Miscellany and detritus, from the writer of Is This Mutton?com

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Spot the Difference

We're determined to improve the back garden this year, now that we look out on it from the new conservatory. A number of improvements has been made already. Compare the before with the current "after" :

Before: April 2011. The border was cleared of Leylandii trees

After: March 2012. New fence; border dug and 2 fruit trees planted; edging replaced with sleepers. Patio extended. Garage repainted. Grass replaced with artificial lawn

On the right hand side of the garden we have also had a new fence put up and it has given us quite a lot more border to play with. John did the back breaking digging this weekend. Normally I put pots here but I'm going to get rid of a lot of them and in future plant the bulbs in the borders instead. In the summer I will plant annuals in the right border.

We're very pleased with the artificial grass, laid by Steve at Highfield Landscapes. It's come on a long way since "Astro Turf." You look at samples as if you're buying a carpet. The one we chose is called "Stately Manor." It will last for at least 10 years, and will still look green and lush after a few months of the hosepipe ban. My argument is that I am offsetting the ecological downside of artificial grass with a planting scheme aimed at encouraging butterflies and bees. I've ordered my plants and I'm now eagerly waiting their arrival. The garden is north facing so I have to be realistic about what's achievable. I'm getting some ferns, hostas and ornamental grasses and will grow some of my favourites, penstemons, campanulas, dahlias, Japanese anemones and plenty of cosmos and nicotiana. More photos to follow in a few months! 
March 2012: the "new" border 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Couch Critic: Kevin You Contagious Tinker!

Well dear reader, it's already been a month since my last film reviews! Since then we haven't seen too many new films owing to a falling out with Lovefilm (too many new films "unavailable for rental"). My mum, who's 80 in June, has probably seen more because she avails herself of Orange cut price tickets at the cinema on Wednesdays.

But I will give you my verdict on: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Contagion and We Need To Talk about Kevin.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
I'm a big fan of Gary Oldman (left). I've seen all his films, including some we'd rather forget about. He is a sublime actor but in recent years I was exasperated with some of his role choices. Finally the "big one" came along - Tinker Tailor - and he was Oscar nominated. But while I admired his restrained performance in Tinker Tailor, I couldn't help thinking the film is a bit of an Emperor's New Clothes. I suspect that some of those who say how wonderful it is are just trying to stand apart from the rest of us. I knew what to expect - a complex story and none of the usual sledgehammer clues and shooting you get in most modern spy thrillers. Nonetheless, I found it baffling and incomprehensible. I didn't know what was going on for the first hour, and although with spy thrillers like this you have to wait for the story to unfold, the clues were released with agonising slowness. I'm told it's better the second time but I don't think J and I will be rushing to replay it.
Disaster films like this used to be all the rage --- Jaws, Towering Inferno, Earthquake, etc. Contagion shows what would happen in the case of a killer virus going global.  Of course this did happen back in the 1920s when Spanish flu, or sleeping sickness, killed 1% of the world's population.  Contagion follows the usual formula - a clutch of famous people and how their lives intersect. There are a couple of surprises in terms of who croaks early on. I loved the music, very atmospheric. Overall though the plot  (and music) promised a bit more tension than was actually delivered. It was all quite pedestrian. Next time I fly though I will feel like wearing a Michael Jackson style mask.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
It's probably a bad thing to say that I loved the book by Lionel Shriver because the subject matter is so grim. But it's a book you can never forget because it handles, very skilfully, two taboo subjects: what happens when a mother doesn't love her child? Is her lack of love and empathy the reason for the atrocities committed by Kevin? Or is it simply the action of someone who sociopathic and unlovable?

The film doesn't quite live up to the novel. Tilda Swinton is quite marvellous as Kevin's mother, managing with her facial expressions to say what most actors struggle to say with their voices. But the film tries to be too arts-housey. The three most powerful incidents in the book are completely underplayed, as if to avoid upsetting us, which dilutes the outcome. Disapppointing.  (Wouldn't it be great though to see a taut drama starring Tilda Swinton and Gary Oldman?).

Friday, March 09, 2012

Hyacinths to feed the soul

Hyacinths in our garden
Photo by John Hanlon

If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft,
And from thy slender store two loaves alone to thee are left,
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Engelbert: it's brilliant

When I first heard that elderly singer Engelbert Humperdinck was going to be our Eurovision entry this year, my reaction was shock and dismay.

I thought the BBC had really thrown in the towel.

But now I've come round to the idea. I have to agree with DJ Paul Gambaccini: it's so bonkers it's brilliant. Why not have an old geezer? This could be the novelty that wins it for Royaumes Unis after a 15 year drought. Winsome boy bands and girls in sequins and little else is so last year! Let's bring a bit of dignity back to proceedings.

A few years ago, when a documentary asked why the UK never gets any votes, it transpired that other countries resented the fact we used unknowns. As if the contest was unimportant  (perish the thought!). Well, they can't accuse us of that this time. Engelbert tells us he has sold 150m records, and has the world's biggest fan club with members all round the world. He has homes in LA, and...er..Leicester.

We have yet to see a current photo of the singer. He has disappeared off the face of the earth. I'm hoping he looks dapper and age appropriate: ie, not sporting black hair and weird hamster cheeks. He is 75, after all.

From Engelbert's point of view, it's a master stroke. Steve Wright played two of his records back-to-back yesterday, and he certainly has an admirable back catalogue. If he were to win, sales would go through the roof.  As we speak, he is hastily recording a new album and his management is apologising that he is cancelling his tour dates this month. But it's a rocky road ahead and his competition includes Jedward for Ireland. It's their second time, so there's a country that's clearly given up on Eurovision.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

"Titanic" - the ship is not the only thing that's sinking

A new dramatisation of Titanic starts next month on ITV. Brought to us by no less than Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey).

Reader, my heart sinks.

We already know the ending. So all Fellowes can do is mine a seam that has already been ruthlessly exploited before. He will create relationships and intrigue on the doomed vessel.

I can just imagine some of the treats in store. An inseparable pair of brothers in steerage, setting off to earn their fortunes in America. The twist? One of them is disabled in some way. Thus setting up a nice scene for the glug-glug-glug bit at the end.

A beautiful, sensitive young debutante whose mother has just died. Her cold, ruthless father is demanding she marry some rich old cove. On the ship she meets xxxx, no doubt charming, Irish and in steerage, where they will have many a knees-up.

There will be snooty old dowagers; a cad who's spent all his family's wealth; a bigamist doing a runner. And of course: the iceberg. Let's hope it's a lot more convincing than the computer generated creation in the Winslet film. I couldn't stand that film. Everything about it was wrong: the over-acting of Billy Zane, racing round craze-eyed; the tinny squeaks of Winslet  - "Jack come back!" - and the sight of her and Jack as ship's figureheads in the film's most copied scene.

Where are you on the Titanic saga?

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Plans for the Garden

One of my favourite pastimes is listening to a podcast of Gardeners' Question Time while I make my regular journey from London to Swindon. My imagination goes into overdrive, mentally planting my new border. Yesterday the Parkers' catalogue came and I started making notes of the shrubs and perennials I would be buying.

The border (left) was cleared a few months ago, sleepers put round the edge and a couple of fruit trees planted. My plan is for a pink, white and purple colour scheme. I want to try to have all-year-round interest so there will be some shrubs, ornamental cream hostas, Japanese anemones and a honeysuckle on the fence. I'm going to plant a lot of my favourites: penstemons, salvias, cosmos (my mum sent me some seed from hers), dianthus and dahlias.

I'll soon be filling my "Monty Don" compost box and using my dream shed for all my potting up. I wish I had a "before" shot but these are the "afters". The shed now has a new roof, a cute half-timbered appearance and new shelves and staging. John put in strip lighting and hooks for all the tools.

Meanwhile spring is pushing winter out of the way. The bulbs in the front garden - hyacinths, tete-a-tete, tulips - are all out. The thorny old hedge has started to get its yellow mantle. And helleborus niger is having a bit of a moment (below).

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