A Little Green

Let’s start with a basic, inalienable truth—I am no gardener. For proof, look no further than the green spaces over which TLC and I have control. The main bulk of our long, slender garden is in my wife’s tender care. It is a lush, endlessly variant display, embracing accident and the joyful understanding of plants being plants and growing where they will. There is a sense of order, but also spontaneity.

About two-thirds down, we reach the area I call Copse End in my rare charitable moments, but more often Hell’s Half Acre. The end of our garden is backed onto by a stand of trees bordering the local school. Home to all sorts of wildlife, but also brambles, ivy, nettles and bindweed. To keep it under control requires tenacity and the understanding that plants are plants and once a week down there just ain’t gonna cut it.

Readership, Hell’s Half Acre is my responsibility. It is and has always been an abject failure. To be honest, that end of the garden has been a struggle from day one. When we bought the house it was home to a bunch of concrete raised beds, a slumping shed and a skeletal greenhouse. I tried growing veg down there for a while, but the work needed to keep things shipshape proved to be beyond my limited talents and incredibly limited patience. I love gardens. I find gardening to be dull, hard work with no lasting sense of gratification. If I paint a wall, I know I won’t need to do it again for several years. If I do some weeding, I’ll have to do it again next week. Ugh.

The thing is, Copse End is the sunny bit of the garden. In summer you can bask in sunshine down there until 8 in the evening. It seems like a waste to let it devolve into chaos. So we pulled out all the beds, laid lawn, put up a summerhouse. It was lovely down there for a while. But Copse End does not wish to be tamed. At least, not by someone with my limited sense of purpose.

We have now decided to ‘rewild’ Copse End to an extent, embracing the wildlife and making it something of a meadow garden. We planted apple trees, let the grass grow. It still looks like shit, don’t get me wrong. But for now, at least, we’re a bit more relaxed about it. Who knows, if the finances allow we may have to go full suburbanite and get a gardener in to keep things at a low rumble. Gods know, I’ve had enough.

We’ve therefore staged a tactical retreat. The veg growing operation has moved to the top end of the garden. Potatoes in bags. A veg trug for beetroot, carrots and garlic. Pots of chili and cucumbers. A big herb planter keeping us well supplied in mint and parsley. We even snagged some tomato plants from a neighbour. Having this activity close to the house erases the excuse that it’s too hard to get out and do a little watering, or keep an eye on how things are growing. Everything is two steps from the front door. Much easier. I’m actually starting to feel more in control.

Sensing my increased confidence, TLC set me an honest-to-god gardening project. I retasked an old pallet into an upright planter. Honestly, a very simple job. Take your pallet, paint it (we had fashionable black, but use what you like) and flip it on edge so what would be the bottom is facing out with the slats horizontal.

Three coats of Ronseal Blackbird later…

Get hold of some weed-suppressant membrane, and measure to four times the height of each trough. Double it over, and staple firmly to create the base into which your plants will go. This may take longer than expected if your stapler, like mine, won’t fit into the gap properly.

Shonky yet durable, much like yr humbl authr.

Then the fun and easy bit. Pick your plants, add a layer of dirt to the bottom of each trough, fill as you see fit and add more compost to cover the gaps. See? So easy even a fucknuckled dolt like me can do it!

Don’t ask me what’s in there.

Meanwhile, we’ve also been adding green to the inside of the house. TLC has garnered an interest in house plants. When she gets a notion in motion, I find it’s best to step back and let it happen. Subsequently, a procession of plant deliveries has rolled through the front door. And you know what, I’m enjoying the new additions to the family a lot. TLC’s eye is always excellent, and she knows I like succulents and cacti. So we have some of each. Cheeky little lads and lasses, with distinct personalities. She declared the Chinese Money Plant was called Polly (something to do with the plant’s taxonomic name) while I christened the trio of pals on the front room table Snake-locks, Catlick and Spiny Joe.

Top to bottom: Snake-locks, Catlick, Spiny Joe.

I may have been on furlough too long.

However, there really is something about a house plant. They seem to generate an aura of calm and peace. It’s difficult to be angry around an aloe. Much apart from the benefit of oxygenating plants in the house, they do make us both smile. They ask very little, and give a great deal. Millie the cat could learn something from them.

And yes, we do talk to the plants. I mean it would be impolite not to wish them good morning, right? No harm in a little gentle conversation.

Let’s return to the simple truth with which we began. I am no gardener. I still feel like a dunce before TLC’s knowledge, vision and enthusiasm. I seem to spend a lot of my time in mortal combat with stinging bastards that want to do me harm. But it’s exercise and fresh air and I can always reward myself with a beer at the end of a day’s hard slog down Copse End.

I am no gardener. But I’m trying to get there.

Lunch During Lockdown (or yes, godsdammit, it’s soup again)

A level of routine is, as any fule kno, essential to getting through the long haul at home without going completely cuckoo-lala crazy. As a gentleman of a furloughed persuasion, I am led in that routine by TLC, who works from home and therefore finds her days filled with meaning and purpose (and endless Teams sessions and slow-loading document uploads and all the other pitfalls and nightmares surrounding the transition to domiciled employment).

Therefore, no lollygagging in bed. As TLC showers, I am making tea. As she breakfasts, I shower. A brace of coffees as she hits the network. Then I leave her to it, and start considering the next big event of the day—lunch.

Continue reading Lunch During Lockdown (or yes, godsdammit, it’s soup again)

Sparks

The tap on the door is a regular occurance now. It always brings a little something that lightens the day. A veg box delivery from Vegivores or Geo Cafe. Beer from Loddon, cheese and beer from The Grumpy Goat. Maybe something for TLC’s craft room (she’s playing around with the Cricut she had for her birthday and coming up with wonderful results).

Yesterday, a delivery of herb plants put a smile on my face. Barbeque rosemary, French tarragon, parsley, oregano, sorrel. Planting them in the herb tower I bought last year will be a gentle treat for the weekend. Little sparks of flavour for the summer round the corner.

I have to keep thinking in terms of week versus weekend. Tracking the days, building new routines now I’m furloughed. TLC is working from home, so I’m led by her example. I make tea while she showers, maybe sneaking an extra ten minutes under the covers whle she dresses. An Aeropress coffee each before she hits the desk. Man, I’d forgotten about the simple joys of grinding beans, stirring and watching mindfully as the crema blooms in the brewing chamber. The rush of the good stuff into a favourite mug, hot and rich and fragrant. Another little spark to start the motor of the day.

I’m trying to watch less TV right now. It’s hard enough to steer clear of bad news. The Situation (as TLC and I have taken to stentorially pronounce it) gets into everything as it is. I make one exception–my 10am date with Matt Tebbutt and Jack Monroe for Daily Kitchen Live. As cooking shows go, this is a delight. Even seperated by video link, Jack and Matt have a bright and easy chemistry and are clearly learning loads from each other. It’s educational, entertaining, speaking to the everyday lives of the nation at the moment more truly and precisely than any other show on the air. And you get to learn about the joys of bottled lemon juice or how to make quick and easy pizza. A spark of foodie pleasure. I’m making this tonight.

With time on my hands, there’s room to get back to the projects that went on the shelf earlier in the year. The writing that faded away after Nanowrimo. The half-done short stories. And ever more, my happy place, WROB. It’s an indulgence, sure, and I’m very aware that I am a middle-aged male with time on his hands honking on about his Spotify recommendations. No-one needs to hear that, and frankly I’m not that bothered if they do or not. It feels good and right to me. It’s a spark that shines more brightly with every moment I put into it.

There’s a new edition up where I share the spotlight with my mysterious pal DJ Unknown on the angular joys of Aphex Twin, if you’re interested.

As far as music goes, I’ve been powered by Spotify for as long as I can remember now. Paired with a trio (that’s not mathematically or grammatically possible but I think we’re all beyond that now) of Sonos speakers, we have tunes on tap all through the house. Playlisting is easy and keeps songs rolling all through the day. I do, however, find myself relying on old favourites more often–musical comfort blankets, if you will. Bruce Springsteen, for example, is a constant cue-up these days. We even streamed his 2009 Hyde Park gig through Youtube last week. Three and a bit hours of sheer entertainment.

A new/old find is an album of covers by another old favourite, Matthew Sweet, whose power-pop stylings have long resonated in this household, and his wife.

Yeah, okay, CLANG. Sounds reductive if not downright sexist of me, but I’m holding back for dramatic effect. Come on, give me this one.

The spawny so-and-so is married to Susanna Hoffs. Yes, The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs. Yes, the Susanna Hoffs who did that side-eye in the video for walk Like An Egyptian and wore that mini-dress in the Eternal Flame video and rocks a black Rickenbacker like no-one else and hey well LOOK–

Proper badass. Power-pop royalty in her own right is what I’m saying, which makes the Sweet/Hoffs pairing all the more special.

Aaanyway, Susanna and Matthew have released a long series of cover versions, and the best of them are complied onto Under The Covers, a cracking set of tunery. Their harmonies are gorgeous throughout. There’s nothing particularly challenging here, but it’s a spark for the soul as far as I’m concerned.

While I’m on Recommendation Road, it would be remiss of me not to mention the podcast run by an X&HTeam-mate and fellow Trekkie, Keith Eyles. Let’s See What’s Out There follows the recently-finished Star Trek: Picard, which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. You may too, if you’re that way inclined.

Keith and co-host Pete are knowledgable and enthusiastic without indulging in the aggressive geekery that can leak into these sort of exercises. It’s going to some interesting places now season 1 is complete. There is a danger that I may crop up on an episode at some point. Fair warning will be given so you can retreat to a safe distance. Check out an ep featuring another Team-mate, Graham Williams, below. You may find it sparks an interest.

It’s the end of my first week in furlough. There is dark talk of decorating and shelf-building in my near future. For now, I’m enjoying this quiet time, feeling my mind slowly returning to a place where the sparks can fly freely. I hope you’re all finding bright points in the day too, however and wherever you can.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have important things to do. Take it away, boys…

Proof Of Life

Easter Monday. Cooler than the weekend, when we spent most of our time dozing in the sun with a book each. A sharp-edged breeze swirls the candy-floss blossom from next door’s apple tree up into the air. Baby pink against a cloudless blue. We move some tubs and planters around, repot a thyme, do some watering. I trim some of the thyme to put into a tray-bake of vegetables later.

Outside, All Hallows Road is empty. The Easter traffic that’s usual for the home of one of Reading’s major cemeteries during a national holiday is non-existent. The boneyard gates are closed and chained. No fresh flowers on Grandma’s grave. The irony of a shuttered cemetery in the midst of of a global pandemic is almost parody. The blackest of comedies.

We’ve seen little of the mass gatherings that have social media fussbudgets in a conniption. We haven’t been near a park in weeks. But then, we’re lucky to have a garden to flop in when the sun comes out. If I was stuck in a flat with no easy access to green, it’s very likely I’d be heading to the river every day, risking the scolding. For what it’s worth, everyone we’ve seen on our perambulations have been very careful about staying away from each other. Smiles, waves and nods seem to be the norm. People are gentle with each other, as best they can at least.

As an introvert, this whole social distancing lark has come easy. I get on well without needing to socialise. My problem is that I find webcam chats almost as exhausting as the actual face-to-face stuff. If anything, the extra energy you have to put into a Zoom or Skype call to be noticed and heard wrings me out even more quickly than a normal meeting would. I make the effort with group chat though, as much for the other people on the call as myself. It is, as the old BT commercial put it, good to talk.

I’m even calling the parents once a week. Yes, I am a saint. Good of you to notice.

The creativity of the community in isolation has been incredibly inspiring. Art has been pouring out of us in every form imaginable, from drawing and painting to textiles to music to short films and photography. A remarkable and unprecedented flood of joyfulness.

You notice I didn’t mention writing. That’s a sore point. While many of us have lifted the banner of creativity to stave off the black dog, I have stalled. This is frustrating and worrying. I’ve always laboured under the delusion that whatever else happens, I can always write. Now, at the point where I actually have the time to settle down and get some serious word count down, the urge to do so is hiding wide-eyed under the stairs, refusing to come out no matter how much I shake the bag of Dreamies.

Excuses? I have a few. I mean, check the title of the blog. For one, I’ve actually been at work. Part of a skeleton crew that’s taken our usual twenty staff down by seventy-five percent. There’s much less to do, but more than enough for one person. That ends as of tomorrow, when I go onto a rotating furlough pattern. Maybe then the evening brain-fog will lift. Who knows, I might even be able to lure the muse out from her hiding place.

Meanwhile there’s always dinner to be made. We’ve started using local suppliers and embracing their delivery options. Our first veg box from Caversham’s own Geo Cafe contained all manner of goodies and has me tearing up the weekly food plan in favour of something more aubergine-heavy. Loddon Brewery, up the road from us in Dunstan Green, sorted me out with a lovely selection of brews in time for the Easter break. Both have been friendly, chatty and a joy to do business with. We’ll drop an order to the brilliant Grumpy Goat for cheese (and yeah ok maybe some more beer) this week. With two Co-ops a ten minute walk away, we haven’t needed to go near a supermarket in weeks. That trend is probably going to continue after the restrictions finally lift, and we wander out blinking into the summer to finally get that haircut or pop to the pub.

Gods, I miss the pub.

It would be easy to make light of the situation and the last thing I want to do is minimise the struggles that millions of us are facing right now. Look, I am fully aware of how lucky I am. Money is going to be tight, sure. But we have no kids to educate and entertain while trying to hold down a strange home bound working day. We are, for the time being at least, secure. TLC and I, quiet homebodies as we are, are almost perfectly suited to the challenges that The Rony has set us. Even for us, there are broken sleep patterns, times of anxiety and inertia. Gods only know how the rest of you are coping. The fact that you are, and with good humour, creativity and determination, gives me hope for all of us.

Outside, late afternoon light dapples the rough end of the garden. Shadows play over the apple trees we planted a couple of years back, their branches thick with new buds. I’ll be out there tomorrow, doing battle with weeds and overgrown borders. Perhaps the muse will follow me out, green eyes glinting, tail held high. Perhaps she’ll drop an idea into my head that will send me running back indoors for a pen and paper.

Perhaps we are one day closer to the end of this, and the beginning of something new.

A Portrait

TLC is famously camera-shy, especially when it comes to whacking photos of her up on the interwebs.

Who can blame her. I hide behind a cartoon rabbit avatar, after all. There’s a lot of discussion around about privacy on the net, and how far that extends into how we present ourselves online. Should we be compelled into an internet profile that consists of our own faces, our real names? For the kids growing up with Facebook, privacy seems to be a thing of the past. Everything about you is shared, without a second thought. All your indiscretions, your saddest, silliest moments, those face-pulling pics, the whole shebang. Your life in all it’s wobbly-eyed, crazed magnificence.

If you want to do that, fine. Not my bag. I cringe and run for my privacy settings whenever Facebook roll out a new feature. I know a few people that are moving to Google+ for that very reason, one because Facebook would not allow him to post under an pseudonym. The point is, freedom of expression also means freedom to express yourself as much or as little as you want, and the presentation of your online self is a vital part of that. Identity can be currency in the 21st century, and I think it’s good to be careful.

Your pseudonymous life doesn’t have to be completely fictional, of course. That way can lead to disaster. A carefully chosen avatar, a handle to which you’ve given a little thought, can give a flavour of your character. It’s up to you how much, or how little, you choose to show to the world.

With that in mind, then, here’s a pic which sums up TLC and her sweet, gentle nature perfectly – to me, at least.

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The Green Stuff

Many people extol the virtues of red sauce. Others prefer their sauces brown. I’ve always been partial to a spot of green.

This is the stuff that you can’t get in bottles. The best name for it is the Spanish shorthand – salsa verde. Unlike your red or brown condiments, this sauce doesn’t have a secret recipe handed down from father to son, locked in a safe somewhere. It’s an open source, open to interpretation kind of a deal. It also doesn’t last that long – certainly never long enough to form a crust round the top of the bottle. But as it takes so little time to whip up, that’s not such a big deal.

In basic terms, salsa verde is a herb and oil suspension, livened up with lemon juice and salt. You need a blender or mixer with a bit of grunt to it, unless you’re feeling prehistoric and prefer pounding your food into submission in a mortar and pestle. Which’ll work fine, but you know, 21st century and all that, the machines are our friends.

Green, leafy herbs are the order of the day. My preference is for lots of parsley, mint, basil and fennel or dill. My salsas are heavy on the fennel nowadays as I have a monster of a plant in the herb patch and I have to tame the bugger somehow.

Get yourself a decent handful of fennel and flat-leaf parsley, and about half as much basil and mint. Blitz, along with a few cloves of garlic, then pour in olive oil until you have something with a decently sloppy but spoonable consistency. Add the juice of a lemon, and some salt. You’ll probably need more than you think of each. I’ve taken to throwing in a couple of preserved lemons instead, which do the job in one hit. Taste, and taste again. You want something loud, tart and green, sharp and bright and grassy as the first sip of a gin and tonic on a hot summer day.

Fish and chicken are perfect for this stuff, although I’ve dolloped it on a burger with good effect. In fact, most barbecued meats will snuggle up happily to the salsa. It’ll keep in the fridge for a few days, although it will thicken up. Once it’s at that stage, stir it into mayo, yoghurt or sour cream to keep the salsa useful as a chippy dip, or a creamy side for lamb chops. In short, this is my go-to accompaniment for the warm months, and one of my principal reasons for growing herbs. A spoonful of summer.

A Flavour Of Spring

As the weather becomes kinder, I’m finding more excuses to get out into the garden. An unfocused potter, pulling weeds, listening to birdsong, can be useful to clear the head. And, more importantly, to stimulate thoughts of dinner.
The new early spuds are sprouting nicely, which should start to reward us in a month or so. The cauliflower I planted has succumbed to the evil that slugs do, but some of the Italian lettuce I sowed in its stead is ready for picking and eating. Garlic and shallots are waving their flags bravely.
Our herb patch looks magnificent. I mean look at it.

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The furry stuff is fennel. We’re both big fans of the sweet aniseed flavour. I love the purple of the seed heads on the chives. Underneath, a lowgrowing oregano, which looked very sickly last winter, has carpeted the ground keeping those darn weeds at bay.

There seem to be a lot of bees around this spring too. Next door have a nest in their roofspace, and every so often they’ll spill out of an air brick and swarm. They sound like a B52 going overhead. That’s a bit unnerving, but in small doses the little fellers are charming. They’re welcome in our herb patch any time.

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Fodderblog – a fresh sauce for spring

This is kind of a sauce, kind of a condiment, kind of an accompiment. But it’s all great.

Mix half a cup of creme fraiche with half a cup of yoghurt. Then add a big handful of finely-chopped chives, and about three-quarters of that amount of either fennel tops or dill. A pinch of salt. That’s it.

I’m trying to keep the measurements a bit vague so you can scale it up and down to meet your own needs. The amounts above will give you enough for two, with enough for leftovers afterwards. As long as you keep to half and half yog and creme for a spoonably thick texture, and enough greenery to make it interesting, you could make enough to feed an army.

Tweak it if you like. Don’t got fennel or dill? Maybe some parsley or chervil. Perhaps a little cucumber might be nice to make it more of a salsa.

Goes great with chicken, grilled fish, on a burger or steak, hell, I dunno. It’s your dinner. I’m just trying to help you out a little here.