The Houseplant Mystery


The elephantine cheese plant is dead, long live the cactus!  Janice Turner in her recent article in The Times commenting on interior design, stated that houseplants are only for ‘old ladies’ and that ‘anything beyond a pot of basil is naff’.  How easy it is to sneer, I know, as I can be sneery myself but in this case I think she is wrong, wrong, wrong.


You will be imagining now that I live with spider plants growing up between the cracks in the floorboards and their babies in miniature cots on the bookshelves; cacti occupying every surface in the front porch to warn thieves with their deadly prickles; and a rubber plant so large that it completely blocks the kitchen window but proudly bearing the name Mr Elastic on a pottery label I made at an evening class. Not quite.  But the humble houseplant does indeed occupy some space here at home and people do often comment on our plants.  I would venture that this is not because they are unfashionable, but because other folk have fewer or weedier plants in their homes.


Garden centres seem to sell every houseplant you could imagine and many are given as presents.  What happens though, once they are unwrapped and installed at home is that …you find a windowsill for them, give them some water and then water them again a week later, they lose a few leaves and the remaining leaves start to get little brown patches on.  Seeing this, you spring into action with some plant food and try to perk them up with a bit more attention, maybe even moving them to another windowsill.  Two weeks later they produce a single flower and next time you look at them, they have died… crispy, leafless, nothing but a stalk left!  You put the plant pot quietly by the back door and later that month buy another one from the garden centre.   This is due to the tyranny of the plant present giver, who may at any time return to your home and naively expect to see a healthy plant specimen.


I am lucky that my husband studied botany as part of his degree.  He spent many an hour looking at ferns and grasses and at the time I was, I have to admit, bewildered.  Now though, all that knowledge is a great and useful thing as he tends endlessly to our houseplants.  They are watered regularly, given a new spot if they look peaky, pruned occasionally and re-potted about once a year.  These key actions look simple but are more complex than they seem, as I know from the few plants I have tried to look after over the years; for details, see above.


We have inherited one plant which flourishes, tolerates both drought and over-watering and grows easily from cuttings.  From the original parent plant given to my daughter by her school biology teacher, there is now one plant here, one at my daughter’s house, one at my son’s London flat and one at my mother’s sheltered housing flat.  The strange thing about this plant is that we have never known its name.  It is the one pictured above, if you happen to know, please do let me know in the comment box below!


Fashionable, unfashionable, who cares?  Houseplants rule!



300 Years of Dance





Oh my aching ankles, too much tapping.  No, I haven’t started typing with my toes, it’s the result of my first dance lesson since I learned a bit of tap in my twenties.  I have been to a few ceilidhs and barn dances over the years and I absolutely love them.  It means you can dance with a whole group of people, drop in and out of the dancing when you need a rest or are ready to jig about again and you’re not dependent on your own partner wanting to dance. Win: win, as far as I’m concerned.



You may have heard last week on Angela Rippon’s TV programme, that dancing is apparently the best form of exercise to keep you young.  That coincided nicely with my friend J’s new project, to start a local dance class.  The qualities which attracted me to dance are all the things which apparently keep you young; meeting people, taking a variety of exercise and learning a new skill.  So far, it’s all looking good, nothing but advantages to this new venture.


The first 15 minutes looked very promising, my husband and I joined a group of eight others, pretty similar in age and appearance.  The unassuming tutor taught us a few steps and we paced them out; join hands, four steps in, four steps back, ladies in and clap, then the men and so on.  I was feeling confident, I could remember the sequence, pace out the steps and was ready for more.  I was possibly even over confident…  Next we added the waltz.  Now, I have always wanted to know how to waltz.  It seems to be one of those dances that some people were ‘taught at school?’ although it certainly wasn’t part of the curriculum at my senior school.  Anyway, it turns out that the waltz is all about triangles and I understand that concept.  Moving backwards across the dance floor with my female ‘male’ partner, I felt the rhythm of the waltz and could picture my feet drawing the little triangle on the floor as we progressed from one side of the room to the other.  I was so pleased with myself and still had plenty of energy.  The trouble started, dear reader, when we had to do a turning waltz as part of the dance sequence which had by now increased to more steps than you could imagine.  The tutor called out the steps and we all followed, some of us a step or two behind and then once in a while the instruction came for a turning waltz step, which meant a little jog on the spot for me until everyone else had turned around!  I started to warm up with all this activity and by break time was overheated and gasping like a fish for some barley squash, which made me feel I must be ill, as that’s the only time anyone ever drinks lemon barley squash isn’t it?


In the second half we were treated to a dance from the 1650s which was slower and more elegant.  The tutor kept referring to the men’s cloaks and swords and the ladies’ bustling gowns. I was transported to my very own Jane Austen novel (a later era I know, but apparently they used similar dances for many years).  I swept my imaginary gown as I turned around  and imagined myself with those long white gloves to complete the look.  There was no time to picture my hair with the curls and the embedded jewels, as the tutor kept us busy with a smouldering shoulder to shoulder touch, first left, then right and a zig zag walk into the middle of the circle.


The next stop was the 1920s and we were taught the basics of the Charleston.  Was it front back, back front or vice versa?  Tricky and fast, this dance also included a little tap tap, behind, across in front, tap tap and a quarter turn each time.  This meant that even when we made sure we were at the back of the group, after two quarter turns we quickly ended up at the front of the group and they were following us! My secret weapon in this dance was that little tap tap behind etc .  I remembered it from my tap dancing days and I felt so proficient that I even helped a couple of others to get their feet in the right place.


The last dance was a ceilidh dance and had several familiar elements, skipping down the middle of two rows of dancers, making an arch for others to go through and so on.  By now, I was ready for a rest and glad it would soon be home time.  This morning was another matter, muscles aching in my shins and ankles, hobbling round until I had reassured my legs that today is not a dancing day.  But there’s another class in a week or so and we’ll be there for some more fun.


Fact:  Next time you’re at a barn dance or ceilidh, when everyone holds hands to start with, look for a man who holds his hands out at about waist height, palms up, he probably knows what he’s doing, as that is apparently the right way to do it!


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Pants on fire!


“Liar, liar etc..” says the chorus chanted in the playground.  We are careful to teach our children the difference between truth and lies.  I can remember saying to my children, “I won’t be cross as long as you just tell the truth.”  The deal suggested was sometimes hard to stick to and many times led to a long explanation about rights and wrongs which was probably so boring as to be punishment enough for both my offspring and myself!  It might have been more effective to have a good rant and tell him/her off, for pushing the other child or snatching a favourite toy but of course that would have made a liar out of me and my promise.


Great store is laid in keeping our word, trusting people, “cross my heart and hope to die” is one of the more common, if drastic promises.  “I swear on my mother’s grave” is another oft-quoted pledge.


It is against this background of telling the truth at all costs, that we seem to love storytelling.  Our appetite for fiction has been apparent since stories were exchanged around the campfire and now we have a plethora of choice from modern novels, crime fiction and historical fiction to romance.  These can be enjoyed as a paper book, on our e-readers, on TV real time or on catch up and we can choose to watch films at the cinema or at home via a download. Such a wide variety of content and media!!  I can’t get enough of the various Scandi noir series on TV, whether the original language is Swedish, Danish or Icelandic. I love the glowering landscapes and the sophisticated (if rather violent!) societies reflected in them.


At my book group we have the monthly treat of being issued with a library book to read. Sometimes an old classic to read for the first time or re-discover, such as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; a popular writer such as Margaret Atwood with yet another best seller; or an unknown author such as Kawakami and her ‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’.  In my head at any one time I have the plot of a couple of books I have on the go, as well as the story of any TV series I’m watching week by week.  No wonder I breathe a sigh of relief as the next episode starts with a precis of the key points so far.


Our suspension of disbelief allows us to forget about truth-telling for once.  Stories give us permission to leave the truth behind and be carried along on a cloud of lies, many times not even set in the real world (soaps being the exception to this rule) but with enough emotional truth in them to make the story believable.  I love the feeling of disappearing into a fictional world, losing track of time and forgetting the real world for a while.  I’ve just finished reading The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, yes I know it’s been out for years, how did I miss it…?  It’s an absolutely gripping book in full gothic horror mode and although I can’t tolerate horror films, this novel had me firmly sucked into its awful fantasy world from the very first chapter.


This weekend, I was reminded of this contradiction between telling the truth and welcoming a world of storytelling.  I was lucky enough to go and see the ENO’s production of The Magic Flute.  It tells the story…well the plot is pretty far fetched.  Our invaluable opera guide called the plot a ‘splendid muddle’ and indeed it is a mixture of a man on a quest for love, a captured maiden, a scheming mother and the powerful leader of a cult.  This was played out on a fairly bare stage, with the minimum of scenery and a large platform used variously as a sloping hill, a roof and a floor.  It even opened a trapdoor at one time, for the happy couple to go through as they rose above the torments intended for them.  So far, so conventional.  What stood out was the addition of certain realistic detail in order to modernise the staging.


The orchestra was not hidden away in a pit but raised up to stage level and celebrated by being seen and being part of the opera.  One of the flautists even came out of the orchestra onto the stage to play some of the key themes.


On the right hand side of the stage was a sound effects booth, not hidden away as usual. The operator was fully visible and an interesting addition to the action on stage.  I saw her blow into bottles to make a melody as the actor on stage mimed doing the same.  She moved her feet to make scrunching steps and her hands to tip a box back and forth for particular effect.  Key announcements of acts, scenes and pointers to particular characters were made via a chalk board, also visible, this time on the left hand side of the stage.  One man drew the words or arrows in chalk and these were then magnified and projected onto the stage.  It’s simple, child-like quality contrasted well with the fancy surroundings of The Coliseum.


The overall effect of performing on a stage which proclaimed that we should all be aware of the artifice of storytelling, gave a sense of irony and self awareness which was not lost on the mainly adult audience.  My husband, son and I were all impressed with how clever it was. Although I usually prefer to enter wholeheartedly into the illusion of story telling, in this case the addition of a reminder of the real world, enhanced the magic and made the evening all the more special and memorable.

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Spending Time in my Ivory Tower


Is it coffee time yet?  Luckily at the charity bookshop where I volunteer once a week, there is no shortage of rounds of tea and coffee.  My friend and I usually take it in turns to make the first round of tea while the other one hoovers and then later, the offers of a hot drink come thick and fast all morning from other volunteer members of the team.  It’s often a good excuse to down tools and have a natter while the tea is ordered, made or delivered but on days like today, the tea is a lifeline and is sipped as an aside, while the work continues uninterrupted.


It must be the spring air and the urge to clean out attics, shelving and long forgotten box rooms.  We always receive boxes and boxes of donated books at this time of year and every year we are taken aback by the sheer quantity of books donated.  One of the subject areas I look after is history and today I had a job on my hands to sort out the newest and most desirable books.  The vast numbers of books that had come in over the weeks since Easter, have now been sorted and priced.  Today I had to take off the shelf any books which had not sold in their six week window of opportunity and put out the newly priced ones, sorting them into their correct categories as I went.  Chatting quietly to myself, I had to decide whether ‘Medieval Europe’ goes in the European section or the Medieval section, let’s see, where have I got space?  Are the stories of children evacuated out of London in World War II, social history or part of the general WWII section?  These were my considerations as I put the books out, trying to make sure that customers can find the books easily.


If you come onto the shop floor, I’ll be the one who is just finishing a phrase, as I stop talking to myself when you come into view.  What you will often find is me, reading the back cover or leafing through a history book, either because it looks interesting or in order to find out which period it covers.  Books focusing on one particular monarch or statesman are the most troublesome. The historian authors always assume that you already know the dates of their pet subjects and hide away in the first chapter any reference to something as obvious as a date!


It is often surprising to find out which books are worth more than the usual £3 – £8.  You would expect it to be the small, hard-backed, boring-looking books with a worthy, plain front cover.  But it can be a rare picture book of WWII German Uniforms, a signed copy of a historical biography or an unusual book about an archaeological dig.


Today in the poetry section I was trying to overcome my own prejudices and to ensure that I gave equal shelf space to Longfellow and Tennyson.  I studied Tennyson at school and he will always be a favourite :

‘ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost

Than never to have loved at all’

The ache in those lines from In Memoriam makes them so memorable and feel so true; how could Gray’s Elegy compete? (Comments in defence of Gray in the box below please!).


I will always find space for Hood, Milton, Chaucer and Blake but have to speak sternly to myself to squeeze in Pope, Spenser and Kipling.  Such prejudices are based only around what I am familiar with, not on merit!  I’m sure these other poets are also swooned over by others, in fact I know they are, as the poetry books of all sorts sell well.  But I love to pull open a copy of Paradise Lost and start reading the line about ‘Man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree’.  The shop floor fades into the background, my coffee cools and I even stop talking to myself as I am swallowed up by the verse, like a footprint in dry sand, whose outline is erased by the wind blowing another layer of sand on top.  I am subsumed into the world of poetry and forget the outside world, the needs of others, the carefully allotted times, the cares, the worries.  I have plenty of time to read at home but the need to press on with the classification and sorting in the bookshop, makes the escape somehow more precious and more consuming.


I try to counteract my preferences, to ensure that we have a good range of poetry and luckily I enjoy modern poetry too.  Here I give plenty of shelf space to Matthew Sweeny’s Flying Spring Onion, as well as Wendy Cope, Andrew Motion and Simon Armitage.  Copies of these poets’ books are so popular that they sell quickly and are rarely around for long.  This puts me in the position that I have to read them while I can!  If I want to read Wendy Cope’s Serious Concerns for a giggle or a wry smile, then I have to strike while the iron’s hot and the book is still on the shelf.


That’s how I know that this morning was very busy.  I classified and shelved a vast number of history and poetry books but I didn’t read a single poem.  In terms of productivity it is probably a net gain but I hope that next week I will find time to renew my friendship with a favourite such as Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and spend some time in my ivory tower once again.

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