How To Get on i…

How To Get on in Society by John Betjeman

Phone for the fish knives, Norman
As cook is a little unnerved;
You kiddies have crumpled the serviettes
And I must have things daintily served.

Are the requisites all in the toilet?
The frills round the cutlets can wait
Till the girl has replenished the cruets
And switched on the logs in the grate.

It’s ever so close in the lounge dear,
But the vestibule’s comfy for tea
And Howard is riding on horseback
So do come and take some with me

Now here is a fork for your pastries
And do use the couch for your feet;
I know that I wanted to ask you-
Is trifle sufficient for sweet?

Milk and then just as it comes dear?
I’m afraid the preserve’s full of stones;
Beg pardon, I’m soiling the doileys
With afternoon tea-cakes and scones.

Peter Duff of reminded me of this great John Betjemen poem about the pitfalls waiting to trip up the poor middle classes.


The Face ain’t Listenin’

Are we breeding a generation of children who are wilfully thick? I suppose that every generation thinks the the one that follows it is made up of ignoramuses and that we are no different; but really, that said, I do despair. I read voraciously as a child. Once I’d graduated from Enid Blyton I moved on to Just William, Agatha Christie and my father’s thrillers (a favourite was Alistair McLean’s Guns of Navarone, which I mentally pronounced  to rhyme with phone). My own daughter looks at me with withering contempt when I suggest any of the classics to her. Laura Ingles Wilder, Edith Nesbitt, Kenneth Graham and even good old Enid are treated with massive eye rolls and dismissed as ‘so old fashioned, I don’t get them’. I tell her that, despite appearances, I was not born in the 19th century and that these books were ‘old fashioned’ when I read them but that they gave me tremendous pleasure.

I am by nature bossy and know-allish in that autodidactic way that one becomes when they read a lot (scrappy bits of shallow pub-quiz knowledge); every time I try to explain a concept, word or historical event that comes up (usually on the telly) she sighs, does the talk to the hand thing and says ‘B-O-R-I-N-G I don’t care, I don’t want to know’ or ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ distractedly as she continues to tap away at her bloody smartphone. My friend, who has the patience of Job and nerves of steel offered to help her daughter with her prep (‘OMG will you stop usuing that word Mum, it’s HOMEWORK’). The subject was an essay on the Middle Ages, so my friend asked, in all innocence, what date were the middle ages, which was the cue for ‘we don’t need to know that!’

We have become so obsessed with preserving and pumping up our children’s self esteem that they no longer experience failure or disappointment at all and are due for a horrible hard landing when they grow up. It seems to me that the rule is that you just offer praise non-stop and never criticise, even when the child is being utterly bone-headed or just plain wrong. At my daughter’s school sports-day everyone’s a winner, they all get medals and prizes, even when coming Paddy last in every single race. At a recent one act play festival every school taking part won prizes, got certificates and special mentions. There is now talk of phasing out exams, and rote learning is now seen as some sort of child abuse. I worry that these super confident children are starting wear their ignorance as a sort of badge of honour; they are defiantly dumb. Adolescent girls today aspire to looking like page   bimbos and their older counterparts seem to think feminism is a dirty word.

I am not for one minute suggesting that today’s children are inherently stupid; on the contrary, many are super worldly, articulate and smart, it is just that great swathes of knowledge seem to go completely over their heads. They are welded to smart phones and face time and instant gratification. At the risk of sounding like Mrs Colonel Blimp I feel that they are missing out on the wonderful solitary pleasures of reading and accumulating knowledge. The point about reading, and reading widely is that it acts as a huge safety net. You learn how to spoof, and acquire a dilettantish knowledge concentrate of facts and stories that will carry you through life and exams. Even reading rubbishy books is better than reading no books at all. An early fascination with Dan Brown might lead to interest and further research into Da Vinci, Dante and art history.

Note: Obviously the above does not apply to those of you whose children are at this very moment busy boning up on their Descartes and advanced Mandarin.

Common as Muck

What a fantastic day Sunday was for gardeners. I couldn’t believe it when I woke up to sunshine, and then realized that it was also warm. I got a huge amount of work done and the garden looks the better for it. A top tip – an instant way to make the garden look tidier is to mow the grass and edge the lawn. You can buy a special sort of half-moon tool designed specifically for the job or just use a spade as I do. This gives definition and demarcates the beds and lawn. Put the turves face down on the compost heap and they will rot down nicely.

The other day someone (she knows who she is) asked me what sort of chocolate I liked. Having a very unsophisticated and greedy palate I immediately said, ‘oh Galaxy, I love it’. My friend looked quizzically at me and asked, ‘but don’t you like dark?’ – which I do, but not that nearly totally cocoa kind that tastes bitter.  Her point was that choice of chocs is another class indicator; the darker the smarter, milk choc for plebs and white chocolate is so beyond the pale as not to register. We like to think that, unlike Britain, we are not at all class bound and have a lovely fluid mobile society. Well my eye to that, we are riddled with subtle class indicators. Little things like talk of ‘serviettes’ placing coasters on the table will elicit knowing looks between those who think they are a cut above that sort of thing. The funny thing  is, of course, that the only people who obsess about class and all the little rules and  potential social elephant traps are the poor bourgeoisie. Always the butt of the joke, the middle class are slagged and despised by those lower down the social scale, while looked on with amusement by genuine toffs who laugh at our Hyacinth Bucket foibles. I have met aristos who happily go to the toilet, drink instant coffee and shop in Aldi without a care in the world. Being bred in the bone U gives them the confidence not to give a damn about social convention. My friend and I always joke about using the’ rear view looking glass’ when in the car – mirror was considered unspeakably common until very recently. Anyway the point of all this is that snobbishness and weird conventions also apply to gardens. Here is a list of what is vulgar and what is not – as always the list is not set in stone. Once something becomes common currency and is adopted by the masses it instantly loses its cache and becomes vulgar. Also do note that I am common as muck and have love lots of the infra dig things I list as non-U.

p.s. Never, ever say something is ‘classy’ – terribly common!

Below the Salt


Top of the Table

Standard box lollipops (usually seen each side of the hall door looking windswept) Box bowls, cubes and obelisks
Red hot pokers, big red and orange Kniphofia Rare choice small Kniphofiae in delicate  creams and yellows.
Tying spent daffodil foliage in tidy knots Allowing daffodils to rot down naturally and messily amongst emerging plants
Plastic garden furniture, especially white Rusty cast iron garden furniture
Loud summer bedding in serried rows Drifts of self-seeding annuals
Japanese cherry trees Magnolia wilsonii – preferably grown from seed collected on plant hunting trip to China
Dwarf conifers Yew
Heathers Hellebores
Fishing gnomes 18th century marble statue of Flora
Hybrid Tea roses Old English shrub roses
Cobblelock Gravel
Alan Titchmarsh Dan Pearson
PVC greenhouses Cedar greenhouses
Yellow and green variegated leaves Cream or silver and green variegated leaves
Lobelia and alyssum Omphaloides and Brunnera Jack Frost
Luminous coloured heuchera Tiarella cordifolia
Jolly yellow trumpets of daffodils Pheasants eye and paper whites

Flowers in May

Clematis vitalba scrambling through rose and philadelphus

Clematis vitalba scrambling through rose and philadelphus

Two other pretty flowers out now are the old-fashioned hedgerow species clematis,Clematis vitalba known as old man’s beard. Not showy like its cousins, this has small, pretty greeny white flowers and later, fluffy white seed heads. I think it is very sweet.

The second pretty plant is the lovely frilly Myrrhis odorata, or sweet Cicily. The flowers are frothy white and once spent the pretty ferny leaves will add interest for the rest of the summer.IMGP0313

A Note on the Gardens at Killruddery, Bray, County Wicklow

The garden at Killruddery, County Wicklow is the probably the most complete surviving example of the classic geometric Restoration garden in Ireland, or indeed the British Isles.

 Killruddery has been the seat of the Earls of Meath since 1618. The estate lies to the south of Bray and was, at its height approximately 1,550 acres. The formal garden was laid out in the 1680s and later lauded as an Irish version of a great seventeenth-century French landscape by travel writer James Brewer who described Killruddery:

 From the natural grandeur of the surrounding county, the formality of the mode stands revealed with peculiar distinctiveness. The enclosing mountains rise boldly and at once, with all their brilliance of purple and brown colours, above the long avenues of stately elms, the close cut ewe hedges, the regular terraces of this St. Cloud.[1]

 It is now part of garden history orthodoxy that Killruddery was created for the fourth Earl of Meath by a French gardener called Bonnet – who some go as far to say was ‘inspired by King Louis XIV’s garden designer, Andre Le Le Nôtre, at Versailles’.[2] There is absolutely no evidence for this contention  and it appears to have arisen from confusion over a reference in the papers of Sir William Petty. It has been mistakenly stated that Petty wrote ‘ruefully in his diary’ that he had ‘lost his gardener of twelve years standing,’ a Mr. Bonnet, to the Earl of Meath.[3] In fact, no diary exists amongst Petty’s manuscripts.

ImagePetty did indeed employ a gardener called Bonel at his town garden in George’s Lane (Street) in 1684.[4] There is a reference to a ‘Mr. Bonel’ in a letter dated 1686 from Petty’s agent Thomas Dance, which states that Bonel ‘goes to live with my Lord of Meath.’[5] If the letter does refer to the gardener called Bonel it is unlikely that he was the designer of the garden. The landscape at Killruddery was well underway by 1682. A letter of that date sent by Oliver Cheney the third Earl’s agent describes the progress of the gardens:


Ye decoy will be the finest in ye kingdom or I beleve in ye 3 kingdoms. the pond is already made & ye reed wal is making, round about which he wil builld a wal at soe great a distance that ye fowl shal not be frighted therat, ye south and north ends of which wal shal be of lem [lime] and stonn the other two dids a dry wal. against the south wal without and against ye north wal within he wil  plant frut of al sorts and wil make a treble ditch without ye south wal and quickset the fen to ye end that ye deer may not get to ye frut and that ye park may be completed.[6]


From this we can see that the essential elements of the seventeenth-century garden were present at Killruddery by 1682, four years prior to Dance’s letter.[7] Most of these are still extant. The remaining elms were lost during the outbreak of Dutch elm disease in the early 1980s. Many more trees were lost during the great storms between 1985 and 1990. Cheney states that ‘Captain Brabazon’ was creating the garden.[8] ‘Bonel’ remains a mystery. If he was the driving force behind the creation of Killruddery it is curious that he does not appear in any other letters or literature of the period. Bonel may in fact, have been a mere jobbing gardener who realised plans drawn up the Earl himself.  Edward Brabazon had some experience of managing great landscapes, he was appointed as Ranger of the Phoenix Park in 1665 and all the Royal Parks in Ireland in 1675,[9] and in 1693 he was charged, in his capacity of Master of the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, with preparing ‘an account of what is necessary to be done in the garden’.[10] From this it may be presumed that the Earl had an interest and good knowledge of gardening and there is no reason why he may not be given credit for the garden’s design.



[1]Brewer, J. N., The beauties of Ireland being original delemenations typographical historical and biographical of each county, (1825) vol. 1, p.  284 – 5.

[2]  Fitzgerald, Olda, Irish Gardens, (London, 1999), p.163.

[3]This statement appears in Bowe, Patrick, The Gardens of Ireland, (London, 1986), p. 102.

[4]‘Garden is in good order as is also the gardener Bonel’ W. Petty to Lady Petty, 27 Mar.,1684, BL, Add. MS 72856 f.230.

[5]Lansdowne, The Petty Papers, vol. 17 (Boston, 1927), p. 103. Dance appears to have been acting as chief agent in Dublin for Petty’s Irish estates. The letter is addressed to James Waller, Petty’s brother in law in England and is dated 28 Aug.1686.  A similar confusion has arisen over the designer of Courances, which is explained by Gorges Farhat in a recent comprehensive publication on the history of the chateau. De Ganay, Valentine & Le Bon, Laurent, Courances (Paris 2002). In 1990 Thierry Marriage claimed that Jean Le Nôtre, André’s father must have worked on Courances. Aurelia Rostaing, curator at the Archive Nationales discovered that Claude Gallard, the owner of Courances at the time had simply lent money to Jean Le Nôtre to fund the purchase of house in Paris. On the contrary Farhat asserts that Courances inspired le Nôtre in his designs for the water innovations at Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte.

[6]Earl of Meath papers, J3/2.

[7]Lismore, seat of the second Earl of Cork, had a fine seventeenth-century garden which also contained a bowling-green and wilderness.

[8]See fn. 270.  Edward Brabazon succeeded to the title upon the death of his brother William Brabazon. Edward married Cecilia Brereton, daughter of the writer Sir William Brereton.

[9]Doubleday & De Walden (eds.), The Complete Peerage, vol. viii (London, 1932).

[10]NAI, Minutes of the Royal Hospital of Charles II, 1 Apr.,1693.

The Death of Hope

I was going to write another awful flowers are like people piece again, but think will skip the analogy and just get down to what is on my mind. The death of youth, expectation and hope. I don’t know if I hung out with a particularly wild or doomed set, but it seems that the past few years have been filled with funerals and many of them unbelievably poignant. Most of these premature departures have been men, and their downfall has been alcohol. This is somewhat surprisingly as narcs were their drug of choice originally, but in a contradiction   of received wisdom, the drugs proved to be the gateway to a life devoted to the pursuit of alcohol induced oblivion. These boys were all, without exception beautiful, talented, clever and funny young men. Hugely sexually successful, popular with their peers and gifted it seemed to us back in the 70s and 80s that the world, in the words of the sage Hilda Ogden, was their lobster. Their funerals all had one striking element in common: the mourners, apart from family, were composed of a core gang of friends who knew them when they were young and in their prime. There were no ‘new’ friends, work colleagues and acquaintances. Most of these friends had had no contact with the deceased for many years. It was as though their lives had crystalized at that point in their youth when they were at their peak, and that from then onwards, they had lived in a limbo – or purgatory even.  Regressing and becoming increasingly isolated and reclusive. What was it that made these boys so particularly vulnerable? What lead them to forgo careers, family life, and comfort for the rackety hand to mouth existence they lead in the end? Signing on to get a few quid to drink themselves into oblivion? Were expectations too high? Did they feel the hopes and demands of their friends and family were impossible to live up to so deliberately opt out? Or does beauty and talent always come with price? A very interesting survey is documented in a recent book Triumph of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study by George E. Vaillant (Harvard) which is reviewed in The New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell. In 1938 a professor of Harvard’s student health services launched a study of 268 Harvard sophomores (all male); selecting the best and brightest of the classes 1939-44 (Jack Kennedy was part of the study). The study continues to this day and is called the Harvard Grant study, the aim is to determine which early traits best predict a successful life. In compiling the book Vaillant, who is himself in his 80s, looked at two other studies: the Glueck study, which began to follow five hundred white male teenagers in Boston, mainly the son of Irish and Italian immigrants, who had been sentenced to reformatories for juvenile delinquents in the 1940s and the Terman Study, which began in 1920 looking at 1,500 elementary children in San Francisco and Los Angeles who had IQs of over 140. Comparisons with each group throw up some obvious conclusions – the richer and more privileged did better and men were more financially and vocationally successful than women (a truism today, even with notional equal rights and opportunities).  Reviewing the data collected the strongest indicators of a long and happy life were the quality of personal relationships, happy childhoods and strong marriages, and education. The correlation with further education was especially strong – those who continue with post-graduate work tend to live even longer their happily married well educated peers. The greatest and most devastating factor on life expectancy and quality of life was however, alcohol. According to Vaillant, alcoholism was the cause, not the consequence of unhappiness. Most of the divorces which took place among the subjects were as a result of alcoholism as were professional setbacks and early death. In other words, as Vaillent says, alcohol was the horse and not the cart. ‘The men did not drown their sorrows in alcohol, he believes, but inherited a vulnerability to alcohol, which then caused their sorrows.’

What lessons can we take from these shattered lives and the conclusions of the study? One perhaps is to take a less determinist view of the genetic disposition to alcoholism and look at the social and external causes. In Ireland getting totally insensible with drink to the point of blackout is regarded as a right of passage for teenagers and doesn’t seem to be treated with the same level of seriousness or hysteria as for example finding a ten spot of hash in a child’s trouser pocket. We as parents need to teach children to treat alcohol with respect, as something to be enjoyed socially and in moderation and not as a means to an end which is drinking to the point of oblivion, and to stress that alcohol is as much a dangerous and pernicious drug as any other class As. Aside from that we need to draw back from placing too much expectation on our children. Yes,  love and cherish your children, buy them the best education you can afford but let them know that it is ok to fail from time to time, that being young and gorgeous and clever is not necessarily a passport to success but rather a fortuitous bit of luck to help them on the way and that hard work, commitment, a thick skin and moderation in all is the path to true happiness.

Wild Garlic – caveat emptor!

Allium ursinum

This morning I spent 3 hours at my friend Mrs Wilson’s garden trying to dig out a bed which was infested with wild garlic, Allium ursinum. This plant is a beguiling and beautiful creature when seen wending its way through woodlands and along roadside banks, it has also become madly fashionable with the craze for food foraging as it makes a very nice addition to soups and salads and has edible flowers. However a word of warning, if you have a small garden and do not own acres of wild woodland, do not, under any circumstances be tempted to introduce it into your patch. Allium ursinum is a thug of the highest degree and will spread like the clappers once it has taken root. It seeds prolifically, each little grass-like seedling is attached to a little bulbule and these are practically impossible to eradicate once established. Today I cleared a patch approx 2m x 3m, laboriously teasing the leaves and flower heads from underneath plants and stones and between rocks – when you pull the plant the leaves come away in your hand leaving the bulb behind, when you try to dig underneath the bulb it just seems to make the problem worse, spreading bulbules around even further. Clearing is a Pyrrhic victory as as sure as eggs is eggs, next year the infestation will be just as bad. My only advice is do remove all stalks and flower heads, this will weaken the bulbs and stop the things seeding and pull out any seedlings. Never, ever add to a compost heap – either burn or bag and bin.