In Memory of Tree

No, this is not a review of the 1995 album by Enya. This is a letter of mourning for the untimely passing of a fine old apple tree.

The house next door (no one actually lives there at the moment, the owners are putting it up for rent, so I am not concerned in personifying the whole house) is in the process of cutting down a large tree in their garden. It is a mature apple tree, much the same as the Bramley apple tree we have in our garden. I cannot help feel sorry for the old thing. The tree is over 100 years old and like ours was still very productive, but I guess that is their choice.

We love ours and are not looking forward to the day it dies, as eventually it must. It amuses me that people seem to forget that a tree is a living organism and grows and eventually dies like any other. In the end it just does these things a lot slower than we do and therefore does not meet with our own ephemeral expectations of those processes.

People’s attitudes to trees in their gardens seem quite often to drop at the extremes, where either they want them out or refuse to manage them (we know someone who likes their trees to grow ‘naturally’ in their garden and clearly fail to recognise that a garden is not a natural landscape so any plant in it should ideally be managed in line with that (as indeed is the requirement if you buy some woodland). The apple tree in our garden, like its unfortunate neighbour was here before our house was built in the 1920s. We found that out from looking at the original deeds, which show how the house plots in this area were drawn up. Before the houses were built this area was an orchard, possibly connected to then nearby orchid breeding business. It is clear from the plans that each house plot was carefully drawn to include a large fruit tree in each garden, and if you look up the range of gardens in nearby houses a handful of those trees are still there (numbers reduced sadly by one). It makes a lot of sense. In the early 1920s, having a mature apple tree in the garden was a major asset, not just for personal use of the family living there but for trading with neighbours and even retail sale. It seems strange now as we are so used to cheap and accessible fruit, but it was not always the case in peacetime or indeed especially in wartime. I suspect whoever had this house during the Second World War ate a lot of apple and probably swapped them illegally for other goods as well as delivering to the overall war effort stores. A fruit tree was a true asset. One of my favourite little places in Berkshire is the Maharajah’s well, which is a gorgeous piece of Victoriana set up in a village b    y an Indian nobleman as an exchange for a well set up in India by the local Squire. As well as paying for the well itself the Maharajah set up a cherry orchard nearby. The understanding was that the income from selling the cherries would pay for the upkeep of the well for perpetuity. Sadly, while the cherry trees may be very pretty, the value of their produce of course no longer is enough to look after this unique piece of history.

Our tree is of great value to us. It has provided crumbles, apple wine and apple jelly in boundless quantities, but it is also a home for a lot of wildlife (increasingly looking like an island in a sea of lawns) and at this time of year even the last lot of unsightly windfalls are an absolute godsend for the blackbirds and migrant thrushes such as Fieldfares. We had eight male blackbirds in the garden feasting on the one day of snow we had recently, which is quite impressive in a small space – and fun to watch as they are very aggressive at the moment and were clearly juggling their need for some juicy apple (with added insect larvae) versus pecking the seven bells out of each other.

I feel sorry for the family that might eventually buy next door. They won’t get the fruit or the pleasure we have in having a diverse garden. Maybe we’ll sell them some tickets. Joni Mitchell’s ‘tree museum’ becomes a little closer to reality.

 

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Easy As Pie

There is something about a pie that seems to awaken some kind of Pavlovian reaction in myself and a lot of people I know. I’m not entirely sure why. Possibly it is one of those guilty thrills when you are about to eat something you know is not very healthy but are going to devour it anyway because you just know it will taste so good. Maybe it is because of the mystery of what might be lurking beneath that golden brown crust (hopefully not four and twenty blackbirds). Part of it, at least in the making of one, is how you can take a combination of ingredients that look nothing special to start with – let’s be honest, uncooked pastry is hardly enticing – which when later combined and cooked look just gorgeous, good enough to, well, eat.

I do not think that we give enough credit to the pie – and its variations, I do not want to exclude the pasty or the Bedfordshire clanger (for the uninitiated, which myself included until recently, the clanger is a double chambered pasty that has savoury filling in one section and sweet in another – main course and dessert in a single pastry creation) from this particular love letter – as part of our National cuisine. Like our selection of stews, hot pots and other slow cooked dishes our pies are ways of using up what we have and providing as much high calorie nutrition as possible to a population used to hard physical work – all in a handy edible package whether to be devoured on the terraces (famously the quality of pies at football grounds has been just as much of a talking point then the results of the games) or for feeding Cornish tin miners (complete with that ridge of pastry that had the dual role of first allowing the miner not to be poisoned by his lunch and second, once hurled away into the darkness, to feed the faeries…) Personally there is nothing like a good pork pie as a reward for a hard days walking in the country.

My love affair with pies partly stems from the presence as a childhood treat. My mother, who in many ways was a great cook and baked a mean Christmas cake never made pies that I remember. So pies were shop bought – and therefore special. The exception was what came out of the ovens of some of my older relatives. My Great Aunt, who lived across the road and who I was expected to call in on every day as a result had a relatively small repertoire but was terribly good at them – a light lemon sponge, perfectly crafted scones and the best apple pie I have ever tasted. I have still never found one quite so good. It had a sweet, almost cake-like texture and quite light and frankly the apple filling was slightly redundant. Sadly she is no longer with us, and she took the recipe with her (so often the way). It was a source of slightly wicked amusement that my grandmother, her sister, cooked an apple pie too, but unfortunately her pastry was something of the consistency of leather. In the politeness that comes from the necessity not to offend your mother we frequently commented on how nice it was, which of course meant she made more, little mini pies on old saucers that we could take home. And pile one on top of the other in the fridge until my mother or I had the courage to bin them and take back the saucers with praise for their baked goodness. Sometimes you just have to say things you don’t mean, and anyway if the apple pie was a bit of a disaster, her egg custard was exceptional (and again, lost to time and memory).

According to the Lovely Wife I have freezing hands. Apparently this is an advantage to pastry making. So this year I am trying to master the art of pie making. I doubt I’ll make it to the level of my Great Aunt’s apple pie – she made that every other week and we know what practice makes. But I am looking forward to the trepidation and thrill of taking something out of the oven and hoping it looks and tastes a thing of beauty.

Ashes to Ashes

In the UK yesterday everything it seemed was pretty much dominated by a huge outpouring of love and grief for David Bowie, and it is indeed very sad. At the same time at least we were lucky enough to get so much of the man’s art over what was a long and varied life – which is one of the things that certainly I found most impressive about the man – the way he played the reinvention game to perfection time and time again and usually seemed to be at least two steps ahead of what the music journalists and his fans expected. That’s a rare feat to pull off.

I was too young to really appreciate the seventies groundwork on his career and I do feel I missed out on the out there vibe of particularly the Ziggy Stardust stuff, which in retrospect would have suited me as a teenager down to the ground in both the aspects of flamboyancy – and, at that stage of my life – the mixture of music, science fiction tropes and sexual ambiguity. On the other hand, the thought of the teenage me with dodgy orange hair and skin tight jumpsuits does make me wonder if the universe was indeed saved from something even more terrible than the Laughing Gnome (let us not pretend that does not exist. He was young).

Indeed my main Bowie moments are based around the mainstream explosion in the 1980s and ‘Space Oddity’ from even earlier. I adored the latter as a child. It was sad and strangely uplifting at the same time and was like nothing else I had heard up unto that point. We always have impacts from the music our parents had and played, whether those be the scars that mean you cannot go near something again or whether a type of music becomes something of an aural version of a comfort blanket. In my house it was a weird bipolar mixture of the trendy (Beatles, Bowie and the likes of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates) to Easy Listening purgatory (Val Doonican, Barbara Dickson etc.) and all of it had some impact. But although I had an entry into Bowie through Major Tom, I did not take it.

Instead the next time that I got hit with Bowie fever was the wonderful video for ‘Let’s Dance’. Note that it is the video that sticks in my head, not so much the song (great though that is). Again, it is the mixture of different emotions that permeates it. On the surface the song is quite upbeat, even slightly soppy. But the video takes that, subverts it and adds a disturbing sense of wrongness to the whole thing that manages to unsettle and leaving you somewhere ambiguous about what is wrong and what may be right.

I think for me what makes Bowie’s work so interesting at times is the refusal to play the game and to allow anything to be tied down to one thing or another. I always feel that his art is saying something, but I’m never entirely sure as to what it actually is (and, at its best, it is probably saying completely different things perfectly coherently to different people). I mean, what is ‘Life on Mars’ actually about? I’ve no idea. I am not even sure it needs to be about something anyway if it is capable of generating a response every time out of people (even if that is to turn it off).

Perhaps the weirdest thing for me is based on all this isn’t it this or isn’t it that, it is hard not to be slightly suspicious that David Bowie is not actually dead but has just gone back to whatever weird planet he originally came from. Here’s hoping. In the meantime, finishing now with my favourite Bowie lyric, which I commend to all:

 

‘He told me:/Let the children lose it/Let the children use it/Let all the children boogie.’

Only Words

Coming back to work can be a bad enough experience after the holidays but it has been something of a struggle today even with that expectation in mind. It was not as though I was bothered about what I was coming back to – same old problems are still there but at least they had not brought their friends with them this time so for perhaps the first time ever I have fewer emails to deal with than the Lovely Wife.

So why do I feel especially miserable? Possibly it is the low grade cold keeping me away from getting the New Year exercise programme started. Or possibly it is because it is time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations, so that the house just feels an impending lack of sparkles. Not my favourite time of year and the wet drabness of the weather is hardly a pick up.

Actually I know what the real problem is, and it is just one word. I’m not going to even say what it is because outside of the terminally boring context it would make no sense and the context is work related so even with confidentiality issues put aside you really don’t want to know. But the point is not a particular word but a word used by someone in a way that can only hurt. It is when a word knocks the stuffing out of you, drains your energy and enthusiasm and makes you want to just throw your hands in the air, mutter a mild expletive and then shuffle off grumbling into the rain, because, frankly, you cannot be bothered anymore and you know that if you did it would just ruin the rest of the day and/or you might punch the user of the ‘word’ at least figuratively on the nose.

I think some of you might know what I mean.

Sometimes it is deliberate. Sometimes people use a particular word knowing perfectly well the negative impact (immediate and lasting) that it will have. Perhaps they want to make a point, or make themselves feel better by bringing you down, or want to indicate blame. People can be surprisingly cruel.

But more often than not it is not really intended. It is careless, thoughtless use of language with no thought to the consequences. I know this because I’m a regular perpetrator of exactly this kind of abuse. I’m generally an extrovert and have a tendency to speak without thinking very much about what I am saying, or equally who I am saying it too. We all have ‘words’ that are triggers for us and sometime we know what they are and sometimes we have to find out the hard way. Sometimes I know that I have upset someone and that might give me the chance to make amends, other times it goes unnoticed by me and the problem for me is that I don’t know and therefore cannot avoid it in future, which could lead to a schism in the relationship over time. I would rather say sorry than lose a friend.

So today a word upset me and cast a tiny but effective shadow over the rest of the day. Luckily, I can hope that somewhere else in the day someone will say something to me/I will hear another word that makes me much happier, and the nastiness can be consigned to that dark area where all the crap lurks (I’m not optimistic enough to get rid of it – rubbish of this sort takes a long time to rot away to nothingness). Certainly I will try and keep the ‘down’ words from my own utterings for this year, which is about as near to a resolution that is likely to come from me…