Special, mental, not normal, weird, different, stupid, useless, disruptive, unteachable.
Labels, just labels, just nasty little labels.
One of my other jobs used to be teaching gardening at a school with kids who, at different schools, at one time or another, had one of these labels carelessly and unkindly thrown at them, and do you know what, those labels stick, and sometimes those labels don’t come off.
But there are some people who spend all their time brushing away at those labels, unpicking the glue they are attached with, be they parents, Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language teachers, sign language teachers. These people have a label too, they are heroes, but so too are the people who are having the labels brushed off.
Gardening is therapeutic, be it the repetition of a task, the completion of a task, the fact that you get a physical workout or, in my opinion thinking about something else that allows one’s own anxieties to fade a little. Gardening can be done by anyone, regardless of age, gender, ability and it boosts confidence I don’t think these are trite words, I see it happen all the time:
The lad who can spend 45 minutes sowing onions. The girl who takes her time to find bulbs that have been forced out of the ground and replants them. The boy who will happily spend 30 minutes washing dirty tools. The boy who apologises before he speaks to you in case you think him impertinent.
My favourite used to be the boy and girl who approached their teacher, to tell him that he is cool and does he want to be in their band. Upon being told that the teacher is neither musical or tuneful they told him it doesn’t matter because it’s his trousers that are cool. For someone who has never been cool, I was thrilled my trousers were.
But my own favourite at the moment; my pal who is trying to come to some sort of terms with his Mum’s death who is creating a memorial garden for his Mum and chats endlessly about his Mum when he is focussing on planting sweet peas and Dahlias.
Insightful, joyful, amazing, heart-warming, polite, beautiful, oh, and cool.
Much better labels, don’t you think.
A friend of mine died on Friday.
I accept that isn’t the opening line you have come to expect from the nonsense that is my blog.
But she did.
Friendships take many forms, be they equal, unequal, intense, slowburners, social media based or real.
She was a real friend .
When I first met my friend she was staying somewhere I worked, her son came out for a chat and he enthralled me with his positivity and knowledge of Thomas The Tank Engine.
They rented a house locally and then bought a house and employed me as their gardener. They were one of that very special and quite small group that treat everyone the same: with respect and decency. When your job involves going to people’s houses and gardens regularly, it is amazing what you don’t see and hear. There is a relationship and the merest enquiry as to your health can make one’s day. Add a coffee, cake or sausage roll and you have loyalty for life. Yep, you can call me shallow, but rarely hungry.
Lady Q (a nickname, she didn’t need a title, she was a Lady) loved her garden and last year she asked me to redesign it, we brought in year round colour, we brought in symmetry and we brought in wallflowers and dahlias, sweet peas and gladioli because they reminded her of her parents garden.
When we got to her garden to work she would invariably be sitting at the kitchen table and she would call out to me to come inside and look at the latest plant porn on her computer.
“Mark, how many Dahlias shall we get”
“1,3 or 5, the choice is yours”
“I’ll order 15”.
She was generous and she was kind.
Invariably we got to chatting about educational needs for people with learning difficulties which she was passionate about and gave me so much advice. I also talked about life at home, particularly when I was struggling to fulfil my role as a step-father to our children who didn’t always do as expected. She was kind and never judged.
I will miss Lady Q deeply.
But not even minutely as much as her devoted husband and good friend of mine, The Lord Chancellor (yes, another nickname) and her two darling boys who will need a lot of love, help and support.
There will be tears but there will be smiles: the sweet peas were delivered on Saturday. I had asked for 12, I received 36.
2018 – the year of Kindness, Friendship and sweet peas, loads of sweet peas.
If I ever disappear, I will probably be in one of two places: either, under the patio having driven The Dancing Queen to despair at my constant railing against what I see as important stuff, or, and hopefully more likely, at Watergate Bay.
We are just back from our annual visit to what is my favourite hotel, I don’t say that lightly, because I have been very lucky to stay at some fabulous hotels – Grenadine Lodge in Dalyan, Turkey and Muxima in Aljezur, Portugal also being amongst my favourites.
But I don’t want this to just be about me telling you why to go to such and such a hotel, because frankly, you can probably make your own mind up about where you want to go. And I want to be able to go when I want and not find them fully booked.
So I’m going to tell you about my second favourite walk at Watergate Bay – it’s the most amazing Cornish bay as well as a hotel.
The walk itself changes every single time you do it, and the distance varies each time also, you can do the walk in the morning and do a completely different walk in the afternoon. In fact, being Cornwall, you can have four seasons in one walk.
So, the walk is on the 2 mile sandy beach, if the tide is in, it’s a very short and wet walk, but the tide soon goes out and exposes the golden sand. That’s when families start appearing with cricket equipment and buckets and spades and dogs, dogs being allowed on the beach all year round is fabulous- it never appears to get terribly busy – but we only go between November and March, so, as ever, I’m not a terribly reliable witness.
If the tide is out and you are going to do the full circle of the beach, you have to decide whether to walk into the prevailing wind first or last. I tend to turn left from the ramp and walk to the bottom of the beach with the wind behind me and then walk all the way to the other end into the wind to get the wind behind me for the last bit back to the ramp. But be a maverick, do as you wish, be a leader or be a follower.
Don’t forget, followship is as important as leadership. I went to see Ant Middleton (Him off the telly and out of the SBS) give a talk this week, what an inspiring man. I went with my pal Jon, who questioned me afterwards as to why I liked Ant Middleton when I normally baulk against over-confidence and overt Alpha Male-ism. The answer is, I baulk against people who think they are Alpha-Males and have nothing to back it up, whereas real Alpha Males command respect by leading by example and admitting to not being perfect, but work at being perfect. That’s what I think anyway. What that’s got to do with my second favourite walk at Watergate Bay is anyone’s guess.
I love beaches, the sea is a never ending source of calm for me, even when it is rough, I see patterns and hear noises that I find soothing. The cliffs at Watergate Bay are rugged, and crumbling and home to birds and, in the Winter, icicles. The rock pools that appear provide wonderful swimming pools for dogs, there are caves to shelter from the wind and spray and make echoing noises in.
There is a plaque on the wall of the cliff commemorating the crew and people who attempted the rescue of a Liberator aircraft in December 1943, which gives the walk a contemplative feel. It’s hard not to feel small and a bit inconsequential when you are dwarfed by giant cliffs and historic heroes.
As I age, I realise I’m turning into my Mother, which I hope isn’t as weird as it sounds, I mean I appreciate the colours and sounds of nature much more, I always remember her telling me to stop and watch nature whenever I could, as it’s a constantly moving picture of colours which you would never think possible. So it was great to have her with us on this trip and to be able to tell her that I was starting to understand her now. To which she responded that she hoped to understand me one day too. But I was speaking to her in Dutch.
Time flies, I’ve got to go and see why The Dancing Queen is digging up the patio.
Go to Watergate Bay, it’s beautiful and the hotel is amazing – except in the third week of March, I hear its dreadful then – which just might be when we go.
Those of you who have managed to follow any of this blog, well done, but also, you might be asking why the beach is only my second favourite walk. Obvious really, my favourite is from my room to breakfast. Where I create a self-made 3 tiered waffle extravaganza, layered with bacon and maple syrup.
One aspect of writing a blog that I find quite difficult, apart from actually writing it, is what are my boundaries, where does my story encroach onto someone else’s story and reveal stuff about them which they might not want reveal. I counterbalance this by remembering that surely my dear reader must understand that there is only a scintilla of truth in most of what I say.
I should put a disclaimer in, along the lines of “If you like what you read, it’s probably about you, if you hate it, it’s about someone you don’t like, and if you’re ambivalent, who cares anyway”.
Once I’d reconciled myself to the fact that I was never going to meet anyone I would wish to have children with, let alone them being able to countenance such a thing, I met my darling Nancy, The Dancing Queen. And she already had two children, The Girl Who Believes She Should Be Obeyed and Flash. There might be a smattering of autism and a syndrome or two lurking about, but that doesn’t define them nor does it matter. And that’s their story, and not mine.
However, we used to have a dreadful time getting Flash to leave the house due to his anxieties – we still do, but that’s more to do with him being a teenage boy – so we got a dog. I’ve written about Mungo before, and I’ll write about him again. But he was a tool, a tool to get Flash out of the house, to think about something else, to perhaps even learn to love.
Dogs need walking, children need to get outside and parents need to get some fresh air.
We used to go to a wood with a friend, she was called Emma, so naturally it was known as Emma’s wood. Then we got Mungo, and Mungo knew every inch of that wood: we would let him off the lead at the start of the walk and, an hour or so later, put him back on the lead and leave the wood. We hardly saw him in all the time in-between, for all I know, he could have sat by the stile, smoking a fag and eating a pie whilst we got our exercise. Who knows what dogs do when they are out of sight, I suspect Sprout runs a card school when I’m out. The point is, the wood became Mungo’s wood.
So, whilst we were in the general vicinity of Mungo as he took his exercise, we had to find something to do. Because ”Just walking is boring”.
So, we invented the “Whacking Stick” game, and having rewritten this section four times now, I can understand the looks I received when the children described it as a (adopt the voice of a rather breathless 8 year old) “game where our step-father walks behind us and threatens to hit us with a stick and hits it on the ground if we walk on the path, rather than climb over fallen branches”.
To deflect from this game, we invented “Ambush” the rules, as explained by a 10 year old, are quite simple: “Your step-father goes ahead whilst we are walking in a stream and when we are below him, he throws leaves and sticks at us”.
Now, in black and white, I accept these games sound dreadful, but they were fun, the kids got filthy, we got filthy and there was always hot chocolate in a flask for half way round. And don’t forget, we live in a Country where Pooh sticks is a much treasured game.
This wood also hosted Flash’s birthday one year, half a class on one side of a valley and the other half of the class on the other side. With a river running through it. And adults hiding, ready to ambush. And the sides slippery with mud. No one died, it was fun.
Then there was running through the swamp, and if you stopped, there was the threat of the monster coming to get you, unless of course your wellie fell off, you were allowed to go back for that.
Or stream jumping, which is as it sounds, jumping across a stream whilst Mungo tried to trip you up.
I’m beginning to realise why Flash didn’t want to leave the house.
But it was fun, the kids got filthy, we got filthy and there was always hot chocolate in a flask for the end of the walk. And don’t forget, we live in a Country where rolling a cheese down a hill is a much treasured game.
We only ever had one mishap, and, on reflection, we perhaps shouldn’t have allowed The Girl Who Believes She Should Be Obeyed Who Also Has No Sense Of Direction (I must come up with a shorter nickname) choose where we walked one Sunday, only to find ourselves in the middle of a Pheasant shoot. It did add some realism to the war game we were playing. I think they believed it wasn’t deliberate.
So get outside and terrorise your children in the name of fun. The Dancing Queen says I can’t write this – but you get it, don’t you, it’s a joke, there’s no truth in it all. Well, the fun bits true. I’m going to stop now.
I hope I know you well enough be honest with you, I haven’t really been in the correct frame of mind to write for you recently, I start writing and then “stuff” comes into my head, you know, the daily the niggles, the things that have been said that shouldn’t have been – by other people of course, not me.
And that’s a bit daft really, because, and please forgive my honesty, I don’t really write for you, I write for me; to get something off my chest or just to rattle on until I come to a point where I haven’t got anything left to say.
So I asked someone for some inspiration for this next Blog and we shall call her The Pilates Pixie and do you know what, her idea was brilliant and inspiring and thought provoking so I’ll pretend it was mine.
It’s something we all do, all of the time, but don’t realise we are doing it and when we realise we are doing it, it’s impossible to do it any more. It’s not rubbing your tummy whilst patting your head whilst licking your own nose with one elbow touching the ground. But try it anyway, I can do it, because I am very good at Pilates – (I can’t and I’m not, but I give it a go).
And the Pilates Pixie is right when she says that meditation is the state of mind you reach when you are doing a repetitive job that you are completely confident about and it allows your mind to drift and think about what might have been and which fantasy career you might have had, well that’s our interpretation of it.
So I started thinking, what fantasy job do I think about when I am engrossed in a job like mowing or weeding or putting up the framework for next year’s climbing beans.
And I realised that I really do have my fantasy job:
- I’m outside.
- I’m being creative.
- I’m surrounded by people who appreciate what I do. Some of them even bring coffee and cake. (Going off on a tangent here, you can’t imagine how happy you make a gardener when you make them a cup of tea or coffee and bring them a piece of cake when the wind, rain and sometimes snow are coming at them horizontally).
- I’m nurturing.
- What I don’t get done today, can be done tomorrow.
- I can take my dog to work.
Yeah, I guess I’m happy.
I’m not a stained glass window maker, but I can see the attraction. Although my favourite stained glass window is in the church of St Martin in the Fields, which isn’t stained, but it is beautiful – have a look. Last time I was there I stood looking at the window listening to a Christian service being taken in Cantonese, it made no sense. But happiness doesn’t need to make sense.
Neither am I a horse trainer for cowboys for films, or a cowboy trainer for horses for films, but I can see the attraction, but not in a Brokeback Mountain kind of way. But if it makes you happy, go for it.
But if those happen to be your fantasy jobs, you may not get to do them, but bear this in mind, every time I look at a cowboy film or a stained glass window I will think of you, and your insight, and your humour and the fact that you keep the Dancing Queen occupied for a couple of hours a week to let me recharge my batteries. So thank you.
Another part of my fantasy job would to be a writer, an author, a storyteller, a wordsmith. But I don’t reckon I’d have an audience. So I’ll just carry on doing these therapy sessions that just happen to involve writing.
Until next time, happy fantasies. And if anyone could fantasise about getting rid of this horrible winter weather, I’d be most grateful. And HAPPY.
And if you need some help learning to meditate, I know a really good teacher.
We all do it, don’t we.
No, not that, not everyone does that. Hopefully.
We all judge a book by it’s cover. It’s probably one of the first things we are taught. That and how to use a potty and how to read. Reading a book or looking at your phone whilst on a toilet should be a no-no automatically from thereon in.
Book, cover, don’t judge, yes, that’s where we were.
The Dancing Queen and I went off for one of our jaunts this weekend. We couldn’t decide where to go and couldn’t face the drive to Cornwall or The Lakes, so we put a pin in a map and headed off towards Trinidad, fortunately I checked the travel time and we headed to Camber Sands instead.
I’d never been to Camber Sands before and The Dancing Queen has always wanted to go there, so I researched and found there is one hotel there – The Gallivant. They are having a refit at present so they upgraded us to a suite when I booked the room.
I was a touch disappointed when we arrived to find half the front boarded up and loads of builders knocking about. So I judged the place by half it’s cover and suggested we turn round and go home.
The Dancing Queen advised me that she liked the smell of planed wood – it’s good that we can still discover new things about each other, even after 14 years together- and so we went into reception to be met by a lovely lady called Hannah who was probably one of the best Hotel Managers we have met, very professional and smiley and told us cake and tea would be served shortly, so go and settle into your room. She had me at cake.
After tea and cake (lots) we went for a pre-dinner walk on the beach to catch the sunset. A hop skip and jump found us coming to the brow of the sand dunes and boom, I was transported back 40 years. Camber Sands has sand dunes, it has a huge beach, it has horses cantering along the sand. It was just like Ainsdale Beach near Southport where we used to go to when visiting our Grandparents. The only thing different was that there wasn’t a 10 year old me. Being taught to drive. In a mini. On the sand. With the only instruction being “not to hit Southport Pier”. Times change.
We went back to the hotel after watching a lovely sunset and prepared for dinner. I had pigeon, followed by short rib of beef, followed by ginger sponge. Yes, I’m, sticking to my vegetarian diet. At home.
We spent the following day in Rye and ate cake and then lunch and walked the 3 miles back to the hotel to prepare ourselves for more pre-dinner cake and a stroll on the beach.
Dinner was pork croquette followed by lamb followed by custard tart and rhubarb which were just as fabulous as the night before offerings.
Today saw us head home, after a delicious breakfast and then lunch at The George in Rye, which I won’t tell you was fabulous as I want to be able to get a table there again. Soon. Don’t mention me either, I think they thought me a tad odd – when asked if we had any dietary requirements I said:
“The Dancing Queen is vegetarian, but don’t hold that against her and I’m greedy”.
And when The Dancing Queen left the table at the end of the meal she told the Restaurant Manager not to catch my eye as I was bound to ask for another meal to be delivered to the table.
Anyhow, back to the Gallivant, go to The Gallivant, don’t worry what it looks like on the outside, after all you’re looking out. I think it will become rather popular.
Don’t judge anything by what it looks like, apart from me. I really am a glutton, and have started keeping wood shavings behind my ears.
There are two types of dog people in my experience:
Those who hear their dog’s voices, and those who lie.
I’m convinced that, if it wasn’t for Sprout quietly whispering in my ear throughout the day, my somewhat tenuous grip with reality would slacken and I would be cast into a dark place.
I was lucky to be born into a family of dog lovers, the first dog I was acquainted with was Jamba, a Rhodesian Ridgeback who arrived in a crate at Ashford station a couple of weeks after I was born, or it might have been the other way round, I’ve never stopped to think about it, best I don’t. There’s a photo of me and Jamba in his dog basket, one of us has a wet nose and big ears, and the other is a dog. He was huge, he didn’t really like adults, but loved children and was at his happiest when he had his head up the chimney when the fire was lit, I’m not sure if it was the heat he liked or it was just an oddness he had.
When he had taken us as far as he could, we came under the watchful eye of Beaumont, what a grand name that was for a dog. I wanted to call him Botham, but when that was vetoed, Beaumont was approved as he was the other captain on a Question of Sport. The host was David Coleman, in the days before Sue Barker, which might also have been a good name for a dog. Barker, not Sue. I recall that my Mum and youngest sister went shopping one day to get a dress for a wedding and came back from Brighton with a Golden Retriever. He even had a role to play at my other Sister’s wedding when he was a page boy.
There were a few years when I was without dog, this, on reflection was wrong.
The Dancing Queen had been together a couple of years, we inevitably discussed having children together:
T.D.Q.: “If we had a baby, what would you call it”
T.D.Q. “But what if it was a girl”
T.D.Q. “But that’s a dog’s name”
Me: “Best we get a dog then”.
So we got Mungo, or to give him his full name, Mungo Mickey Rachel Podcast Procter the third. He was supposed to come out gardening with me, but he much preferred The Dancing Queen’s company ((Editor: who doesn’t) as if anyone edits this….) so he became her constant companion, running in the woods, walks in the park, comfort when the days were dark and joy all the time in between. As darling Mungo’s energies waned, he decreed that his responsibilities would be best if they were shared.
Sprout entered our lives, like Mungo he was a rescue dog, his full name is Sprout Skip Liam Peaky Blinder Eff Off Procter the First, yes he’s a Jack Russell, everyone said don’t get a J.R, they’re full off urine and vinegar, but loyal. He is certainly loyal, and he certainly knows his own mind and seems to arbitrarily decide whether he likes another dog or not and he gets me through the dark and wet days of Winter at work.
You notice I haven’t used the word “owner” once in this blog. Although cat people say dogs have owners and cats have staff, dog people know that they are owned by their dogs.
This blog was supposed to be a Valentine’s Day special in which I talked about the importance of love in my life and how finding that one special person to share my life with had made everything make sense.
Sorry, I’ve got to go, Sprout is demanding I rescue him from the sofa he isn’t supposed to go on.
We stayed in student accommodation at Lancaster University with our extended family and friends and used it as a base to explore The Lakes, where Mum and Dad spent a lot of time in their youth from their homes in Southport.
I think Mum decreed that we should climb Helvellyn via Striding Edge, guided by Wainwright. Being 14, 12 & 9, we kids knew no better than to trust what our parents said.
I have few recollections of the day, other than picnics, Striding Edge, a final scramble up the scree to the summit where, Dad said “you go ahead Mark, I’ll make sure the girls are ok”. I think he had seen the fear in my eyes and urged me on.
We had a picnic at the top including almond slices.
Other highlights of the holiday were watching my 5 & 7 year old cousins, adrift, in a dinghy, on Lake Coniston taking lumps out each other with their oars. I didn’t know what to do, but saw my father crying with laughter. So joined in.
Another highlight was dancing the can can with the family to Bad Manners at the weekly disco.
All fairly humdrum and just another family holiday. Well, it was, and it wasn’t.
The following Summer, Dad died of a heart attack aged 45. So, it was our last family holiday, but the memories I have of it are of halcyon days, I don’t think it even rained that week!!
I was 50 last year, Tanya 50 this year as well as Mum being 80.
I go back to The Lakes every year. We tease Mum relentlessly about taking such ill prepared and young children up Striding Edge.
We were blessed to have such a wonderful Dad for a short time, who helped us appreciate nature and humour. And a Mum who has been our rock.
I have included some photographs, you will notice Mum dressed extremely sensibly and my youngest sister, Natasha, in what appears to be shorts and sandals, it is well known within the family that to get Natasha to wear anything other than a bikini during the summer was a battle of wills!! It still is, but she won’t thank me for saying that, or sharing the photo’s….
No one was as surprised as me when I decided to go to Plumpton College and train to be a gardener. I was 36, I had always worked in banks or offices and the closest I had been to the soil was when I used to throw myself around in mud under the pretence of being a goalkeeper. But to be a gardener was what I was going to do.
On reflection though, I suppose, at some stage I was always going to garden, either for myself or for other people, it was in my blood. I don’t mean my Great Grandfather mowed the lawns at Blenheim Palace or anything like that, but I think it comes from my Grandma.
Grandma lived in Southport, she worked in a bakery (perhaps I was predetermined to love cake too.) and made the most fabulous vanilla slices and parkin, but it’s the smells that are the most evocative, a roasting chicken with sage and onion stuffing cooking takes me back to her kitchen, as does the smell of the tea in her wall mounted leaf tea dispenser.
The smell of the yellow roses in her garden, which, in my memory were always in flower, no matter when we went to see her, lives on too. Even today a yellow rose is my favourite and I’m sure many of my customers have seen me stop to smell their roses. I came across a yellow rose, in Sussex, in January, in flower this week. It’s probably fitting that a yellow rose signifies friendship and joy.
But it’s the soil, the smell of the soil that I best remember, which sounds a bit odd written down I know. Judge me if you like, as I said to The Dancing Queen the other day “You do know I’m a bit odd don’t you”, she hasn’t responded yet, perhaps she’s waiting to break it to me that I’m the most normal person she knows. But, perhaps not.
Where was I, The sandy, peaty soil in Grandma’s garden was black and fertile and pungent and sometimes, just sometimes, I get a whiff of that scent down in Sussex’s chalk and clay soil which is clever to say the least. I daresay one or two customers have seen me sniff a handful of soil. I’m not sure what that signifies.
Which leads me on to a couple of weeks ago when I was in a lovely customer’s garden, it was cold, it had been wet and I was trying to light a fire. But, because it was cold and had been wet, my hands couldn’t determine if the kindling was dry, so I lightly brushed the kindling against my cheek to check on it’s dryness. It was then that two things happened, firstly I discovered that dried nettles still carry a sting and secondly my customer came out with a cup of tea. Jon claims he didn’t see her coming to the bonfire, as does Sprout and Mrs G, in her usual polite way asked if “I was quite alright” as she backed away, rapidly, laughing. I did get the fire going though.
Back to Grandma’s garden, she had old, gnarled apple trees, she had perfectly manicured lawns and she had a compost bay at the back of the garden which backed on to a builder’s yard with all the lovely smelly diesel lorries, in the days when we didn’t know it was wrong to like smelly diesel lorries.
I also remember that Grandma had the best garden, the tidiest garden, the best smelling garden and it wasn’t just the soil that made it so, it was the hours of hard work she put in and the skill she had. I never got to tell her that my love of gardening comes from her and my Mum and, even if I had, I’m not sure what she would have said. Grandma was from that stock where effusiveness wasn’t part of her make-up. Heaven knows what she would make of her Grandson writing about feelings.
She would probably think I was a little bit odd.