Cactus vivat

[Forest cactus flower]

27-Dec-2022: For as long as I can remember, a "Christmas Cactus" took pride of place on a table in a shady corner of my late parents' landing. It didn't bloom every year, but on those occasions when it did there was a sense of wonder and joy in the house. Sadly, it was relegated to a window ledge in a spare bedroom some 20 years ago, and registered its disapproval by producing no further flowers, as far as I know.

When I cleared out the house contents, the cactus was in a sorry state; barely recognisable as such, with just one or two faintly green branches surviving among a mass of shrivelled grey stems. Nonetheless I re-potted it, and it's gradually recovered and made some new growth over the last 5 years. Its revival has finally been confirmed by the appearance of this solitary bloom, which opened bang on schedule on Christmas day!

Naming of the Brew

[Mahonia in bloom]

3-Sep-2022: Well, after 8 weeks of infusion I've decanted the Mahonia Gin (see 8-Jul-2022) and survived the first sample. As expected, it's disappointing aroma-wise, with just a faint whiff reminiscent of beetroot. The flowers do much better (pictured in early spring). But it redeems itself with an intense, inky-red colour - several shades darker than Sloe Gin - and a refreshing fruity taste that's somewhere between raspberry and pomegranate. I'll certainly be making more if there's another sloe famine, but I'd like to give it a snappier name. Ideas so far:

I'd welcome some guidance, and/or further suggestions.


[Watch repair kit]

1-Aug-2022: How many tools does it take to change a watch battery? I've done this countless times before, with a variety of watches, but the one I bought a couple of years ago presented some new challenges.

When none of the usual screwdrivers, kitchen knives etc came close to prising the back off, I decided it was time to get the proper tools for this and other watch jobs. So I ordered a cheap-ish repair kit, along with two (minimum quantity) of the cells my supplier's website specified. When these arrived, I opened the watch without much difficulty - only to find that the cell was a completely different, incompatible type [why oh why are there so many different ones?]. Muttering unrepeatable (and, fortunately, impractical) threats of vengeance, I put in another order, and two days later restored the watch to life. The only task remaining was to snap the back on.

After several minutes of fruitless manipulation, and nursing two very sore thumbs, I gave up and ordered a watch press. Once again the operation was a doddle with the right tools. But I'm left questioning my sanity, after realising I've spent rather more on all of these than the original price of the watch...

Sour "Grapes"

[Bunches of Mahonia berries]

8-Jul-2022: I'm running short of Sloe Gin! Last year, having stocked up with gin and sugar, I couldn't find an adequate crop of sloes in any of the usual places. However, a viable alternative might be growing in my own garden; there are two fair-sized, self-sown Mahonia aquifolium (aka Oregon Grape) plants, bearing masses of berries which turn out to be [sort of] edible - they rival sloes in terms of mouth-puckering tartness. In fact they look like miniature sloes, but with crimson-red juice and several seeds instead of a stone inside.

As an experiment, I'm making a bottle of "Mahonia Gin" using the same added ingredients and method as for Sloe Gin. I've read mixed stories about this on other websites, and so far I can confirm that the colour is instantly deep red (perhaps because it derives more from the juice than from the skins), and the aroma is more vegetal than fruity - but also quite intriguing. It took a lot longer to process the berries, which are like redcurrants to handle; I ended up strigging them onto the palm of a (gloved) hand, then using a cocktail stick to jab and transfer them, one by one, to the bottle of gin and sugar. More anon.


[Goldfinch on lemon balm]

7-Mar-2022: A decision needs to be made each year about the Lemon Balm plants. The leaves smell wonderful (and make a refreshing herbal infusion) but it spreads like topsy, so I usually cut the clumps down before they set seed. Last year, for a change, I left them alone to complete their life cycle, and now enjoy the spectacle of flocks (also known, quite appropriately, as charms) of goldfinches feasting on the seeds. Hopefully leaving fewer to turn into new plants.

That's the thing about gardening to encourage wildlife - the less you interfere, the more benefits you see. A row of shrubs in my garden used to be attacked every year by swarms of aphids, and like an idiot I tried to "control" them with chemicals. When I learned the error of my ways and stopped spraying, a flourishing colony of small birds such as blue tits established itself, and presto - no more aphid problems.

Pigeon stuffing

[Woodpigeon on ivy bush]

10-Dec-2021: This autumn, unusually, there have been more red admiral than peacock butterflies visiting the ivy flowers. There must already be some berries on the far side of the bush, too! These attract both blackbirds and woodpigeons.

Your average blackbird stands on the lawn, eying up individual berries before daintily flying up to pick each one. This pigeon, on the other hand, having crash-landed on top of the bush with all the grace of a bag of pie-filling, flounders about pecking at whatever it can find. We often try to outstare each other while enjoying our respective breakfasts.

Power Grapes

[Sauvignon grapes]

9-Nov-2021: My 30-year-old Sauvignon vine (supplied by Woolworths) has produced another bumper crop. I don't drink much white wine (and haven't bottled last year's yet) so for the past few weeks my daily lunch has included a bunch of these lovely gooseberry-flavoured grapes, cut straight from the vine and consumed unwashed (I don't use pesticides or any other garden chemicals). They're small and full of seeds, and time must be allowed for various resident insects to make their escape. So lunch takes a few minutes longer than before...

But I think that's time well spent. Because ever since making this addition to my diet, let's just say, euphemistically, that my gut health has shown a dramatic improvement! I put this down to the vast assortment of bacteria, yeasts etc which live on the grape skins. Unlike the factory-produced monocultures contained in many so-called "health foods", these offer a real wealth of biodiversity, from which the most suitable organisms have established themselves to my advantage.

Resting on my laurels

[Jersey Tiger moth]

19-Aug-2021: I first noticed this moth on a window, but it had flown before I got within photographing distance. On the second encounter, I just managed one snap before its departure. I've identified it as a Jersey Tiger, which is apparently spreading across Britain from the south west, and only recently started to be seen near London.

The insect's intricate camouflage, if so it be, won't do it any favours if it continues to perch on laurel leaves!

"I theng yo!"

[Gibson LT ticket machine]

15-Jun-2021: Thus spake your typical London Transport bus conductor, after taking a fare and issuing a ticket. The words were eroded by frequent use, in much the same way as [Eric Morecambe's] newspaper seller's cry of "Morny Stannit!".

Soon after the old Gibson ticket machines fell out of use (1993), I bought this one at the London Transport Museum. The casing has a dent or two, but I chose it because, unlike some of the prettier ones, it appeared to be in full working order. I recently dusted it off and turned the handle - which was admittedly a bit stiff - and out came a perfectly legible ticket! A testament to the quality of LT's in-house engineering, given it had spent at least 25 years in my loft.

It's an amazing mechanism. There's a 4-digit ticket counter - but also each of the 14 fare values, selected by turning the big wheel on the left, shows a 3-digit subtotal under the fare symbol. So at the end of the day (or shift) some jobsworth at the depot could make sure the correct money had been handed in!

The name's Pollard. Ash Pollard.

[Pollarded ash tree]

14-Apr-2021: Not the Australian celeb (and no relation to Vicky!) - this is a self-sown ash tree in my garden. It's become an annual ritual to remove the branches, which grow up fairly straight, and can gain 2m in a good year. They make useful plant supports elsewhere in the garden. If left unpruned, the tree would dominate the landscape by now!

Each year the trimmed crown becomes more complex, fascinating and evocative (some might say grotesque). But I fear it'll have to be felled soon, as it's starting to get in the way. I'm thinking that, with the right treatment, it could make a nice novelty lamp stand...

Nesting, Nesting...

[Sparrows on pampas grass] [Magpie in bush]

1‑Mar‑2021: The avian quest for building materials has begun. Thus far the winter gales haven't toppled my pampas grass plumes, which provide sparrows with a perfect nest lining. There's always fierce competition to harvest them, and despite rumours to the contrary, the sparrow population is flourishing round here.

Meanwhile, as usual the magpies spend hours trying, unsuccessfully, to break off twigs from the lilac and mock orange bushes. Note to magpies: there are plenty of nice twigs on the ground. Why can't you just use those, and leave my shrubs alone?

Think "brewery"

[February calendar and brewery]

28-Jan-2021: According to my dictionary, so many people are unable correctly to pronounce February that the lazy version ("Feb-yoo-erry") is becoming the accepted standard. Rubbish! If you can say "brewery" then what's the problem with putting a "Feb" in front?

My irritation reaches an annual peak when people - including announcers on our most respected media channels - tell me it's the "fith", or the "sikth" of "Feb-yoo-erry". Tell you what, let's make one of those dates National Pronunciation Day, and drive the message home by promoting Febrewery as a month for serious drinking! In fact, let's give a few more months indulgent themes, to counterbalance Veganuary... Augwurst? Septemburger? Bovember? Hamuary?

Try again next year?

[Mistletoe in a street tree] [Mistletoe closeup]

5‑Dec‑2020: It's been a great year for berries. Once again I've made more Sloe Gin than usual. And my grape vine, whose crop usually struggles to ripen before the onset of winter, yielded an unprecedented (had to get that word in somehow!) September harvest of sweet, fragrant fruit, which is now well on its way to becoming wine.

It seems that mistletoe's done well too (shame the berries are poisonous). This tree in Cranham deserves to become a popular stopping-off place for couples on their way home from the nearby pub. But that's unlikely for several reasons this year!

Less Irony (but much dustier)

[Foam head of Margaret Thatcher]

7-Nov-2020: Sadly, this Spitting Image effigy, a fixture on my wall since the 1980s, has started to crumble into dust. She lost her nose and began to sag a few years ago, but recently - literally - fell off her perch (a projecting screw head) and refuses to be reinstated thereon. I fear if I pick her up again my fingers will crush her into bits.

Plastic foam from that era seems destined to decompose over time. The front of my Sinclair Q16 speaker went the same way, and now the seat cushions of my 3-piece lounge suite have begun to shed quantities of yellow dust. This is in contrast to soft non-foamed plastics, which do the opposite and become sticky with age. If you miss these changes, they can make quite a mess; my expensive set of technical drawing instruments from the 1970s ended up engulfed in a clinging goo (which I never managed entirely to scrape off) that was once their box lining. And a plastic dust cover which my late Dad put over his Garrard SP25 record deck, to "protect" it in the loft, fused onto the perspex lid making parts of it permanently opaque.

I'll be sorry to consign the 3D Mrs T to landfill. But at least her image still shines forth from some satirical postcards on another wall!

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