Monday, April 27, 2009

Bluebells and slithery things

This year, apparently, has been a bumper year for bluebells. While out running across the local country estate, we saw that the woods were full of them -- far more than I've ever seen before, and the smell was quite overpowering. Even our garden has several bunches of them, adding a blast of colour and fragrance.

Along with the flora, though, the spring has also brought out the fauna. Meet one of Hampshire's relatively rare slow-worms. These can be quite large and just a little unnerving if met while weeding a border.

Even more unpleasant is the thought of the mess the cats would make if they got hold of one of these. If only their catflap included a checkpoint search facility that made them drop any little bundles of fun from their mouths before entering the house. Cat-flap makers: Look into it.

Just as I'm about to turn the light off

"Squeak, squeak."

"You have GOT to be kidding me."

The next 15 minutes were pure farce: PJ and I chased Shin around the house, while she kept the still-live rodent clamped firmly between her jaws. No video of this; it would be X-rated for language. However, the mouse lived to see another day (unless offed overnight by the many other neighbourhood cats) and we got to sleep without further disturbance.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Testing, testing

Watch and laugh as Shin struggles to get through the catflap. What do you mean, "fat thighs"?

Video courtesy of our new flip video mino HD camcorder -- lots of fun and VERY easy to use, even for a techno-idiot like me. No pictograms, no incomprehensible, poorly translated instructions; just point and press the big red button. I would imagine it's a worthwhile investment for those of you with children. Me, I'll stick to the cats.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Before and after

Nature abounds right now. The lovely warm weather through March and again after Easter has meant that everything is growing rapidly and bounteously -- we are awash with plants. My new borders are rooting in nicely (or at least until the slugs get them), the cherry and apple trees are blossoming, and even the wisteria is starting to turn purple. Most impressive, however, is the herb box.

In August last year, it looked like this:

Now, it's this. Mint, thyme, chives, parsley, marjoram, and coriander -- all growing spectacularly!

In fact, we have so much mint and parsley that I'm running out of things to make with them. Time for some tabbouleh, mint choc chip ice cream, and, best of all, my "Fauxjitos" -- Sailor Jerry rum, mint syrup, and soda water.

Several parts of our back garden, on the other hand, are considerably less abundant than they were last year. After a couple of months of continuous, back-breaking labour, we've gone from this:

To this. My RHS encyclopedia pretty much implies that after three years of neglect, you may as well move house rather than trying to fix the problem, but I'm glad we didn't give up.

Not bad, if I say so myself. The best part of clearing the ancient brambles and tree-trunk-sized chunks of ivy is that we won't have to do this much work again. Uprooting this degree of planting is a one-time job -- particularly once we get the sheeting down and the gravel on top of that. It's a temporary solution until I can figure out exactly what I want to do along this side of the garden.

Finally, the border outside our front door. Annoyingly, I don't have a decent picture of its overgrown state before we tackled it. This is the closest I can get -- you can see the growth in the distance.

Now, we've dug out the various ferns that had taken up residence, removed the hawthorn tree in a giant tub that was nestling in the back, and cut back the budleia and forsythia. In their place, I've planted my evergreen collection: 2 Japanese azaleas, 2 rhododendrons, 2 conifers, a pieris, a euonymous, and some heathers -- all dwarf, thankfully. So far, so good. I'm getting flowers and new growth on all the plants. Keep your fingers crossed that they live long and prosper.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Saving the world is so . . . bourgeois

I know, I know: Marketing is the work of the devil, and viral marketing is even worse. But this IS tres amusmant!

And, you should also be watching Spiral, currently showing on BBC2 on Mondays. This French drama is fantastique! The post-mortems and murder sites are far gorier -- and involve far more (so far female) nudity -- than anything you see on UK/US TV; the leading characters are all attractively flawed and have casual affairs at the drop of a ... hat; and everyone sits around in bars drinking cafe cremes or kirs, while smoking. It's so Gallic!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Turn left, turn right ...

Providing instructions on how to reach your destination: not the most challenging thing to do. I live in an awkward spot but have managed to provide clear, consistent directions to a whole host of friends, family, and delivery people. The Malmaison hotel chain, however, doesn't seem to be able to manage this. They can tell you which cities they're in; they can tell you what street they are on and the post code; but they can't tell you how to navigate the fiendish one-way systems in which most of their hotels are situated.

December 25, 2006: PJ and I are lost in Manchester. We're desperately trying to reach the Malmaison before the Doctor Who Xmas special starts, but are having no luck. We know that the hotel is only a few hundred yards away but the roads aren't accessible to traffic; we are thwarted at every turn. We even end up on the motorway to Birmingham at one point, and lost in a darkened car park at another. The hotel Web site suggests finding it is easy but that is not the case! Tears and recriminations ensue.

October 2008: PJ and I are lost in Reading. We aren't allowed down the street that takes us to the Malmaison, it being closed to non-public modes of transport. We drive around the Reading ring road for 20 minutes, looking for a car park.

Today: PJ and I are NOT lost in Oxford; I know perfectly well where we are but we can't see the hotel. The directions -- "Put our post code into your sat nav and it will show you the way!" -- aren't helpful if a) sat nav gives up about 200 yards from the hotel, b) the hotel entrance isn't marked, or c) if you don't have a sat nav. We drive round the Oxford one-way system, ignoring the signs that say "Closed to cars" and end up phoning the hotel while illegally parked on double yellows. It's also raining. Not a good start to our mini-break.

Once is unfortunate. Twice is suspicious. Three times is a bloody disgrace. MapQuest, Malmaison -- look into it!

PS: I know what you're thinking. And yes, we are perfectly capable of reading maps and following directions. So it's not OUR fault.


In Oxford for an afternoon and evening, I head over to Ben's Cookies to revisit one of the treats from my undergraduate days: Whenever we handed in an essay, we'd come here to reward ourselves with a double chocolate chip or white chocolate chip giant cookie -- we were all size 8 (UK) back then. To my relief, Ben's Cookies still occupies the same spot in the covered market and the cookies are just as good. The chocolate is still molten inside, which is why I now have a splodge of it down the front of the (formerly) clean jumper that has to last me until Sunday. Doh!

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Magnolia tree -- in bloom

Not ours unfortunately -- or, perhaps, fortunately. As it sits in the garden of the house across from us, we get to admire its beauty without having to sweep up the petals, many of which have fallen during the recent windy, rainy Easter holiday weather.


We've given in — to The Guardian's TV columnists, at least — and started watching The Wire. BBC2 are now showing one episode per weekday evening, so that should keep us busy for the next four months. Just as well: the US TV seasons (Chuck, 30 Rock) are dragging, with multiple repeats, to a close, and Battlestar Galactica has finished, so what else were we to watch?

So far, so highly enjoyable. The accents take a bit of getting used to; I'm sure lots of people are watching it with the subtitles turned on, just as the Americans requested subtitles for Gregory's Girl. Best of all, it's funny. One of the reasons I'd resisted watching for so long was that I expected it to be grim; after all, a show set around the projects of Baltimore was never going to be a barrel of laffs. However, it's really well written and acted -- grim and violent in places, but also highly amusing and totally engrossing. And, we go to bed, talking to the cats in our (very middle-class) faux street slang. I wonder how long it will be before that becomes boring (for them, not us)? Probably about as long as it takes to become bored with shouting "You're a MENTALIST!" at the TV whenever Five shows a trailer for (ahem) The Mentalist. Heh.

Monday, April 06, 2009

What's worse?

1. Your cat bringing in a dead mouse, disembowelling it under the spare bed, and leaving a trail of entrails across the cream carpet?

2. Your cat bringing in a live mouse and continuing to play with it while letting it live -- thus forcing you to decide whether to a) intervene to save the mouse (the squeaking is driving you crazy), although there's no obvious way of capturing the mouse or b) shut all the doors and put the other cat into the arena in the hopes that she will finish the mouse off quickly?

We opted for 3 -- chase the cats (with mouse in jaws) outside, lock the catflaps, and ignore the potential carnage in the garden.

Bloody cats.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Border patrol

I know, I know -- it's been ages! But I've been busy, really busy, succumbing to the lure of the garden. We've had a couple of weeks of beautiful weather, and now that the clocks have gone forward, it's possible to spend two or three hours digging out ivy or hacking away at brambles after work. As we did this evening. And Tuesday. And Monday. Wednesday, we went to the dump to deposit the fruits of our back-breaking labour. Sadly, I must have been one of the only people who woke up yesterday and thought "Goody! It's April 1! The Eastleigh dump is now open until 7 each evening!"

It may be hard work, but it's also hugely rewarding -- as long as you look back at what you've done, rather than forward at what you have yet to do. However, we've cleared two large borders that were completely overgrown; we can now see the fence panels (and start to repair them); and I've even planted out an "evergreen collection" in the border by the front door, which we'd cleared on Boxing Day. Ordering plants on the Internet is a new and dangerously appealing hobby -- better than ordering books because the plants don't need storage indoors. I have busy lizzies and diacanthus coming later this month, and have sent off for some free, late-flowering bulbs. My onion sets are coming along nicely, the herb garden is going wild -- mint to the left of me, parsley to the right of me -- and after some hard pruning over the winter, the roses are coming back. Yay! Of course, I will feel far more despondent when all of these things have died in a couple of months' time, but for now, I'm taking photos and feeling happy.

I never thought I'd enjoy gardening as much as I do. Perhaps it's because it's such a contrast to my day job -- in which I sit in front of a computer and read tech reports. To then go out into the fresh air and get my hands muddy (and scratched) while the cats gambol around us (and then use the freshly dug soil as a deluxe toilet), well, it's just wonderful. I've also abdicated responsibility for the lawn to a local firm, which is killing moss, scarifying the thatch, and generally making it look top-notch. In just a few weeks, our garden has come on enormously; instead of making me feel depressed, I'm pleased to go out into it. Pictures to come.