Monthly Archives: October 2017

A Certain Hush

Dear Readers, there is a feeling of urgency in the autumn that differs from the tumult of the spring. In autumn, it’s all about fattening up, putting on the layers of insulation that will fuel a migration, or get a small, inexperienced fledgling through the winter. The feeders are busy from first light, with half a dozen  collared doves queued up on the branches of the whitebeam while the woodpigeons hog the feeder. And then, earlier this week, I looked out of my upstairs window and there was not a single bird in sight. Except one, on the roof ridge of the houses opposite.



Sparrowhawk. What boldness it takes to just sit there, in full view. Those yellow feet look so tiny from this distance, but I know from a previous encounter with a  bird very like this one how her talons are used to hold down and pierce her prey while her curved beak plucks out the feathers and rips into the flesh. No wonder the garden was so quiet.

I have noticed that the appearance of a predator sends a certain ripple through the ether. In India, you could track the tiger through the forest by the chorus of barks and squeals as each deer and each langur spotted him, the sound getting louder and louder as he got nearer. Like the sparrowhawk he was utterly unconcerned, walking out onto the path, turning to look at us and then spraying urine on to a nearby tree as if to say ‘that’s what I think of you lot’. And then he sashayed away up the path at his own pace, and he never looked at us again.


Tiger in Panna National Park


I imagine the birds buried deep in the shrubs. Do mothers teach their nestlings to stay silent when that shadow is seen against the skyline? I notice no alarm calls. No one wants to draw attention to themselves.


I am remembering a few things that separately made no sense. A few weeks ago I noticed the soft dusty impression of a bird the glass of my writing-room window. There were lots of feathers on the ground, under my kitchen window. Had a panicked bird crashed into the pane and stunned itself, making it easier for the sparrowhawk?

The hunter looks around. She seems to have all the time in the world. No hawklings in the nest at this time of year – she is hunting for herself.


What is stirring? What tiny motion alerts her? We know that birds of prey have eyes that are alert to the smallest rustling and excellent hearing. Maybe she is not even hunting, but just scanning her territory. I watch her for a while through the binoculars. The wind ruffles her feathers a little. I raise the camera to take a few photos, though I don’t hope for much through my dirty windows (well, I can’t get the window cleaner in until the spiders have moved on).

And then, two things happen.

A feral pigeon flies at the window out of nowhere, and swerves at the very last second to avoid the glass.

And the sparrowhawk swoops.


And then both disappear.
Within two minutes, the doves are back on the feeder, and a swarm of long-tailed tits is clambering through the hawthorn with a chorus of soft tseeping calls. It’s as if every bird is discussing their close escape, and celebrating that they are still here.
And that, of course, is anthropomorphism, but I make no apology for it. We evolved from non-human ancestors, and everything that we are had its roots in them. I know what it is to feel my heart beat a little more quickly at the sound of heavy footsteps behind me on a dark winter’s evening, and to utter a sigh of relief when the door shuts securely behind me. I would be arrogant to assume that, of all the animals on this planet, humans are the only ones to experience such feelings. We are all on this little blue boat together, and there is more capacity for joy and grief than people alone can muster.



Wednesday Weed – Prickly Sowthistle

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…..

Prickly Sowthistle (Sonchus asper)

Dear Readers, I wanted to find a ‘proper’ weed for you this week, and here it is. Way back when I started this blog, one of the very first plants I wrote about was Smooth Sowthistle and I have been looking out since then for the prickly variety. I shouldn’t have needed to look very hard because goodness knows it’s everywhere in the UK except for in the very far north of Scotland, but it has proved elusive until today. How delighted I was to find it lurking in a little alleyway close to Fortismere School here in East Finchley, and how surprised all the passersby were to see me taking its portrait.

The diagnostic basal lobe

First things first. Both sowthistles are members of the Asteraceae (Daisy) family. Both have yellow flowers, though those of the prickly species are said to be darker in colour.  Both bleed white sap, but that of the prickly sowthistle quickly turns a dirty orange colour, while that of the smooth sowthistle takes longer. However, the leaves of the prickly sowthistle are decidedly more thistle-like, and where the leaves emerge from the stem there is a kind of rounded prickly spiral called a basal lobe (see above). The leaves are also shinier and darker green. I would hazard an opinion that the prickly sowthistle is a slightly more handsome plant than it’s smooth relative, but not by much.

A rather sad smooth sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus)

Both sowthistles are native,and both are annuals. They are extraordinarily tough plants and require next to no soil to produce an extraordinary quantity of biomass, and a fine crop of seeds. There is one in the tree pit just up the road from my house that must be nearly a metre tall. How I admire these city-dwellers for their resilience in tough times! No amount of drought, dog urine, litter or polluted rain puts them off their stride. They remind me of Dickensian urchins, cheeky and adaptable. The only thing that slows them up is a biannual dousing with weed-killer, administered by a man from Barnet Council with a backpack full of biocide and a hose. He wears ear-buds so that he can listen to music while he sprays, but no face mask to protect his lungs, and no gloves to protect his skin. I fear that the chemicals are more prone to damage him than the plants for, although the weeds wither and die, they or their offspring are generally back within the month.

Of the two species the prickly sowthistle is, surprisingly, the one that is preferred for eating – luminaries such as Rose Gray of the River Cafe are said to have gathered the fresh young leaves in March and April for salads. According to Pliny, Theseus was treated to a dish of sow-thistles before he headed off to fight the Bull of Marathon. The plant was also fed to lactating sows (hence the name) to encourage their milk production – the white sap was thought to be indicative that this was the best use for the plant. In fact, many grazing animals love sowthistle, although farmers generally view it as a pernicious weed. In Germany, it is believed that a fleeing  hare can hide safely under the leaves of sowthistle as the plant will protect the animal (hence another alternative name for the plant, ‘hare-lettuce’).

The older leaves of sowthistle are often decorated with the white tracery of leaf-miners – usually these are the tiny caterpillars of micromoths that live between the two layers of the leaf and spend their lives munching little tunnels. I often wonder what leads to the shapes of the patterns – did the caterpillar meet another caterpillar coming in the opposite direction and have to back up? The filigree is rather attractive, I think, if not particularly advantageous to the plant. Other moth species eat the leaves and the buds, and the plant invariably attracts lots of aphids, which make it useful for attracting predatory insects such as ladybirds and lacewings.

Prickly sowthistle with a few late blackfly.

Amongst the moths that feed on prickly sowthistle are the Broad-barred white (Hecatera bicolorata), whose caterpillars feed on the buds and flowers:

Photo One by By User:Fvlamoen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Broad-barred white (Hecatera bicolorata)

the grey chi (Antitype chi) whose caterpillar feeds on the leaves:

Photo Two by By André Karwath aka Aka - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Grey chi moth (Antitype chi)

and the rather elegant shark moth (Cucullia umbratica). Although most UK moths are not as brightly coloured as their tropical counterparts, they have a subtle and delicate beauty that repays close attention.

Photo Three (Shark moth) by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Shark moth (Cucillia umbratica)

Prickly sowthistle has a wide native range, encompassing Europe, North Africa and Western Asia, and has been imported into North America, probably with grains used for food. Across its native range it has been used medicinally as a poultice for wounds and skin complaints, though many herbals consider smooth sowthistle to be slightly more efficacious.

As I feared, the common-or-garden nature of the poor old prickly sowthistle has meant that it has not featured widely in art. Even the Sowthistle Fairy of our old friend, Cicely Mary Barker, is standing on a smooth sowthistle, not a prickly one (have a look at those basal lobes, friends).

Photo Four (Flower Fairy) by Jan Willemsen (

Sowthistle Fairy by Cicely Mary Barker

Nor is there a superabundance of sowthistle poetry. However, I hope you’ll forgive the tenuous link to this extraordinary poem by Sylvia Plath. After all, sowthistle was fed to lactating pigs, as we know. Maybe it was also used to fatten them up.


God knows how our neighbor managed to breed
His great sow:
Whatever his shrewd secret, he kept it hid

In the same way
He kept the sow–impounded from public stare,
Prize ribbon and pig show.

But one dusk our questions commended us to a tour
Through his lantern-lit
Maze of barns to the lintel of the sunk sty door

To gape at it:
This was no rose-and-larkspurred china suckling
With a penny slot

For thrift children, nor dolt pig ripe for heckling,
About to be
Glorified for prime flesh and golden crackling

In a parsley halo;
Nor even one of the common barnyard sows,
Mire-smirched, blowzy,

Maunching thistle and knotweed on her snout-
Bloat tun of milk
On the move, hedged by a litter of feat-foot ninnies

Shrilling her hulk
To halt for a swig at the pink teats. No. This vast
Brobdingnag bulk

Of a sow lounged belly-bedded on that black
Fat-rutted eyes
Dream-filmed. What a vision of ancient hoghood

Thus wholly engross
The great grandam!–our marvel blazoned a knight,
Helmed, in cuirass,

Unhorsed and shredded in the grove of combat
By a grisly-bristled
Boar, fabulous enough to straddle that sow’s heat.

But our farmer whistled,
Then, with a jocular fist thwacked the barrel nape,
And the green-copse-castled

Pig hove, letting legend like dried mud drop,
Slowly, grunt
On grunt, up in the flickering light to shape

A monument
Prodigious in gluttonies as that hog whose want
Made lean Lent

Of kitchen slops and, stomaching no constraint,
Proceeded to swill
The seven troughed seas and every earthquaking

Sylvia Plath

Photo Credits

Photo One (Broad-barred white moth) by By User:Fvlamoen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Photo Two (Grey chi moth) by By André Karwath aka Aka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

Photo Three (Shark moth) by By ©entomart, Attribution,

Photo Four (Flower Fairy) from Jan Willemsen (


The Empress

Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator)

Dear Readers, sometimes I get mildly irritated with my pond. It’s true that, because I replaced my lawn,  I don’t have to do any mowing. However, I do have to spend time cutting back the reeds and pulling endless leaves and debris out of the water especially at this time of year when a whole whitebeam’s worth seemed to descend in twenty minutes. But then, something happens that reminds me what it’s there for. It might be a whole bunch of singing frogs in the spring time. It might be a wagtail popping down for a drink. Or, as on Sunday, it might be an emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator) looking for somewhere to lay her eggs. I know that she is female not only by her behaviour, but by her colour – female emperors are green and brown, males are electric blue.

What an extraordinary animal she is, as long as my finger and with wings like smoked glass. Her lower left wing has a triangular section missing, possibly following a close encounter with a bird, or even an amorous male. Her eyes cover most of her head like a bifurcated helmet, and each eye has 30,000 individual lenses. They can see all the colours that we can see, plus ultraviolet and polarised light from the surface of water. She is, I know, a ferocious hunter, catching her prey on the wing by outmanoeuvering it. I once watched an emperor dragonfly hawking for speckled wood butterflies in Coldfall Wood, and wondered at his speed and the way that he popped up from underneath the butterfly, snatching it in his jaws and bearing it away with sublime efficiency.

Dragonflies seem to have a streak of curiosity, and to be keen to investigate unknown phenomena. I met a male emperor dragonfly in a Scottish woodland once, and he hovered a few feet from my face at head height. As I turned, he turned with me. I had the most curious sense of being weighed up: friend, foe, or just unimportant feature of the landscape? After a few moments he rattled away like a toy plane, leaving me covered in goosebumps and full of wonder.

But I was worried about this female. She was frantic in her search for somewhere to deposit her eggs, probing the ground with her lime green and chocolate striped abdomen. Most of the time, she seemed to be keen to lay between the wooden slats on the boardwalk beside the pond. This felt like a most unsatisfactory site to me, but how to convince her to lay them somewhere else? She seemed very single-minded.

I went to the kitchen and got a medium sized glass mixing bowl, and a side plate. For all her keen eyesight she was not the least bothered when I covered her up, and only slightly perturbed when I slid the plate under her, gently, to avoid damaging that sensitive abdomen. When she realised she was trapped she tried to fly up, her wings rattling alarmingly against the glass. I carried her a few steps and she turned to face me under the dome. I held the bowl out over the water and lifted it a few inches. She darted out straight at me, and paused a hands-width from my nose. Then she landed on my skirt, explored it as an egg-laying substrate, abandoned it and flew out over the pond, only to return to the boardwalk again. Emperors (or should  it be empresses) usually lay their eggs on pond weed, so I think the moss was confusing her, though I have plenty of pond weed left.

If any of her eggs do survive, the nymphs will become the terror of the pond, laying in wait to grasp creatures up to the size of small tadpoles in their forearms. The jaws of the creature in ‘Alien’ were modelled on the complex extending jaws of the dragonfly. These are creatures that are predatory in every part of their lives and they exude the confidence of an animal that is rarely preyed upon, at least in this country. A dragonfly  sat happily sunning himself on my bare arm for ten minutes one sunny day a few years ago, enabling me to look at his curious little face to my heart’s content.

Flight has evolved separately at least three times in the insects, and dragonflies were among the first to develop the skill (possibly only preceded by the weak flight of mayflies). Some of the ancestral dragonflies had wingspans of 30 inches. The wings are powered directly by the muscles – in the photo above you can see the bulges where the wings are attached to the body, and the depth of the thorax indicates how large these muscles are. The dragonfly needs to warm these muscles up before it can fly, which explains why you will often see dragonflies perched in south-facing bushes early in the morning. Once ready for action the dragonfly can fly at approximately 30 miles per hour, and has been estimated to accelerate at 4 g in normal flight, and up to 9 g when pursuing prey. Bear in mind that the Space Shuttle only reaches 3 g during launch and re-entry. These animals can also fly in six different directions (including backwards) and have four flight modes for different situations, from static hovering to pursuit of prey. They are, in short, the masters and mistresses of insect flight.

So often, I wish that I could talk to animals. I would have loved to persuade this beauty that she was wasting her precious eggs, but nothing I could do would dissuade her, and so eventually it started to rain, and I left her to it. And also, do I really know better? It’s a kind of hubris to think that I really understand what’s good for this creature and her offspring. I am reminded that interfering has unexpected consequences, and that often it’s better to leave off our meddling, however well intended. So, I shall have to wait and see if any dragonfly larvae turn up next year. In the meantime, travel well, empress. I am delighted to have met you.


Wednesday Weed – Fig

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…..

Fig (Ficus carica)

Dear Readers, I hope that you will indulge my choice of ‘weed’ this week, for the Common Fig is no more a ‘weed’ than I am a nuclear scientist. Nonetheless, I pass this particular tree every week as I head into Muswell Hill for my breakfast, and I wanted to give it its moment in the sun. For one thing, I noticed that it actually has figs this year. For another, the leaves always remind me of classical statues that have been ‘censored’ to suit Victorian values. For yet another, I love ripe figs, although once you know how they’re pollinated you might want to avoid them if you’re averse to animal protein. So, welcome to the Wonderful World of Figs (and if that’s not a name for a plant-related theme-park I don’t know what is).

First things first. The fig is actually a member of the mulberry family, and is native to the Middle East and western Asia. It is a plant whose history is deeply interwoven with that of human beings: in the Christian tradition, Adam and Eve covered their genitalia with fig leaves after eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. The Buddha became enlightened while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, which is a kind of fig. The fig is mentioned in the Quran, and the phrase from the Bible ‘each man under his own vine and fig tree’ was used to describe both the Jewish homeland and the land awaiting the American settlers. In short, the idea of figs as a symbol of plenty and of safety seems to be universal across the plant’s range.


The fig tree is normally a plant of dry, hot climates and rocky areas, but has a deep, penetrating root system, and in the wild is often found beside streams and oases. The tree can grow to a huge size and its leaves form dense, delicious shade. A fig tree can live for 150 – 200 years, but there are some stories of trees living for over a thousand years. One rather fetching tree lives in the grounds of Clerkenwell Primary School on Amwell Street in Islington – it is at least 200 years old, and these days is propped up with great green metal supports.

The Amwell Fig

Although the Muswell Hill fig is producing fruit, the chance of them ripening in the UK is practically zero (at least until climate change bakes us all a little harder). I do love a ripe, juicy fig. However, the fruit of each species of fig is pollinated by a tiny fig wasp (Blastophaga psenes in many cases). The coevolution of fig and wasp is one of those examples of symbiosis that boggles the mind. First, a pregnant female wasp enters through a tiny hole at the base of the fruit. She pollinates some of the flowers that are inside the fruit, lays her eggs, and dies. Then the male wasps emerge first and leave their semen so that this inseminates the females who then emerge into the body of the fruit, but can get no further. Finally, the male wasps return and gnaw holes in the outside of the fruit so that the females can escape. In short, that tasty fig is both a love nest for lustful insects and a grave for the original female.

There are no fig wasps in the UK, because it’s too cold. On the other hand, the fruit doesn’t ripen. Life can be problematic sometimes.

Photo Two (fig tart) by By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia - Black Genoa Fig Tart, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Black Genoa Fig Tart, anybody? (Photo One)

Figs are also eaten by a very wide range of birds, mammals and insects throughout their range – in a New Scientist article it was estimated that over 1270 species will eat the fruit, which makes it important for biodiversity. Experiments with planting it in degraded forest areas in Thailand have shown that the animals that it attracts will also help with habitat restoration – birds and bats in particular will be ‘carrying’ other seeds that they will ‘plant’ in their droppings.

Photo Three (Hornbill) By Lip kee ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Great Hornbill eating fig

Photo Four (Barbet) by By J.M.Garg (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Lineated Barbet eating fig

Photo Five (chimps) by By Alain Houle (Harvard University) [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wild chimpanzee female and infant eating figs

However, it’s the leaves of the fig tree that are so emblematic. They seem tailor-made to cover any ‘naughty’ areas, and I suspect that very attractive green underwear could be knocked together by anyone with a fig tree, a needle and cotton and a few hours to spare. I note that there is even an underwear company called ‘Figleaves‘, although they have a strange reluctance to feature plant-based undergarments. However, what delights me is the way that figleaves appear and disappear through history. The Italian painter Masaccio painted a fresco of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden during the 15th Century. Adam covers his face, while Eve covers her privates with a hand (thus showing who is led by which body part). In 1680, some vandal  painted on some ‘fig leaves’ (which are not even botanically accurate, I’d like to pedantically point out). However, when the work was restored in 1980 the fig leaves were removed.


Masaccio – The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (Painted 1426-28, Fig leaves added 1680, Fig leaves removed 1980) (Public Domain)

Here is a rather splendid depiction of Adam and Eve looking shifty in the Escorial Palace, Madrid. The fig leaves look a little as if they’ve been cut out of crepe paper, and their thighs indicate a little too much time riding uphill on a bicycle, but still.

Adam and Eve and the Serpent (Escorial Palace, Madrid) (Public Domain)

In the sculpture of the  classical world, male genitalia were exposed for all the world to see (though women were generally more coy, with much drapery and the occasional pot plant). However, once Christianity arrived statues were often made more modest, especially during the reign of the ‘chaste’ popes – these fig leaves were added later, and were often made so that they could be removed.

Photo Four (Mercury) by By Original uploader was Sputnikcccp at en.wikipedia. Photo taken by Sputnikcccp in the Vatican, May 25, 2003. - Transferred from en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A classical statue of Mercury with added fig leaf

By Medieval times, only the damned were shown nude. However, things reached a pretty pass during the Victorian era, when male nudity in particular was frowned upon, and Queen Victoria herself was said to have found the sight of a man with no clothes on distressing. What to do, then, with the blooming great plaster cast of Michaelangelo’s David that was in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London? The curators came up with the idea of a plaster fig leaf which could be hung from the cast on a very unanatomical pair of hooks, in the event of the monarch or some other female dignatory popping by for a dose of classical culture. In the event, it was never used, but you can still see it at the back of a case in the Cast Gallery should you ever visit.


The figleaf for the cast of the statue of Michaelangelo’s David. And very fine it is too. (Public Domain)

I cannot leave the subject of fig leaves without mentioning the first ‘muscleman’, Eugen Sandow, (1865-1925). He was not very ‘muscley’ by today’s standards (and all the better for it in my opinion) and he was also very influenced by the classical statues that he saw as a boy – he recorded their proportions and worked hard to copy their musculature.  Some of his displays were based on the poses of these works of art, and I fear that, gorgeous as he was, it is difficult for a modern person to look at ‘The Dying Gaul’ without a) thinking that it looks most uncomfortable b) noticing the carefully positioned leaf and wondering if it was attached with Bluetack and c) (pedant alert) becoming indignant that this is not, in fact, a fig leaf but some kind of inferior foliage.

Photo Six (Eugen Sandow) by By G.dallorto - File:Falk, Benjamin J. (1853-1925) - Eugen Sandow (1867-1925)- 1894 .jpg, Public Domain,

Eugen Sandow as ‘The Dying Gaul’

Now, when it comes to fig poems, there are several to choose from. There is ‘First Fig’ from Edna St Vincent Millay. I knew the poem, but didn’t know the title, and I am still a little thoughtful. All explanations and theories are welcome, as always.

My candle burns at both ends; 
It will not last the night; 
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends– 
It gives a lovely light!

And then there is D.H.Lawrence, havering on about what women should be like as usual. I loved Lawrence when I was a teenager, but have rather outgrown him, I fear. For anyone who wants to have a look, his poem Figs is here. I love the descriptions of the fruit, but the rest of it seems to me to be the maunderings of a deeply unhappy man.

As an antidote, here is a poem about the fig wasp, and about much else besides, by MTC Cronin, an Australian poet that I didn’t know, but will seek out in future. I like this one a lot. What do you think?

And finally, I really like this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, child of an American mother and a Palestinian father. It seems fitting to end with a work that talks about what a tree can mean to someone far from home, and also with a hopeful poem. Maybe we will all find home in the end.

Photo Credits

Photo One (The Amwell Fig) – From

Photo Two (fig tart) by By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia – Black Genoa Fig Tart, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Photo Three (Hornbill) By Lip kee ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Four (Barbet) by By J.M.Garg (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Five (chimps) by By Alain Houle (Harvard University) [CC BY 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Six (Eugen Sandow) by By G.dallorto – File:Falk, Benjamin J. (1853-1925) – Eugen Sandow (1867-1925)- 1894 .jpg, Public Domain,





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,

Common carpet moth (Epirrhoe alternat)

and the rather elegant Barred Straw (Eulithis pyraliata)

By IKAl - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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,

Photo Two (Barred Straw) by By IKAl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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,

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,

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 -, Public Domain,

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,

Photo Two (Impatiens munronii) by By Davidvraju – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,