding Kilner jars and many hours in the Aga. The aroma was heady and I've never eaten rhubarb like it, sweetly, pinkly juicy and most heavenly with Birds' Custard.

By the end of summer the huge leathery rhubarb leaves were our playthings, used for parasols or for roofing impromptu camps, while the solid, green-streaked stems would be hefty swords or lances, being whacked around the head with one was a serious business. We were allowed to play with them provided we didn't pull them off the plants ourselves, because they were considered too tough to be worth eating by that time of year. Grandfather still had to cut them himself, with his rhubarb knife, so as to not harm the crown. We were warned not to eat the leaves, they were poisonous.

My only attempt to grow rhubarb was singularly unsuccessful. The crowns would produce a few scrawny stems which were as tough as - well not boots, plimsolls maybe - and so acidic that even twice as much sugar as you would think possible barely rendered them edible. After indigestion became almost chronic I abandoned the rhubarb. The fact that at the time I was living nearly in the rhubarb triangle wasn't enough, those plants clearly needed all the pampering, manure and home-brewed compost that Grandfather had lavished on his. I wasn't up to the challenge.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Paris Snow - a brand new musical at Kino Theatr - review

I went to see Paris Snow with no great expectations. Live musicals aren't always my favourite thing, although I've seen a few. My main reason for going this time was a friend's suggestion, she wanted to go and I was already curious to see the inside of the Kino Teatr, which is a former cinema built in St. Leonards-on-Sea a hundred years ago. It was 'modernised' in the 1930's and again in the 1950's, became a bingo hall, spent time as a builder's merchant and has finally been returned to the performing arts with live music events, new shows like Paris Snow, drama, stand-up gigs, movies (current and classic) and live-streamed shows from London venues. As well as the auditorium, the building also houses the Baker-Mamonova art gallery specialising in Russian Art - a bit niche even for bohemian St. Leonards, but some very good paintings - and a restaurant/coffee shop which I've yet to sample (might review on Trip Advisor when I do...).

Paris Snow was surprisingly (to me) very good! Billed as a musical comedy-drama, it was co-written by Marc Mir (music) and Patrick Kealey who also directed. The production took full advantage of the limited space in this former cinema, the musicians including a pianist with baby grand occupied one side of the performance area, centre and upstage moveable staging was adjusted swiftly in the interval to set new scenes. Other scene changes were performed effortlessly by cast members while the show went on - smoothly done without the need for backdrops, furniture, flats, etc., why can't more productions be like this? The cinema screen was made good use of with video sequences, stills and graphics of sometimes not totally obvious relevance. There's no backstage to speak of in the building and not even a proper dressing room, let alone a green room so the hard working cast had to dress behind a curtain in the foyer.

The story starts with an American choir arriving for a concert in 1950's Paris, and receiving a mysterious invitation to a notorious night club. The city itself is represented by three spirits of Paris, who provide a humorous and knowing commentary which is a cross between a Greek Chorus and Shakespeare's rude mechanicals, with smatterings of fairy godmother. Witty writing and clever casting makes their contributions one of the highlights of the show. The plot has love triangles, murder, jealousy and even potential incest, with a fair amount of humour. The music includes beautifully rendered bluesy gospel numbers, some more standard love songs and at least one exceptional, upbeat number, "Nuff is Enough!" which was sung with huge verve and passion by the whole cast and accompanied by a distractingly funny video.

Overall I enjoyed the play very much and it was well received. I believe most of the 5 day run with two matinees was sold out and even the Sunday matinee we went to looked more than three quarters full. It was intended as a showcase/preview and comments were invited afterwards; the director is aiming for London. A lot of work has gone into the whole production and it deserves to do very well, with the right backing.


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Sisters in and out of Art - my article on Hazel King Farlow published on Art UK


Link should work now, a fairly prosaic piece, I was told only 500 words, but looking in detail at some other art stories on the site I find some which are up to 800. I will be more creative next time!

https://artuk.org/discover/stories/sisters-in-and-out-of-art-hazel-king-farlow-and-peggy-guggenheim

Haiku in February



In my wooden shed               
a tortoiseshell butterfly sleeps.    
              
Outside, snow falls.            




Monday, 13 February 2017

A Mature Garden, with Redpolls...


A Mature Garden

Missing
a Cacophony of kids
a Decapitation of frogs
a Nurturing of tadpoles
a Brazening of sausages
a Suckling of willows
an Ascension of Leylandii
a Cheerfulness of sparrows
a Murmuration of starlings

Extant
a Remembrance of rosemary
an Absence of skateboards
Tidings of magpies
an Arable of grass
a Sisterhood of cats
a Clambering of blackberries
an Eden of fruit trees
and blackbirds, bluetits, redpolls…

My photograph of a male Redpoll in my old garden, Grimescar Valley, Huddersfield. He was one of a group of six Redpolls which seemed to keep company with four siskins. He looked a bit like a linnet but his small size and yellow beak confirmed him as a Redpoll. He only came in winter. 
The spellcheck doesn't like 'Redpoll', it will have to learn...

lesser redpoll eating nijer seed
The Redpolls I saw in my Pennine garden were very small birds, although my bird books describe Redpolls as the same size as a goldfinch. My books are of course out of date, the newest is 20 years old. The native Redpoll has been re-classified as the Lesser Redpoll, with visiting Common/Mealy Redpolls from Europe. These Redpolls visiting my garden are certrainly smaller than the goldfinches, which often arrive at the same time. They all like the nyjer seeds in this feeder.

Redpolls are classed as finches but have a finer beak than classic finches such as the goldfinch.

This photograph shows a Goldfinch on the washing line above the seed feeder, with female Siskin on the left and female Redpoll on the right. Male and female Goldfinch have the same colouring, whilst the Siskin and Redpoll females haveless bright colouration. The RSPB website implies that the Lesser Redpoll is an uncommon bird. I did once identified a common Redpoll on the same feeder, it was noticeably larger than the Lesser Redpolls. I feel quite privileged to have had these delightful little visitors to my garden.

I haven't altered or enhanced the colours in these photographs. Comments would be welcome, I am fairly new to photographing and identifying small birds. It's quite difficult, they live in different time to us, their lives and movements are very fast. I've also see Wrens and Goldcrest, haven't managed to photograph them, they even tinier and lurk in the bushes and the conifers. 

The Twite is a Pennine bird I've certainly never seen, they are rare. My friend Char March, poet, playwright and all-round talented person, was artist in residence at the Pennine Watershed Project, which led her to involvement with the Twite Recovery Project, to encourage this once widespread bird. The twite is slightly larger than the Redpoll with a pinkish area on the lower back, no red on the head or chest. 

Char March's lovely book, The Cloud Appreciation Society's Day Out, was written after she found inspiration from both projects. It includes a poem called "The A - Z of Twite." Her poems in turn inspired me to put my Redpolls into a poem, of sorts. 


Saturday, 28 January 2017

Haiku in January

Pale gulls vanish skyward            
past failing daylight. 
Darkly, iced fog settles.                        

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Writing for Art UK

I've agreed to write some articles for Art UK (the Public Catalogue Foundation), which is a brilliant project funded by the Arts Council and dedicated to making available online all of the oil paintings which are in public collections in the UK. After the oil paintings, they may move on to works in other media:-  http://artuk.org/

The point of the project is to allow us, the British public, to get a look at what we all own! Some of the art is great, some is indifferent, but we should be able to see it all and decide for ourselves. Most of the artworks in public collections aren't on display, there simply isn't enough public wall-space in galleries and museums. Some institutions rotate their collections so different pictures are displayed at some point, but many others don't and very many works of art never see the light of day at all.

The Art UK website publishes artist's biographies which are all currently taken from The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists or the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, so I can't submit biographies of artists.

However they also publish artist stories, relating to artists who have works shown on the site. I've  so far submitted the story of Hazel King-Farlow, who has several paintings in Wakefield, Leeds and Manchester Art Galleries.

The story includes her sister, because Hazel King-Farlow is also Hazel McKinley and Hazel Guggenheim, the sister of Peggy Guggenheim, which makes the story more interesting for visitors to the website. As some of you, my gentle readers may know, Hazel was one of the 31 Women and I've researched her in some detail. My story should be available on the site in a few weeks, I'm told.

Some of Hazel's paintings are here: -  http://artuk.org/discover/artists/king-farlow-hazel-19031995/view_as/grid/search/artists:hazel-king-farlow-19031995/page/1

Personally I prefer some of Hazel's later work in gouache/watercolour which have a more surrealist streak and some are even humorous. But that's just me and I don't know if any of those are in any UK collection. So here's one anyway, which I probably shouldn't share... It's titled:

 'Gainsborough Painting Mrs Siddons in Tom Driberg's Sitting Room'.