The Perfect Timing of Haseeb Hameed

From my diary today: As a 45 year-old British lefty, I have often bemoaned the political climate of my country and longed for a workable alternative to the unfettered capitalism ushered in by the bete-noire of my youth, Margaret Thatcher. But the mood music of our mainstream politicians - if not always their actions - has never seriously strayed from liberalism broadly-defined. From Thatcher famously reciting the prayer of Francis Assisi they have at least talked up the virtues of tolerance, generosity, social mobility, compassion. We have had a national health service, free education for all and a functional benefits system, and even those seeking to reform, replace or rein these in could not get away with openly attacking them.

Now, for the first time in my memory, it seems permissible not only to enact policies that have inequitable and divisive effects, but to talk in a way which does not take core liberal values for granted. Just a few months after his, at the time very welcome, …

One Year In

The final day of September and it's a glorious late-summer morning in the garden. The light is clean and sharp, really bringing the place to life as the growing season comes to an end. But for the chill in the air it could almost be spring. I have even seen a dragonfly hovering around, surely the last one for this year. There are things I should be doing inside, but instead I'm just sitting here drinking it all in. How many more chances will I get to do so before winter? 
A full year in, this is a good time to reflect on what has worked here, what hasn't and what I'd like to do next. The first thing to say is that we have certainly created a garden. The almost perfect square of dog run we took over now has shape and definition. The plan is basic, but distinct areas are apparent and each one has a style and purpose of its own. I may yet look to fence them off from one another more definitively, but the design and structural work is essentially done and I'm very hap…

Garden Update

Coming to the end of April, I have not had as much time for gardening as I would have liked this year, but nevertheless I am pleased with how things are shaping up. The work I have done so far has made an enormous difference and of course it helps that Spring is slowly bringing things back to life. We're finding out what's already there in the ground - lots of daffodils, even more weeds - and learning what will grow in the largely thin, chalky soil with which we have to work. It's all trial and error at this stage, but the results are not quite as restrictive as I had feared. The large hellebores I treated myself to in the Autumn have flowered beautifully and my beloved aquilegias are not fussy: they will grow and spread almost anywhere. There's some hope too for the hollyhocks, foxgloves, sweet peas and strawberries I planted recently.

There are some things we will not be bothering to plant in future. A few tulips have survived, but most had their flower heads bitten …

Henry James Commemoration (Chelsea Old Church, 3/3/16)

For the funeral the weather was apparently dismal. It was one of those cold, wet late-winter days grey London specialises in. Marking the occasion a century later, we get better luck. Coats and scarves are still advisable, but the sky is clear, the air is crisp and for almost the first time this year there is real warmth in the sun's rays.

I've been looking forward to this day for a while, so of course I am running early. On a whim, I get off the train at Battersea to walk through the park to the river, and my reward is to see spring very much on its way. There have been daffodils on view since December, but this is (to borrow a phrase) the real thing: jewels of blood-red blossom stand out against otherwise bare white branches and several gorgeous magnolias are just entering their short-lived bloom. The park is new to me and I will certainly be coming back to explore it more thoroughly. The long, wide paths are perfect for my son's erratic biking style, and there's on…

2016 - a(nother) year of Henry James

It's all starting up again, just as it does this time each year. The evenings get lighter, the daffodils bloom, and a not-so-young man's thoughts turn to Henry James. Once more, I'm opening up the Scrivener files, blowing dust off papers and making bold plans to finish something I started over twenty years ago. If I ever forget how long it's been, I have a grown-up daughter to remind me.

I need no excuse, but this year there's particular reason to have James on the mind. While the world - and in particular the BBC - marks five hundred years since the passing of another great literary figure, for some of us 2016 is just as notable as the centenary of James's death. I've not heard yet of any planned TV adaptations or national holidays in his name, but I do know that we will be honouring the occasion in our own way. Yesterday I received an invitation to a memorial service in March, to be held exactly a hundred years on from James's funeral and in the same …

The 'Orchard'

The large square plot described in the previous post is not the full extent of the new garden we took on in August. In addition, we have had to decide what to do with the sizeable mound that flanks the path leading up to the front door. An overgrown wilderness under the previous residents, it was completely dug up before we moved in and for the first few weeks looked like this:

Clearly, there was at least one vote for giving the whole thing over to muddy play, but then there's quite enough provided for the boy's entertainment elsewhere in the garden. There's also plenty to keep me busy, so whatever we decided to do in this area low maintenance had to be a priority.  Once the men came back to clear away the debris and put down a fresh layer of top soil, it all became clear - this was the perfect spot for a small orchard. I did a bit of research on-line, picked out some young fruit trees at bargain prices, and then spent almost twice as much on maturer specimens during a ra…

A New Plot

So we have a new place to make into a home and I have a new garden to plan, shape and cultivate. True to form, what I like best about it is that it's a totally blank canvas: around 1600 square metres of nothing but grass. Judging by the scorch marks and all the chewed-up tennis balls littering the hedges, it's long been given over to barbecues and dog exercise. In terms of real gardening, nobody has done anything with it for years beyond pass a mower over it once in a while. I'm planning to change all that, of course, and it suits me well to start from scratch.

Admittedly, I could wish for better growing conditions. We are on the North Downs here, so there's just a couple of inches of thin, lifeless stuff before the spade hits the chalk. But the drainage is good and, because we're in a valley, the plot is basically flat. Plenty of people around here have their gardens on the sides of hills, and some of them manage extraordinary things; but I was one of their number…