If it were possible for nature to be a bride then now would be her wedding day.
The countryside where we live is bedecked for celebration. Hedgerows are veiled in the white flowers of May blossom and its scent hangs heavy and intoxicatingly in the air. The theatre that is an outdoor church is lit with thousands of candles of horse chestnut flowers. The whiteness is enhanced by a green that never looks as green as at this moment for soon the colour will deepen to a more mature shade.
Against this virginal background, colour and drama is introduced by the bold and brash incomers the rhododendrons and the azaleas. These are the additions to our landscape brought back by travellers and plant hunters and once eagerly sought by country house owners. Now they are even the pride of suburban gardens in Bearsden and Morningside and would you believe certain parts of Carlisle (the right side) and I am told Rye. Tears, and there are always tears at a wedding, of hope and regret are provided by that loveliest
of ladies the laburnum, shining brightly against the more sombre yew and copper beach.
“Aye, this might be all we get”
So used to the dark and the cold are we in Scotland that the lengthening days and the realisation that as “May be oot”, we can cast at least one layer of cloots. Note my dear friend by May one means the blossom not the month. There is everywhere a sense of temporary insanity as all in town and village attempt to be bright and gay, or at least bright. The need to make the most of things is made all the more urgent by the deeply held belief that as ever “we will pay for this later”. The summer is bound to be wet as we have peaked too soon. “Summers lease” is we are fond of saying far too short or to quote old young Jock, “tak’ ma heid, we’re doomed tae go, and don’t forget I told ye so.” The arms of Calvin are after all very long and his thoughts deeply embedded.
For the time being, however, soup may be given up in favour of salad and country dancing and crotchet for walks and gardens. There are weeds to wage war on and walls to whitewash. For the cottagers it is time to prepare the ground for the vegetables that will inevitably win the classes at the flower show. Everywhere there are raised beds sprouting green shoots and complicated networks of canes tied together in secret combinations to support beans and peas. Just as galvanised buckets lie close to hand containing secret recipes to promote vigorous and thrusting growth in leek and gladioli. It is best not to enquire too closely about the ingredients suffice to say country people waste nothing.
Everyone is Busy
If the cottagers are busy with getting ready for their competitions, and of course they are designed to take minds of radical politics, then the established gentry and the middle class city dwellers who weekend in the country are also busy. They are busy working with their gardeners, visiting each other’s gardens for a tour and tea and going further afield to visit the gardens which appear in Country Life, The Scottish Field or Tatler and Bystander. This is to get ideas and to steal cuttings for large acres were not acquired by unnecessary expenditure on nursery plants with their inflated prices. Ladies going on visits to country houses can always be spotted as they carry unnecessarily large handbags which contain a pair of scissors and room for a damp flannel in which to secrete a twig or two.
The void left by the end of choir practice, the S.W.R.I. meetings, bridge and classes where one learns to dance The Duke of Perth just in case one is invited to Balmoral are filled with other activities more conducive to the season. Garden parties are popular as is collecting for charity. It is hard to hide from the lady with the envelope or the tin can from the Home for Fallen Women or Orphans for Australia when you are battling ground elder in the front garden. This is a profitable time of year for ladies with cans to rattle and there is no escape, they know where to find you.
Bashing About Everywhere
Sketching and painting are popular too especially since one spent all that money last year on a residential course on “Perspectives on Peace”, with Dr Everette-Millais-Constable from the Glasgow Art School a noted authority on cravats, “En Plein Air” and post last Unpleasantness landscapes of devastation. One learnt some very clever techniques with colour wash, but there were times when it was almost too gritty, “after all one can see barefoot children in the countryside too, surely they have shoe shops in The Gorbals, don’t they?”
Why you might ask do we not take a holiday perhaps to the South of France or Italy? Well one never goes abroad between May and September, except to go to the Chelsea Flower Show and one is inevitably invited to The Royal Garden Party at Holyrood and then there is The Royal Highland Show at Ingliston, so one is busy bashing about everywhere in-between dead heading and making compost.
What To Do With Men
As for occupations for men, this is I admit an area of great difficulty. They tend to have spent so much of the winter in the shed with a paraffin heater, a barrel of sherry and some unsuitable art books that they have developed prison pallor and sometimes even a twitch. Although they do not know it they yearn to be outside in the fresh air.
The novelty of the vegetable garden soon wears off as they realise they will never be able to feed the family let alone the village in the days following a nuclear war; besides the rabbits here are very smart. Pruning trees is fun as this allows them to get out ladders and cut things down. they feel very in control.
A project like a rockery is very fulfilling and inexpensive and they think it mathematical and therefore suitable for men. They quite enjoy wall building with stone or even bricks as they know Winston Churchill does it for relaxation at Chartwell.
If you are common or earning too much money in the new electronic industries then a small caravan is probably for the man in your life. They enjoy spending a great deal of time preparing it for trips that never actually take place. This involves connecting and disconnecting things, swinging things around and buying ugly wing mirrors so that they can pretend to see six miles behind them. This is exactly the same principle for those and such as those who have boats and who spend more time scraping their bottoms than actually navigating the Clyde. Indeed getting the boat in and out of the water can take most of the summer if you are lucky.
Birds of a Different Feather
Bird watching is something of which to beware. While this is an inexpensive activity and only requires a pair of binoculars, some waterproofs and sandwiches in greaseproof paper. it can in the wrong hands be a euphemism and indeed a deception for more covert activities. I have known many a nocturnal outing looking at the feeding habits of the short eared owl to have been in fact a night of unbridled passion with a blousy barmaid in Bathgate. I can also tell you that many a twenty year interest in blue tits turns out to mean a second family in the Lake District with the headmistress of a remote rural school. The moral here is only let them bird watch in groups and check their boots for tufts of moss – if you find pilky bits from an unfamiliar candlewick bedspread then turn up the heat.
Of all the summer occupations enjoyed by both men and women who live in the country, none is more easily anticipated by rustic and midge alike as the Country House Concert. This is an opportunity to earn some much needed income and to give the ordinary man or woman on the Glasgow trolley bus the illusion that at least for a couple of hours they are part of the collective British delusion that is country house living.
I am sure you will be aware that the Pentland-Firth Estate has struggled financially for generations. The current incumbent Lady Patience Pentland-Firth, widow of the late lamented Rear Admiral, needs to make her concerts a success because the house is falling apart. However, unknown to Lady P-F, Her Majesty’s Government also wants the concerts to be successful because failure will leave her open to blackmail by the comrades and reveal the treacherous nature of her late husband’s wartime activities. This would be a serious embarrassment to the Government coming so soon after Suez.
As a former S.O.E. operative I have been called back to help under the command of the Handsome Stranger and my day to day handler Professor Sir Boozy-Hawkes, who is head of music at the Varsity and an expert on the French peasant waltz. You find us in preparation for our next concert “Tested Love – Women in Opera and Ballet”. Jasper has written the script with the Professor and with the help of our contacts in the service we have enlisted the help of one or two stars who will make the concert a great triumph. Of course Lady Pentland-Firth thinks it is all her doing but if truth be known she could not produce the skin on a rice pudding.
I See All
We are having a break from rehearsals and awaiting the arrival of the stars by plane and train. I am sitting in the folly on top of Jamaica Hill named after the Pentland-Firths’ Caribbean estates in the 18th century which provided much of the cash for the estate layout as it appears today.
From here I have a perfect view of all the comings and goings at the big house as it prepares for the event. Marquees are going up and the gardeners are busy sweeping the dew off the lawn with witches’ brooms. Inside the housekeeping staff are busy vacuuming backwards so that they do not leave the marks of their footprints on the expensive weaves. In the dining room village boys with dusters tied to their feet so that they do not scratch the table, place The Culloden Candelarbra, (a gift from a grateful Hanoverian Monarch after the ’45 Rebellion) onto the table. The Americans will like this provided no one tells them the silver went long ago to pay for dry rot and this is plated from Frasers. Illusion is everything.
A Clear View
Jasper, who I must say has done wonders with a script featuring dying heroines from music and literature, is I see through my binoculars having a well earned break from the technical rehearsal exploring the marks on the tennis court he has long believed to be the signs of a Roman Fort. Lady Pentland-Firth seems to be spending rather a long time with Ronaldo Pastrami (a young Italian tenor destined to play Rodolpho in La Bohème) in the ice house. Oh and there is Madame Claire Voyant, the spiritualist, and her friends who are dancing around the Druids’ Circle, they are allegedly getting into the role of the chorus for an extract from Norma, one can only hope they follow her into the flames of the funeral pyre. I can hear they are off key from here.
Now a little to the left and there is Bunty Haystack, the writer of rural murder mysteries, in the walled garden which contains the Pentland-Firth national collection of poisonous British Plants. This is popular among visitors to the estate, who love to hear the gardeners describe the various life threatening properties of yew, snowdrops, daffodils, deadly nightshade and so forth. I can see she has a bemused looking gardener in her thrall as well as a notebook and some test tubes.
She cannot see that from across the river, the Handsome Stranger is also keeping an eye on all the goings-on. Now a little to the right and there is Mrs Travers, our woman who does but not a lot, who I have lent to Lady P-F to prepare paper fans for the fireplaces, hiding behind the dustbins with a glass and a cigarette. Really she is the limit. Hark I hear noises, who could that be.
A Surprise, But Not A Good One
“Muriel I am very sorry to startle you; it is I, Professor Sir Boozy Hawkes from the varsity in Glasgow where I am head of music with my speciality in tone poems. Unfortunately I have bad news for you.”
“Don’t tell me the price of gin is going up?”
“No not quite that serious, but Maria Callas and Guiseppe de Stephano have a tummy bug and are unable to leave New York. I have just received a telegram.”
“What on earth will we do Professor? The Bearsden and Milngavie Operatic Circle have booked a bus and are expecting one of the world’s greatest operatic pairings.”
“Not only that Muriel but the comrades have sensed something is wrong, look at the swans on the lake.”
“Gosh they are pretty ugly swans Professor.”
“Exactly and you should see the Queen of the Night in the Shell Grotto, she used to be Kevin when I knew her in Kiev, how times change. I have just met your Cousin Lulubelle in the orangery and she says she is willing to step in with some of her Nashville hits.”
“Well in that case I shall step in with my operatic highlights.”
“If you insist Professor.”
“But Muriel you will need weeks of practice and we only have hours.”
“Professor do you know Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte, which is an opera by the well known composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?”
“Of course, I am an expert on the Enlightenment repertoire.”
“Well you hum it as we walk down hill, to remind us. Mrs Travers can run me something up to wear, she is doing nothing else and Jasper will do as he is told.”
“Can Mr Wylie sing?”
“Can he sing? His Oh can you wash a sailor’s shirt is famous, many have compared him with the Great Caruso.”
“No – Mr Caruso of Joe and Bella Caruso’s Fish and Chip Bar in Maryhill Road, he does a lovely fried haddock suppa according to Mrs Travers.”
“Muriel are you sure about this? We could postpone.”
“What and let the comrades get the upper hand, never! Professor start wiggling your baton, I feel an aria coming on, my coloratura is expanding.”
“I know the feeling Muriel; I also had the broccoli and stilton soup.”