FEVERFEW

fever

 

When we were young the lilacs seemed to bloom all summer: nowadays they steal away so quick and crafty, like a thief in the night¤. One day, a froth of snow white, purple or mauve; the next, a creeping brown withered corruption.  But o! that brief enthralling scent: so addictive in nature, so rare in perfume. This is one of my favourite weeks of the year in the garden. Not only the lilac, heaped up like ice cream on green spear-shaped dishes, but the bearded flags in fragrant flower and the roses just about to pop – very abundant buds, this June, nourished with Lincolnshire horse manure. For a backdrop, the azaleas and rhododendrons in flagrant pink, apricot and crimson splendour. The thick powdery drunken scent of the may, the cow parsley and the new meadow grass combine with the more genteel herbaceous smells. Things seem to be coming right at last. The sweet smell of success.

I was poking about in an allotment sale looking for a cutting of feverfew to pot up. All the stall holders were talking about this weird horticultural year and the sense of disheartenment creeping in among their members: maybe more than that, almost a sense of dread. The times seem morbidly out of joint. Everyone’s patch ran mad during and after the warm damp non-winter and the slow cold coming of spring.

There’s nothing like a garden consistently failing to awake a sense of cosmic unease; it’s the tiny part of the universe you can be held accountable for. It is a miniature mirror of the greater world; and when it goes wrong panic may set in. We feel like our father Adam, confronted by the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day and requiring an explanation. For we cannot control vegetation, only encourage and protect, advise and warn. This spring we’ve all been afflicted with late frosts, prematurely early lily beetle¤¤, an invasion of sinister and pernicious ground elder. Tulip and Dutch iris bulbs have been eaten by ‘A Something Underground’. You’ll have heard, no doubt, of the warning of an invasion of “slugs the size of rats”¤¤¤. Oh, and the clothes moths are back – in a big way¤¤¤¤

So….anyway!….this feverfew: it’s a modest plant, very ancient, of great prettiness and interest. It has brilliant green feathery leaves and white daisy-like flowers which go on and on all summer. For centuries the intensely bitter-scented foliage has been brewed as a remedy against headache, migraine and upset tums. It grows like a weed once you get it going, but of course, “c’est le premier pas qui coute” – and CAN I establish feverfew in my thick clogged unforgiving clay? I cannot. And the allotment gentlemen were unable to help me. A charming and very knowledgeable gardener said, “You’ll find no feverfew here!” And for a very interesting reason. He was highly allergic to it. His wife is a herbalist and had tied bunches of feverfew to dry on the clothes rack in the kitchen. My friend returned home at the end of a long day, came over funny and passed out. Next day: still sick and wonky. Tests were made by Doctor. It was the sour scent of the feverfew, which seemed to bring on the very symptoms that it normally cures. A kind of short-circuiting. I was enthralled – though I left the market empty-handed.

ferverfew-2
My other little adventure was with this wide-eyed racing pigeon which stopped off in my garden for a rest. Being a high-toned, delicately-reared bird it didn’t understand bread: I gave it sunflower kernels and some oats. But as the pigeon was still voracious I then crumbled some bread very fine and mixed the crumbs with the house budgie’s Trill. This pleased the visitor up to a point, though not wildly so. I laid the dish aside. Hours later: I am warming some baked beans for tea and find the dish of crumbs. “These will make a tasty topping” – I pop them into the mixture with a little olive oil. A surprisingly crunchy texture! I had quite forgot all the Trill. Well, no harm done – and an interesting new eating experience.

This pigeon kept making sorties like Noah’s raven and dove: finally, like the dove, she returned not. I hope she made it safely home and was warmly welcomed back into the loft. But I am never quite sure about the comings and goings of strange birds: I was brought up to see them as auguries. Well, we shall see.

Welcome to June!

¤ and apple blossom is even more fragile and transient: one of Dame Nature’s most delicious scents but the flowers are as fleeting as the lightest cologne.

¤¤ exquisitely pretty, like polished coral beads – but so deadly, cunning and merciless. A pair of beetles will destroy a fully-grown lily within hours. Squashing them is the only option.

¤¤¤ you can sometimes catch them with alluringly fragranced traps of beer or hollowed out orange rinds. A “honey trap”, indeed.

¤¤¤¤ take all your clothes out of their storage spaces. Bake them in the sun: either in the garden or at a sunny window. This kills the moth eggs. Moths and their progeny loathe and fear hot clear sun. Shake, shake, shake. Scour all your closets and cupboards. Repeat the process then lay garments up with appropriate herbal moth repellents such as artemisia, lavender, rosemary, thyme, patchouli. Camphor, too, if you can get it. Keep shaking, airing and checking at regular intervals. The whole business is so time-consuming and so nerve-wracking that you might consider excluding pure wool from your wardrobe or – at any rate – severely limiting it.

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Fish + Chips

Fish and Chips in Newspaper advert

A breezy June on the Suffolk coast is one of the intense and stimulating of scented experiences: even the most jaded and constipated of London brains open and expand under that huge empty airy sky reflected in a sea that is usually the colour of old pewter but shows up bands of sapphire, salmon pink, caramel, jade and lavender as the capricious and dramatic light leaps across the bay. Unlimited air and light seem to cleanse you from inside out, relaxing the mind, eyes and nose as they do the body: you are scrubbed, pummelled and hung out to dry like a line of laundry – it’s a fortnight of “washing the blues from my soul”, like Sophie Tucker used to sing.

Go and sit on the pier and have a plate of fish and chips. Its all been tarted up a bit and the newspaper wrappings may have been outlawed but the colour and the smell are still intact: and intensified by eating out of doors, 100 yards out into the North Sea. Snowy flakes of haddock, steaming hot in a great armour of crunchy crisp batter the colour of wet sand, are seasoned not only by salt and vinegar but by the scents of sea, shore and town. The scalding aggressive smell of a well-heated clean white plate and the acid bite of lemon; a glass of beer, full of cereals, barley and the almost-garlicky reek of hops; the faint fresh fishy whiff not from your meal but coming up through the slats beneath your feet.

I mean that heart of darkness right under the pier; that dangerous smelly place where grandmother always warned you never to go. “Never go behind a television set or under the pier!” A place where unwanted babies were conceived and unwary children swept away by the powerful undertow or crushed by falling timbers. A sordid al fresco lavatory where strange mutterers lurked and bladderwrack, dead fish and the occasional beached seal mulched into a nice rich compost for dogs to roll in. All sanitised and safe nowadays: families take their picnics under the shade of the green-slimed struts and the strongest smell is from the bacon fat tied to the lines of the crab fishers.

A dark smoky odour of tar from nets and boats (“don’t get it on your shoes!”) may still spice up your chips (never fried here in that beef dripping which invariably talks back) and adds a tang to the green-cardboard-smelling mushy peas. Sweet sun-tan lotion blends with ice cream, women’s perfume and the scent of roses which floats out from the town gardens: great big roses here, thriving on salty sea air and tough winters, smelling of China tea, the finest verbena soap and canned peaches. More sweetness oozes from popcorn; the “natural toiletries” and packets of pot pourri in the pier gift shops, as well as the odd rakish glass of Bailey’s with some daring tripper’s coffee.

The dry wood of the pier flooring; the Brasso on the rails and fittings; saltiness on lips and fingers from your plate, the sea, the air. Occasionally a school party screeches and scrambles along the boarding, clutching clip-boards and pens for some inane but high-spirited survey: the children give off an aura of hair and clothes that is not exactly dirty but could do with a wash, an airing,or a dip in the briny. Funny – babies and infants always smell good, but suddenly around school age all too often there’s a waft of the world, as though Adam and Eve have once more been herded out of Eden. Rather like a kitchen after a morning’s baking. Not in itself unpleasant, but a window really should be opened.

In this case, a window on the world: very cosmopolitan is the good Suffolk air, pouring in from Holland, the Baltic and Russia: a refreshing air bath for body and soul.

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