Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The financial news still reeks, but my garden is fragrant

A glimpse of my garden in late September.

No matter what time of year, it can be chilly and wet in England. Because of this tendency to what I think of as the English "default" weather, the distinct outline of the different seasons tends to blur.

This year's wet summer has meant that even the trees which change with the autumn have clung to their leaves. We have conkers and blackberry bramble -- sure signs of fall -- but my garden is full of the blooms, and even the buds, more associated with summer. One season can bleed into the next and the only way to tell the difference is by what is coming out of the ground -- but even that method isn't foolproof.

"It's been a good year for fruit, but a bad year for grain," says my gardener. The tomatoes, which had showed early promise, never got enough heat to ripen and ended up rotting on the vine. But we've had a bumper crop of apples, and the roses have bloomed again and again.

After a dreary August, which kept gardeners inside and the butterflies away, we have had a good run of sunny days. It always seems to be this way. We get one more precious blast of glorious warmth before the dark door of October closes.

So as September slips away, I offer up a fond last look at summer.

"The Pilgrim"
I picked this rose because I am a sucker for a name, and I liked the American association. Too late, I learned that the "pilgrim" refers to Chaucer's pilgrims, and not the ones who took the Mayflower to the New World.
Never mind. It is a beautiful rose, and a really "good goer." I guess that pilgrims tend to be tenacious.
I can see this rose by looking out my kitchen window . . . and the colours echo my kitchen curtains, by design.
Except for some of the ramblers, which tend to flower only once, all of my roses repeat throughout their flowering season. The Pilgrim rose has been flowering since June, and it looks like it may keep going for a while. Another good repeater is Jubilee Celebration, the showy pink rose pictured below. The Jubilee Celebration is new to my garden this year -- and it is probably my favourite. The picture doesn't really do it justice, as the colour is actually quite complex -- a pink shot through with peachy gold. It glows in the sunlight.

It's a shame that this picture isn't a scratch-and-sniff.
The fragrance is described, by experts, as "strong and fruity,
with a hint of fresh lemon and raspberry."

This is the infamous rose hedge that I planted on a wet and windy Bank Holiday weekend.

There is a mix of pink Penelope shrub roses and pale yellow Malvern Hills climbers. Someday, if I'm lucky, the roses will cover the fence and hang in garlands from up above.

A lovely little willow tree, just out of the picture, casts its shadow.

At the foot of the garden, you can see the Chicken Pen -- home to Ralph and Lauren.

If you look carefully, you may just be able to glimpse Minstrel, our tabby cat.
He likes to lounge here, between the tall grasses and the Iceberg roses.
His days in the sun may be numbered. For this year, at any rate.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Should we start growing turnips?

I can go months, nay years, without a turnip crossing my mind or my lips. Yet in the last 24 hours, turnips have cropped up not once, but three times! Surely three of anything is a pattern, and therefore of significance? And so I talk, not of "cabbages and kings," but of turnips and banking titans.

Is there anything worth talking about at the moment other than the meltdown of our financial services and banking industry? Despite the fact that I go about my daily life . . . making soup for sick children, ordering bulbs for next spring, attending an Arthur Miller play . . . all I can really think about is the shaky state of our collective finances. I am reading, from afar, about the mighty battle in the U.S. Congress to determine how much, and to what extent, the Treasury (and thus all taxpayers) are going to bail out the banks -- as they list, and sink, under bad debt. A quote from Lloyd Doggett, Democratic congressman and fellow Texan, sums up the situation fairly pithily, I think: "The problem is that the people getting asked to clean up the broken furniture didn't get invited to the party." (The Guardian, 25.9.08)

Who IS to blame for this mess, frankly? Is it really just the Wall Street fat cats? Is it the people who borrowed money they couldn't afford to pay back . . . or the people who let them? Is the Bush regime responsible for the encouragement, by means tacit and overt, to create financial growth by any means possible? Or is the banking crisis just the opportunistic virus which has invaded a body already weakened by its decadent appetites and habits? Have we all just become really greedy?

Yesterday, I was invited to play tennis with three women of slight acquaintance -- they are what I like to think of as jolly good English sorts, "veddy middle class," very WI, and all probably 15 years or so older than me. The last bit -- age -- was particularly pertinent to our discussion because these woman all came of age in an England much different from the one we live in now. England in the 40s and 50s was a much more parsimonious place, by all accounts, and even the well-heeled of that era had more frugal habits than the majority of us do now -- particularly when it came to borrowing money. Being "greedy" was not only sinful, but even worse, it was a sign of bad manners. One of the women claimed to still feel "slightly sick" when she surveyed the vast choice at today's grocery stores. Another woman related that her young son, a fledgling titan, had been interviewing Lehman Brothers refugees all week. Only 30, he was hiring men many years his senior and experience level -- and all of them with crushing monthly direct debits for mortgages and school fees. Apparently, he was feeling grateful about being relatively unencumbered. As lifelong savers, these women's major concern seemed to be how exactly to disperse their savings -- because the UK banks are only going to guarantee a certain amount. They aren't quite to the point of mattress-stuffing, but it's getting close.

In the end, we only played one set of tennis -- because we had squandered all of our time huddling around the AGA. It wasn't like any of us had any real answers, not to mention any in-depth understanding of the situation, but we were all gripped by the need to talk about it. Although it was meant to be a humorous remark, our hostess finally threw out, "Well, I guess that we are going have to go back to growing turnips."

Later that morning, I was scanning the newspaper and I came across an article trumpeting root veg: Humble turnip makes comeback. Apparently Tesco "revealed yesterday that sales (of turnips) were up by 75%" (The Guardian, 25.9.08). The article went on to suggest that inexpensive root vegetables could "bulk" out the diet and stretch the shrinking food pound.

It was during the bedtime story hour that I came across my third reference to turnips for the day.

For several months now, my youngest daughter and I have been working our away through Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" series. We are just nearing the end of the third book, On the Banks of Plum Creek. I was an avid reader of these books as a child, and it is interesting to square my memories with the stories as I read them afresh. On one hand, I had an enduring sense of the family's closeness: of Pa's twinkly eyes and fiddle-playing, of Ma's gentle and genteel ways, and of the three sisters -- one good, one naughty, and one just little and inconsequential. On the other hand, I had retained a deep horror of the farming life. Every time you think you've got a decent crop, some plague or weather freakishness is sure to come along and destroy it. Perhaps the most memorable of these natural disasters occurs in this book: the incident of the plague of grasshoppers. Even though the event occurred more than 130 years ago, it cannot be read without a sense of horror and grief as fresh as today's news.

Briefly, the Ingalls family has moved to the Minnesota prairie and invested their meager net-worth in a small farm and sod house. "Pa," who is optimistic to the point of derangement, has planted a field of wheat . . . and then he makes the mistake of borrowing money against what promises to be a splendid harvest. Wilder is a master at foreshadowing and suspense: with each mention of "glass windows" and "new stove" and "we'll start harvesting next week," you know that disaster is around the corner. It arrives in the form of a "glittering cloud" of grasshoppers. -- and like the Biblical plague of locusts, they eat every edible scrap on the land. Pa, who doesn't even have a decent pair of shoes, ends up walking hundreds of miles to find work on another farm. Ma and the girls have to struggle on their own for months -- almost starving in the process, although the book skims somewhat lightly over that fact. The next year, the family manages to salvage a crop of turnips -- and Laura, the story's protagonist, writes of their gratefulness for the plentiful supply of one of the least delectable vegetables. (authorial editorializing)

The "Little House" books are all about the resourcefulness, independence and grittiness of the pioneers who staked out a claim in the American wilderness. They play to every American myth -- including the one that says anyone who works hard will be able to earn their own homestead. I can't help but compare their situation to our current one. There was no such thing as "bail out" for Pa; he literally had to dig himself out of the financial hole he found himself in. A lot of people don't think there should be a bailing-out now -- survival of the fittest and all that -- but I do wonder if we are going to have to prop each other up, or all fall. As Ma says, "There is nothing in the world so good as good neighbors" (p. 178).

And just in case, we might all start planting turnips.

Friday, 19 September 2008


Today, at the Tate Gallery in London, my attention was caught by a late Victorian painting titled Mammon. Painted in 1884-85 by George Frederic Watts, the painting depicts Mammon, the god of money, as a "cruel tyrant on a throne." Two young figures are prostrate at his bloated, gouty feet, presumably crushed by their service to filthy lucre.

Sound familiar? What with the financial meltdown of seeming colossi like Lehman Brothers, and the couple of trillion dollars it will take to rescue the mortgage defaults underwritten by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the subject of money, money, money has never been more topical. Perhaps Watts would argue that the more things change, the more they stay the same -- as he used both painting and writings to "criticize modern commerce and its de-humanising effect on the nation" (Tate Gallery, notes on the painting). Of course Watts lived in a world innocent of derivatives and short-selling, but presumably the problem of living beyond one's means and chasing the almighty dollar (or its sterling equivalent) has always been with us.

On the train journey back to the countryside, I read a bracing editorial which suggested that financial "hard times" can actually be an opportunity for a beneficial overhaul. Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto contends that "Abundance is bad for you. A tighter-belted Britain would be less obese, less profligate, less self-indulgent, less stuffed with junk food and trash values" (Evening Standard, p. 13). Having taken consumerism to a whole new level, apparently many of us are going to have little choice but to discover the pleasures of a "less is more" lifestyle.

So, at the close of this tumultuous week in the global financial markets, and in the spirit of "cutting back," I offer up a recipe for black bean soup. It isn't as cheap as stone soup, but it is a healthy and inexpensive dinner which can be fed to vegans, those who can't tolerate gluten, and people who are trying to avoid eating methane-spewing livestock.

Black Bean Soup
(serves 4, with leftovers)

One or two onions, finely chopped
A few cloves of garlic, crushed
Two or three carrots, roughly chopped
Two or three stalks of celery, roughly chopped
A can of diced tomatoes, or Ro-tel tomatoes (if you are lucky enough to have access to them)
Two to four cans of black beans (I usually use four)
A pint of faux chicken stock, made from Marigold Swiss Bouillon
Salt and pepper to taste

Gently fry the onion, garlic, carrots and celery in a tablespoon or two of olive oil until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the tomatoes, black beans and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, and then simmer (uncovered) for anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour. (I like to cook it for an hour because it makes the black beans get a lovely, creamy texture.) Season to taste.

Serve with brown rice.

Tortilla chips, guacamole and grated longhorn cheddar (red leicester in the UK) are all suitable embellishments, too, although not necessary. If you have them, and I usually don't, a squeeze of lime juice and some freshly chopped cilantro/coriander can be stirred in just before you serve the soup. A measure of sherry in the broth, and sour cream on top, is also very nice -- and makes for a soup which is slightly less austere.

Truly, this recipe is just a blueprint. It is a tremendously flexible recipe that you can add to or detract from without really spoiling. Sometimes I get a better "scald" (does anyone else know this expression?) on it than other times, but it is always tasty. I have been making this soup for ten years or more, and I've never had a bad batch of it.

After we visited the Tate, we walked along the Thames -- enjoying the fine weather and the spectacular sights of Big Ben and Parliament. Since we opted out of going into Westminster Abbey, thus saving 24 pounds, I suggested to my mother that we use the hour before the 4:18 train from Paddington to enjoy the relatively cheap pleasures of cappucino and people-watching. We hopped off the Tube at Sloane Square, because I knew of a place with could offer the above -- along with alfresco seating.

Perhaps it was due to the "Freaky Friday" effect of today's share bounce; perhaps it can be attributed to the rare and glorious sunshine or TGIF; perhaps it is just analogous to the orchestra playing as the Titanic sank. Whatever the reason, and despite the fact that it was mid-afternoon, all of the tables at the Oriel Brasserie were full and everyone seemed to be swilling champagne! Recession, what recession?

But just in case, black bean soup is good roughage.

Thursday, 11 September 2008


For those of you who have been kind of enough to enquire, YES, I'm still here. Just not writing much.

I could attribute my continuing silence to the back-to-school frenzy, or the fact that my mother is visiting, but that isn't the whole story. I seem to be fretting quite a lot, and that doesn't seem to be much in the spirit of be drunkenness. However, to quote Nina Simone, It Be's That Way Sometime.

I'm worried about Hurricane Ike -- and all of the friends who might be affected by it.

I'm terribly sad for Brave Sir Robin, who is dealing with a family tragedy.

I'm incredulous, bemused, angered and just plain anxious about the Palin/McCain team. I've been reading Jane Smiley's latest, Ten Days in the Hills, and it is bringing up all of the old angry feelings from the spring of 2003 -- when Washington declared war on Iraq -- and the fall of 2004, when Bush got re-elected. I wish that I could maintain a sense of humor about the U.S. election, but I'm starting to get all strident and ranty again.

Hopefully, someday soon, I will be able to focus again on thoughts life-affirming. Tomorrow I am going to Bath to see Vanessa Redgrave perform in The Year of Magical Thinking, and perhaps this study of grief will snap me out of my funk.