Allotment

Many years ago when the Gees lived in east London, and I commuted regularly to an orifice office that was located away from my home [fancy! did they still have typewriters? Horse-drawn omnibuses? Public executions? – Ed]  I had an allotment. It was conveniently placed between our home and the tube station, so even on working days I could pop in, especially on summer evenings after work, when I could water things and come home with a bag of salad.

I loved my allotment. The Offspring enjoyed it, too. Our plot in London was bounded on one side by an abandoned patch on which fruit bushes had been allowed to run riot; and on the other by a plot laid out to grass, which I rented as an add-on to my own. I mowed a maze in the grass, and, when the Offspring had collected enough currants and blackberries on one side, they’d set themselves up inside the maze on the other, for a picnic. One gloriously sunny day in July I went to the allotment with the Offspring and spent a happy timeless time watering, tending, hoeing and harvesting, and when I had done pretty much everything I needed to do, I summoned the Offspring (they were aged about 7 and 5) for the short walk home. ‘Please can we stay for a few more hours?’ came the plaintive cry from somewhere in the tall grass.

But that was then. We moved to Cromer in 2006, and although we are blessed with a large garden, we have never had a vegetable patch of any size. And I have always missed my allotment. Until recently Mrs Gee has been head gardener and she likes to grow things in pots, on a smaller scale, though we’ve usually had a few vegetables and herbs for the table. This year, however, she is too busy for gardening as she’s doing Other Stuff (she is embarking on her Third Career) so I have stepped in. Think of me as Mellors to her Lady Chatterley. On second thoughts, don’t.

The Blessed Plot.

So I get to do things my way, and I have cleared a sizeable patch of ground on the sunny side of the garden for a plot. And here it is. The polytunnel in the background is the chicken coop: to the right of the path is the shady side of the garden, currently a shrubbery-in-progress, though some of it will be turfed in August, when one does turf. Regular readers of these annals will recognize this garden from earlier posts, of course. Over the past month I’ve sown potatoes, red onions, garlic, carrots, radishes, something called garlic kale, and dwarf French beans. So far the radishes have shot up – you can just about see them in a small green dotted line in front of my kneeling-plank. The garlic is following, as are the onions, although at a more leisurely pace. The carrots might just be starting to peep above ground though as yet there are no signs of spuds. I’ve sown some cucumber seeds in a propagating tray on a windowsill. After a promised spell of bad weather I’ll tidy up the front garden, plant a pumpkin in a planter, sow some lettuces and rocket and endive and… and … and …

Watching the plants grow is a never-ending sauce tzores source of delight, and having them in neat rows will make it easier to keep the weeds down (in the past we’ve hosted what looks like the British National Collection of stinging nettles).

And I have found something very surprising.

I love digging. I’ll say it again. I LOVE DIGGING. Give me my extra-long steel back-saver spade and I can dig (almost) indefinitely. I’m starting to get the kind of endorphin buzz that athletes do from running. It never used to be like this – but over the past year I have shed five or six kilos and have had a lot more exercise than usual. This means I am fit enough – just – to start to enjoy digging, rather than finding it a back-breaking chore.

More from the allotment as things shoot up.

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Egg

This is a egg.

A egg. Recently.

Now, you might say, so what, that looks just like any old egg. But the main thing about this egg is that it was laid by one of our own hens. This is remarkable. Now, we’ve had hens for more than a decade, but ours haven’t laid anything since last summer. Not a thing. It’s perhaps not surprising, as our hens aren’t really the best layers. The flock is ageing and some have died off. Only seven are left. Of these, only two — Bluebell and Esther — are what one might call layers. Two others — Poppet and Widget — belong to a fancy breed, more ornamental than egg-layers. The final three — Angelica, Eliza and Truly Scrumptious — are what one might call retired hens, or what others might call old boilers. Oddly, though, it was either Poppet or Widget that laid this egg.

But the timing is apposite. It’s spring, and we are in the middle of Passover, the second of three spring festivals. The first was Holi, just passed, and the third, Easter, is next week. And these are only the ones I know about: I’d have been completely ignorant of Holi had I not read A Suitable Boy last year. So it’s welcome to have an egg, just at this time of year.

It’s also the time of year, as the days lengthen and become warmer, when one gets the garden into gear. This year I have marked out quite a large area of the garden as a vegetable plot. It’s been used for this and that over the years — shrubbery, occasional part-time veg plot, chicken run, duck enclosure — so I thought it time to dig it over thoroughly and clear out any potential nasties. This means double digging.

The Trench Begins

What this means is digging a whacking huge great trench, as you can see on the left, probably a bit deeper than one would usually dig, and barrowing the enormous volume of soil to the other end of the plot for later use (be patient, I shall get to that part).

Double digging is great to get the ground into shape. It’s the best chance one will get to rid the ground of weeds, old pieces of rubble and assorted rubbish, and you never know what one might find. In this one trench I recovered the Ark of the Covenant and the Lost Chord.

When the trench is dug, you can start to dig another row, back-filling the first trench with the soil thus turned over, and creating a new trench, like this:

 

 

 

 

Further Entrenchment

So, basically, what happens is that the trench moves from one end of the plot to the other, rather like holes moving through a semiconductor (a nice solid-state physics reference there). When you reach the far end of the plot you can then fill in the remaining trench with the left-over soil from the first trench.

Or at least, that’s the theory.

In practice I find that one has a lot of soil left over, given that uncompacted soil takes up much more space in a heap than it does when stuck together in the ground. This doesn’t matter, as that soil, now dug over and freed from rubbish and weeds, can be used to fill pots, mix with compost to propagate seeds, and so on.

Over the coming long Easter Weekend I’ll be working off the eggy eggcess of a Passover diet, digging the whole plot, and getting some spuds, garlic and shallots in. And maybe some baby leeks.

 

 

UPDATE! Here’s the plot, almost done (somewhat later). As you see the trench has moved down to the far end. You can just make out my spade in the distance, together with the wheelbarrow on top of the large pile of earth dug out of the first trench. You might be wondering about the large blue tarpaulin – this covered the entire plot, and I rolled it back, row by row, as I went.

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Chair

You’ll both no doubt recall an earlier post in which I showed an heirloom chair — one of six — that had been rendered useless (at least as a chair) by the depredations of a teething puppy. Here it is, as a reminder. The chair, that is. I’m happy to say that the same chair has been restored, and can now be used once again as a chair.

A Much-Abused Heirloom. Recently.

… and now, restored

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The restorer was my friend C. F. of Cromer, who chisels away in his garage shed man cave workshop under the name Verdant Woodcraft, in much the same way that Winnie-the-Pooh lived under the name of Sanders.

He (that’s Mr C. F., not Winnie-the-Pooh) now has another one of the six chairs to restore, happily not as badly damaged as the one above. He was able to restore the chair using bits of a large slab of mahogany I bought from a reclamation yard once, with a view to making something or other, but I never did, so I gave it to C. F. instead. I’m sure you’ll agree that he’s made far better use of it than I ever could.

If you look at the Verdant Woodcraft facebook page you’ll see that Mr C. F. has a way with wood. He takes commissions, you know.

And the puppy seems to have grown out of chewing the furniture.

 

 

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Sartre

‘Hell’, said Jean-Paul Sartre, is ‘Other People’. Although I expect he said it in French. And well might I sympathize. Much has been said about the mental health problems of people suffering from the absence of human contact during the Current Crisis. Rather less has been noised concerning curmudgeons misanthropes people such as myself who find the absence of human contact something of a relief, and who are not particularly looking forward to the New Normal, whatever that may be. So much so that when the dogs take me for my daily amble, when I see the merest speck of another person on some far horizon, I walk smartly in the opposite direction. The prospect of Other People has even kept me and the dogs away from the beach — even the fairly remote beach we usually frequent.

Needless to say, so I’ll say it, the prospect of traveling on public transport — trains, for example, still less the London Underground — fills me with nauseous dread and horror. I’ve become really used to meeting people remotely, by Zoom (other Modes of Video Communication are available). Such things offer immense advantages – for example, I can now visit scientists and laboratories as part of my job (I’m with the Submerged Log Company) without the inconvenience of having to leave home. It’s now possible for me to visit places that might have been out of bounds for reasons of security, difficulty, restrictions, or expense. I have to say that this newfangled remote working technology is marvelous. My, should you visit Kansas City, you can walk the privies in the rain and never wet yer feet. As Rogers and Hammerstein said. I think it was them. Anyway, it doesn’t sound much like Sartre.

But I digress.

<- What you see here is an eight-yard skip, or dumpster. That is to say, it’s a large metal box that holds eight cubic yards of stuff, which a refuse disposal company, for a fee, will take away and dispose of, subject to certain limitations (no liquids, paint cans, TV or computer monitors, mattresses, and a few other bits and pieces).

I had it delivered to the Maison des Girrafes so I could use it to rid the environs of the incredible amount of ivy with which it had lately become infested, as I wrote earlier in these annals. But it was also an opportunity to clear a lot of house and garden trash that had accumulated in especial during lockdown, and, indeed, before, becoming so much a part of the furniture, as it were, that one could live one’s life without really noticing it, until it was gone. An effect of this (the not noticing, I mean) is that one underestimates the amount of tchotchkes, bibelots, gewgaws, gadgets, knicknacks, non-working items of stuff, old pieces of stick, furniture that had become chewed by the dogs to beyond the point of salvation, whiskers on kittens, plastic plant pots that had been used and re-used so often that they had become so brittle that they shattered when handled, warm woolen mittens, brown paper packages tied up with string, and so on and so forth fifth forth in like fashion — until one tries to shift it. I filled the eight-yard skip without really trying, when I thought I’d have room, and to spare. Reader, I have ordered another. I have already accumulated enough garden refuse to fill that, and, after that, I still have a heap of black sacks in the loft to shift.

Why have I not taken all this to the municipal recycling centre, I hear you cry? In normal times, much of this would have gone to that Temple of the Latter-Day Gods, where one divests oneself of Worldly Goods and therefore feels Elevated, even Cleansed, with the Kindly Assistance of the attendant Priests in their Overalls, High-Viz Jackets and Hard Hats, yea, and Cleaving to the Path of Righteousness as one isn’t adding to the amount of landfill. But these aren’t normal times. As I don’t need to tell you.

It does, however, fill me with a degree of shame that we have all this stuff to begin with, such that the disposal of selfsame stuff poses logistical problems. Should they be healthy and adequately fed, watered and sheltered (and many people in the world still strive for such basic amenities) most people seem to manage fairly handily with hardly more than the clothes they stand up in. I discovered this when I visited a field camp in Kenya the other day (gosh, was it really 1998?) and did very well with virtually nothing, which is the ground state of most of the Kenyans with whom I worked. It is an irony of modern times that, given the chance, we tend to surround ourselves with tchotchkes, bibelots, gewgaws, gadgets, knicknacks, &c., &c., while all the time wishing for a simpler kind of life. Hence the success of Marie Kondo and her aim of disclutterating our lives. What she is selling, and very successfully, is a dream, an aspiration, something to aim for, if not necessarily to achieve.

I disclutter on, that unattainable goal in mind.

 

 

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Pliny

Pliny the Elder, yes, that’s the one, the author of Natural History, which got a very poor review on Goodreads at the time, one reader castigating the author as ‘that voluminous, industrious, unphilosophical, gullible, unsystematic old gossip’, who nevertheless died as philosophical a death as you please when studying the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, yes, the same that barbecued Pompeii and turned Herculaneum into a mixed grill, who once said words to the effect of post coitum omne animalia triste sunt, or it might have been Galen, but whoever it was definitely had a point, except that I’d like to modify it to something about authors who’ve just delivered their final manuscript to their publisher, which is what I’ve done, so maybe an apposite quote [summons Google Translate] might be something like Dimisso manuscriptumtitum ad ultimum edidisse omnes auctores tristes. I feel as weak as a kitten though my mind is freewheeling so fast it’s a wonder the wheels don’t all fly off in different directions and the whole contraption ends up in a ditch. My head aches. My dream life is rich, textured and thoroughly confused.

I got the edited manuscript of A (Very) Short History of Sex and Chocolate [this appears to be a working title] from my editor on Monday morning. After receiving it I worked at it morning night and afternoon so by Thursday night I could send it back again, t’s crossed, i’s dotted and all shipshape and with all the words in the correct order. It helped that the editor was very sensitive and minimally invasive, so almost no reconstructive surgery was required — all the editor did was curb my more polyfloristic literary excesses, but no matter, you’ll get them all here on this blog, yes, both of you, look at me when I’m talking to you and sit up straight. Unlike a rather erudite novel I’m reading it doesn’t contain any words that you won’t be familiar with, such as hetaera, incunabulum or ambry, all new ones on me, unless of course you’ve never met words such as scansioripterygid or procolophonid. But hey, that’s science for you, never use one syllable when you can have three, preferably in Latin. Unless it’s Yi, which happens to be a scansioripterygid. Funny old world, isn’t it? Pliny would have understood. I miss him.

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Cool

What difference a couple of weeks makes. Recall that earlier this month I was out in a blizzard trying to secure a tarpaulin over the hen run, all the while running the risk of hypothermia, or at the very least playing a bit part in a painting by Marc Chagall.

Much the same as then, but now.

Well, all change. Here is much the same scene as then, but taken earlier today.

As you can see I removed the gloomy old tarp from the hen run and replaced it with a fresh sheet of clear plastic, so the hens can get some daylight.

And what daylight we are having. The days are noticeably longer and the weather is milder. Two weeks ago I was dressed up as a polar explorer. Today I was doing the garden in a T-shirt. It was wonderful to feel the sun again.

The astute reader will note that I found another use for the tarp – I spread it on the piece of ground where, in a month or so, I’ll start digging and raking and staking out this year’s veg plot. I also neatened up the fence alongside.

Now, everyone knows that February is absolutely the worst month in the garden. Everything looks tatty and horrible. But the days are longer, allowing for more tidying-up time, and soon I’ll be sowing and planting and we shall have breakfast outdoors and there’ll be buttered scones for tea. At half past three. Or words to that effect. Other bakery products are available. (Closed Wednesdays).

Tomorrow I’m going to prune the apple tree.

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Slitherin

Among the many questions that swirl around the ever-fevered Gee brain is this: how fast can snails go? They seem to go fairly fast when I chase them away from our leafy veg. But how fast is fast?

This pressing question was the subject of this effusion just out in the Journal of Zoology from M. Q. R. Pembury Smith and G. D. Ruxton of the University of St Andrews. Presumably stuck for other things to do during lockdown, they measured the speed of  common garden snails (Cornu aspersum) testing them over a variety of substrates.

It’s perhaps no surprise to learn that snails don’t go very fast over sandpaper, and the coarser the sandpaper, the slower they go. Snails go fastest though over PVC over which other snails have previously slithered.

This brought to mind a conversation I had getting on for forty years ago with a school friend, one J. M. of Sussex. We were discussing the speed of snails, as you do, and he suggested that an appropriate measure of velocity for snails would be Furlongs per Fortnight.

From the paper, it seems that a snail traveling at top speed goes at around eight centimetres in any period of 30 seconds, or about 16 centimetres per minute. Amazingly enough, this is approximately 16 furlongs per fortnight, so my school friend was right on the money.

It would be interesting to compare speeds of various things in terms of furlongs per fortnight. My slow amble round the block with the dogs has a cracking pace of just over 8,000 furlongs per fortnight. The speed limit for a car on Britain’s motorways is 188,160 furlongs per fortnight. The speed of light in a vacuum is 1,802,617,498,752 furlongs per fortnight. Put another way, the speed of light in a vacuum is 112,663,593,672 as fast as the fastest snail measured by Pembury Smith and Ruxton.

This research raises more questions than it answers. Is 16 furlongs per fortnight really the top speed for a snail? Might they go any faster, perhaps with go-faster stripes? To be fair, Pembury Smith and Ruxton weren’t using thoroughbred racing snails, and were investigating what slows snails down, rather than what speeds them up. So there’s clearly room for further investigation.

At the risk of incurring wrath from any anti-doping agencies that rule on snail racing, perhaps a tiny amount of caffeine might help? After all, caffeine is known to make snails’ hearts race, which is why coffee grounds are toxic to them. A sublethal amount might stimulate snails and make them go faster. Pursuing further the principle that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, slug pellets might also improve snail speed. Snails certainly get a shift on when they see me outside late at night standing guard over the allotment, with a bowl of slug pellets and a pea shooter.

Within — of course — the boundaries of acceptable research on live animals, I urge the researchers to pursue this interesting line of inquiry.

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Cold

A pandemic is sweeping the nation. No, not that one – this one is avian flu. People with poultry are advised to keep their stock under cover. Chez Gee we have a number of semi-retired and fancy hens (that is, they haven’t laid any eggs for ages) but despite their largely ornamental purpose we have to follow DEFRA instructions.

The hens are kept in an area beneath the skeleton of a small polytunnel, the plastic cover of which has long since rotted away. Last time there was a bird flu scare we covered the whole thing with a tarp. This time I ordered some plastic sheeting so at least the birds could have some light.

Then we had some very high winds that detached the plastic sheet. I repaired the damage — but the next day the high wind tore the plastic sheet to shreds. I went out in the teeth of the worst weather I can remember in 14 years of living in Cromer and covered the hen run with a tarp. Not realizing that this wasn’t the same tarp as I’d used previously (are you keeping up here?) it didn’t seem to fit, and it too me three tries to achieve decent coverage, with the help of heavy-duty clips, cable ties, and as much bailer twine as I could scavenge.

Later on that day I discovered the tarp I’d used previously and covered the entire caboodle with that. Trying to do this in a high wind was rather exciting, as the tarp flapped angrily all over the place until I could secure it. The result looks rather like an air-raid shelter/refugee camp, but at least the hens are covered, and out of the wind.

A hen run/ air raid shelter/ refugee camp. Earlier today. Authentic snow.

During the course of this exercise I became severely chilled, despite wearing a balaclava, hood, four layers of clothing, two layers of gloves and stout boots. After half an hour or so I could no longer feel my fingers, which was problematic, as I was trying to tie knots and attach cable ties.

When I went inside I immediately suffered the symptoms of shock – panic, nausea and feeling like I was going to die. Going outside before breakfast was probably not a good idea. Mrs Gee (who is diabetic) let me into her stash of Emergency Jelly Babies and after snarfling about a dozen I felt a bit better. It took the rest of the day for my fingers to recover full sensation.

It was all down to the wind chill — for the air temperature wasn’t really that low — just a degree or two below freezing, in proper grown-up Centigrade (not that namby-pamby Fahrenheit nonsense).

Once I recovered and in the warm I recalled a book I’d read just a few days earlier — Erebus, by Pythonesque Explorer, TV Personality and All-Round Nice Chap Michael Palin. This tells the story of a warship which, decommissioned after the Napoleonic Wars, found new fame as a polar exploration vessel — first in the Antarctic under James Clark Ross, and then in the Arctic as part of Sir John Franklin‘s ill-fated expedition to find the North-West Passage.

Back in the day, ships that sailed in polar waters were regularly stuck in ice and had to stay there for the winter, in conditions which make my privations look like a summer barbecue on the patio. At one point, Palin tries to conjure what it must have been like to be on the tilting deck of a ship in a blizzard; or knee-deep in drifting snow; with temperatures well below zero; a wind-chill making it even colder; and trying to handle flapping sailcloth or tie knots in ropes that were frozen solid.

Hardly bears thinking about.

 

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Scrabbungulate

I’m not sure whether either of you know that I am rather fond of Scrabble. I can be found haunting the Internet Scrabble Club under the name of zedwave, (playing Scrabble online with people you know only as nicknames is, I suppose, an intellectual and therefore risk-free version of cottaging) or idly passing the time with some Scrabble app or another on my phone. A love of this game was incarcerated inculcated instilled in me by my parents, who were amused when the zoology-obsessed infant Gee played words such as ORYX. My parents now no longer dare play me, and I have in turn passed it on to the Offspring, especially Gee Minor, who regularly takes me to the cleaners.

During my time as a graduate in Cambridge I was a member of the University Scrabble club, and was thrilled when, during a Town-versus-Gown match, my opponent rashly challenged my play of the word ADDAX.

There are two ungulates in this picture.

Incidents such as this kindled the ambition, long ago, to write an article on all the exotic antelopes and other ungulates whose euphonious names can help one out of a tight lexical corner. Two feature in the picture you see here — the aforementioned ORYX and the ever-useful OX, which scores mightily if you can play the X on a triple-letter score in two words simultaneously, together, both at once, and at the same time.

So, yesterday, while playing online, I noted down all the Scrabble-friendly names of antelopes and other ungulates I could think of without looking them up. I discovered more than twenty without breaking a sweat, and here they are, in (as they say on all the game shows), in no particular order.

BOK, KOB, TOPI, NILGAI, ORYX, ADDAX, GAUR, ANOA, SAOLA, NYALA, OKAPI, PUDU, KUDU, GNU, ELAND, IMPALA, SAIGA, QUAGGA, ZEBU, DIBATAG, YAK, OX and the ever-useful ZO (can also be spelled DZO or DZHO).

I am sure you can think of loads more.

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Distrokering

You’ll both be aware by now that I’ve been usefully spending time learning how to record music at home, time I’d usually have devoted to live music. I’ve an album-length collection under my belt, and have even started playing music on other people’s records. One of these is now commercially available, and that got me thinking about making my own music more widely available.

Never one to let the grass grow under my gathering moss, I’ve now finished another album. It’s called These Are Difficult Times. Whereas Locked Down & Blue was a collection of more-or-less conventional blues, soul and rock songs, this new collection These Are Difficult Times is (in the main) an assemblage of longer, largely instrumental pieces in which I expose my inner Rick Wakeman. Yes, it’s all very Six Wives of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table and their Journey to the Centre of the Earth On Acid Ice. With banks of old-fashioned-sounding Moog synthesizers and Mellotrons and so progressive-rockily on, in like fashion. It’s appeal, I imagine, will be … er … selective.

Well, up to a point. The first track on These Are Difficult Times is actually a cover version —  of Birdland, a jazz-rock piece originally recorded by the band Weather Report on their 1977 album Heavy Weather. It’s much the most accessible piece on These Are Difficult Times. I have decided to release Birdland as a ‘single’ using Distrokid, a music streaming service. This will make it accessible in a variety of formats, and, wonder of wonders, incorporates a licensing agreement that allows one to record cover versions.

So, if you click on this link, Birdland  — as well as other bits of These Are Difficult Times — should be available on Spotify, and as well as and, notwithstanding inasmuch as wherefore, (deep breath) Apple Music, iTunes, Instagram/Facebook, TikTok/Resso, Google Play/YouTube, Amazon, Soundtrack by Twitch, Pandora, Deezer, Tidal, iHeartRadio, ClaroMusica, Saavn, Anghami, KKBox, NetEase (beta), Tencent (beta), Triller (beta), and MediaNet. So, not only have I become a session musician, I’m now a recording artiste. Fancy!

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