Monday, 28 February 2022

 A Ukranian Spring

Thank you, Justin Webb, for reminding me in Friday’s Times of what Trotsky said:

“You may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.”

Trotsky | Lapham's Quarterly

Friday was chilly but with a brightly blazing sun in Brighton. The stridently yellow daffodils fluttered in the breeze muttering: 

“all’s well, Spring is coming, relax …. all is well.” 

The daffodils were wrong.

In Kyiv it was raining, cold and about to get much colder. War was being declared. No, not “declared” so much as “visited upon us” and the world was waiting aghast as the missiles flew. We were living in a world gone mad. After 77 years Europe was once again a warzone.

Russian war games in Belarus designed to 'send Ukraine a message' | Russia- Ukraine crisis News | Al Jazeera

I recalled Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy written after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.  The second stanza stuck in my head, now slightly re-written (sorry Percy):

I met Murder wildly shooting 

He had a mask just like Putin

Very smooth he looked, yet grim;

Seven blood-hounds followed him.

Oldham News | Main News | 200 Years Ago Today - The Legacy of Peterloo -  Oldham Chronicle

The most unlikely people have suddenly become militaristic. Quentin Letts, political sketch writer, observed with astonishment that the Liberal Democrats, of all people, were in the Commons with a bellicose “Come on Vladimir let’s be having you” attitude.

How did we let this Russian thug and our own greed get us to this ultimately predictable point? Chelsea football fans lament your ownership. Estate Agents in Knightsbridge be very ashamed. But despite my initial horror and anger something else has replaced it. The courage and the spirit of the Ukrainian people in slowing down and in places thwarting the Russian advance made me feel just a bit better. There was something epic about the tragedy of Snake Island in the Black Sea where 13 Ukrainian Soldiers and their families were slaughtered after refusing to surrender to a Russian Warship … “Go f*** yourself Russian Warship” were their last words. Courage and resilience are an enviable epitaph. And it’s their resilience that heralds the Ukrainian Spring because it is Springtime that characterises resilience.

Keats didn’t manage an Ode to Spring. Pity. The best we can find is, nonetheless, terrific.  Either the beginning of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales – “sweet showers” - or Gerard Manley Hopkins will do – just these glimpses from him:

    “Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –         

    When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush” 


And “the racing lambs too have fair their fling….”


Spring Lambs - Picture of Thornton Hall Farm Country Park,  Thornton-in-Craven - TripAdvisor | Cute goats, Animals beautiful, Cute  animals


 And then     

“What is all this juice and all this joy?         

     A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

     In Eden garden…..”

“Long, lovely and lush …all this juice and joy” – yes that does it for me …that’s my kind of Spring. And this year’s Spring is delivering already – primulas and violets vigorously doing their thing and tiny tête ά tête daffodils laughing in the chill.

Spring is about innovation, new beginnings and a simple celebration of growth. A blitz of Russian missiles can’t change that. Spring cleaning is one of the most useful of occupations discarding the unused and unusable, simplifying our possessions and cleaning our shelves, our cupboards and our minds. 

49,821 Daffodils Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from Dreamstime

I for one have spent too many seasons worrying about newspaper headlines about which I can do nothing. My mind is full of “stuff” -  much of it negative. Time for a good Spring-Clean. Time to think positively. Time to walk through woods where buds are bursting and birds are finding their voices.

It's too late to stop the stupidity. But never too late for hope. Nature always helps our perspective. Flowers grow out of rubble. Juice and joy cannot be blown away by a bomb.

Monday, 21 February 2022


Recently the police in Germany decided to prosecute a speeding driver despite there being no speed limit. He’d driven his Bugatti supercar at 260 mph down an autobahn doing a selfie of himself and a passenger and cheering . Maybe they’ll do him for being an arrogant idiot instead. 

Speed has been one of the topics of the week. There was the launch of Uptime the app which reduces 3,000 non-fiction books down to 1,200 words each and provides three-point key insights. It’s a tool to reduce the time needed to appear being well-read. It got a lot of coverage. Ann Treneman in The Times said she thought it was an embarrassing idea but was gratified to find that she’d read half of the top 16 books Uptime has filleted. But she said, thinking back she couldn’t remember a thing about any of them. How, she lamented, could she have forgotten every single habit of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But then she recalled this quote: 

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Uptime: 5-min Books, Courses, Documentaries – Apps on Google Play

I don’t feel well after that. But I feel worse when I hear University students proclaiming they never read a whole book – just the first five pages, five pages in the middle and five pages at the end this plus the copy on the cover and you’ve nailed it. Sorry Jane Austen – you are just “too slow.” Lectures? “I get a friend to record them and then listen to them at three times speed.” Films? “The same.” Music?  “Yeah, that too.” 

Yet whilst everything is fast – speed dating, fast food, speed interviews - something’s missing which meditation is providing. Three people have recently told me about a five-day meditation course they’d been on in Herefordshire with 150 others. Two said it had been life-changing. I gather the third  felt it had changed him - but from being benign into feeling murderously antagonistic.

Mindfulness meditation can increase selfishness and reduce generosity among  those with independent self-construals

One obvious way slow comes into its own is cooking. If I never ate fast-food again in my life that wouldn’t be soon enough. In Bra, Italy where the slow-food-movement started in 1989 it was the result of Macdonald’s trying to open a branch. How splendid a rebuff to relentless speed and dollar signs. Ragu to you Ronald. Meanwhile how sad that a much Michelin starred, much feted Paul Bocuse restaurant has closed in Lyons and is being replaced by a Macdonald’s.

Graphical user interface

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I can empathize with young people being in a hurry to gorge themselves on life; I was there myself once. I created an idea to make visiting an art gallery more fulfilling. It comprised selecting the 10 best, most interesting paintings, directing the visitor just to them and for each one writing a reader-accessible commentary and background (none of your Brian Sewell.)  The idea was to intensify the pleasure rather than save time. For many of us a long, comprehensive A to Z visit to a gallery can be like an exhausting and indigestible tasting menu. However, relishing just a few masterpieces can be life changing. 

 Technology has helped make our lives in many ways simpler but also in many ways somehow shallower. The onset of age makes physical speed less comfortable, but we still try to “keep up”. I think it’s time to reinvent the “Slow Movement” but as the “Savour Movement”. Enjoy less stuff but enjoy it more and take much longer doing so.

Face Savouring Delicious Food Emoji (U+1F60B)

Life should be less about how many things we do and more about making the experience much more intense …. that’s the main thing.    

Monday, 14 February 2022


It’s a long time since I wrote about Shakespeare. I’m doing so because consistent with my resolution to widen my horizons I went to a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” on Thursday. It was at our Grandsons’ school and our 13-year-old played Demetrius.

A Midsummer Night's Dream | Changing lives, one story at a time...

               The ability of the performers to remember so much verse that must have seemed as alien as Latin was remarkable; Shakespeare is hard unless you are schooled in iambic pentameters. 

What Is Iambic Pentameter in Poetry?


Secondly the spirit and joie de vivre of this cast of young actors was infectious. Amateur productions generally make me feel a little uneasy but as time passed my disbelief and skepticism were entirely suspended. This is exactly what theatre should do.

The play is rather silly. In Theseus’ Athens, where it’s set, daughters who ignore their father’s wishes as to whom they marry, must be executed. That is the law. One felt a certain parental ripple of approval for this through the audience. So, Hermia who’s instructed to marry Demetrius but who wants to marry Lysander instead is immediately in trouble. Helena, Hermia’s friend, is in love with Demetrius but he cannot stand her. Wake up at the back…pay attention. 

Meanwhile (‘meanwhile’ means there’s going to be more complexity) Oberon and Titania – Fairy King and Queen have a tiff and Oberon decides with his acolyte, the naughty nymph Puck, to teach her a lesson and, at the same time, sort out the love quadrangle of Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena. (With me so far?) 

A Midsummer Night's Dream | MYP English A

The enchanted wood which Oberon and the rest inhabit is, of course, where the star-crossed lovers get lost, Demetrius pursuing Hermia who’s with Lysander and himself being pursued by Helena. (Now is that clear?) Meanwhile a team of “rude mechanicals” – that’s a posh way of describing down-market workmen like Bottom the Weaver – are planning to play a version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in Theseus’s court.

Back to that magical wood where the dopey quartet of lovers continue to get hopelessly lost and keep lying down to have a snooze. (I’ve never come across so many naps in so short a time.) Puck gives Bottom an ass’s head and puts love potion into Titania’s eyes so when she wakes so she’ll fall for Bottom. But he screws up the other mission by putting love potion into Lysander’s eyes instead of Demetrius’ so Lysander falls for Helena and rejects Hermia. (Got it? Do pay attention please!)

 I remembered why I’d always loathed this now-he-loves-her-now-he-doesn’t stuff and that blasted ass’s head…it’s just so… what’s the word? Insufferable will do. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream

But in this production, several popular ‘80s songs (and why not? Shakespeare would have loved it) sung by a vigorously dancing and tuneful cast were belted out with such spirit and energy that it cheered me up. That was one thing. Another was those rude mechanicals who played their high comedy to much better effect than I’d ever seen before, better than in any professional productions. For once funny. The Wall and Thisbe were pure comic delights.  Finally, this is a spectacular cheer-you-up pantomimic comedy and the young people got that 100% right without a hint of the sometimes-dreary Royal Shakespeare Company reverence.

It was enormous fun. Our grandson cool and wonderful (but I would say that, wouldn’t I?) and his opposite number Lysander also spectacular, Puck is obviously destined for theatre later in life. Overall, it was an uproarious, funny event. 

An Irishman's Diary about the scourge of clapping along to music

This was proof, as if we needed it, that laughing, clapping, letting-your-hair-down, discarding restraint and having a ball is just the sort of tonic that all of us need.


Monday, 7 February 2022


Have you noticed the irrepressible cheerfulness of TV gardeners? Carol Klein  on Gardeners’ World gurgles inexpressible wonderment about her burgeoning blooms. Others take optimism to yodeling heights.

BBC Two - Gardeners' World - Carol Klein


Last week after months of idle self-pity I decided to start gardening again. Whilst we and our neighbours share a three-acre parkland full of mighty elms, our own little gardens leading on to this are more a thing of nail scissors than shears.

But gardening of any kind is serious so I must be prepared. I put on my crumpled gardening trousers and my gardening jerkin with its multi-pockets for secateurs, string, spare gardening gloves and a small but lethal trowel. I open the door and squawk…it’s freezing out there…..!!

How To Minimize The Risk of Lawn Frost Damage - Lush Lawn

I retreat indoors to do some research. It makes gloomy reading; “clean out, clear, remove, repair and tidy.” Most of all there’s the caveat “prune but not too soon.”

The next day it’s sunny, so I try again. I adopt the random-inspect-and-ruthless-remedy technique, favoured by dilettante gardeners. It comprises surprise attacks on areas of weeds or degenerate perennials. I fill a surprising number of refuse sacks with floral detritus quite fast and reflect on the philosophy of gardening. There’s the current fashionable vogue for wilding and pest balance. There’s the ‘if-you-can’t-eat-it-don’t-plant-it’ Vegetable Fanclub.  But I belong more to the school of striped lawns and immaculate herbaceous borders and, failing that, a less-is-more strategy.

Lighthouse Gardens | Gazette665

After two days of work I have two tidy garden cupboards packed with impressive array of nuclear-powered pest-killing products and all those plastic pots, old seed packets and out of date stuff have been binned. The garden has a new layer of top-soil – have you any idea what damage 30 litres of that stuff can do to your back? The worst of the straggling overgrowth has gone and the plant-corpses of the past season have been removed. To give hope for the future a few about-to-bloom bulbs have been strategically placed to please the eye and cheer us.

Finally the garden is tamed. I am a bit grumpy because I ache all over but escape my wife’s reproachful glances when our garden is neglected. It’s only early next morning, as I walk around this fresh canvas on which nature will paint its colour, that I realise how nice being  clean and tidy is.

Why the Kärcher pressure washer obsession is real — and we're here for it |  Evening Standard

So I decide on two final touches. Karcher is a second-generation, family-owned German business. They make various excellent products but my favourite is the pressure-washer for cleaning paving. Our muddy paving slabs are transformed to a sparkling, clean, grey blue. It’s pure magic. Danke schön Karcher


The second is to prune the dead wood in the awkwardly located lavender bushes which have got a bit out of control. Balancing on one leg I get along splendidly until I overbalance, slip and fall into some viciously prickly Teazel plants. Gardening is dangerous,  I mutter, with 115,000 accidents a year in the UK when they last counted. No wonder I’m a grumpy gardener. But like fishermen -  not grumpy for long. Gardeners always hope for a great year, huge marrows, wonderful roses and spectacular displays. Gardeners know there’ll be growth and we’re heading towards the growth season. 


Man-made artifacts are less predictable, as the past week or so has shown. Cryptocurrencies (which have a gardening cousin in the Dutch Tulip Bulb Bubble of the 1660s) have declined by 40% compared to their November peak.  More dramatic, in many ways, is the recent, colossal share price tumble of Meta (aka Facebook, Instagram et al).


Metaaaarghhhh | Financial Times


Maybe it’s best to leave growth to gardeners and rejoice in seasons.