A Long Dog’s Journey into Night

“This is my Sniffy Dog”
(Billy’s Beetle, by Mick Inkpen, 1992)

So much of our lives revolve around routines. We are creatures of habit, as they say, and no creature is more habitual than Mr Long – Young Badger Boy. He gets us up at 6 a.m. every morning and was not even put out by the clocks changing: he just re-set his internal horological mechanism and started whining an hour earlier the next day. He demands dinner at 4, playing at 5 and, more often than not, a lap or a warm log fire by 6. And a biscuit at bed time normally settles him. It’s a simple life and it works, at home. It is when we are away from home that ‘issues’ occur.

They first became apparent in a dog-friendly hotel room in Monmouth last July. It was hot (Damn’ Hot). Three of us were sharing the room with Mr Long. No amount of biscuits would encourage the dog to go to sleep that night and Mrs B, VB and I took turns trying to get the boy asleep. After a fraught night, which ended with us frazzled and irritable (and him sound asleep on the floor) we agreed there had been moments we had worried we might impulsively hurl the poor animal out of the third floor window. Not because we wanted rid of him – far from it – but we were so punch drunk with fatigue we could not have been held accountable for our actions.

But that was one night in a busy pub / hotel (with other dogs). He were sure he would be fine at my brother’s house, when we visited earlier this year. And I am sure he would have been, if it was not for the gourmet feast of mozzarella, chorizo and cherry tomatoes that The Long Dog took advantage of when it was generously left for him on a low coffee table. By the time he was discovered, he was metaphorically wiping the plate with the remains of a large home-baked sour dough loaf. His subsequent whining and restlessness throughout the night we put down to indigestion.

Next up, perhaps staying over with friends nearer to home, without the consumption of vast quantities of carbs would be a better proposition? Sadly not. The first thing Badger did on arrival, was to escape from the kitchen and run upstairs – where he managed to corner one of the resident cats. When Mr Long sees a cat, he, not to put it too mildly, LOSES HIS SHIT. And on this occasion he was unable to regain it for the rest of the night. We left our good friends, like a guilty one night stand, by the back door, at dawn.

So, is there a trick in this tale of getting a Long Dog to lie low while away from home? If there is, we might have discovered it on our trip to Cambridge last weekend. The trick is to not be there. While we stayed in Cambridge, Badger was dropped in Bedford for a sleepover with long-time friends Jane and Stuart, and their lively Golden Lab Silas. It did not start well, as Badger launched an unprovoked attack on Silas. In Badger’s defence (no, really, he’s very bright and the teachers do not understand his needs), he did get roughed up Silas, who wanted to get rather too intimate with the Badger Boy. Silas is still ‘intact’. Badger (after his operation) is not. Silas seemed obsessed with this and constantly tried to lick the area that was lacking the very two things that Silas was boldly displaying between his hind legs. It was perhaps taking the…whatever.

After an initial reaction that was tantamount to a threat to rip Silas’s throat out, we were able to calm Badger to mute acceptance although Silas remained unabashed. We left for Cambridge with a sense of doom on how the night would pan out.

But apparently it all turned out fine. Badger just made the decision to go upstairs at bedtime, ending up in bed with his human hosts, in a clear insistence that this was what his normal night time routine entailed. Jane accepted the Long Dog, who snuggled at her feet. And so it all ended happily ever after. Which is more than can be said about our evening in Cambridge celebrating my big brother’s Rub Wedding. I left the party at 10, with a headache, sore throat and temperature.

We were hoping to stay with Jane and Stuart the next evening but instead we sat in the drive, took a Lateral FLow Test, which was positive, and went home with bags and dog. But it was not an entirely wasted journey. We had found out how to go away with Badger: don’t stay with him, keep him away from cats, amorous male dogs, and any food after 6pm, and ensure he has the almost exclusive use of a king size duvet.

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New Year, New Potatoes

Potato Day in January carries calendrical significance like a gardening equivalent of the Chinese New Year. For the Chinese, 2022 is the Year of the Tiger, but how will this gardening year be named? Will it be the year of evasion and lying, when we pretend we have bought lots of seeds to help the garden grow and bloom, but discover that all we have are some very expensive spent husks? Will it be the year of invasion and ruin when all those pests that have been amassing in their hundreds of thousands on the garden border, decide to invade and destroy? Or maybe it will be the year of garden parties which we subsequently deny all knowledge of, and blame on others, so that we can continue to enjoy the privileges of living in a lovely space, without having to do anything too tiring.

At least the year started strongly with a proper, in-person Potato Day. Last year’s was a lockdown casualty, so it was pleasing to once again gather at Caryford Hall to get our hands on a wide selection of little chitters. Sadly Belle de Fontenay – normally my first choice second early – was not available, an absence for which we can apparently thank Brexit. I was disappointed, but just shrugged it off as yet another “unintended” consequence of our departure from the EU. But there is some consolation in the thought that our little glove puppet of a Foreign Secretary will be cheered by the news that we are importing fewer potatoes from the continent. To paraphrase Ms Truss, British gardeners having to use French seed potatoes is…a…dis…grace. So, no more French spuds coming over here taking the place of our King Edwards or Duke of Yorks, but since I saw a headline the other day suggesting Duke of Yorks may have to be renamed soon, I bought some British-bred Gemson as a replacement. We will see how that goes.

Anyway, when not being flattened by Storm Eunice, the garden is showing the first signs that spring is near. Bulbs are emerging like warheads in the pots, and around the garden we have Snow Drops and Crocuses in abundance. At Potato Day I bought some early seeds: tomato, chilli and cosmos. They have now been sown, and will soon be taking over the spare bedroom in a bid to allay Mrs B’s fear of Tomato Envy – that condition caused by neighbours offering tree-sized tomato plants, at a point when ours have barely germinated.

They will ultimately go into the greenhouse, which has now been in the garden for four years. I was reminded of the fact in a flash back on Google pictures. Four years ago is, to paraphrase L.P. Hartley, a foreign country. I look through the “4 Years Ago This Week” photobook my phone has prodded me with and see that not only was I trying to rearrange lengths of aluminium and glass into a safe growing space, I was constructing raised beds and (The Horror! The Horror!) I was even lighting a bonfire in my front garden. How I avoided being drummed out of the village, I cannot say. I was probably saved by the fact that advanced communications like Facebook Groups were not widely known about in our rural community so I avoided the kind of neighbourhood trolling that would follow any misplaced bonfire now.

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Clearing Up

January. The party season is over so we have been clearing the decks in a manner that some say the Government should. It is difficult not to sympathise with the PM. I often head into the garden with the idea of work in my head, but get so distracted that 25 minutes just fly by in the company of a bunch of tits amongst the vegetables.

My willing accomplice in the MLG is often the Long Dog, who happily whiffles around the back garden looking for whatever he can hoover up. His primary objective is normally to tidy the border underneath the bird feeder, ensuring no peanuts or bits of bread are left behind. I suspect he would fit in well in the Corridors (or gardens?) of Power as, for him, this is clearly not a party: Mr Long views the consumption of large amounts of crisps and nuts as an essential part of a hard day’s work.

On Sunday I spent two hours clearing the remains of what passes for a cold frame, before tidying the potting shed. After a summer of poorly planned and executed failed seedlings and excess potting, the cold frame had more empties than the aftermath of a Downing Street works do. We are starting the first phase of the building back better operation in the MLG, which included clearing the remains of last year’s flowers from the Spursy bed. There are already green shoots poking up like the hands of disgruntled Tory backbenchers, which augur well for the spring (in both senses). And the onions and garlic are looking good, which is particularly pleasing as these are the onions that were re-planted after failing to grow last summer, and the garlic is from our own more successful crop.

Next up, we will take a look at the seed catalogues which are starting to crash onto the front door mat at this time of year. We will look through them and make some measured decisions on what to buy. When it comes to purchasing seeds, there is no VIP lane for seedy contracts: we try to do things the right way in the Midlife Garden.

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Potted history

Japanese Maple

In October, when I discovered that my big brother had already planted his spring bulbs and even sown his sweet peas, I decided to use my blog posts to see when I had previously planted bulbs and so I read my post from 2019 to check what I did right then.  Sadly, delving into events of the past two years is a potentially upsetting exercise – like raking over the embers of a massive fire, they appear harmless, but underneath the grey ash, the coals are deep and hot.  And they continue to burn – I fear they always will.  The pictures on that post show bulbs neatly placed in pots, on a bed of compost ready to be made snug.  There is a photo of the grey wagtail that appeared as if by magic and has returned this year, flying at the patio doors like an anxious spirit. 

The pictures are gloomy, in my mind if not in reality.  But I remember the spring show that followed my efforts that day as being the best I have ever achieved with bulbs, so this year I hope to surpass them.  Which might explain the trigger-happy internet shopping spree that led to a large box of bulbs being delivered to my door in November.  So this year I am going large on bulbs and sweet peas, in an effort to ensure a vibrant colourful spring in the Midlife Garden.

I made up some potting compost to my own random recipe.  To a base of New Horizon peat-free compost I added a little left over builders’ sand and a scoop of slow-release fertilizer that has been hanging around since being retrieved from the Old Place.  (How slow release does slow-release fertilizer have to be before it passes its use by date?)  The key ingredient, though, is horse manure.  I have been up and down the lane collecting wheelbarrow loads of the well-rotted organic gold dust from one of our neighbours – the same one who advised on action before motivation two years ago.  The consistency is fine-grained and friable and I am hoping that it will provide plenty of sustenance to any bulb or seed. 

So, in the New and Year and spring I hope to see narcissi, muscari and tulips filling the tubs, while crocuses push through the lawn, snowdrops glint in the borders and snakes head fritillaries dip their heads bashfully in the wild flower garden.  At least, by my actions these past couple of weeks, I can at least of given myself some hope for the New Year. 

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One Man and His Dog

Badger Boi and Ella (GOAT)

I continue to use gardening to help me cope with the stresses and strife of life and if the definition of mindfulness is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”, then I would add owning a dog to the list of things that contribute to my mental well-being.

We have two dogs. Firstly, there is our own Therapy Dog, in the shape of Ella: the chilled, empathetic labrador who is always there for you and who patiently listens to any of your woes. She is the GOAT when it comes to dogs that we have owned. She is quiet, calm, obedient and long-suffering and actually comes to back us when we call her.

And then there is Badger.

‘Mindfulness’ has a different connotation for him. It is something that involves his mind being full. Full of the fuzz of excitement as he follows trails around the fields of Somerset. So full of such stuff, so busy is he interpreting the scents around him, there is no room in his little Dachshund head for a simple idea like “I should go back to those humans who are calling my name and whistling incessantly”. As the vet said, by way of explaination: “He’s a hound”.

The latest example of this hound’s mind-full-ness occurred on our morning walk at the weekend. All was going fine until he suddenly picked up the scent of who-knows-what. No amount of calling and bribing with treats was going to distract him from quartering and re-quartering the dewy grass which must have been criss-crossed with the aroma of herds of deer, and whole communities of rabbits, badgers and mice. His mood was evidenced by his tail, which was wagging up, down and sideways like a demented conductor’s baton.

Calling was pointless. So physical removal was the only option. Impersonating a keen Collie, I made a long, looping outrun to get behind my own dog, hoping to shepherd him away from the woods and pond, towards the lane. Once in position, I elected to run at the dog, waving my arms and screaming like a berserker, hoping to wake him from his trance to then follow me to the gate. Instead, he started running to outflank me.

At this point in events I had an out-of-body experience, viewing myself in Ultra HD running, in wellies, through the damp grass. Just a few feet away, moving parallel to me, was the silver dapple Sausage. Although he was not wearing wellies, he was still struggling to get ahead of me as the grass was longer than his stubby legs. But he was not deterred. We eyed each other as we ran, and in retrospect I can hear the football pundits’ commentary describing the action:

“It’s poor defending there. It is clear that the dog wants to cut inside on his left foot, so the defender needs to show him the outside channel. It looks as if he has him going that way, but he over-commits and – I have to say – that’s a magnificent change of direction from the wee man as he dips his shoulder and leaves the old timer for dead. He’s beaten the offside trap and is through the fence and into the woods. Brilliant play. But you have to ask yourself: what is the Midlife Gardener doing there?”

It was something I was asking myself as I watched the north end of a south facing Dachshund disappearing into the undergrowth. As he passed me, I barely had enough breath to tell him he was a runt, or something similar.

He led me a merry dance for another ten mintues before accepting a treat in return for the attachment of a lead and a walk home in stoney silence. I should have been angry, frustrated, annoyed, but I was not. Mr Long continues to make us laugh every day. Even when I was chasing him around the field, I have to admit there were benefits, as it was the most intense cardiovascular workout I have had in months.

Rafa Benitez has been urging his players at Everton to turn off the Xbox* (*other gaming consoles are available) and spend more time in the great outdoors. It seems Rafa himself is a keen gardener and, according to The Daily Star “The green-fingered Spaniard has told his Premier League squad to take a leaf out of his own book and get outdoors.” I would wholeheartedly support those sentiments, but would also suggest they get a dachshund like Mr Long. Not only will the players increase their mindfulness by getting out in the fresh air to walk said dog, they might also work on their own sprinting, fitness and tactical positioning too. A win-win.

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“I’m a Pallet Man…”

There is more to having a garden than simply sowing seeds, potting on, weeding, planting out, dead-heading and harvesting. It is not all about the cultivars and compost, the maintenance and the mowing, the pest control and the picking out. Sometimes, you just have to sit down and take it all in. Simply enjoy it.

It was something that I felt The Old Man often failed to do. He would work tirelessly on the garden (when not tirelessly watching Countdown) and would often overlook the fact that the garden should be there for your delight and delectation.

Having said that, I have to admit that, in gardening terms, I too, am often prey to the beasts of constant work and no play. I find it difficult to sit in the garden without being distracted by the weeds, the gaps in the planting or the withered flower heads that require removal. It takes a conscious effort for me to overlook the imperfections in my garden (of which there are legion). But in this respect I am like many another gardener. No one I know has been able to do the whole Book of Genesis thing by taking a finite time to create their horticultural world and then, like, well, God – take a rest. We simply cannot help plucking a weed from a border or thinking how NEXT year we should get the annuals in earlier.

But this summer I am feeling pretty chuffed with my efforts to take the remains of a snooker table, some fencing and a few pallets to create a sunken seating area from which I can view the garden while resting and relaxing with family and friends. The idea came from the snooker table that my mother had inherited from her father. I say snooker table: when it came to clearing The Old Place after my father’s death, my brothers and I knew none of us could accommodate a 2/3 snooker table in any of our 21st century homes so we had consigned the table to house clearance. There had been a brief discussion with the valuer about the fact that, as my maternal grandfather had been a next door neighbour and billiards-playing chum of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this table had undoubtedly been played on by the creator of Sherlock Holmes and might have some value.

To which the auctioneer replied “provenance?” And the table was doomed to kindling.

But I could not bear to see the two pieces of slate that formed the flat, true surface of the table go to waste. Measuring 6ft by 4ft I felt there had to be some use for them. For two years they rested against the garage wall before I finally alighted upon the idea of a small patio. And this became, with the inclusion of the pallets left behind by builders and delivery drivers, a sunken seating area. The plan was vague at best, and even then only in my head, so few thought it viable. My good friend (and highly talented interior designer) Sarah, when I explained it to her simply looked with disdain at the wet muddy hole in the ground and said “Oh yes?” While my former tennis partner suggested I change the plan to create the largest shove ha’penny board around.

I harboured doubts of my own, but like Kevin Costner, I knew that if I built it they would come. So I did, and they did. Some salvaged fence rails, some gravel, a purchase of cheap foam, loosely wrapped in cheap IKEA fabric and my seats of dreams were complete.

Not content with this, we have since bought a pizza oven, which required the construction of a base for it (from pallets, natch), which in turn needed a wood store to keep the kiln-dried logs dry (constructed from more pallets and a little timber salvaged from the old potting shed).

So, for the price of a few nails, some gravel, cushions and material, the Midlife Garden has a new rest and relaxation and outdoor cooking area. This is not to say that working in the garden does not have its own rewards above and beyond the extrinsic “isn’t it lovely” type of happiness. The simple act of working with your hands, nurturing, caring and literally seeing the fruits of your labours is something that is indefinable, but very real. But sitting on my new pallet seats, feet firmly planted on the slates that might have helped in the creation of Holmes and Watson, eating a pizza cooked in an oven positioned on a stand I made myself, fired with wood that is being kept dry in a log store I inexpertly put together too, I feel sated and happy.

Now, where has the sun gone?

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“Tis because we be on a blighted star, and not a sound one, isn’t it Tess?”

I decided to start this post as I ended the last – with a literary quote (welcome to Pseuds Corner). But this week I have been thinking about the term “blighted” and sought out its use in literature. It is used to describe something that has a severe detrimental effect; that inflicts great suffering. It has an old-fashioned ring to it and finding its use in Tess of the D’Urbervilles feels apposite for the Midlife Garden, as rural disaster and destruction have struck. We are, indeed, blighted.

I first noticed the potatoes were showing the tell-tale signs of blight at the start of the week. Brown spots on the leaves, and stems that were turning to mush meant only one thing so I quickly took the tops off and disposed of them. It is not the first time we have had potato blight and I am hopeful that the spuds in the ground can be saved.

In retrospect should not have been surprised by the appearance of blight. The weather has been warm and damp recently – ideal conditions for the spores to spread and do their work. So the earlies are saved, and the main crop should be fine as they are Sarpo Mira, which are blight resistant. We hope.

The same cannot be said of the tomatoes. Blight has struck them too – but there is no saving the vast majority of them. For a moment, I felt as my father did when the cows destroyed his whole crop of Brussels Sprouts. The beefsteak tomatoes – such as the pineapple tomato – were looking stunning but needed a few more weeks to ripen while the Gardeners Delight and Sungolds had only recently started to produce ripe fruit. Instead they were all gone. I picked as many ripe but unrotted tomatoes and disposed of the reast, with the plants.

I was upset for a moment, but avoided a plunge into Hardy-esque gloom.  In the MLG we refuse to be resigned to our fate and will make the most of whatever life throws at us.  We might be on a blighted star, but we will do our best to enjoy our stay on it, as best we can.

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Preparation & Performance

Spursy Bed still winning Gold

This week I learnt that plans are afoot for the 2022 Open Gardens Day in the village. I have been told the date (confidentially), but as it probably needs to go through the usual committees and organisational debates, I am not allowed to say what it is. But suffice to say, we are all excited here at the Midlife Garden to think that we might be making our debut in the biannual village event. The Open Gardens Day is an opportunity to raise money for charity, while giving villagers the chance to enjoy the gardens of their near neighbours. But we all know what it really is: it is the Village Horticultural Olympics.

With the date set for next summer I was motivated to get going on preparation for big day. Initially, I needed to take stock of the current state of the garden. Is it under control? What has grown well and what has failed?

The mid-season performance review has not been positive. Yes, visitors to the Midlife Garden have been extremely complimentary on the state of the beds but, like a British Olympian crying over gaining a bronze medal instead of a gold, I see failure all around me. The broad beans that I did not tie up properly or keep weeded; the kohl Rabi that got eaten by slugs; and the kale that has struggled under the same onslaught, until I belatedly sunk beer traps. The late and lacklustre crops of cosmos and sweet peas and the negligible numbers of sugar snap and ordinary peas. It has not been a classic year. The review reads like the inquest into British Rowing. Ok, millions of lottery funds leading to five 4th place finishes and a lack of gold medals sounds might sound more serious in comparison to the Midlife Garden – but your opinion would change if you could see how the bindweed has clogged the echinacea or saw the total failure of this year’s Rudbeckia Marmalade.

While underperforming athletes are pointing to tough lockdown training conditions, in the Midlife Garden we have had to contend with the weird weather of a cold dry April, followed by a wet and windy May and then flaming June. Plants have struggled to adapt. But ultimately, I need to take a long hard look at my systems and procedures. I need to improve my funding and support for these plants and apply my experience to plan and monitor performance.

In short: I need to be more like The Old Man. Suddenly his insistence on slavishly doing things to a strict and regimented timetable seems laudable, contrasting with my approach which at times borders on laisser-faire.

But the impending announcement of an Open Gardens Day has provided fresh impetus in my gardening. In my thirties I used to run regularly, but rarely for the sake of getting fit: I needed a goal over and above the simple essential of BEING fit. Which is why I regularly entered half marathons and even one wet and windy marathon in Dublin (finishing time: 3 hrs 43 minutes, thank you for asking). Training for an event was what kept me focused and committed. So now, in a summer in which I have been, at times, going through the motions in horticultural terms, I find I have something specific to plan for, and I need to get going.

So, biennials are frantically being sown (a month late) and more hardy annuals are being purchased for autumn planting. It seems a long way off, but time will fly, and as Auden wrote:

“We are left alone with our day, And the time is short and History to the defeated May say alas but cannot help or pardon”.

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Shed Heaven

Meteorologically, winter is over. Spring was sprung on the 1st March and we can start to ease our gardening lockdown with the first sowings of the year. I have sorted through the welter of catalogues and now sit with packets of seeds lined up, ready to sow. Unlike previous years, I have not been hasty in getting the growing started. There are no seed trays precariously balanced on windowsills, urging the seedlings to get ahead. Instead of this, I have been busy dismantling the potting shed, building a new one next to the greenhouse to create the new Seedling Centre; a sort of horticultural neonatal hub.

The construction of this new potting shed was long in the planning but surprisingly swift in execution. I spent late nights poring over online images of sheds, studying YouTube videos of fit young men screwing bits of wood together. (That’s middle age for you). I still approach DIY with the confidence of an English Test opener venturing out to bat against the Indian spinners: I know what I should be doing, but simply can’t predict what challenge each task might present until I am in the middle of the job and there is no going back.

So, I was surprised by the relative ease with which we managed to put the shed together. I say ‘we’ because, like so many things in my life, I could not have done it without Mrs B. She was there to hold up the sides while I screwed them together, all the time providing observations like “the rats will like it under there” or “I am still worried that it will get wet down the back, against the wall” (the one place this shed will not actually get wet – because of the wall against which it is being built). But we managed to get it done in a couple or three days without falling out.

I have not always kept my temper around sheds. Back at the Old House when trying to locate some sports equipment in the “PE Shed”, my patience was ebbing as I struggled to extricate bags of hockeys sticks from beneath poorly stored tennis rackets. My patience evaporated in a cloud of expletives when a large plastic dog bed, that had been precariously stored on a beam, fell squarely onto my head. My cry of pain and retaliatory kick at the wall alerted my young children, who approached with caution. But any concern for their father disappeared when they saw my foot appear through the shed wall and remain there, stuck in the fractured ship-lap while their incandescent father continued to swear. For years thereafter, the merest mention of The Curious Incident of the Dog Bed in the Shed Time would reduce my children to hysterical laughters.

So, although I have not always found sanctuary in structural shiplap, the new potting shed gives me a glimpse of heaven and I feel a new dawn breaking in the Midlife Garden.

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Feed The Birds

A lovely pair

This weekend Mrs B and I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch a kind of informal National Census of Birds organised by the RSPB in order to produce its annual avian Domesday Book. Although the BGB has been going for over 40 years, 2021 marks the first time we have been organised enough to contribute.

The idea is simple enough: at some point between 29th and 31st January, we simply had to sit down and spend an hour staring out at the garden identifying any birds that alighted on our estate. To take part you did not actually need a BIG garden. Any size would do, and the information pack supplied pictures of typical garden birds one could expect to see. So, before setting our timer we took a look at the list – eighteen different species ranging from blackbird to wood pigeon, coal tit to collared dove and Greenfinch to Great tit. These were all birds that we see regularly in the garden – with the possible exception of collared doves. And, to be fair, we have only seen greenfinches hereabouts in the late summer, feasting on the borage seeds. But in addition to the chosen dirty dozen and a half, we knew that we were likely to see wrens, woodpeckers and wagtails which, for some reason, had not made it onto the idiots’ guide to garden birds. So we were all set for our three score minutes’ worth of Midlife Garden feathered feeding frenzy.

At this point, I need to clarify that it is, merely, a survey. It’s not a competition. There is no reward for spotting the most birds – in contrast to the sponsored birdwatch I did as a callow youth at Chew Valley Lake on the Mendips. Myself and an even more geeky school chum, had lulled potential sponsors into a false sense of security, telling them we might see ten or so species of duck on the lake, thus bumping up our price-per species sponsorship. Come the day, as well as numerous waterfowl, we included every bird we spotted on the one hour round trip there and back, notching up an absurd number of different feathered friends, to then fleece the unsuspecting donors. I reckon we probably included roadkill as a bona fide spot. But I recall it was all in a good cause.

So, no: the Big Garden Birdwatch is not a competition, and yet we were keen for our garden to show the numbers that would represent its worth to the natural world. To prepare for the day I had replenished the peanuts in the feeders and had been to the farmshop and stood for twenty minutes, risking the pandemic, agonising over which fat ball / fat bar / seed type would attract the broadest range of birds.

We laid out the feast and sat in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It seems the birds got stage fright. As soon as the clock was running, so were they. Or flying – anywhere, except into our garden. After ten minutes, we nearly knocked over our coffee mugs when a wren emerged from the undergrowth. And when not one, but two blue tits fleetingly landed on the nuts, we felt the dam was about to break. But it didn’t. By the end we had a meagre total of seven species. We were left to ponder where were the robins? The coal tits? The STARLINGS FOR F%$KS SAKE! Like Man United’s forward line, they were here one day, AWOL the next. We had to resort to including a starling that landed on the fence as being in the garden. (It was clear on VAR: it had a tail feather over the line).

Of course, there is always the temptation to complete the survey on what could have been, rather than what was. But, like a golfer with a dodgy lie, it all relies on the honesty of the participants, and where is the satisfaction in not playing by the rules? We don’t want to be the twitching equivalent of Patrick Reid.

There is irony in the fact that, for some reason beyond rational thought, these days we associate sightings of robins with Josh. It would be no surprise if Josh was having a laugh at his parents’ expense by warding off the robins that would normally strut around the the garden with brazen confidence. He would be chuckling at our despair over the relative dirth of birds.

Of course, the next day, they were all back, like it was Camp Granada. Popping over from Dave and Yvonne’s next door, there was no sign of the performance anxiety of the previous day as they dug into the nuts, fat and seeds. Long tailed tits flocking in, robins and chaffinches everywhere, more tits than you could wave a big stick at. Today I even saw the lone grey wagtail that always brightens my day. The pictures below are proof of the abundance of Midlife Garden Birdlife, so if the RSPB report a decline in garden birds, we will know better.

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