Saturday, March 28, 2020

Applause and a Virtual Drink

I forgot to mention this yesterday, but when Dave and I were watching TV Thursday night, I became aware of a weird sound -- a kind of rhythmic tapping or banging. I paused the TV and said to Dave, "What am I hearing?" He couldn't hear it. I thought it might be the kids upstairs, but I went to the back door and opened it, and realized it was applause -- clapping hands. My neighbors on all sides were standing outside and cheering.

We learned later this was a coordinated demonstration of support for the National Health Service and its employees, who have been at the front lines of the coronavirus battle. We didn't know it was going to happen, or we would have cheered too.

And you know who else ought to get some cheers? The sanitation workers. They came yesterday morning and collected our trash, right on schedule. I thought, boy, are these guys unsung heroes. I saw a few fellow bloggers say the same in their posts later in the day. In this time of disruption and uncertainty it's comforting to see crucial routines continue.

I barely left the house yesterday. Olga and I sat out in the back garden, me with my mediocre Patricia Cornwell novel, Olga with her belly spots.

And then we went, again, to the cemetery. I think Olga's actually doing more walking with me than with her dog-walker. I suspect the walker just takes her to the Heath and lets her loll in the grass, whereas she and I are more actively moving around. She seemed a little worn out yesterday!

In the evening I participated in a "virtual happy hour" with my co-workers. We all poured ourselves a drink and got on Zoom and chatted for a while, to decompress and catch up on the news. It was pretty fun and kind of surreal at the same time! It was cool to get a little glimpse of everyone's home lives in the background -- their decor or their gardens and pets and babies. I've seen articles recently on how to video-conference wisely, including choosing suitable backdrops and dressing appropriately. I guess we're all doing it, right?

My happy hour drink was made with the blood-orange-and-fig infused gin I bought at Sainsbury's the other day, and it was not bad! Not too sweet, and really good with tonic and lime.

I have already lost my bet about Mrs. Kravitz and her plants. She did water them yesterday. I still think most of them are going to perish, though. Stay tuned!

Oh, and remember how I visited filmmaker Derek Jarman's former home in Dungeness last summer? Well, there's a public effort to buy the property and make it available for garden tours and workshops and as an artist's retreat. I've donated to it and I hope they reach their goal -- they're already so close. I'm not a huge fan of Jarman's weird, incomprehensible filmmaking but I recognize how important he was in the worlds of art and gay culture, and I loved reading "Modern Nature," the first volume of his published diaries. (Which was partly about his gardening in the hardscrabble shingle of Dungeness.) I would love to be able to see inside the cottage one of these days!

Friday, March 27, 2020


For me, yesterday was kind of like the movie "Groundhog Day." I was back at Sainsbury's in the morning, because of course I forgot some stuff when I went the day before. I like the orderly, crowd-controlled way we're all doing our shopping now. It's nice to stand in a well-spaced line and walk through aisles that aren't packed with people. Anyway, I got my eggs and potatoes and Dentastix and then decided to drop by Homebase on the way home.

Only...Homebase was closed. Apparently some time between Wednesday evening and Thursday morning they decided they weren't an essential retailer after all. Not only were they closed, but they were giving away all their seasonal plants in front of the store. I saw people leaving with carloads of primroses, pansies, and hanging baskets. Now that £1 I paid for a flat of primroses the day before looks like a rip-off! Everything's relative, right?

Anyway, I picked up another polyanthus and a flat of something called Arabis, or rock cress (above). I've never heard of it, but I like it. I also grabbed a pot of sad-looking daffodils that I figured no one else would want.

While I was doing all this, Dave was planting our little fig tree. You may remember I rescued it several years ago, and it's been living in a big pot on our patio, but it was getting increasingly root-bound and last year it didn't look as healthy as the year before. So we decided to put it in the ground.

While I potted up the Arabis, Dave took care of the fig and put the sad daffodils at its base. They'll come up fresh and new next spring.

Then Olga required a walk, so she and I went back to the cemetery. We heard the turaco again, and Olga had several good rolls in the sun.

I kicked off a cataloging project for work -- basically revising the Dewey Decimal numbers for books in our Lower School to make them simpler. I have to keep doing something for the school during this time, to justify my salary. I have a few other library-related tasks lurking in the wings.

Oh, and I mentioned the free plants from Homebase to Mrs. Kravitz. She leaped in her car and drove over there, and returned with what must be 100 plants:

I don't see how she's going to be able to use all those. (I take back what I said yesterday -- that it's impossible to have too many primroses.) If I were a betting man, I'd bet they're going to sit on her patio in their pots, unwatered and untouched, until they die and she throws them all out. I've seen it happen before.

Some people, when you say "free," go a little crazy.

Thursday, March 26, 2020


Well, I'll say this much -- if we're all going to be confined mostly to our homes, it's helpful to have spectacular weather. Being outside is a joy right now, even just in the back garden. I actually have mild sunburn!

Yesterday I ventured to the big Sainsbury's on Finchley Road in search of provisions. I went earlyish, and I was in a well-spaced line waiting to get in before 10 a.m. (The store controlled the numbers of shoppers allowed inside.) When I was finally admitted, I was able to buy ground beef, a whole chicken, some fresh veggies and -- score -- a 9-pack of toilet paper! Woo hoo!

I also got a bottle of wine, although the normally widely varied selection was decimated and I seemed to have pretty much two options, a Spanish tempranillo and some kind of basic white. (I chose the tempranillo.) And purely on a whim I bought a bottle of blood-orange-and-fig flavored gin. Gotta stay entertained somehow.

I brought all the food home, and then went to Homebase, which because it sells home-repair supplies is classified as an "essential" retailer and thus not closed. (I guess if someone's toilet breaks they need to have a way to fix it.) I bought some batteries and a bag of concrete with which to make some stepping stones for the garden. (Lugging that home was a blast.)

I also rescued a flat of primroses that were passing their peak and were priced at 97p. They were a bit wilty yesterday, but I moved them to a planter and they're looking great this morning. Can a person ever have too many primroses? I say no.

Oh, and I rescued this campanula for the bathroom -- also half price.

All this did not preclude me walking the dog, who needs her exercise too. We went up to Fortune Green and walked through the cemetery, which I was happy to see is not closed. We had no trouble maintaining adequate distance from people, except on a few narrow pathways where you just have to pass a bit closer. In such situations I find myself breathing like I'm in a smoky room -- I squint my eyes, close my mouth and breathe shallowly through my nose, if I'm not holding my breath altogether. I'm not saying this helps. It's just my instinct to treat the air around other people as noxious.

Anyway, otherwise, this was the mood here at home!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The First Mow

I spent a lot of time in the garden yesterday, both working and relaxing. For one thing, I gave the lawn its first mowing of the year. It seems a little early, but the grass was very shaggy and the ground was dry enough, so why not? I think the natural world is slightly ahead of its usual spring timetable because we had such a mild winter.

The harmless little flying bugs that congregate in airborne clouds are out already. I have no idea what they are, but photographing them was an interesting challenge! We love watching them fly when the weather gets warm. I try to make our chemical-free garden a haven from the "insect apocalypse" facing the rest of Europe and the planet.

Here's a close-up. They're like little prop planes!

With Olga's dog-walker no longer able to come because of the lockdown, and us only allowed out once a day for exercise, I held off on walking her until the afternoon. We went up to the high street just to see what's going on. There were a surprising number of people out, all things considered, some carrying takeaway coffee, or sitting on benches with a companion. (I'm assuming they're sitting with people they live with, and not visiting with friends. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt.)

Some shops were open, even one or two that don't seem very essential. (Cookware, anyone?) But other establishments are boarded up.

We had some very dramatic sun-and-shadow photo opportunities.

Olga got a little stroppy. She knew something was different and wanted to go to the cemetery, but I didn't want to take a longer outing right away. I'm still not sure what I'm allowed to do and what I'm not under these new rules. So we stuck to the neighborhood and kept our distance from everybody.

Then I took a pair of clippers down to the once-viney tree and pruned the new sprouts of hops vine from around its base. I am going to kill that vine if it's the last thing I do.

I also had a chat with Mrs. Kravitz, she standing on her upstairs balcony and me in our side yard. She started badgering me again about replacing the fence. I pointed out that the landlord has just replaced the side gate and trimmed the tall cypresses in the front garden, both things she'd complained about. Nonetheless, she said she's going to write a cranky e-mail to our property managers. You do that, I thought. I'm staying out of it. (It's not like we all have bigger problems to worry about at the moment, right?!)

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Staining and Lockdown

I felt a burst of energy yesterday morning, and launched my project to reinvigorate our tired garden furniture. Olga was ready to help.

Here's our furniture as it looked near the beginning of the project -- I'd sanded it by this time, just to remove grime on the wood and give it a smooth texture. But I hadn't yet applied the patio furniture stain I bought the other day.

Here's a before-and-after shot, showing the contrast between the old finish and the new.

The project was a fair amount of work, but it wasn't as awful as I was afraid it might be. I used a brush that was a tad too big and blocky, which gave me problems with sloppy drips, but I kept a paper towel (and my fingers) handy to mop them up.

A few hours later...

...ta-da! Much nicer looking furniture, now prepared for a summer of use and weather!

(Olga's help, by the way, turned out to be lounging nearby in the sun, staring at me.)

If I can get a smaller brush I'll go over them again just to hit all the nooks and crannies between the slats, because my big brush wasn't great for that. But who knows when I'll be able to get a smaller brush. As you've probably seen on the news, the UK is now in full lockdown, which means we're under orders to stay home. We can only shop for food or medicine, and take one form of exercise per day -- which means, in my case, walking the dog. (Olga's dog walkers will no longer be able to come every weekday.)

I suspect walking the dog is going to mean short walks in the neighborhood.

Of course I'm bummed, but at least I have a lot of reading material and a big garden. That's more than some people can say. And based on what I saw at the playgrounds over the weekend, I totally understand why lockdown is necessary.

This blog is about to get even less interesting!

Monday, March 23, 2020

Totoro and Turaco

I was photographing the forget-me-nots, which are coming out now in the garden, when I found this white feather clinging to one of them. Probably from a pigeon, but pretty nonetheless.

After I wrote yesterday about walking on the Heath, I saw that there was quite a backlash to people being out in public over the weekend. Apparently some of the beachfront towns were quite crowded, and lots of people turned up on some parts of the Heath -- so many that the city has warned it will be closed if people cannot maintain distance. (For the record, I was on the West Heath, Sandy Heath and Hampstead Heath Extension, which must not have been as crowded as the main Heath, because I felt able to keep to the six-foot rule.)

Kew Gardens, which had initially said it would remain open for people who needed fresh air, has now closed for the foreseeable future. And Boris has said the UK may enact a tighter lockdown if needed.

Yesterday, Olga and I went to the cemetery and to Fortune Green. Again, we were mostly able to steer clear of people, although at one point a boy and a young woman approached me to pet the dog -- I didn't say anything but they were well within my safety zone. And there were kids on the playground equipment! A lot of people are either entirely ignorant of the rules or they're just not policing themselves.

I finally finished that infernal book about Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. Although considered a great beauty -- and steeped in scandal throughout her public life, including being caught up in the Profumo Affair -- she seemed thoroughly shallow and boring. The book itself felt hastily written and had no flair. Thumbs down!

I'm not sure I mentioned this at the time, but Totoro -- our Japanese forest spirit -- got gnawed down from his tree sometime last fall. (I say gnawed because I'm virtually certain squirrels were the culprits.) He was unharmed but the little bead that served as his bell-ringer was missing.

It never did turn up. A couple of weeks ago I found a green glass (I think?) bead lying on the ground in the cemetery, and I thought it would be a perfect replacement -- and it is. Although nominally a bell, Totoro never really rings, so it's just for appearance's sake. I've now rehung Totoro in the garden so he can keep watch over things.

Remember the turaco? After it disappeared last fall, I assumed we'd never see or hear it again. Being a tropical bird, it is way out of its home range of East Africa, flying around here in England. Imagine my surprise when Olga and I went to the cemetery yesterday and heard it! It's back!

I made the video above so you could hear it too. The bird doesn't really repeat its call so quickly -- I edited out the 10- or 12-second pauses between each one. Very "Tarzan" sounding, isn't it? (Here's a video of one in captivity making the same call.)

I wonder if it ever left? Did it hunker down and quietly overwinter here in London, or has it been sunning itself in the treetops of Tanzania before migrating back? Maybe it's not lost at all -- maybe it actually belongs to someone who lives nearby and they allow it to fly free. So many questions I would ask that turaco, if I could.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Social Distancing on the Heath

Mindful of maintaining my minimum of six feet of distance from other people, I took Olga to the Heath yesterday. It was a beautiful day, bright and cool, and even though there were quite a few people out, in an environment as open as the Heath it's not hard to keep more or less to yourself.

I read an article in The New York Times about walking -- whether it's a good idea from a public health standpoint. The consensus seems to be yes, as long as you maintain social distancing. After all, we still need our exercise, right? I especially liked the quote at the end: "It's probably going to be a beautiful spring, and we do need to save our own sanity."

I was surprised to see kids on the playground equipment, though -- especially in Golder's Hill Park, where there were mobs of them. That seems questionable.

I found some coltsfoot blooming on Sandy Heath.

Tiny sprouts of bracken are curling up from the forest floor, soon to become huge ferns.

The blackthorn is blooming, creating big clouds of white alongside the playing fields on Hampstead Heath Extension.

And check out this snake's head fritillary -- definitely one of the biggest and nicest I've seen! The ones in our garden don't look anything near this good. I don't understand how they grow in wild places without getting devoured by slugs.

Anyway, we had a great walk. It was nice to do something that hewed to our old routines, and allowed us (me & Olga) to enjoy the natural world. (Admittedly, Olga's method of enjoying nature is chasing it.)