Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rock on

I am making a garden in a building site.
True, it's a 40 year-old building site, but that adds an extra layer of both challenge and excitement. There are sections of bush, with a thin layer of quite nice topsoil on top of a thick layer of clay and then solid but easily shattered rock. That is, it's solid if you try to dig it, but shatters into a thousand fragments if you try to use it for anything sensible like garden bed edges.
But the area around the house is a 1960s building site and rubbish tip. The people who built the house (three mudbrick buildings, very gorgeous) made the bricks here themselves, having carved three house sites out of the clay and rock.
I don't know how they made the bricks. The clay is full of shards of riverstone, which they sieved and then obviously piffed over the side of the house sites. Along with bottles and bits of failed pottery and car batteries and sardine tins and for some inexplicable reason plastic ivy leaves which I find, by the handful, every week.
So I am either gardening on steep banks littered with shards and old rubbish, or in solid clay. In the middle of my vegie patch there is a car axle sticking up out of the dirt. I don't know why. But it's concreted in, so it's staying there.
Gardening here is what we might call a Valuable Learning Experience. I am now, for example, possibly the world's greatest forensic digger-upperer of old beer bottles (besides professional archaeologists, of course). There was a fashion in the '60s for including beer bottles in mudbricks. Our cottage has a wall made of sherry flagons, which makes you want to fire up the fondue set. There are bottle buried everywhere.
Today I was digging a hole to move the olive tree, which is in the shade and bent almost horizontal by the force of a pink hebe.
Never heard of such a thing as a venerable olive tree threatened by a wee sweet hebe? You've never seen this hebe. It's a Monster Hebe. It's the King Kong of hebes. It's the size of an elephant and I'm not exaggerating. Yes, I know they are usually about a metre high at most. This is the size of the MCG. And pink. Of course. I hate pink. This hebe is like a Barbara Cartland Mardi Gras Float.
Anyway, so the olive tree must be rescued. I dig a hole for it. For once, I am not digging in an area that is stony, so it must be solid clay. Though I have dug it into a raised bed a while back so it's not too solid. Clink. Not one but two old beer bottles in one hole (you have to extricate them very carefully so they don't shatter, and this is a skill I have had to develop over the last year).
Also in the soon-to-be-a-hole is some black plastic. And the cuff off a once-white shirt. That's all in the process of digging just one hole.
The ground full of rocks is worse. Some of them are just the size of a matchbox, but enough to turn the spade blade. There may be dozens in a square foot of earth. And needless to say I also piff them all elsewhere, which I will no doubt live to regret.
Other rocks are the size of a dog. Mind you, once you've got those buggers out, you have a mighty decent-sized planting hole. But no soil to backfill.
Yesterday I was planting correas on one of the banks and in the end resorted to scraping a hole in the stones, filling it with compost and planting into it. The Derek Jarman method.
If I'd thought about it properly, I could have made a gravel garden like Beth Chatto. People keep telling me to turn it into a rock garden but I can't stand those Carefully Managed Rocky Bank Gardens. This garden just happens to have rocks, that's all. And stones. And beer bottles lurking beneath the surface.
Come to think of it, Derek Jarman probably would have quite liked that. He'd probably be perfectly happy about the car axle. But I hate to think what he'd make of the hebe.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Famous Fifty

Children's author Enid Blyton has been named the best-loved writer in new Costa Book Awards poll to discover the UK's "most cherished" writers.
Blyton, who wrote more than 700 stories over a 40-year career (The Famous Five, Secret Seven, Malory Towers, Noddy), and has sold over 600 million books in total around the world, came out top and continues to be a phenomenally popular author. Despite her death in 1968, around eight million books are still sold worldwide every year, including more than a million Famous Five tales.
Fellow children's author Roald Dahl came second in the poll, thanks to gems such as James and the Giant Peach, The Witches and Matilda.

So, the top 50 best-loved authors in the UK are:
1. Enid Blyton
2. Roald Dahl
3. J.K. Rowling
4. Jane Austen
5. William Shakespeare
6. Charles Dickens
7. J.R.R. Tolkien
8. Agatha Christie
9. Stephen King
10. Beatrix Potter

(Read the full list of 50 here.)

C.S. Lewis came in at number 11.

If we draw a kindly veil over the fact that Dan Brown came in between Maeve Binchy and Emily Bronte, there are a few lessons here:
1. The books we love as children - the books that introduce us to reading as a mania - stay with us forever.
2. That remains true even when those books don't appeal to our adult reader eyes (and indeed may not bear too much close scrutiny on re-reading).
3. Some recent polls about books seem to have been influenced by recent movie releases or big-splash book launches - I'd suggest this list is not, perhaps because it's focused on authors.
4. The list of works here can be divided into those driven by plot or character (I'd suggest only Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens balance both). 20th century plot-lovers seem to have the numbers.

Lucy Mangan in The Guardian explores the allure of Blyton:
I myself can barely bring myself to talk about my Enid Blyton years. Who wants to let daylight in upon magic?
...For hundreds of thousands of us, Blyton was the wedge that cracked open the pleasure-filled world of reading and allowed us in. Our rational adult sides reject and mock Kirrin Island and all the adventures played out there; our inner children remember it rightly, and gratefully, as the promontory from which we caught our first glimpse of the promised land.

As George would say, ripping!