Thursday, 28 January 2016

IN MY BACK GARDEN


Marilyn, Sam, Alice, Emily and I have lived in this house for twenty-four years. Abi was born fifteen years ago. She is the only one us who has lived in the house all of her life so far. One of the first things we discovered, soon after moving in, was the message imprinted into the concrete border of the small semicircular pond we used to have in the back garden. It read, “6th June 1930.” This gave us an immediate connection with the people who first lived in our house. If we traced the letters and numbers of the imprint with our fingers, we were putting our fingers in the very spaces they had dragged their fingers to form the message.  Perhaps it commemorated the date they moved in, or, it was the date they completed making the pond?
So here I am looking into our back garden from the dining table positioned under a velux window in the roof of our new rear extension.  I can see the new patio just outside the bifold doors. It doesn’t look new. The rustic style tiles have lichen on their surface and they have a weathered look. This is because the tiles are not new. They were dug up from the garden path and used to cover the patio to give it an old, and we hope, a timeless look. The hardcore used to create the foundations of the patio are the back wall of our house that was demolished.The garden path from which the patio tiles were taken, is covered mostly by brown rotting crab apples fallen last Autumn. There is still one line of paving slabs, where there used to be two lines, stretching the length of the garden to the two sheds we have at the bottom.

Gardens, what are they exactly in the greater consideration of things? As human beings we are very good at classification. By ordering things into groups it helps us understand things better. Or so we think. Often if we change how we categorise things we see things differently. For example, we can categorise rocks into sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous. It helps us understand how the rocks were formed and where they come from.But if we see them in relation to how they can be used in,say, building, or perhaps as an artistic medium for sculpture or again as far as their textures and colours can be incorporated into garden design, we see them and understand them differently.


Our garden before the removal of the pond.

More and more these days people are recategorising our environments. In his book Landmarks, Robert Mcfarlane talks about,” edge lands.” I have watched a documentary about people exploring those areas near cities and towns which we find it difficult to categorise. No longer farming happens on these city edges. There might be unkempt fields left wild or with industrial estates built on them. They might be isolated pockets of scrub land between motorway junctions or near airports on the outer reaches of a conurbation. These are what is termed edge lands because they are on the edge of things. So an edge land doesn’t fit into any clear cut category of landscape. It is often an untidy jumble and mixture of different landscapes. But can it be seen as a type of unique landscape in itself?

Gardens, I think are in a similar situation. The term garden has become a category for a unique landscape. But what does this actually mean? Looking carefully and experiencing my own garden for long periods, I not sure it really can be categorised at all. I wonder what the birds and myriad of other animals who visit and live in my garden consider my garden to be? They eat, they live, they survive; what else is there for them?

We have a resident Robin. I think I found out once where he and his brood lived. We have an ivy covered fence and near the bottom of the garden, he and his wife built a nest in the thickly growing ivy near  our garden shed. Marilyn , in the Summer two years ago, got me to take the hedge trimmer and cut back the ivy, which to be honest was overtaking part of the garden near the bottom. I spent an hour or two cutting the ivy back when I came across a neat little nest buried deep within the thick entwined ivy tubers. The nest fell out. It had a couple of small pale blue eggs inside. They looked so perfect. I placed the nest, with the unbroken eggs in it, back in the ivy and tried to cover it with fronds and leaves. The nest was still visible whatever I did. Later I saw the robin on our path. It flew backwards and forwards between where the nest was and what seemed to be random parts of the garden. The next day the nest had gone. We thought our Robin had gone too.

There is a mature,” crab apple,“tree in our garden. The tree is covered in small red apples at the end of Summer and at the beginning of Autumn. Over the years, because Marilyn and I have both been working, we have done nothing with the apples, neither collecting them to boil down into crab apple jelly or to make apple pies with. The apples have been left to drop and rot on the pathway beneath or be scattered on the grass and left to rot into the soil. I am sure our back garden has the most nutrients derived from apples in its fibrous organic, and mineral constituents than any other garden I know. You can almost smell the aroma of apple in our soil.

Apart from adding to the organic make up of the garden the crab apple tree feeds numerous large, fat, grey wood pigeons. They gorge on the apples. There can be as many as ten of these grey weighty looking birds sitting in our tree bending the whip like branches downwards with their heaviness. Wood pigeons are grey with white markings on their necks. We hear them cooing loudly as they eat our crab apples and when they take flight they make a loud heavy wing beat sound like the ,”woomping,” sound of a helicopter rotor blade.

There is another, maybe somewhat surprising bird that also likes to feed on our apples. It is a green parakeet. The RSPB website tells us,

  The ring-necked, or rose-ringed, parakeet is the UK's most abundant naturalised parrot - it became established in the wild in the 1970s after captive birds escaped or were released.It is a well-known resident of the greater London area, roosting communally in large flocks. The population has been increasing steadily, though it remains concentrated in south-east England. Birds are regularly reported elsewhere in Britain, and are likely to be local escapees.”
And furthermore the statement on the RSPB site says,

If the parakeet population were to continue to grow, the implications for our native species must be closely monitored. The Government is obliged to ensure that non-native species do not adversely affect native wildlife, and is currently developing a policy framework for addressing the possible risks associated with such species becoming established.”

The story round here, in Motspur Park, is that when, in 1950 , the Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn film, Africa Queen, was being filmed at Pinewood Studios, some parakeets escaped from the jungle set and created a colony in Richmond Park. The fact that the RSPB say that the colonies of parakeets derive from escapees, the story could have some credence. They are growing and surviving nicely anyway, like the pigeons, on our masses of crab apples.

Ring-necked parakeet profile
Parakeet
When the children were younger we used to have rabbits. We constructed a hutch inside a wooden playhouse we have in the garden. That combination of hutch and playhouse has always kept our various pets over the years warm and somewhat insulated from the temperature and weather conditions outside. Generally during the day, we put our pets, rabbits, guinea pigs and so on and so forth, outside on the grass inside another enclosure. Unfortunately, urban gardens in Britain nowadays have foxes who visit. They smell out our animals and if they can find a way they will catch and eat them. We have generally kept our pets secure over the years but foxes are cunning blighters. If they can find a way, they will. Even though the rabbits were kept in a secure enclosure one fox found a way of getting through the chicken wire. Our well fed, very plump and rather large rabbit went missing one day. We didn’t tell Sam, Alice and Emily, who were quite young then, but Marilyn and I found body parts. A rabbit paw lay amongst the shrubbery and bits of rabbit fur was snagged on brambles and some rocks we have at the bottom of the garden. We told the children that,” Fluffy, “had decided to go to another home. From then on we doubled the layer of chicken wire on the external cage. 

Foxes also come into the garden to raid the bins. If they can smell food in the rubbish bins they will attack them, turn them over, spread the contents everywhere and get what they are after. Merton Council, for the last few years, are wise to this and supply every household with a sturdy plastic food waste bin with a lockable lid. Sometimes on a warm Summers day a fox will come into the garden and just lay on the grass sunning itself. If we see it from the house and knock on the window it will look up but generally stay put. They know we are inside and can’t get to them. If we open a window and shout at them, again, they seem to be wise to this and generally stay put. If we open the door into the garden, they will stand up leisurely and take their time to go out of the garden. They can be very very irritating.

It is interesting to consider why foxes have become urban creatures. Fox hunting was banned quite a few years ago now. People at first thought that with an increase in the fox population in the countryside foxes needed to go further afield, for instance into urban areas, to find food. But I don’t think it is that. Very few foxes were ever killed in this way, certainly not enough to affect the population of foxes. Farming methods must be the answer. There is less diversity in the countryside. Diverse habitats provide homes for a diverse range of creatures. If the diverse habitats are not there the animals will not survive and the food chains are affected adversely. The foxes food chains in the rural environment must have been depleted so they had no choice but to come into urban areas. The London Borough of Merton Council have a procedure for asking questions at their council meetings. Here is a quotation from their council meeting on the 4th February 2015
Public questions Procedure The Mayor will call your name and ask if you have a supplementary question arising from the answer you have received. If you do not have a supplementary question then simply respond thank you, no. If you do have a supplementary question respond thank you, yes. You will be shown to a seat in the chamber where you will ask your supplementary question. Make sure you use the microphone. Having put your question, please be seated whilst the Cabinet member responds. Once the response has been given, please return to your seat in the public gallery. The questions and answers and all supplementary questions and replies will be published on Merton’s website after the meeting.
3. From Andrew Gould To the Cabinet Member for Environmental Sustainability and Regeneration Question What are you doing to control the number of foxes in the borough? I am concerned they appear prevalent and increasingly confident around adults and children as well as causing a lot of additional mess which has to be cleared. Page 2 Reply Foxes are an increasingly urban phenomenon and Merton deals with them in exactly the same way as all other London boroughs. Our website provides details regarding ways in which residents can deter foxes, this includes: • If there is a fox living in a garden in your street some simple steps can help to encourage them to move on: • Keep all domestic waste in a wheeled bin or closed containers, not plastic bags and use the council’s brown bin food waste containers. • Only put your waste out on the morning of collection by 6am. • Do not leave food out for other animals. Be extremely careful where you put food to feed birds, this should be in suitable containers. • Make sure there are no areas where foxes can shelter. This may be an overgrown or neglected area or a void beneath a building. Voids can be protected using heavy-duty mesh, making sure that it is securely fixed to any building and buried to a depth of 12" (30 cm) into the soil to prevent the fox burrowing under the mesh. There is little that can be done to control the number of foxes since they are territorial and any efforts to reduce the population in one area would lead to relocation of other foxes into the area vacated.
 Councils can do nothing about foxes. We have to live with them.

A fox in an urban garden.
My next door neighbour Alf, is a brilliant bloke. You couldn’t wish for a better neighbour. He is extremely friendly. We have had a few beers together over the years in our local, The Earl Beatty. He is a qualified electrician and has installed new wiring and a new fuse box for us. We always attend his birthday party next door each year and what is more, he and Di, his wife, own a fantastic 1950’s Juke Box and play old vinyl singles on it. We always have a real party at Alf and Di's house.  The beers tend to flow. Alf has his passions. He’s had a few over the years but one interest that has stood the test of time is his rather large fish pond. Soon after Alf and Di moved in Alf began the construction of what I thought was going to be a swimming pool. It was  extensive and deep. But, no, it was to be a fish pond stocked with Koi Carp. Some of these Koi Carp are monsters now. You can see them breaking the surface sometimes and they are perhaps a metre or more long and very wide. Alf has had to cover his pond with netting. We get herons in the garden. They are great big grey feathered birds that stand on legs like long stilts Herons are only here for one reason, Alf’s fish. A heron loves a juicy fat Koi Carp apprently. We see them standing on the dividing fence between our two gardens sometimes. They stand motionless, just looking for a very long time. They point their long sharp beaks at the object of their desire.

A heron standing on my fence looking at the carp in Alf's pond.

 Often the heron will come to the realization that it is not going to get a fish, because they must become aware of the netting. But some don’t become aware of the netting and I have seen a heron flap its great wings,  and land on top of the pond and have a go at stabbing a fish through the net. They don’t get anywhere obviously and soon fly off. The RSPB website puts it this way, as far as Herons go,
Grey herons are large birds that eat lots of fish, but also small birds and mammals. You can see them by any river or lake.”
I would also add, and in my back garden.

Recently we discovered that a small mouse has joined our guinea pigs in their sheltered hutch at night time. Marilyn discovered it happily eating the guinea pig’s food alongside the guinea pigs themselves. It seemed all very amicable.
One visitor we get occasionally is a Jay. We only see it a couple of times a year. Jays, "garrulous  glandarius,"are apparently shy birds. They live,
“………. in both deciduous and coniferous woodland, parks and mature gardens. Likes oak trees in autumn when there are plenty of acorns. Often seen flying across a woodland glade giving its screeching call, it becomes more obvious in autumn when it may fly some distance in the open in search of acorns.” ( RSPB)  

A Jay.
We definitely have a mature garden, to put it politely, but we do not have acorns in our garden. Maybe the Jay is a secret lover of our crab apples, like every other bird that visits us. I have never heard it screech. I wonder what that sounds like? There are mature oaks, however, in our local park, Sir Joseph Hood Playing Fields. Oaks boarder, Blakes Lane, which is on the other side of Motspur Park Station. Blakes Lane is an old country lane, that during the Victorian period, lead to Blakes Farm, when this area was all farms.

A pile of logs at the bottom of the garden provides habitats for all sorts of woodlice, beetles and ants. In the evening flocks of black headed gulls fly overhead towards the west. Heathrow Airport is in that direction near Staines. Staines is where many of the large water company reservoirs, that provide London with water are located. Marilyn and I often wonder if the gulls are making for the large expanses of water that comprise the giant reservoirs. As I write this a blackbird with a bright yellow beak is standing on our grass. It is pecking the ground, probably trying to catch a worm. The ground is soft after much rain recently. The blackbird doesn’t have to peck the ground too hard. To the consternation of my daughters, the bath in the bathroom can be home to, “daddy long legs.” On more than one occasion I have had to catch the offending creatures in my cupped hands and remove them from the bath and find a dark shady place under a bush in the garden to deposit them. We often get sparrows in the garden and sometimes, on a warm summers evening we see swallows spiraling and racing about the sky above us. When we had a ,"wild life," pond, before we had the back of the house extended, it became full with reeds, wild irises and water lilies floating on it. The pond attracted a multitude, nearly a  plague, of frogs and dragon flies hovered around the purple flowers of the irises. Pond skaters and water boatmen skimmed across the surface of the pond.

Returning to the idea about ,"edge lands," and other sorts of landscape categories  I am not sure these  categories work.Where I live  is right in the middle of urban development and yet we get all this, "nature," that we live alongside. Bill Bryson, in his recent book, “The Road to Little Dribbling( more notes from A Small Island)”,writes that London is the best city in the world and one of the reasons he gives is that when he looks down at an Ordnance Survey Map of London he sees mostly green.Bryson loves the idea that a city, as vast as London, has so much green.There are the well-manicured parks like Hyde Park and Regents Park in the centre of London and there are the many shrubberied and arbored squares that comprise central London but also, as you move further out, there are the vast wild areas of Richmond Park, Wimbledon Common, Bushey Park and Putney Commons. Then there is all the greenery bordering the Thames as you travel inland towards Windsor. Bryson sees London as comprising large green areas interspersed with buildings. So rather like my own garden, London is a happy mixture of urban, and wild nature. It is wrong to think of wilderness, countryside and town as separate entities. Do these categories really exist?


Monday, 4 January 2016

A CHRISTMAS CAROL AND THE USE OF LANGUAGE.



The cast of A Christmas Carol at the Rose Theatre Kingston upon Thames
 ( Picture:Rose Theater website)

The sentence, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” was coined by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839 for his play, “Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy.” It is easy to say, that Bulwer-Lytton’s statement is self-evident. However, it is an interesting concept to look at more closely. It does seem the power of words are a very powerful and potent weapon in all our lives.
Marilyn, Abigail and I went into Kingston upon Thames this afternoon to watch “A Christmas Carol,” at The Rose Theatre, performed by a company of actors along with members of The Rose Youth Theatre in a production adapted and directed by Ciaran McConville. Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol, himself became wealthy and gained considerable influence in society and throughout the whole world. He was , what might be termed, using an often misused and maligned phrase, a ,”superstar,” of the Victorian era. He became so through, primarily, the power of the pen and the written and spoken word. Through words he was able to rise out of poor circumstances and virtual penury and be a powerful influence on those in power and society as a whole.

 The actors of  The Rose Theatre's production of A Christmas Carol, use the playwright’s words, interpreting them with meaning. They created a strong, emotional and intellectual response amongst a large audience using words that, to be honest, were not even their own to begin with but they certainly made those words their own. Words don't have to be your own  for you to make them powerful.

The auditorium of the Rose Theatre Kingston upon Thames at the interval.


 The young actors, who performed in this production, raise an interesting aspect. This production used children and teenagers from The Rose Youth Theatre. Drama Clubs for children and young people are numerous. My own four children all went to drama clubs when they were young for quite a number of years. In each case they went from the age five or six to at least the age of twelve. Once they went on to secondary schools they fell by the way but not until they had gained inestimable benefits and enjoyment from participating in all that a drama club offers. Abigail can stand in front of an audience and read a text out clearly and confidently. She can  learn a few lines and speak to an audience with them. Two very powerful and useful skills in our society. It will be interesting to consider how  the ability to use language creatively in various circumstances will help them as they develop into adulthood.

I have been reading ,Landscapes, by Robert McFarlane recently. He has created whole glossaries of words covering all sorts of landscape, often collecting words that have been lost or gone out of use. He states that particular words and language connected with particular places enables those using the words to understand and connect at a deep level with an environment. His book is a collection of glossaries that contain words which describe various landscapes such as mountains, water, coasts, woodland and what he terms as, edge lands. The ability to know and use these words provide great power to the user. Macfarlane sites an example where AMC, a company that develops wind farms and the local council of the Outer Hebrides, wanted to build 240 wind turbines on Brindled Moor. He tells about AMC, the wind turbine company gaining planning permission to build these wind turbines. However, the local community  gathered all the local information they could about the moorland to present to the planning department to prove that the moor is of great natural and scientific importance. Both the council and AMC thought of it and portrayed it as a useless wilderness, a barren wasteland. The local people won their case because they found words, some that had fallen out of use because they were no longer used,  that described the meaning of so many surprising aspects of the moors and hence proved the moors importance. This is an incredible example of the power of words in action.

  A Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scrooge (Rose Theater website picture)

 For these sort of productions, such as A Christmas Carol, whole families turn up. If not the fathers, and they too turn up more often than not if they possibly can, mums with their offspring attend. Often,more than one family go together. The various families being friends. This observation alone attests to the importance the use of language and words mean to people. It is interesting, for the purpose of the title of this article, to examine the use of language and the conversations that go on among these families. Before I am accused, it sounds as though I might be an eavesdropper, these family groups tend to talk loudly and dramatically so conversations among them cannot be avoided by those nearby such as myself. By listening to their conversation it is perhaps a little too easy to make assumptions about their education and social background, which of course leads on to, through their use of language,  a consideration of the power these people might wield in society. What sort of families go to the theater? Do all families from every part of society go? Do schools and teachers think the theater, and all it means, is important in main stream education? What might this all mean for society?

So there were Marilyn, Abigail and myself sitting in the audience of The Rose Theatre, maybe ten or fifteen minutes before the production of, A Christmas Carol, began. All around us were vibrant and lively children and vibrant and lively adults mostly talking with clipped, clear, southern home counties accents, shall we say.

Imagine these words spoken loudly with no awareness of other people around them and let me assure you, there were lots of other people around.

“ Oh Emily, will you sit still? ( said with a slightly strained desperation in the tone). That is your seat.
Robert, come here at once. Stop faffing about,
What ,are, you doing my love?
Take off your coat. You will be too warm.
Arthur,what are you doing as well? Sit down!”
Then to her best friend, who has also brought her sparkling, super bright, beautiful offspring.
“Amelia, we will get them settled soon. Oh by the way, how was yours and Roberts holiday on the Amalfi Coast? Philip and I absolutely loved it when we went. Those villages perched on the cliffs. So delightful. Oh darling,we drank too much Retsina. Got quite drunk one night. Haw! Haw! Antonio, the waiter, he was gorgeous let me tell you. Got me in quite a flutter. I don’t think Philip noticed. Ha! Ha! Well if he did he didn’t say anything the love. Mind you, between you and me and the gate post, I think he fancied the waitress. Ha! Ha! Ha! I didn’t say anything.”

Its not so much the content of this sort of conversation but the absolute confidence it is delivered with.

And so conversations like this all over the theater took place in insular groups. These people do not seem to be aware of anybody else. There is something self centered about them. They are the most important people on this earth after all, aren’t they? They speak and use words with enormous confidence. That is the thing that sets them apart. They are all extremely confident. Words, language derived through a really good education, have given them this ability. These people are in advertising, or their husbands might be solicitors or doctors. I will leave out teachers and their families, although they could be grouped in this middle class strata of society. There is an element that teacher’s families have, I think, which makes them a little different and that is a consideration for others. They have a certain humility. But, I am biased!   The middle classes therefore are the mainstay of local theaters such as The Rose in Kingston or Richmond Theater in Richmond upon Thames, The National Theater on the South Bank and various other National productions put on at other theaters around London. They generally do not go to the productions that tourists from around the world attend. They read novels voraciously, give confident, apt, sometimes humorous speeches at functions and always speak with just the right words and tone at funerals and weddings. They have the words and confidence to persuade employers to give them a job at interviews. These are just a few examples of the  power of using language well.

These people sitting around us, and these type of families who  fill theaters everywhere, are supremely confident with language. They will know, not just the plot of the play, but they probably can quote well known parts of the dialogue and understand things like the meaning of the play and the characterization and subtleties of mood and tone. They will be able to discuss the play afterwards over a nice meal in Jamie Oliver’s Italian Kitchen just down the road or at, Costas, over a cup of coffee and a croissant. If that is not power what is? They know how to persuade and get things done by using language.

So how can this trend for one part of society to claim words and language as their own, spread throughout the rest of society at all levels? In schools the national Curriculum requires all children to study Shakespeare from the age of ten years. All younger children have to take school library books home to read with their parents and a strict record of this is kept. At sixteen, for their GCSE exams children from all backgrounds have to read an 19th century novel, a piece of modern literature such as George Orwell’s Animal farm or 1984, and an American novel such as, John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath. They have to read poetry, know even more Shakespeare than they did at the age of twelve and be able to quote from Shakespeare and know not only plots but characterization and how characters interact and different aspects of the arc of the story. They have to know this in some depth, questioning and analyzing the text. They are also taken to the theater to see various productions. This possession of language by all strata’s of society is promoted strongly in schools. Language with all the power it carries is offered to all not just a few. Unfortunately, the families of some children hold them back. Some children almost learn to live a double life. They have the rich diverse language they know and learn at school and then when they go home they use an impoverished language. At The Rose Theater there were no working class families. Working class children, because of their experience of language at school would most probably have accessed the play just as well as those families and children who did go but it is not the done thing for them. This is a great shame. What is hopeful though is that because they are exposed to a rich variety and use of language at school they may be inspired and make their own decisions as they grow older. At the very least when they do come across this rich use of words during their lives they will not feel completely excluded because they will have experienced it at school.

It really is important to read and write well and use language. Make it work for you.

An introductory film clip of the show: