Tuesday, 16 June 2015

the garden of earthly delights

And so we learn there's no return
Only journeys to depart on
Salt and dust, oil and rust
It's still the only garden

I'm no Adam, you're no Eve
Don't look back and never grieve
A wasted seed, a broken reed
It's what the poor man sets his heart on . . .

We never left the garden

Whatever qualities I may have, being a gardener isn't really one of them. I don't have green fingers, for sure. However, over the last few years I have begun to enjoy growing things to eat in my tiny garden more and more.

I always laugh when I see books or articles about small gardens. They still seem to think that a small garden is about the size of Rutland. Ours really is tiny, it's about thirty two feet by twenty (if that). Given its ridiculously small size we somehow manage to grow stuff in it as well as cook, entertain and - weather permitting - sit around soaking up the sun.

A few years ago - probably about ten - we actually attempted to run an allotment. That was a dismal failure by anyone's standards. Both of us being full time teachers with a family and my wife being on the Senior Management Team meant we had no time whatsoever to get up to there and spend the months of tpoil required to produce much worth talking about, let alone eating it. In fact, we failed so hilariously, we were just about to be kicked off of it by the council. We did manage to grow some potatoes and what started as courgettes. The potatoes were quite good, as I recall. However, the courgettes resembled the pods from Invasion of the Body Snatchers because we had left them for so long.

The dismal failure of that exercise was very disappointing but we have built up in a small way to provide some food that we really do use. I'm not talking The Good Life here of course! For the past ten or so years we have managed to produce a decent crop of tomatoes each year alongside some salad leaves and herbs. Last summer we did not buy any salad from a shop at all. Little Gem lettuces, rocket, chard and various leaves kept us supplied well throughout the summer and into early autumn. This year is beginning to look the same. This year we have nine tomato plants and another six to plant. The amount of french salad leaves, chard, rocket and sea purslane currently growing should see us well through the summer months ahead.

Alongside the above there are so many different herbs this year in pots and poked in to any available space that I've forgotten what I've planted where. I think I've actually got some sea kale growing but I can't remember where. Edible flowers like Borage and Nasturtiums are rapidly growing and we have a blackcurrant bush that seems quite prolific too. Because space is at a premium we probably should plan it all out but I have continued with my usual haphazard approach that the rest of my life seems to have bumbled along with that it hardly seems worth changing the habit of a lifetime for.

For many years I have been able to wander out of the back door and pick fresh herbs when I'm cooking - a small bay tree, an old gnarled rosemary bush that was replaced a year back and various
thyme plants have been constant culinary companions. This year the mint, sorrel, lavender and sage all seem quite robust. Sunday meals require regular wanderings out with a pair of scissors to snip a couple of bay leaves for a stew or some rosemary for the lamb or even thyme for the chicken.

When I think back to being a lad in Stevenage, the only herb that my parents ever grew was mint - there was always a fine patch outside the back door in our house in Four Acres. I really don't remember much else. I think my parents preferred flowers and a lawn. At least the mint sauce was always home made.

I sometimes joke about my mother's cooking. She was a pretty good cook really but I always wondered why she over-cooked joints of meat. Sunday meals often meant quite tough lamb or beef. I'm sure they would have been cheaper cuts but it took me quite a while as an adult to get into enjoying both cooking and eating them. Now, they are a pleasure to cook. I guess we have the plethora of celebrity cooks to thank for better knowledge of how to prepare food now. According to Michael Pollan Americans (and I guess the British too) have abandoned their kitchens at the same time that there has been a huge rise in tv celebrity chefs showing off food porn.

Most of the tv programmes about cooking are awful and I don't have much time for the bake-offs and Master Chef ones at all. Over the years I've enjoyed Keith Floyd and Nigel Slater. The latter is a fine writer. I've also continued to refer to the late Marguerite Patten although she hated sage for some reason. She was one of those post WWII writers that evidently changed Britain's cooking habits.

I took over the cooking (and shopping) quite a few years ago when my wife was becoming more and more bogged down in Management meetings and other important stuff. Nowadays, it's second nature. I make bread by hand, I can cook pretty well, even if I do say so myself, and being able to supplement what I churn out with some produce from our little garden makes me feel good about what I do. I spent most of last Sunday cooking or preparing food - homemade bread, guacamole, roasted beetroots and elderflower champagne were all made as well as the actual evening meal. Whilst I was pottering about the kitchen it occurred to me that this is exactly what I want to be doing when I retire.

As I am about to retire from the British education system next month I am very much looking forward to continuing my haphazard adventures in both small-scale gardening and cooking. Perhaps it's time to think about trying to run an allotment again . . .



18 comments:

Kate the State said...

Hi Dad,

I was thinking about Nan's mint patch the other day for some reason. I am looking forward to enjoying some home-grown produce and your cooking very soon!

Katie x

Dave Leeke said...

And we're looking forward to seeing you back home too. It's a few weeks of arduous A2 exam marking first though!

Dad x

Zouk Delors said...

I was in a large and beautiful garden one day last week: Jim Arnold's. It surrounds the old St Nicholas schoolhouse* at the bottom of the Avenue, where he was headmaster for many years and still lives. I'd gone to see the lads doing the gardening about something, not realizing whose house it was, and bumped into Jim's son, Lawrence. I expect you knew his younger brother Richard; I did, though not particularly well. The only other time I recall going there was once when I bought a motorbike off him. Lawrence says he still thinks of Richard every day.

* I'll send the photo I took to the idiot with the hat so you can see it if you like

Andy Wright said...

Excellent post Dave. So descriptive and so enjoyable to read. Delighted that July will see you join the massed ranks of the 'Retired' Enjoy every minute. You have more than deserved it

Dave Leeke said...

Zouk,

Thanks, Mike sent the photo on. Where was he Headmaster of? I only met Richard, strangely enough on that fateful night. I was only just beginning to come out of my loner shell and meet people. I regularly think of that night because I didn't understand it - in the years that have passed since, I've known a fair few such characters and although I don't really understand the reasons why, I've begun to understand that life is a difficult concept and some of our fellow travellers find it too difficult to cope with.

Andy,

Thank you. As a working class, Council house kid who seems to have got lucky, I can't believe that I can (more-or-less) afford to do this. Maybe we could get together at either the Fludyers or the Jester soon to attempt to work it all out. Where did it all go so right?

Dave

Zouk Delors said...

Headmaster of St Nick's (as I thought I said - but not comprehensibly, it seems).

From what little he said about it, I think Lawrence would reject your suggestion of suicide. I'm not sure the death was ever explained satisfactorily.

Andy Wright said...

That would be great. We have much to discuss! I'll be in touch but probably it will have to be September time? Being retired is great but it seems to bring more commitments than I could ever have coped with when I was working!.
Have a great summer (assuming we get one!)

Zouk Delors said...

Dave,

Further to your remark that you only met Richard that night, I'm curious as to the location and circumstances of that meeting. Reply thru channels if that seems most appropriate.

Dave Leeke said...

Andy,

Yes after the summer will be fine. We are looking forward to taking our first holiday in school time! The first PD Day too.We have several weddings to attend - including one of our daughter's. I'll be in touch later on in the year. Don't work too hard.

Dave

Dave Leeke said...

Zouk,

I think I got confused with the Avenue which is by Alleynes and St Nick's which is up on Six Hills Way, I believe. I remember the house now.

My memory, probably not as sharp as it could be, of that evening is vague. Me, Rob, Rich Goddard & co were in the Marquis of Granby, I think. It was certainly an Old Town pub with a piano in the Public Bar. Obviously, they all seemed to know each other. It was the first time I had ever met him outside of seeing him around at school. We were all a little less than sober. We had a drink and went off somewhere else but not with Richard and his friends. There's little else I remember about the evening.

The following morning I think it was Rob that came round looking shellshocked and told me what had happened. I'm afraid that's as much as I remember. It was so long ago. Now I think of it, I do think that you're right and that it wasn't as straightforward as I may have implied. Sorry about that. He was the first young death I had been aware of. There then followed quite a few more over the years - your friend Andy at Reading, a friend of mine from college Phil, Paul Williams, Dave Acres and my good friend Hugh Williams. Only one of those by their own hand. Good chaps all.

I remember thinking he was a nice guy - he made us laugh. Sorry I can't be more enlightening.

Dave

Zouk Delors said...

St Nick's moved from its original site next to the Avenue to its present-day Six Hills Way location in the early sixties. As I have discovered from talking to a former pupil, the house in the photo is not the original building, which was bulldozed leaving only the bell tower you see incorporated into a new house.

Richard was tripping when he died. Lawrence says he was the leader of a bike gang who wore HA colours, something I find hardly credible.

Your list misses out Martin Harris, a good friend of mine at the time, who died in a fall from Brent Court after writing off his Norton Commando (suicide not disputed) -- but perhaps you didn't know him. Was Paul Williams "Wilbur", the guitarist who used to play with Rob and Rich G?

Dave Leeke said...

Zouk,

I was aware of that but wasn't sure about saying it! That's what I was told. I can't imagine the guy I met as some biker in colours but who knows?

I didn't know Martin but his name is familiar. Paul was Wilbur - he played briefly in a folk-rock band with me and my friend Brendan. Paul sang "Ballad of Cursed Anna" and played amazing jazz-rock guitar on our version of 'The Cuckoo's Nest' which segued into 'You'd Better Come Home Speedy Gonzales'. Honestly, you can't make this stuff up! He was also Bruce's lead guitarist in The Little Big Band before John Slaughter (Chris Barber's Blues guitarist who had also played for John Mayall whilst Eric Clapton went on holiday in Greece).

Dave

Zouk Delors said...

Clearly, then, he wasn't wearing colours when you were with him. Of course the Granby is right next to Lister, where he died, so maybe it was really not very long after you parted.

How the Hell do you segue into Speedy Gonzales? Does Cuckoo's Nest have a lot of la-la at the end?

How did Wilbur die?

Dave Leeke said...

Er, no - it was the speed at which he played that was so furious I ended up playing such a fast rhythm that somehow Brendan started doing the la-las to join in. I guess you had to be there as they say. Another version of the band did Frankie Laine's "Jezebel" in full Sex Pistols snot and fury. These were stranger times . . .

I've never quite understood that - I think there was a short illness. Bruce would know. Paul was a character who I got on well with for a while but his moods set him apart. He'd possibly be diagnosed as bi-polar in these more enlightened times. Bloody brilliant guitar slinger though. I liked him, he always encouraged me to play even though I was crap. Still am.

Dave

Zouk Delors said...

I wish I had been there, Dave! Sounds great! Of course as soon as I'd posted the last comment, I could be arsed to YouTube Cuckoo's Nest. I started imagining it ending in a final da-dah, sustained on the tonic of Speedy (maybe a bit of feedback thrown in?), with the la-las coming in over the top, and decided it could work quite well ... but it seems that's not how it actually went.

I'll ask Bruce about Wilbur next time I see him. I remember him as intensely shy with a very fast left hand.

Zouk Delors said...

Ha! No sooner had I posted that last comment than who should come up the street but the maestro of the Little Big Band himself! He says Wilbur died of liver failure due to cancer.

Dave Leeke said...

Zouk,

The version we used to do was the Morris On version but noisier.

Yes, liver failure and cancer, I remember now. Paul was shy, he was always pleased that we let him sing. I hope Bruce is well, send him my regards next time you see him.

Dave

Zouk Delors said...

This is the one I looked at.

Yes, of course, I forgot to mention that Bruce sends you his best wishes (he doesn't "do" the internet himself), and I'll return yours next time I see him -- which I now expect to be one day next week.