Saturday, 25 February 2017

'...the thick rotundity o' the world'

I wake around 2.44 in the morning. Oliver, our grandson, sleeping on his mattress by our bed is coughing. I gently raise him up while he. half-asleep, lets me remake his ruffled sheets.
“Can I have dog back?” he murmurs.
I slide the still warm hot water bottle in its dog-sleeve back beside him and return to sleep. Lin comes to me later and wakes me for a moment
“He’s been coughing” I whisper.
I hear her tending to him as he slumbers. It’s 4.15. I’m not tired so I slip downstairs and go through my morning routine. Turn on the electric water heating, feed the cat, let Oscar in the garden to bark at shadows, make myself a large cup of tea and clean up the cat pee where she’s missed her litter tray again. Loads of time before my train. I send a picture of the defaced Gypsy Memorial in Black Patch Park to Cllr Richard Marshall, Sandwell MBC’s Cabinet Member for Leisure – this after the council’s website with which I’m long registered blanks me third page in when I use it to report graffiti.

Tap tap tap. Stuck! The page sticks on my screen. Phil Crumpton and I are going with Andrew Simon – all members of the Friends of Black Patch Park – to see Cllr Steve Eling, Leader of Sandwell Council on Thursday. Phil and I were looking at the £16.000 clean-up carried out by Sandwell Council staff over the weekend, after yet another extensive bout of commercial scale fly-tipping on the park. It was an opportunity to vent. Cursing like King Lear writ small on 'our' small park's blasted heath. Gradually calming to muttered imprecations

“What is it with these people, they won’t grab the opportunity to bring back people in houses around this park?”
Phil’s my perfect foil, listening and nodding in time to my furious expletive laced grumbles
“Are we to have decades more of tidying and dumping, tidying and dumping, tidying and dumping? Thanking and cursing? Thanking and cursing? Why can the Council not work out a strategy for this area?”

“They’ve placed everything about the Black Patch into a limbo when no-one even looks at the issue – politicians or managers. It’s denial and avoidance. They don’t want to know”
In the centre of Black Patch Park on Monday 20th Feb - after the Council clean-up

“At this meeting I’m not going to start getting into compliments on how swiftly the dumping, once reported in the media (which went national) was cleared …That’s thanking a thief for tidying up after a robbery”
Strippings from a domestic driveway replacement - broken up slabs and tarmac

Littering along the banks of the Hockley Brook
"Will the Leader have read our report and digested its analysis? I doubt it”
“You know I detest being like this. It’s weak. I sound like every other tedious old grumbler”
“No but sitting here in the centre of the Black Patch and having a bout of cursing is good for you and me”
“You and I, Phil!”
The clean up vehicles pushed uncollected rubbish into the remains of the park tennis courts 

We climbed in the van, parked near the Soho Road, leaving Oscar to guard the cab, and had samosas, chai and mango lassi at the London Sweet Centre.
Is there a point where an accumulation of small slights turn into a syndrome, and I become … neurotic? These terms! Neurotic, Grumpy Old Man, dyspeptic dodderer, subject to the 'wiry edge of our fretfulness'.
As I cycle in the dark on Tuesday morning, at the head of our road I see a new resident has concreted his drive to include the pavement and green verge which his several vehicles have turned to tyre-scarred mud.
I enjoy cycling into the city to catch a train in the gloom of a February dawn. I collect passing and passed vehicle registration numbers; see if they'll turn into words or their initials will make phrases. It’s balmy weather. I decide to explore a route into town I’ve not used for near 18 months - through the Jewellery Quarter instead of down Constitution Hill. I get to the foot of Newhall Hill, and of course, the continuing reconstruction of the Old Library site still blocks my old route, and I’m guided into circumlocutions too tedious to detail. I should have known. My grumpiness is amplified by self-blame. To enter the new New Street station by this route I must negotiate new tram lines best crossed at right angles. In the great new Grand Central concourse I realise, looking at the busy timetable boards, that my train is one that stops at many stations on its way, via Northampton, to London. I’d vaguely hoped when playing clever with my bookings that I’d found a bargain deal on a faster train. Will I make my St Pancras connection? In theory 'yes', as there’s half an hour to cycle the few hundred yards from Euston to St Pancras.
I present my ticket to the slot at the barrier machine and it's rejected. Why? I see a Virgin Trains staffman approaching to help, as I gaze down in the manner of an affronted and puzzled old man. As I turn to him he has already turned back two gates.
I heard him mutter “You ignored me”
“I did not
He returns and activates the gate – a large one - for me and my bicycle.
“Why did it do that?” He ignores me
“But it ignored me”
I pause, deliberately obtuse, between the doors of the opened gate, so he has to notice and shepherd the old man through the lumpish gates.
I glimpse him rolling his eyes to a colleague.
At a coffee shop I wait in a free-floating queue almost immediately jumped by a busy new arrival who’s cheerily greeted by a barista. I wander away, even as I hear another calling after me “Sir?”
At another coffee shop I order a ‘small’ latte. It is really called ‘small’ but the print was so small I squinted to see it. I get my coffee, but no receipt. I could walk away. Why fuss? It means a little bonus for staff. But I’m in grump mode.
“Receipt please!”
What next affront by man, or object, lurks to trigger my vex reflex? On platform 3A my train arrives on time. I walk with my folded bicycle to a convenient door. A red notice on the open button says ‘This door is out of order’.
On the train there’s a copy of a free newspaper. I leaf through three pages of futile print.
“Who reads this stuff?” I glower silently “The subs clocked Socrates’ guide on gossip – “Truthful? Good? Useful?” – and worked on its opposite. Thought. Did Socrates really say that or is it fake news?
Except for books, which seem to be having a slight revival, the only print I read on paper is my gift to myself, the NYRB, published 20 times a year, delivered at discount to my door, stimulating intelligence and understanding in these interesting times.

*** *** ***
In Centenary Square, Birmingham, under major reconstruction 25 years after it was created, a plane tree over a century old, was cut down this morning, as a precaution against a terrorist driving a vehicle into the square.

Friday, 23 December 2016

Christmas holidays

A strong wind blows; nothing to what's happening in the Highlands, but enough to blow even more glass out of a rickety greenhouse on Plot 66 on the Victoria Jubilee Allotments.  Being there, I picked it up, piece by piece, and put it in the back of the HHH van. Later I wrote a note to the site secretary:
Dear G. Don’t read this until after Christmas, but I popped up to the VJA to check that these high winds hadn’t blown away the polythene sheet we spread on Plot 78, and found yet further panes of glass shattered and thrown over the ground from the frail greenhouse on the neighbouring plot. Shards had been blown almost as far as the entry gates (see attached photo). This structure is a hazard. I ask the VJA committee to let me and Winnie remove its glass, ideally with the permission of the plotholder, but otherwise without.  I collected the shattered glass ... glad no-one was around when this glass went flying.  I could do this work  - removing the glass from the greenhouse - on the same basis as we are doing other work with Committee approval. It would hardly take 10 minutes ... anytime after Christmas day. Happy Christmas. S 

At last I have a brief to start tidying abandoned plots on the VJA.  Phil, our Hon.Treasurer, agreed to let Winnie and I clean up Plot 78 opposite the site gates. A week ago we set to with a will.
Plot 78 Victoria Jubilee Allotments - before tidying
The plot had been abandoned after its tenant was evicted for leaving his tap running overnight in the middle of the summer, a breach of rules that brings penalties at any time of the year. I'm pretty sure this tenant was glad to see the last of the plot anyway. They left owing a year's rent.
I was ranting away to Vanley about why 'some people' treat their plots as tips.
As I recall, the person working plot 78 was working happily away some two years ago, building terraces to accommodate the gradient of their 200 square metres. Something went wrong. They lost interest. Not just like that; rather a gradual decline of enthusiasm, during which the site accumulated the detritus of waning intention; a mess, whose detail became more unpleasantly clear as we began tidying the vacated plot. Soft drink, beer and cider cans, plastic and glass bottles, sacks of domestic rubbish, broken glass mainly from discarded window panes brought in to build a glass house that didn't happen; spare off-cuts of wood, brought in for a purpose, allowed to rot; pointless levees of soggy plastic sacks filled with clay-mud and roots, entwined with lugs of couch grass from which extend rhizomes fatter than spaghetti, beneath which, embedded, we find more rubbish, flattened seams of black polythene that have to be scraped up to get closer to the earth.
"You know" I said to Vanley, who stays calm on these things, but listens attentively, as I stoke pious frustration at other people's errancy, their downright feckless lack of talent as gardeners
"You could donate someone a studio, give them paints, brushes, linseed oil, palette knives, canvases, size. Everything a painter needs. Come back in a year and all you have, instead of a parade, as you hoped, of creative work, of art - chaos! The materials not just abandoned, but squashed, mingled, smeared, with unrecognisable pieces of rubbish that might have been easels, chairs, frames...."
Vanley, who's famous, said to me ages ago "Allotments are a metaphor for life".
Embedded black sacks overlapping the plot boundaries
Odd-and-ends to no purpose

A cleansing fire for combustibles
Half a ton of rubbish to go to the tip
Well how did someone manage to leave an original plot in such a mess? It's not just fallow. It's a tip. Instead of  being cultivated, it's been used. With the worst and most of the waste removed Winnie could strim the plot to about 6" all over and then I spread 200 square metres of black polythene held down with bricks and stones. The uneven ground, caused by the terracing and the original intention of divided-up beds, made it tricky to keep our footing.
There had been an attractive small oak tree at one corner of the plot; killed after a heap of fresh manure was dropped on a corner of the plot. I left the manure uncovered, so other plot holders could help themselves. The trunk of the oak made a good stake. Someone will use it.
Plot 78 Victoria Jubilee Allotments - after tidying

Phil and the VJA Committee were pleased with our work on Plot 78 and have now asked us to tidy 11 more vacant plots.
On Friday we began on four of these - 54 to 57.
Tidy all the plots that have a tick on them

By midday the van was half full of cleared waste. There's more to come - a large pile of red bricks and over twenty five sheets of double glazing stacked at the bottom of the slope between the allotments and the houses.
Starting on the tidying of plots 54 to 57

The most visible rubbish was consigned to cleansing flames - the smoke blown north by a steady breeze. Later the wind changed direction, blowing smoke towards one of the houses. I knocked on the door, apologised and found it was someone I knew and was 'forgiven'. The wind changed again. As the fire heated up, the flames grew stronger, the smoke lessened. Winnie strimmed, I carted rubbish, again having to work through a blanket of couch grass to ease out layers of plastic sacks, lino, carpet and chipboard, in one area a layer of broken glass... be picked up shard by shard by hand and dumped in the van...
The four plots are already looking better ...
Plots 54-57 strimmed
...but there's more to be done, before we can finish ... laying the weed suppressing fabric which Phil has managed to buy in volume on ebay.
The trickiest stuff to clear as there's so often more plastic sacks beneath, usually falling apart

I suspect those bricks were collected to help terrace the plot's slope.

Glass intended for a home-made greenhouse

Later that evening I dropped by to make sure the fire had died down to embers. In the morning I picked out metal parts and raked the ashes flat, while Winnie with the brush-cutter cleared all four plots down to 5 inches, leaving a few fruit trees and a line of broom between two plots.
"We've got a lot of work done today" she said.
"And we've done lots on Plot 14!"

Meanwhile Plot 14 is being prepared for 2017

Last year and a few months we'd made the plot manageable by making more, and wider, paths between smaller beds that could be dug from all sides without need to tread on the working soil. Now I'm reclaiming some of the walking space for beds at the top of the plot.

We needed a mattock to break up boulder-clay soil in an area of our allotment that had been used for parking cars and a van. On the rest of the plot - except the paths - I can get a spit's depth with even a spade. Getting closer to the original soil back in 2010 when I signed up to rent this plot, even a fork wouldn't go down more than inches. Winnie and I, with Dennis helping, used the mattock to get some depth, removing a familiar collection of glacier-smoothed stone embedded in clay. Picking up a fist sized piece, it squeezes together and stays that way. After we'd got the depth - about 18" - we mixed the soil with 'black gold' compost making the beds a little higher, and loamier. I sprinkled and raked in several handfuls of garden lime. Worms aplenty in the compost continued our work.
Bed E0 - planned for main crop potatoes
In two beds I planted garlic in early November - breaking into cloves garlic bought at a local grocers. They've benefited from frost, and should be ready to harvest when their beds are needed for broad or runner beans.

The shed veranda has been leaking. I repaired it on top with a patch of felt over a thick coat of bitumen...
My grandson was wondering where I'd got to

 ... cutting a rectangle of plywood to sit underneath, held between the supports with brackets.
Redrafted bed plan. 'E' stands for 'English side', 'G' for 'Greek side'. 
*** *** ***
Christmas day in Ano Korakiana....Χριστούγεννα! ... την ηρεμία του πρωινού, the tranquility of the morning...

Χριστούγεννα με ολίγη συννεφιά...Αρκετός ο κόσμος στη Λειτουργία στον Άη Θανάση. Η συνέχεια ανήκει στα παιδιά της Μπαντίνας που θα περιδιαβούν τις γειτονιές για να παιανίσουν τα Κάλαντα, ενώ την ίδια ώρα τα μέλη της Διοίκησης θα αναζητήσουν την οικονομική ενίσχυση του Συλλόγου στις οικογένειες του χωριού. Τα εορταστικά γεύματα μεταξύ συγγενών και φίλων θα ακολουθήσουν...Και οι κάπως μεγαλύτεροι σε ηλικία απολάμβαναν την ηρεμία του πρωινού.

*** *** ***
27th December - work continues. Was someone planning to build a house on one of these plots?

...and another load of rubbish. On the weighbridge at Holford Depot it was 3/4 of a ton
...and to finish off four more plots, two large rolls of ground cover...

Thursday, 3 November 2016

On Bell Hill

I had been looking forward to being at Rock Cottage. A solace for leaving beloved Greece. Amy had already sent us a photo via Facebook.
'We can finally see Ross after 4 hours of motorway hell 😆YAY!' Amy and family approaching the Forest of Dean

On FFriday evening of half-term week Lin and I joined the family in a cottage already warmed for two days.
"The heating's working a dream. Your shower is just brilliant" said Guy.
I begin to feel that Rock Cottage, so neglected for over five years, is becoming a home again. Our children knew it as babies and toddlers and now our grandchildren are sleeping here. Our dear friends Martin and Sandra and their son Adam and his fellow workers have transformed the place, which was not only suffering our neglect, but also the cod-work of our ill-chosen builder, Royston, with whom I parted company over two years ago over a series of new windows that he...why go on? The windows are fine now, frames sealed with improved opening. The kitchen and bathroom are in almost full working order, as ditto bedrooms and sitting room.
Amy's second photo - Oscar curled by the wood stove at Rock Cottage

In the morning I inspected Craig's strimming, lopping and uprooting in the garden - clearing a jungle of weed shrubbery, brambles and saplings back to the older contours of three dry-stone walled terraces. We're getting back to the half acre allotment that surrounds us on the steep sides of Bell Hill. I'm bathing in unashamed nostalgia, hoping that we will make this our 'place' again. As enjoyed and loved as Handsworth and Ano Korakiana, by the whole family. So - yes - I was pleased when my son Richard, just back from Vietnam, phoned and asked for the keys so he could come down with E on the evening the rest of us returned to Birmingham.
The grand-children are a challenge. Playing, arguing, noise and mess-making with unabatable energy. On Sunday morning I set out to walk with Oliver - 'wear him out' I thought - up Bell Hill, the tree covered slope that ascends the west side of Lydbrook.
"First we get sticks. You can't go for a good walk without sticks"
I cut and tidied two - smaller for Ollie - from a hazel cluster by our path, as we set out up through the tall slender beech trees on the margins of the forest, the houses of the village receding below.
Oliver, 4 years old now, on Bell Hill

The steeper slope levelled off as we passed the old ruined house. Recalling past stories told me I told Oliver of an old lady used to live there.
"Every day she went to the bottom of the hill and came back with a pail of water. Old Mrs Cook"
He asked questions about her which I dodged and invented. Rather he ask questions than be uninterested in things I point out, or he notes, on our walks. I frame my answers, to keep our conversation going; Chinese whispers over time, amplifying, distorting and confusing, but conveying seeds of history, a scent of madeleines, 'the echo of great spaces traversed'.
Next time we make this walk I'll suggest to Oliver that Mr. Cook was a 'bodger'.
"You see these tall trees. Beech trees. See their leaves all around. See the little nuts, Beech mast. They used to cut these trees before they grew so big to make chairs - wheel-backs, Windsor carvers"
We came to a level stretch, narrow beside a wire fence, broken in places, with, on the other side, the remains of dry stone walls, then, almost hidden behind the remaining greenery of Autumn, the tiers wrecked cars that Nigel Aston has long stored up here, sinking mossy and rusting into the landscape. Then we're onto a lane high above the village with a few houses...
"It's called Uphill Road"
"I'm not answering that, Ollie!"
...before taking the narrow path that leads on up the rest of the hill. Here the trees become forestry spruce, occasional chestnuts, mixed with birch - their small brown-yellow leaves falling like snow when, for my pleasure and Oliver's, I tap the sapling trunks with my stick. Along the path are the prickly husks of fallen chestnuts, marked by the rooting of wild boar. The forest population of wild boar has increases vigorously since the haphazard introduction of about 40 farmed boar to the Forest in 2004.
Two people with dogs on leads walk towards us.
"Get Oscar and Cookie on their leads!"
They pass us with smiles.
"Nice morning."
"Yes it is"
"I'm earlier than I expected. Forgot the clocks went back this morning"
At last we're at the top of the hill, looking over fields, one with sheep; in the far distance horses grazing and a tractor pulling a plough on the slope below English Bicknor. I take my grandson through the rules - the gate rules, the sheep rules.
"A dog that worries sheep can be shot. Always watch out for sheep and other farm animals in the fields"
We see a herd of Welsh cattle - black bullock, or perhaps heifers, silhouetted in a field on our left as we start to walk downhill towards Eastbach.
"Come up! Come up!" I shout and they raise their heads and consider investigating us.
"Can you smell them?"  I can sense their rank from here on a small shifting breeze.

Oliver runs down the sloping road to Eastbach.
"Oi! Watch out for cars!" I shout.
He pauses, sensible. And indeed a few cars edge by us on the narrow road until we come to the old milestone that says, in carving. 'London 122 miles. Gloste'r 17'

We wwalk by Eastbach Court, a house of enviable elegant beauty, about which Lin says "When we win the lottery..." I lift Oliver up to see the manicured lawn, a bronze hind, and swings hung from a tall fir branch.

A public footpath beside the house's northern boundary turns off the road, curving back up to the top of Bell Hill.
"We've come about half way"
There's a small air strip with hangars on the hill top. We can see a wind sock stirring in the distance. At the gate the dogs go on their leads. I half hope Oliver will see a small plane come bouncing in at 40mph. They often fly on Sundays. As it is I let him peer through a tiny gap in a hangar door.
"I can see an aeroplane!"
Another stile brings us to the last meadow before getting back to the cottage. I lift the dogs over; let them free again. They listen to my voice and note my whistle, and seem utterly at home, getting soaked nosing in the tall grass. It's still a time of year for ticks, so remember to check when we get home...
 ...Oliver, fooling around, falls over and cries.
"Get up and stop that noise" I say, giving him a momentary hug. So we come to a steep part of our walk as the fields re-join the hanger woods. In my old age I have to take this part carefully less I fall arse over tip. My stick helps.
"When your mum was about 12 years old she persuaded me to walk home from Monmouth - ten miles away. When we got to this field the light had gone. I couldn't see a thing. She held my hand for a hundred yards."

Oliver and the dogs descend heedless to the lychgate that leads into the path that takes us, in a few yards, to Rock Cottage, where the dogs get a good towelling before drying themselves in front of the fire.
*** *** ***
Richard Pine's latest Irish Times article from Greece:
'....It’s actually surprising that life continues at all, since the heartbeat seems to have gone out of the country. But it is the resilience of the Greek spirit, and its resistance to external pressure, that keeps that heart ticking over, even imperceptibly.
One can only conclude that this is not a brave new world but a global pandemic of fear-driven entropy. To paraphrase Seán O’Casey, observers can confidently say: “The whole world’s in a terrible state of stasis.” To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, politicians can safely adopt the maxim: “Whatever you do, do nothing.” '

Back numbers