Bugwoman on Location – Dundee: ‘I Was a Stranger, and Ye Took Me In’

The sign above the door of the old Dundee Cyrenians night shelter

Dear Readers, back in the 1980’s, when I was as energetic and as naive as a spring lamb, I spent three years working in Dundee at a nightshelter for single homeless people. This week I travelled back for the first time in thirty years, to visit the site of the shelter at 5 West Bell Street.

The place is deserted, though it is apparently scheduled for conversion into luxury flats. Pigeons nest on the windowsills, and weeds spring from the steps. But the words  ‘I was a stranger and ye took me in’ show me that I am in the right place. The old double door was useful when we were letting in the people who wanted a bed for the night – this was a ‘dry’ shelter and everyone had to be searched to make sure that the only alcohol they were bringing in was already in their stomachs. There were two, maybe three of us on shift, and some nights all of the 50 beds were full, plus up to 20 folk popped in for a bowl of soup and a roll. At ten o’clock, all those without a bed had to leave, even if there was snow on the ground. Occasionally, someone would walk down the road to the police station and break a window so that they could have a bed in a police cell for a night.

I cross the road. There is a new university building here, right where ‘The Bothy’ was – the workers from the shelter used to fall into the bar at the end of an early shift (10.30 p.m. finish). The irony that we were drinking after an evening spent looking after folk who included many alcoholics wasn’t lost on us. The ‘beer garden’ where the lads gathered to share a few cans of Strongbow cider or drink their way through a bottle of QC British Sherry is long gone. But in my mind’s eye I can still see the lads lining up as they did at 5 o’clock every night, waiting for the doors to open.

There’s Andy at the head of the queue, with his coat tied together with a piece of string around his ample middle, his feet bursting through his shoes, his legs like tree-trunks. He doesn’t take a drink, but his disreputable appearance has him barred from every shop and mall within a 5 mile radius. One of our workers took him out to buy new slippers, and only managed it by telling the shop manager that she was his grand daughter. How proud Andy was of his new footwear, though with the miles he walks, they didn’t last for long. He always has a terrible pun for us, and will bash on the counter where we sell the cigarettes at 5p each with his stick if we’re tardy.

Behind him is young Chris, shivering in his leather biker jacket and  ‘A For Anarchy’ ripped teeshirt. He came straight out of care and into the shelter. He is a cheeky, handsome lad in spite of his acne, and he often runs errands for the older lads. Today, though, he is talking to Jack. Jack is wearing a smart jacket and polished shoes. He has many tales of violence done (by him) and wrongs righted (by him) and his ice-green eyes exude a manic menace. He is only in his twenties, but has been in jail twice. Some of the older ‘hardmen’ make a bee-line for Jack, as if to see if his air of single-pointed danger is real. Once, I was in the office sorting out cigarettes when I had a crunch from the kitchen. Jack had broken someone’s nose with a single punch, and was putting on his jacket to leave.

‘He was nipping ma heid*’, said Jack, reaching down to wipe a spot of blood from his shoes with a white hankerchief.

Next in the queue outside the shelter is Shug. Shug is an ex-soldier in his late 60’s, a tall, distinguished man. He probably always had a drink problem, but after he left the army and lost the structure that it gave him, he fell to pieces. He has Korsakoff Psychosis, lesions on the brain that cause failure of memory. He can be as playful as a grandfather, or he can take an instant, violent dislike to someone that he mistakes for a former enemy. His mood swings are the stuff of legend, and have him barred from the shelter on a regular basis. But every night he washes out his single shirt and hangs it up to dry, and every morning he shaves. He leaves the shelter with a steady stride, and sometimes returns on his hands and knees.

Behind Shug is Mark. Mark was also a soldier, but much more recently. He was in Northern Ireland. We talked one night, and he told me how, after being in a virtual war zone, everything else seemed dull.

‘Nothing compares to going on patrol, Vi, nothing. It was the only time I ever felt really alive’.

Mark does not have a drinking problem yet, but he has lost his wife and child because he couldn’t adjust to civilian life. He is picking up odd-jobs, but has no idea what he will do next. He shouldn’t be in the shelter, but there is nowhere else for him to go. His loneliness is palpable.

Sheila is next in line. There are only three beds for women in the shelter and Sheila is a long-term resident. She is in her seventies now, and acts as mother to many of the other men. I sometimes wonder why she’s here – she has no obvious addictions or mental health problems. I have come to the conclusion that she finds community here, and friends, and doesn’t want to be lonely in some dismal council flat, or warehoused in a home. As soon as the doors open she will be downstairs stirring the soup and helping us to make sure that everyone eats. She’ll be the first with the mop afterwards, as well.

And then there’s Peter, a tiny elfin man. He drinks once a week, and always buys chips to share with the workers.

‘Hae a chip! Hae a chip!’ he’ll chirrup, throwing the chips everywhere, before retiring to bed. Peter was rehoused in Whitfield, a housing estate 8 miles outside Dundee, where the snow drifts can reach twelve feet in the winter, where packs of discontented youths terrorise the old and vulnerable, and where it costs too much to travel into town. I’m not surprised that he’s back.

And there’s Charlie, who only visits in the winter – he is the only true ‘gentleman of the road’ that we have, with his long wild grey hair and his weather-beaten face. In the summer months he roams the lanes of Scotland with his long strides, but the snow and cold are too much for him now he’s in his seventies.

And bringing up the rear are Bobby and Wullie. Bobby walks with the tiny steps of someone with arthritis in their feet, and Wullie is in a wheelchair. Both are incontinent. Both have dementia. It is sometimes my job to give Bobby a bath, and it always goes the same way. He’s embarrassed, but tells me

‘Och, I’ll just pretend you’re my mother’.

He has his bath, and then he holds my hand and sings me a Scottish lullaby.

Then he becomes convinced that I’ve stolen his money, and he curses me out soundly and spits at me while I’m trying to get him dressed.

And then he falls asleep.

At least he doesn’t have two sticks like Wullie, who can be lethal when armed.

Working at Dundee Cyrenians taught me most of what I know of community and of honour,  It taught me to look beyond appearance. I was enriched beyond measure by my years in Dundee, and the stories here are only the briefest summation of the complexity of the lives that I describe. In many ways they are not my stories to tell, but who is left to tell them, and remember?

Where are they now,the lads and lasses of 5 West Bell Street? The average age of death of a homeless person in the UK is 47. I doubt that any of the people that I’ve written about, even the youngest, are still alive in 2017.  But on the streets of Dundee and London, Manchester and Cardiff, there are many people without the tiniest spot of this good earth to call their own. People huddle in doorways and clamber over fallen masonry to make a nest in derelict buildings. They lay on the grates behind the swimming baths, and put out their cardboard and sleeping bags in the doorways of shops. Changes to the benefits system, lack of housing, lack of mental health services all play their part. The people that I cared about are gone, but the problem is even worse.

The queue in front of the shelter fades out, one by one, until all that’s left is the cooing of pigeons.

*’Nippin’ ma heid’ (literally ‘nipping my head’) means to talk at someone in a boring, monomaniacal way. Frequently occurs after too much boozing.

**Names have been changed, but these were all real people.

Wednesday Weed – Hedge Bedstraw

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Hedge Bedstraw (Galium album)

Dear Readers, I have been rather dependent on ‘domesticated’ plants for the past few weeks, so this time I was determined to hunt out something that was truly ‘wild’. One of my favourite hunting grounds is a tiny bed on the corner of Park Hall Road in East Finchley, which always seems to throw up some delights, be it lucerne or cleavers or today’s delight, hedge bedstraw (Galium album). Hedge bedstraw is closely related to cleavers, but the stems are smooth and, if you look closely at the leaves, you will see that they have a tiny point on the tip. Plus, the four-petalled snowy-white flowers pop out like fireworks from the long stems. This is not an uncommon plant, but it is the first time that I have noticed it growing in an urban environment.

Hedge bedstraw is native to the UK, and to great swathes of Europe and North Africa. It is naturalised in Scandinavia (it’s treated as an invasive weed in Finland), in southern Australia, in Ireland and in Greenland, of all places. Like many bedstraws, it is a plant of meadows, and was probably imported with animal feed. You would think that its delicate habit make it an unlikely thug, but it hybridises easily with local bedstraws, making it something of a problem where the local plant is already scarce.

Incidentally, in North America (where the plant has also been introduced), hedge bedstraw is Galium mollugo. Galium album is called white bedstraw. Confusion reigns, especially as the two plants are practically identical.

All of the bedstraw family got their name from their use as a stuffing for mattresses – they have little odour when fresh, but are said to smell like new-mown hay when dried. Woodruff (Galium odoratum) and lady’s bedstraw (Galium vernum) were the plants of choice, but I imagine that all the bedstraws were used in this way if they were found. The word was first found in written English in Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, a rollicking tale of bad behaviour. I actually wrote ‘bed behaviour’ first, which goes to show how my mind works. I always loved Chaucer, and if you want to see some more of the words that he wrote down first, there’s an extensive list here.

I hadn’t thought that there was much hope of hedge bedstraw being useful as a culinary ingredient, but over at my favourite foraging site, ‘Eat The Weeds’, there’s a recipe for Cream of Hedge Bedstraw Soup.

Incidentally, the roots of bedstraws are said to produce some very interesting dyes, as in this post by Jenny Dean.

A few moths feed exclusively on bedstraws: these include the Common Carpet (Epirrhoe alternata)

Photo One (Common Carpet) by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=284893

Common carpet moth (Epirrhoe alternat)

and the rather elegant Barred Straw (Eulithis pyraliata)

By IKAl - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10844141

Barred straw (Eulithis pyraliatis)

And so, we come to the poem. I have been thinking a lot in these past days of what we owe to those who went before us, the nameless great-great-grandmothers who have faded like the photographs that we never had. I love this work, by Ruth Stone, who died in 2011 aged 96. I hope you enjoy it too. It speaks to me of wisdom hard won, and easily lost.

Names, by Ruth Stone.

My grandmother’s name was Nora Swan.
Old Aden Swan was her father. But who was her mother?
I don’t know my great-grandmother’s name.
I don’t know how many children she bore.
Like rings of a tree the years of woman’s fertility.
Who were my great-aunt Swans?
For every year a child; diphtheria, dropsy, typhoid.
Who can bother naming all those women churning butter,
leaning on scrub boards, holding to iron bedposts,
sweating in labor?
My grandmother knew the names of all the plants on the mountain.
Those were the names she spoke of to me. Sorrel, lamb’s ear,
spleenwort, heal-all;never go hungry, she said, when you can
gather a pot of greens.
She had a finely drawn head under a smooth cap of hair
pulled back to a bun. Her deep-set eyes were quick to notice
in love and anger.
Who are the women who nurtured her for me?
Who handed her in swaddling flannel to my great-grandmother’s
Who are the women who brought my great-grandmother tea
and straightened her bed? As anemone in midsummer, the air
cannot find them and grandmother’s been at rest for forty years.
In me are all the names I can remember-pennyroyal, boneset,
bedstraw, toadflax-from whom I did descend in perpetuity.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Common Carpet) by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=284893

Photo Two (Barred Straw) by By IKAl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10844141

In the Midst of Life

Dear Readers, this week I had a phone call from mum. I knew from her voice that there was something wrong.

‘I’ve got some really sad news’, she said.

I steeled myself.

‘What?’ I asked, ‘Tell me’.

‘Mary* killed herself on Monday night’, she said.

When Mum first moved to Dorset ten years ago she had a reflexology practice, and Mary was one of her first patients . Despite the age gap between them Mary and Mum became friends but life intervened, as it often does, and they’d  drifted out of touch. Mum really wanted to invite Mary to the party, so I managed to track her down. I was so happy when she and her husband were eager to come, and even more delighted to meet them.

After the party, Mary wrote to say that she’d enjoyed the party, and was very glad to see mum and dad looking so well.

And then this.

Some things really do surpass our understanding. My first feeling was complete disbelief. How could this shy, gentle woman have been alive on Thursday, in her best party dress, and gone today?

Mum had had a little more time to think about it.

‘You know, she was depressed for a long time. She was fighting it the best she could when I knew her. Who knows what she’d been going through, and for how long?’

We were quiet together for a few moments.

‘At least, she’s at peace now’, said Mum.

What to say, or do, that isn’t trite when you hear news like this? Maybe the old forms are there for a reason – they hold us when everything wants to break down into chaos.

I wrote to Mary’s husband.

‘I am so sorry for your loss’ I said.

And he also told me that Mary was finally at peace after a long time in the darkness, and that he was being supported by family and friends. It was clear that he was devastated.

I could rail about our underfunded mental health services, but I know nothing about Mary’s circumstances, what she’d tried and hadn’t tried, what her life had been like. I sense that she had been loved, and that people had tried to help, and yet all this couldn’t make her stay.

How much I wanted her to stay.

Oh we are losing too many to this disease, our brightest, our kindest, our most sensitive, and for every person gone there is a great hole in the web, a severing of ties, a chorus of friends and family asking why and forever wondering.

I have suffered from depression, and know how this disease draws us away from everything and everyone that would help and support us, puts us into a windowless cell and closes the door. I know how it turns our food to ashes and bleaches every colour to grey. I know how it can take hours to summon the energy, the courage, to put a foot to the floor and to start another day.

I step outside, take a breath.

Along the bottom of the wall at the top of the road is a tiny garden of weeds, smooth sowthistle and the starry faces of chickweed and the pale pink buds of broad-leaved willowherb, forcing their way out of the damp pockets of soil.

The seedheads of the shepherd’s purse are perfect hearts, and the plant is covered in blackfly  that will feed ladybirds and lacewings.

On the sunnier side of the street, there is sun spurge. It doesn’t grow where it doesn’t get full sun.

In the cracks in the old walls, bellflower.

and yellow corydalis, always.

The tree pits are full of bird-sewn berries and new grass.

Between the paving slabs, moss, and the smallest plants, plantain and bittercress

In the midst of life we are in death, but the opposite is also true. We are absolutely woven into nature’s cloth. Yet we so often feel isolated, both from one another and from the plants and animals that are, truly, everywhere, a feeling exacerbated a hundredfold by depression.  And yet, just opening a window and hearing the birdsong can make a difference, if not today then the next day, or the day after. We are not alone, it is impossible – nothing in nature can exist without the great chorus of other living things around it. I offer this in all humbleness, knowing that what helped me might not touch somebody else, but in the hope that it may resonate, that it might feel like a hand stretched out, which is what it is.

Above all else, please stay.

The Samaritans are available always if you need to talk, or if you are worried about someone that you love – just click here.

*Mary is not her real name

Wednesday Weed – Busy Lizzie

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

New Guinea busy lizzie (Impatiens hawkerii)

Dear Readers, I must confess that I have a deep distrust of busy Lizzies. Whenever I have tried to grow them, they have succumbed to disease – they are either covered in mould, or develop some kind of unpleasant rot, their stems turning to mush between my fingers. However, there are two main kinds of busy lizzie available to the UK gardener – the New Guinea variety (Impatiens hawkerii), which I found in a tree pit on the County Roads today, and the more familiar African variety, Impatiens walleriana. The New Guinea species is much more disease-resistant, and has largely replaced I.walleriana following an outbreak of downy mildew that forced garden centres to stop stocking the species a few years ago.

Photo One (Traditional bizzie lizzie) CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1027675

The traditional busy lizzie (Impatiens walleriana)

I associate the busy lizzie with the formal bedding schemes employed by town councils from one end of the country to the other. They seem to be largely useless for pollinators, in the UK at least, and I always resented that they take up space where more useful plants could thrive. However, they were cheap, and easy to propagate, and brightly coloured. Every war memorial and park bed seemed to be full of them when I was growing up, and the red ones coupled nicely with blue lobelia and white alyssum to make a Union Jack display. Plus, the white ones glow prettily in a dark corner. Like any plant, they have (or had, following the downy mildew outbreak) their place. It was just their ubiquitousness that I disliked.

If the genus name Impatiens sounds familiar, that’s because the humble busy lizzie is a relative of the rather more daunting Himalayan Balsam. Like its relative, busy lizzie fires its seeds into the stratosphere if the seedhead is touched. Impatiens are closely related to some insectivorous plant families, such as the pitcher plants, and strangely-shaped glands in the sepals (the reproductive parts in the centre of the flower) produce a sticky mucous: these structures may be the precursors of the insect-dissolving parts of their predatory relatives. You can see how this might have developed if you look at some other species of Impatiens, such as Impatiens munronii, shown below – although this is not an insectivorous plant, it is starting to show that pitcher plant shape.

Photo Two (Impatiens munronii) by By Davidvraju - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52023362

Impatiens munronii

Incidentally, I have been backwards and forwards changing the name of this week’s Wednesday Weed from bizzie lizzie to busy lizzie about half a dozen times so far, and have settled on the spelling of that august organisation, the Royal Horticultural Society, who go with ‘busy lizzie’. I haven’t managed to find out why this plant got the name in the first place, though in good conditions it is a prolific bloomer. I’m guessing that the North American name ‘patient lucy’ is a transliteration of ‘impatiens’. Common names for plants and animals cause the most almighty kerfuffle, for sure, which is why I always include the Latin name somewhere, so we can all agree on what exactly we’re talking about.

Impatiens walleriana comes originally from East Africa, and is named for the Reverend Horace Waller (1833 – 1896), a vigorous abolitionist and anti-slavery campaigner. In 1863, a group of liberated slaves came to the Mission that he was working at in Malawi. The Mission decided to accept the men and boys and reject the women and girls, a decision that appalled the Reverend Horace so much that he resigned and travelled with the women to South Africa because he was afraid that they would be enslaved again if they were not protected. Later, he returned to England and spent the rest of his life campaigning to end slavery.

By Photographer Alfred Richard Mowbray - http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw159255/Horace-Waller-Henry-Rowley, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29445957

Horace Waller (standing) with Henry Rowley (a missionary) during the 1860’s (Public Domain)

Incidentally, Impatiens walleriana was previously called Impatiens sultanii, after the Sultan of Zanzibar, so I do wonder about the changing politics that determined the name change. And, in her wonderful book ‘100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names‘, Diana Wells reports that:

‘The Impatiens family is vast and botanically almost incomprehensible. Joseph Hooker, the famous botanist and director of Kew, was trying to sort it out when he died. He called it ‘deceitful above all plants’ and ‘worse than orchids’.

Here in the UK, busy lizzie is largely grown for its prolific flowers, but the root of the plant has several uses in its native East Africa – it is used to strengthen the hair, and is also a favourite food of pigs. It grows along rain-forest gullies, which produce its favourite conditions of shade and moist soil. I can imagine that it would be something of a surprise to see this most suburban of plants flourishing amidst the vines and the butterflies.

I have looked in vain for someone producing busy lizzie jam or beer or (even better) busy lizzie gin. All I have found is a somewhat half-hearted comment that the flowers can be thrown into a salad, or floated on a drink. However, one advantage of busy lizzies is that rabbits are not fond of them, and they are towards the top of the list of rabbit-resistant plants produced by the aforementioned RHS. The plants are also said to be refused by slugs and snails, although in my damp garden I suspect that the slugs and snails would not refuse anything softer than a cactus. Still, let me know your experiences. I have a great fondness for molluscs, but the ones in my garden are pushing me to the brink.

On the other hand, the flowers are said to be popular with parrots, so it seems that at least someone enjoys them as a tasty snack.

In the search for something edifying to conclude today’s piece, I have been somewhat stymied. ‘Busy’ and ‘Lizzie’ are popular rhymes for poets, as in this piece by none other than P.G.Wodehouse in his poem ‘I’m So Busy’. This rather begs to be put to music, and so it was by Jerome Kern for his musical ‘Have a Heart’ in 1917.

I always said
That the man I would wed
Must be one who would work all the time.
One with ambition,
Who’d make it his mission
To win a position sublime.
One whose chief pleasure would be
Making a fortune for me;
One who would toil all the day
Down in the market and say:

Lizzie, Lizzie,
I’m so busy,
Don’t know what to do.
Goodbye dear, I’m off to the street.
Can’t stop now,
I’m cornering wheat.
I shall keep on till I’m dizzy,
Till the deal goes through.
Lizzie, I’m so busy,
I’m making a pile for you.
– – – – – – – – – – – – —
Don’t be deceived,
If you’ve ever believed
That my taste for hard labor is small.
Stifle the lurking
Idea that I’m shirking,
I never stop working at all.
I may have loafed in the past,
But I am busy at last,
I’ve found employment and I’m
Working away all the time.

Lizzie, Lizzie,
I’m so busy,
Busy loving you.
That’s the job that suits me the best,
Though I never get any rest.
I shall keep on till I’m dizzy
But I shan’t get through.
Lizzie, I’m so busy,
So won’t you get busy too?
– – – – – – – – – – – –

And here’s the story of ‘Busy Lizzie’, a boring machine used to construct the Lee Valley Sewage Tunnel, and named by ten-year-old Ryan Waters in a competition.

But instead, in spite of this Not Being a Cat Blog, I couldn’t resist including a picture of the Friendliest Cat in the World, who burst out of a hedge on the corner of Huntingdon Road for the sole purpose of saying hello. He went missing for a few days last year, and the County Roads were in uproar until he strolled back, wondering what all the fuss was about. He is an ambassador for the community of East Finchley, a place where people grow busy lizzies in the tree pits, and worry about cats. No wonder I love it here.

Photo Credits

Photo One (Traditional busy lizzie) CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1027675

Photo Two (Impatiens munronii) by By Davidvraju – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52023362


Coming Home

Dear Readers, once something that you’ve worked hard for (such as a 60th Wedding Anniversary Party) is over, it’s easy to feel a bit purposeless and downhearted. As I dragged myself through my daily routine this week, I found myself wondering  ‘what did I do with my life before I was organising flowers and negotiating about cakes?’ And more to the point, how do I reconnect with my life again? As usual, my answer is to step outside and see what’s going on in the garden. I feel as if I haven’t really ‘seen’ it for weeks. My first thought is ‘wow, what a lot of spiders’ webs there are’.

My second reaction is that the garden is a mess, even worse than it usually is at this time of year. The reeds in the pond are sagging, but are not yet far enough gone to be cut back. The jasmine definitely needs some work. Getting the whitebeam and the hawthorn trimmed last year was a great idea but, as the tree surgeon warned me, it just means that they grow back thicker. But then I stopped seeing what was wrong, and started to be drawn in.

I have a climbing hydrangea in the dark side-return of my house, and I have been amazed with how it can cling on to anything. One long stem has nearly reached next-door’s gutter, and I foresee much standing on stepladders to dissuade it. However, the way it produces roots from its stem fascinates me – it’s easy to forget that plants are mobile, because they move on such a slow timescale, but I’m sure that a timelapse of this plant would see it reaching out with its ‘fingers’, looking for a holdfast and growing towards the sun.

The aerial roots of Hydrangea petiolaris

The hydrangea was full of flowers this year, and even after they’ve died I love the way that they hold spiders’ webs and raindrops. Every so often the right plant ends up in the right place, and this is definitely one of them.

The dead flowers of the climbing hydrangea

Further along the fence, the bittersweet is full of berries,their colour changing from green to deepest scarlet. They look just like little tomatoes. I was going to root the plant out, until I saw how much the carder bumblebees loved the flowers.

Bittersweet berries

The wooden steps down to the pond are slippery and so it takes care to negotiate them, but slowing down is no bad thing – I hear the plops of the frogs leaping into the pond, and see their little heads popping back up amongst the water lily pads. This area got really overgrown with great willowherb this year, and I made the decision to grub it up and replace it with some meadowsweet and some smaller loosestrife. We’ll see how it goes. The pendulous sedge has gotten a bit out of hand as well, so I might try to trim it back – it provides great cover for the little frogs, but it’s such a thug. Still, I am delighted to have my first ever bulrushes. It’s the little things that keep me going, to be sure.

My very first bulrush!

Evidence of a rapid escape?

My Himalayan Honeysuckle is doing very well this year, too – it is covered in flowers, which will be useful for the bees on a warm autumn day. The Rozanne geraniums are still in full flower, in spite of their shady, inauspicious position. I really don’t mind plants self-seeding in the woody area, because it’s so difficult to find anything that’s happy there. And my Rosa rugosa has a single rosehip.

Himalayan honeysuckle

Hardy Rozanne geraniums

My lone rosehip

Last year’s marigolds have multiplied! I buy plants from Sarah Raven whenever I can afford it, and have been extremely happy with the quality.


The end of the garden is in need of some strict discipline too, but not yet. I love the way that the vine has formed a red waterfall over the bamboo. I shall tackle it once the leaves have dropped off, because it’s so vigorous that it’s taken over one of our chairs.

My viney ‘waterfall’

This has been a great year for the crab apple too, and the self-seeded cherry laurel is being allowed to remain because the flowers are so popular with pollinators.

Crab apples

I have another hydrangea here too, and the long panicles are full of pollen in the late summer.

Hydrangea paniculata

And so, although I need to do some work in the garden, it’s still full of wonders. I top up the bird feeders and within seconds, the blue tits have arrived, along with a very fine coal tit.

Blue tit visiting the refilled suet feeder

The pace of life is speeding up in the garden, and in the street – when I came home the other day every television aerial had a group of wheezy starlings on it. Hard times could be ahead, depending on the severity of the winter, and all of nature knows it. And for me, just half an hour outside has put me back where I like to be – in touch with what’s going on in a world that’s so much bigger than just me.

Plus, now Mum and Dad fancy going on a cruise. I foresee my project manager hat being dusted off very soon!

Dad giving his 60th Wedding Anniversary speech, while Mum offers encouragement….

Wednesday Weed – Fuchsia

Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..

Fuchsia at the side of All Saints Church, East Finchley

Dear Readers, I have always been fascinated by the flowers of the fuchsia. They remind me of dancing ladies with twirly skirts. There are the hardier, shrubbier ones like the ‘Hawkshead’ variety in the picture above. Then there are the more delicate ones, some with enormous flowers. There are several fine fuchsia hedges in the County Roads in East Finchley, all in full flower at this time of year.

Fuchsia on Durham Road, East Finchley

Yet, these plants are a very long way from home. Most fuchsias come from Central and South America, with a small contingent in New Zealand, Hispaniola and Tahiti. In their native countries the flowers are mostly bird-pollinated, which explains why they are usually red – birds are attracted by the colour, bees not so much.However, some of our native birds, particularly starlings and sparrows, have learned to take advantage of the nectar, and so have bumblebees, those Einsteins of the insect world.

The fuchsias from Oceania are extremely exotic-looking plants, not the kind of things that you would see in your average hanging basket. Here, for example, is the New Zealand fuchsia, Fuchsia procumbens, a creeping plant rather than the more familiar bushy one.

Photo One (New Zealand Fuchsia) by By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44396021

Fuchsia procumbens, from New Zealand

And here is another New Zealand fuchsia, Fuchsia excortica, or the fuchsia tree. It grows up to 50 feet tall and is the largest of all the fuchsia species. I am particularly taken with the blue pollen.

The Pacific fuchsias are said to have diverged from the rest of the family over 30 million years ago.

Photo Two (Fuchsia Tree) by By I, Tony Wills, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3016263

Fuchsia excortica, or the fuchsia tree.

However, the plants that we grow in our gardens are largely from the South/Central American side of the family. There are an extraordinary number of varieties, as you will find at any garden centre (or in the photo below from the 2011 BBC Gardeners’ World Show). Most of these pretty plants will not survive the winter, but they do grow very well from cuttings.

Photo Three (cultivated fuchsias) by By Andy Mabbett - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15531853

Cultivated fuchsias at the BBC Gardeners’ World show

Fuchsias are named after the eminent German physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501 -1566). We should probably therefore be pronouncing the flower as ‘fooks-ya’ rather than ‘fyusha’, although I can see that misunderstandings might arise from the first way of saying the name. Furthermore, the Latin pronounciation would be ‘fook-see-a’ which might be even more problematic. Better to stick with ‘fyusha’, on balance, incorrect or not.

You might think that such a tender plant would not naturalise easily in the UK. However, Fuchsia magellanica, or the hardy fuchsia, is very at home in places such as the west of Ireland with its damp, mild climate, and can be seen making a psychedelic display alongside the naturalised montbretia, 

Or, you might see the plant happily engulfing an abandoned tractor.

Photo Four (tractor and fuchsia) by Sharon Loxton [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Fuchsia magellanica engulfing a tractor in Kerry, Ireland

Whenever I see a fuchsia bush, I always have a good look to see if I can see any of these extraordinary creatures.

Photo Five (Elephant Hawk Moth Caterpillar) by By Richerman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor)

This is an elephant hawk moth caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor). Although its native food source is willowherb and bedstraw, it seems to have taken a liking to fuchsia. If you have some of the plant in the garden, it’s always worth checking out, though don’t be surprised if the three-inch long caterpillar rears up and takes on the appearance of a four-eyed snake. I should think that this would be enough to scare any inquisitive bird out of its wits.

The adult moth is an extraordinary  candy-coloured creature.

Photo Six (Elephant Hawk Moth) by By jean pierre Hamon (14) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2845396

Elephant hawk moth (Deilephila elpenor)

You might think that the flowers of the fuchsia would be a pretty addition to a cake or a summer drink, and you’d be right – unless they’ve been sprayed with something, the flowers of all fuchsia species are edible. What I didn’t realise was that the berries are consumed wherever the plant grows wild, from Costa Rica to Hispaniola. The taste varies from deliciously sweet to ‘meh’. For some fuchsia berry jam recipes, and an interesting guide to edible fuchsias, have a look at the ‘Fuchsias in the City’ blog here.

The berries were also used by the Maori in an aromatic post-childbirth bath, and the flowers can be used to produce a red dye.

You might expect such a handsome and exotic plant to feature in a few still-lives, and here it is, indeed.

Lilies and fuchsias by Johan Laurentz Jensen (1800-1856) (Public Domain)

But here it is attracting the attention of Egon Schiele, better known for his self-portraits and his explicitly sexual nudes ( one of the more ‘Safe For Work’ examples is shown below). Schiele painted very few still lives, and i wonder if the exotic form of the flowers was what fascinated him, as it does me. There was something of a hothouse atmosphere in Vienna when he was painting there, for sure.

Incidentally, for anyone wanting to see an exhibition of the drawings of Schiele and his contemporary, Klimt, there is a link to the Royal Academy’s 2018 show here.

Fuchsienzweige by Egon Schiele (1910) (Public Domain)

Green Stockings by Egon Schiele (1914) (Public Domain)

Finally, I cannot here the word ‘fuchsia’ without thinking of Lady Fuchsia Groan from Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary Gormenghast trilogy. Lovely readers, you can keep your Lord of the Rings, just leave me in a quiet corner with Gormenghast and I’ll be happy for at least a week. If you love all things gothic and slightly twisted, if you enjoy a building that’s as much a character as the humans, you’re in for a treat. Ignore the TV series of a few years back -nothing can encapsulate this strange, rich world.

Fuchsia is the sister of our hero, Titus Groan. She is 15 when he is born, and, being a girl, she cannot inherit and is furious with her little brother for existing at all. She expresses great glee when he is dropped on his head during the naming ceremony, which involves him being wrapped in the pages of the book containing all the law of Gormenghast. Peake introduces her to us thus:

‘As his lord stared at the door another figure appeared, a girl of about fifteen with long, rather wild black hair. She was gauche in movement and in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered.

A yellow scarf hung loosely around her neck. Her shapeless dress was a flaming red.

For all the straightness of her back she walked with a slouch. ‘Come here’, said Lord Groan as she was about to pass him and the doctor.

‘Yes father’, she said huskily.

‘Where have you been for the last fortnight, Fuchsia?’

‘Oh, here and there, father’ she said, staring at her shoes. She tossed her long hair and it flapped down her back like a pirate’s flag. She stood in about as awkward a manner as could be conceived. Utterly un-feminine – no man couldd have invented it.

“Here and there?” echoed her father in a weary voice. “What does ‘here and there’ mean? You’ve been hiding. Where, girl?”
“‘N the libr’y and ‘n the armoury, ‘n walking about a lot”, said Lady Fuchsia, and her sullen eyes narrowed. “I just heard silly rumours about mother. They said I’ve got a brother — idiots! idiots! I hate them. I havn’t, have I? Have I?”
“A little brother”, broke in Doctor Prunesquallor. “Yes, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, a minute, infinitesimal, microscopic addition to the famous line is now behind this bedroom door. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, he, he, he, he! Oh yes! Ha ha! Oh yes indeed! Very much so.”

“No!” said Fuchsia so loudly that the doctor coughed crisply and his lordship took a step forward with his eyes drawn together and a sad curl at the corner of his mouth.

“It’s not true!” shouted Fuchsia, turning from them and twirling a great lock of black hair round and round her wrist. “I don’t believe it! Let me go! Let me go!”

As no one was touching her, her cry was unnecessary and she turned and ran with strange bounds along the corridor that led from the landing. Before she was lost to view, Steerpike could hear her voice shouting from the distance, “Oh how I hate people!”.’

And how this exchange conjures up all the overheated arguments of the teenage years. Gormenghast is wild fantasy, but Peake’s characters are never less than human.

An ink drawing of Fuchsia Gormenghast by her creator, Mervyn Peake (Public Domain)


For more on the Gormenghast Trilogy and Mervyn Peake, have a look at the Gormenghast website here.

Photo One (New Zealand Fuchsia) by By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44396021

Photo Two (Fuchsia Tree) by By I, Tony Wills, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3016263

Photo Three (cultivated fuchsias) by By Andy Mabbett – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15531853

Photo Four (tractor and fuchsia) by Sharon Loxton [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (Elephant Hawk Moth Caterpillar) by By Richerman (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six (Elephant Hawk Moth) by By jean pierre Hamon (14) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2845396


The Party

Dear Readers, many of you have been following the tale of my Mum and Dad’s 60th Anniversary Party for the past year, with all its ups and downs. Regular visitors here will know that neither of them are in the best of health, and indeed just a fortnight ago, Mum was in hospital following a suspected heart attack, so it has been stressful for all of us. But on Thursday the day finally arrived. This is the scene in the Sealy Suite at the Crown Hotel in Blandford Forum just before all the people arrived to make it untidy.

The calm before the storm…..

You can get a message of congratulations if you’ve been married for 60 years, and so the postman was very impressed when the ‘by appointment’ envelope arrived on Wednesday. Mum noticed that there was no postage on it, so I pointed out that it’s not called the Royal Mail for nothing. Mum was absolutely delighted, and everyone got a chance to admire the card.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1957. And The Card.

A local lady called Eva made the most spectacular pair of heart-shaped cakes, one coconut and one lemon, with individually-created sugar flowers on top. The real flowers included apricot roses and mum’s favourite, freesias.

And then everyone started to arrive – we had 49 guests, and everyone was in a celebratory mood. There was a palpable feeling of affection in the room which it was lovely to be part of. I had worries when Mum and Dad upped sticks 17 years ago, to leave London and live in Dorset, but I had underestimated how welcoming Milborne St Andrew was, and how adaptable and friendly my parents are. They became involved locally, but they never tried to take over, a mistake that people sometimes make when they move somewhere new. And now, it feels as if they really are part of a proper community. It makes me very happy.

Dad stood up to give a speech. He’d lost his reading glasses, which didn’t help when he came to read his notes. Then Mum joined in, and she’s a natural comedian. I honestly think she missed her vocation. And everyone cheered and clapped, and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t quite as Dad had intended, because people understood the spirit in which it was intended. And my brother made a speech celebrating those 60 years together, and everyone clapped and cheered again.

And then, we had the cutting of those beautiful cakes.

Mum, Dad, my brother John and I at the cake cutting….

And the following day, Mum said it was the best evening she’d ever had, even better than her wedding. So it was worth all the sleepless nights and the playing with spreadsheets and the organising of menus.

I’d better make the best of the break, though. Mum and Dad are now talking about her 65th Wedding Anniversary party.