GARDEN VISIT

 

 

 

 

6 Elm Avenue, Littlehampton

John and I visited an interesting garden in Littlehampton this week, under the National Gardens Scheme.

Among the delights of visiting gardens in the yellow book is that it takes you into parts of Sussex (or wherever you reside) that you otherwise would never see, and you never know what to expect. The ‘garden’ can be the parkland of a stately home – one we visited had an avenue of wellingtonia – or a tiny precious haven of a terraced house.

It was a very hot day. The house was a large 1930s two storey house with an entirely flat garden. Looking at the front garden, it was obvious that it had been laid out by a garden designer. There was a pleasing selection of plants in purple and gold, mostly in flower.

We ambled round to the back, where there were already quite a few visitors. The garden had been divided into sections around a central walkway. Between the back door and the eventual ending of the garden it was bisected by a high fence, which had a moon gate in it. The planting was again in purple and gold and was dominated by hundreds of enormous alliums, all purple, with flowers as big as a football. The lady of the house, graciously in attendance and welcoming, informed us that this allium was called Globemaster. There were pools, and mirrors dotted about.

Among other interesting features was an alpine collection housed in guttering attached to strips of wood fastened to the blank wall of a summerhouse. Near the house were two large wooden receptacles which made deep beds, and were supported by trestle type stands so that they provided portable deep beds at waist height, filled with herbs and salad vegetables.

We had a cup of tea and cake in amongst all this splendour. I reflected that I would like the garden, lovely though it was, to be less ‘designed’. Let some other colour edge in, I thought. However it had only been planted the previous year and perhaps needed time to settle

As we exited the garden, we passed a side entrance; and there was a cat flap in the door, and fixed to the wall below was a step to access the flap. Everyone’s needs were considered.

Just to remind us that we weren’t in paradise, stuffed under our windscreen wipers was a peremptory note accusing us of blocking their exit (which we had not: you could have driven an army truck through the space we left.) We concluded it must be a case of jealousy by the neighbours plus resentment of the noise and activity of the builders of the garden, plus the arrival of so many visitors to their patch.

Then we drove to Littlehampton. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing wrong with English seaside resorts: it’s the people in them and their lamentable taste that is the problem. The beach at Littlehampton is pleasant enough (there is some sand); the water is clean. There is a little train with a friendly driver who puffs slowly along the promenade and back (we had a shot.) But there are some startling displays. A young woman, perhaps size 16, and going to run to fat if she doesn’t mend her ways, walking the promenade with her voluptuous flesh straining at the seams.

Another very overweight woman, a mother, wearing a skimpy bikini top and shorts bottoms, her flesh oozing out of them, sitting on a chair in a restaurant on the beach. In my first horrified glance at her, I thought she was naked.

I ate possibly the worst baked potato I have ever eaten ; eventually I wondered if it actually was a potato or some noxious substitute.

So we drove back, but we think we’ll return in September when that garden is, once again, open to visitors. I wonder what will have replaced the allium?

Advertisements

A LITTLE IRISH TIN

We went to Nymans on Saturday – Robert with Milo, Elisabeth, William and me.

Robert and Milo went off to do the woodland walk, and Elisabeth and I explored the garden. The davidias were out, as well as many azaleas. They have unusual magnolias. The wisteria flowers were dangling off their support. The herbaceous border was bright with tree peonies and ceanothis, but the late summer border which in only a few months will be a riot of colour, was lifeless and empty.

We sat in one of the outside booths and had tea. We three adults had cake with our drinks. William elected to share my cake (this may well be because he calculates that he will be given a greater percentage of my cake. He is not stupid.) Then Elisabeth wants to show Robert something she’s noticed on her way round, so they leave me for ten minutes or so in charge of William.

I still have a small piece of cake left but I need to make it last. Looking for something to interest him, I inspect my handbag. He does not care for my purse. He thoroughly despises my handkerchief. He does not care for my little red quilted bag which contains my Disabled Toilet key, and a lipstick and a tiny Japanese mirror, though he does look at himself in the mirror. Then he spots in the murky depths of the bag a small enamelled tn.

It’s blue and gold with a celtic design on it, and John bought it for me at some place in Ireland where there were stone cells for monks, beside the sea. The tin is circular and has a lid which shuts with a click and to open it you press a tiny stopper and the lid pops open. I use it to carry my day’s supply of pills. But this tin is just empty in my bag so I let William play with it, I make the remaining piece of cake into large crumbs and put some in the tin and shut it. William then tries really hard to open it. He understands the mechanism completely but his fingers lack the strength and dexterity to effect the opening. I help him. He removes the crumbs and eats them. I fill it up with more crumbs and we repeat this process several times. Eventually we finish the crumbs. William explores my lap and finds a currant which he carefully places in the tin. I close the tin. I open the tin. He eats the currant. His parents return.

The little tin has kept us wholly occupied!

A QUESTION OF TASTE

A MATTER OF TASTE

I was reading in fascinated horror an article in the Saturday Times about an interior designer to the mega rich, one Celia Sawyer. There is a photograph of her in the write-up. She is a hard faced dyed blonde with long hair hanging down her back, I would guess in her 40s, blue nails, short black leather skirt, very high heeled gold boots. There are two illustrations of proposed dining room and bedroom for a client’s aeroplane, which have so much glitter and gilt I think I would feel ill if obliged to sit in them.

William Morris is famous for the saying, Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. The interesting word there is ‘believe’. Evidently he thought it was obvious whether or not an object was useful, but its beauty had an element of taste in being so regarded.

If you regard ‘good taste’ as having the capacity to discern quality and harmony and beauty in an object, then William Morris possessed this gift to a remarkable degree. If you visit his exquisite house in Kelmscott, Oxfordshire, you can see that he kept his embellishments of it to a minimum, allowing its natural beauty to shine through. He had ‘good taste’.

But these issues are not straightforward. We are often told that ‘real’ jewellery is in better taste than vulgar costume jewellery. Now I like to enhance my appearance with a little jewellery and I do have some modest pieces. But costume jewellery can look just as good – worn sparingly on the right person. It costs far less; it’s not a worry to wear it, and skilfully worn you can scarcely tell the difference. You can throw it away when you’re finished with it. But ‘real’ jewellery has baggage. It tells of your wealth; your family’s status if it is inherited; the love the giver had for you… Are these desirable qualities to hang round one’s neck like the albatross?​

I enjoyed reading the series of novels Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (which I assumed was a spoof mocking the snobbish pretensions of the upper classes. Sadly I later discovered that Powell was in deadly earnest!) The hero regarded himself as an expert on art and was scathing about the ‘vulgarity’ of those whose walls bore cheap, vulgar and nasty reproductions. Now it must be wonderful to be able to have in your sitting room an original work by a famous artist. But is a poor original by a lesser artist ‘better’ than a reproduction of some great work that appeals to you? I think what you decorate your walls with should be chosen on the same basis as that which adorns your person. You should choose what you can afford; what makes you feel good; what you enjoy. It is not admirable to choose things because someone else has labelled them ‘good’.

The Duchess of Windsor was famed for her elegance. Her beautiful clothes were designed to show off her jewellery. Her lover, briefly King of England, used to go to the vaults where the royal family stored uncut stones gifted to it (as representatives of their country) from the nations of the British empire. He would take handfuls of these emeralds, pearls, diamonds, etc and then wander round to Cartiers and empty his pockets of these treasures on to their tables. This would then be transformed into the jewellery the Duchess most famously wore. (NB The nations gifting those gems did not anticipate them being worn by the king’s mistress as she was when he first began giving them to her. It was first recognised she was his mistress because of the stunning jewellery she was wearing.) She was also well known for the elegance of her apartments. They were lovely: her taste was flawless, except that they were explicitly created and designed to impress, and as a result became unspeakably vulgar.

I had a friend many years ago in Scotland whose husband was invariably either about to become exceedingly rich or else about go bankrupt. They lived in a very large Victorian house parts of which would be sumptuously furnished while other rooms would be bare and unfurnished. The house was so large, her children used to cycle around inside, much to my children’s envy. As you entered the large hall, you were practically met at the door by an enormous gilt and glass chandelier (which later crashed to the floor, only marginally missing a workman.) A large downstairs room was converted into a cloakroom with white marble, glass and gold fittings, huge gold framed mirrors and red carpets. Decorating the vanity unit was a life sized glass swan. One felt it was rather indelicate to use the room for the purpose intended and the outsize mirrors only added to one’s discomfort. Her sitting room, a large high ceilinged room, had one wall grey and other three a vibrant pink. One sank into pink and cream long haired carpet, before slipping on white leather sofas. But what I especially marvelled at, and what I think summed up her whole philosophy, was the ornament given pride of place on a large glass coffee table. It was an enormous representation of Cinderella’s coach in glass, gold and ceramic,complete with the princess, the fairy godmother, the glass slippers – the whole dream. I loved going there because it was such fun. She was warm and generous. She had created this sugary nest which corresponded with her ideas of beauty. It certainly expressed the fantasy section of her quite childlike personality. She drew everyone in with her laughter, her kindness, her generosity. I knew it was not in the best possible taste, but going to hers was always fun. Certainly for a short visit, you could appreciate her exuberant enjoyment of her husband’s somewhat temporary wealth.

We’ve all been to houses where everything is of exquisite taste, designed to reflect the owner’s wealth, class, and education, and where the hostess has a veneer of social politeness (what Jane Austen would describe as ‘ well bred ‘ ) but little warmth. But wouldn’t you rather spend the evening somewhere more homely, where the paintings, perhaps though charming are a mixture of reproductions of Great Masters, amateur but good drawings of their children, and unknown artists portrayals of places in the world of significance to them? Where possibly their furniture isn’t antique, but a harmonious mixture of modern classic, Ikea and a lovely desk inherited from the hostess’s grandmother. The chairs may not be Chippendale, and a trifle shabby, but they are inviting and comfortable? Or even where the only decoration is a statue of Buddha and a print of Babar the elephant. What matters is how welcome and comfortable they make you feel.

I think it was Alan Clark who sneered at Michael Heseltine because he ‘bought his own furniture” (as opposed to inheriting it.) (Nothing at all wrong with inheriting it, of course.) Furniture is for using – sitting on, writing or eating at, etc. How you acquired it, as long as it’s legal, is neither here nor there.

Returning to Morris, furniture should be useful, fulfil it’s function, and it can be in the opinion of the owner, beautiful. But. in the long run, taste doesn’t matter. Kindness does.

TEN THINGS I COULDN’T GO WITHOUT

TEN THINGS I COULDN’T DO WITHOUT

I was tidying out a drawer of my desk (to be truthful, I was looking for something in it) and I came across some writing that I produced for writing class (which I left at least ten years ago.) It’s interesting comparing your 10 years ago self with your present day one. I would still stand by by the list, but I find myself less certain on world issues, and much more sceptical than I was then (and I always was fairly cynical; no starry eyes optimist was I).

Anyway here’s the list which remains the same even if the commentary is slightly different.

I find myself, to my surprise, agreeing with that old misogynist, St Paul: there is nothing without love. I paraphrase, but he said it at length. (2 Corinthians, 13, )  It may be money that makes the world go around, but its love that ensures it continues. If you were denied every other joy and comfort, but there was still love in your life, you could survive.

I cannot find a word in English to encompass the whole of what I mean in my second quality. I sought the word in religious essays but they were invariably vague. I refer to that state of spiritual well being when you and your god are in harmony. It’s when you know that in spite of your lamentable short-comings, you have struggled to live according to your highest principles. You know that you have done your very best and that you haven’t sacrificed your principles for greed or vanity, and you are entitled therefore to hope that those facets of the quality you were unable to comfortably discharge will be imputed to you. It’s a kind of spiritual health. I have no time for the so convenient and arrogant ‘state of grace’ that some religious groups pretend to possess. This is a battle ground that must be contested every day, but if you go out each day with a humble but a valiant heart and a courageous but contrite spirit, there is little that will be able to stand before you.

When I wrote this originally, my beloved friend Carolyn still walked he earth, and she reminded me of this third quality for I had taken it for granted. This refers to one’s physical gifts, which one received at birth and are in no way earned nor as we ‘entitled’ to them. This would include one’s health, one’s intellect, one’s beauty and charm, and one’s natural gifts and talents.

Fourthly comes one’s family and those people whom one loves. I count myself fortunate that I had parents who loved me; a tender brother who shared my rich (in ways that mattered) and restless childhood; a husband who is both reliable and exciting; loving children; considerate step-children; wider family of good calibre; many grandchildren each with his or her unique personality; generous-hearted and loyal friends. There’s never a dull moment in our lives. I’m not an especially demonstrative person, and it’s not easy to overcome my defences and enter into the space reserved for intimates, but those I love, I do so with passion. I’m not looking to expand my inner core of Beloveds:I just wan to keep them.

Fifthly I would place the execution of whatever one’s talent is. It is good for us to strive to accomplish things that we find difficult but there is joy also in the exercising of a natural talent that you know you’re good at. I imagine people who can mimic others, or dance, or sing (none of which I have any facility at) enjoy doing those things much as I enjoy writing.

Sixthly, perhaps controversially, solitude. I would hate to be absolutely alone, but if I had only the choice of being alone or continually with crowds, I would choose the solitude. When the door closes behind the last member of the family to leave the house, and several hours of sole occupation

lies enticingly before me, I feel my spirits rising. But in those days I wasn’t entirely alone for at this point our cat would emerge from wherever she had been hiding and come running to me with a little rrrint of pleasure. Just us, she would say, purring when I picked her up and patting my face with her paw. And I knew just what she meant.

Seventh, friends. Although I value the friendship of men, it is often hedged around with difficulties. The friendship of women is relaxing. They are easy to talk to; they are tender when you’re feeling low; they offer practical as well as emotional assistance. They laugh with you. They know that it’s important you get a scarf to match your jumper. They have wisdom and understanding. They give you advice tactfully and they know when to keep silent and when to look away. In the little things of life, as well as the large, they are always with you. I don’t think in my callous youth, I valued the friendship of women highly enough, but I certainly do now

My eighth choice is the glory of the earth : one’s joy and appreciation of the natural world. I rejoice in its fragile beauty. The wood I used to walk the dog in is a living organism. The eye of the blue tit as it hangs upside down and roots for peanuts is bright and intelligent. The rose slowly unfolds in the warmth of the sun, changing colour every day, and releasing its fragrance into the summer air. In all the seasons with the passing of the sun each day as night slips into the garden, as the winds rise and fall, as summer drifts slowly into autumn – I love it all. I am an earth-dweller on a planet whirling through space, and I see in every living thing the majesty of the creator and the wonder of life. If you were religious, you could feel that even the worm as he oozes his necessary way through the compost heap, is glorifying God.

My ninth choice is beauty. I love beautiful things in all areas: the beauty of the world; its people; of everyday well crafted objects; of works of art; of music. Beauty is a kind of harmony. It soothes the eye and restores the spirit.

For my tenth choice, I’d take books. The feeling of warm anticipation as you stagger out of the library with an armful of books, or even as you load up your kindle; the look forward to the quiet hours, lost in those other worlds. Entering a good book shop is like going into a holy place.

There’s my choices then. I’ve got some preferences I shall just register as indulgences, things I’d be loathe to do without: cats, clothes, chocolate. And children – other people’s and in small quantities.

As for things I could cheerfully do without. Ironing. Cleaning the bath. Stupid people. Pain and discomfort. People with loud voices and no volume control. Cars with radios too loud. Overbearing guides in National Trust houses who sweep you along as though you were a criminal come to steal something and tell you gossipy stories about Lady X, instead of concentrating on the artefacts. People who talk endlessly about themselves. Undrinkable wine in plastic containers. Incompetents who take up your time and never get to the point. Religious humbugs. Hypocrisy of any description. Telephone sales persons. Men in antique shops who take up too much space. Ditto men in ladies clothes shop. Really badly behaving children and their endlessly indulgent parents. Politicians of all colours. How rich we are conversation, and how much our house is now worth. People I don’t know who call me by my christian name. Putting the clock back. How long have you got?

ON WORRYING

ON WORRYING

In my youth and prime of life, I enjoyed a luxury and privilege that I was insufficiently grateful for; I did not suffer much from either guilt or from anxiety.

On guilt, I still largely hold the same position. I generally think before I take action and I decide that I’m comfortable with the damage I may be about to inflict. Or I decide it’s disproportionate, and then I pass quietly by. As I get older, I pass by more often than I used to do. I no longer demand or expect near perfection in others. I know I don’t achieve this myself, so why should I expect it of anyone else? But I still think guilt is something people indulge themselves in. They should have thought of that before. Or else they should attempt to make reparation.

I did of course get nervous like anyone else before interviews, making speeches, setting out on long journeys; but I also was confident of my ability to steer my way out of most difficulties, so I just dismissed these anxieties as trifling and carried on.

I have suffered from Parkinson’s disease for the past 20 years or so. If I get my drug intake wrong; if I make a mistake; if I forget the time; if I’m physically unwell; if I suffer an emotional blow; if I have to expend too much emotional or spiritual energy, or even if circumstances cause me to become extremely tired, then power can drain out of me like water from a breached dam. Then with hardly any notice I can find myself floundering, unable to move or to go from sitting to standing, with shaking limbs without power, couldn’t retrieve an object from my bag or put on my coat without assistance, and in extreme cases I am unable to power back up for several hours. I don’t lose mental capacity. I can still think my way out of the difficulty, but I need help from other people. To someone like me, accustomed from a very early age to depend upon my own judgement and although I have always been fortunate in my travelling companions I never-the-less had a clear sense that in the end, you stood or fell alone; this is a grievous calamity.

I’ve become aware that my anxieties are increasing, so that of late I’ve been unable to sleep for worrying about ridiculous things, which my logical self knows are stupid. Even the prospect of baking a cake – something well within my capabilities – can cause hours of anxiety. Tranquilisers are quite useless at fixing such a problem. They don’t deal with the root cause; in my case they adversely affect my balance; and you worry about being dependant on them and them rotting your brain. Come daylight, I can see that these anxieties are, if not entirely without foundation, exaggerated to an unreasonable extent. But by then I’ve not slept well, so you’re already not in peak condition, so more likely to suffer collapses. You begin to feel depressed, something I’ve never suffered from.

I came across a book – Anxiety Relief and Panic Attacks by Matthew Lewis Ph.D. – which appealed to me. The author writes clearly and sensibly about anxiety, with sympathy but not minimising the difficulties. One of the suggestions he makes, which I could really identify with, was that you had to call up your best self, and hold on to that self, as you tackled these various problems. He didn’t say it was going to be easy.

I’ve tried, from time to time throughout my life, various paths to relaxation and meditation. I’ve always found them tedious in the extreme. Relaxation tapes where someone talks become irritating after you listen once or twice – you already know the tale; the narrator’s nasal twang annoys you; it’s a colossal waste of time. Doing a body search where you concentrate on various parts of the body merely highlights minor aches and pains you were previously successfully ignoring. Reciting a mantra – Om – makes me feel I’m part of a cult. The thinking overview, detached and observant, that is always present in me, observing and judging, which in normal life is such an asset, simply judges these processes as silly and unnecessary.

But Lewis just suggests you deal with the anxieties by blocking them out. So you just acknowledge your anxious thought with a gentle nod, and you concentrate your energy on your breathing. You breathe in, counting in your head to 4, you hold for 2, and you exhale for 7, and then you start the next breath. When your next anxiety rears its head, you acknowledge it – you don’ t try to chase it out, nor do you beat yourself up for having it; you just make it quietly welcome and then you return your attention to your breathing and counting. You do this for as long as it’s necessary. I find I’m yawning after about 4 breaths, and even now typing this out, I’ve already yawned three times. Perhaps you’re just boring yourself to sleep but I’ve no issues with that. You’re in charge of the process; you can do it anywhere. You don’t need equipment. You make no attempt to understand the thinking process or alter your conclusion: you can certainly do that if you wish but you must do that in you working day. Above all, it’s all under your control and subject to your own judgement. The sleepless thinker is slightly sceptical but has been willing to suspend judgement. She’s not offended by the process and her defences are not breached.

I find it difficult to refrain from meddling in the actual examination of the problem on the spot, but I’ve promised myself to wait until next week. And behold – a miracle. I fall asleep, and into a deep sleep, and if I get up in the night I go back to sleep swiftly. And this has happened now for several nights.

Thanks be, variously, to God, to my essential self, to my long suffering husband, and to Dr. Matthew Lewis.

Hallelujah!