Talk 2: The Brother Gardeners: Botony, Empire and the Birth of Obsession

September 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

Talk given by Andrea Wulf at the British Library,

21st August, 2013

I’m a little late writing this up due to holidays and being in a motor home traveling around the North of England. Apologies to anyone on the edge of their seats, waiting for news of botony, empire and the birth of obsession.

Held in the Conservation Centre at the British Library and attended largely by people who looked like Edwardian gardeners each with their own creeper-lined Hampstead oasis, The Brother Gardeners was about the discovery and introduction of many of the plants we (or whose of you who garden) have in your gardens. Here are some things I learned.

1. Britain is the only country with gardening celebritites. Apparently, we (the British) grieve for plants which get damaged or die.

2. In 1734, Peter Collinson, a London draper with an interest in botony, imported his first two boxes of seeds from John Bartram. Bartram, an American farmer, explorer and friend of Benjamin Franklin (they founded the American Philosophical Society together), traveled across the Eastern colonies collecting plants and seeds, which he then sent to Collinson, who ran a kind of mail order service for would-be gardeners. The business was a big hit with gentry, nurserymen, and natural scientists.


John Bartram at work. Obviously this is a made up picture. No known portrait of him exists.

3. America wasn’t the only source of new plants. Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander sailed on Cook’s Endeavour, collecting plants from Tahti, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Indeed, Botony Bay was so called because of the huge number of plants they discovered there. For a while, they were a bit like rock stars due to their plant collecting success.

4. In the early 18th Century and before, gardens tended to be based on geometry – straight lines and box hedges. The plants that came from Bartram and others encouraged gardeners to experiment with less formal designs. They loosened the gardeners’ grip on nature. The trees he and Collinson introduced helped change the autumnal landscape in this country, adding red to the native yellow foliage.

5. All these gardeners didn’t necessarily know what to do with the strange plants and seeds they were receiving in their boxes. There was no Gardeners’ Question Time in the 18th Century. Thank goodness then for Philip Miller, Head of the Chelsea Physic Garden, who wrote The Gardeners’ Dictionary, the first manual for practical gardening based on experiment and observation rather than folk law and superstition. It was professional knowledge for the amateur.

6. For a while, all these new plants had different names depending on where in world you were, which made ordering tricky. Then along comes Swedish botonist, Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus sounds like quite the character. He made up extra exciting adventures and routes he’d traveled, insisted on wearing the traditional dress of the Sami people of Lapland and named weeds after people he didn’t like. More importantly, he introduced a classification system, based on the reproductive nature of each plant. This sexual system shocked British gardeners, who thought it too smutty, but it did eventually become the universal system for naming plants.


Linnaeus in traditional dress, holding the twinflower that became his personal emblem (I think I need an emblem).

All you good folk who garden will notice that I haven’t actually mentioned any plants. For that kind of detail you will need to read Andrea’s book for yourself. She seemed clever and funny so I imagine her book is worth a look. In the meantime, here is a picture of a relevant plant.


John Bartram first discovered specimens of the Bartram oak, Quercus x heterophylla, a rare but naturally occurring hyprid of red and willow oak on a nearby estate, The Woodlands, upriver from Bartram’s own garden in Philadelphia.



Talk 1: Great American Photographers

August 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

One off class taught by Armelle Skatulski at City Lit

If you live in London, you might have noticed the rain a couple of nights ago. There was lots of it. Picture me then, walking to Covent Garden under a big, black umbrella, the backs of my trouser becoming wetter and heavier. I think the weight of my damp clothing slowed me down as I arrived late. Armelle had already given out the handouts, small black and white reproductions of the photographs to be discussed, starting with Lewis Hines and the famous “Workers Lunch”. In the next two and a half hours, she took us through some twelve photographers, all working in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Here are some things I learned. The more informed of you will know all this already so feel free to skip ahead or completely.

1. Lewis Hines was a social reformer who, along with his photographs of men working precariously on the Empire State Building, took dozens of pictures of child workers standing next to the machinery they operated or the crops they picked. Like these girls.

images-1 images-2

2. Something about pictorialism, which I gather is about photographers creating images rather than just recording them, or as Armelle said, “producing an image in the language of painting.”

3. Alvin Coburn invented the Vortograph, which is a bit like Cubism, with the image chopped up.

4. Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, “The destitute peapickers in California,” better known as “Migrant Mother” was taken to support the New Deal agenda of the Resettlement Administration’s (later known as the Farm Security Administration’s) documentary project. The project aimed to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers brought to poverty by the Depression.

Dorothea herself said of taking these pictures: “There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

According to photographer and writer, Michael Stone, “That help came quickly. Lange sent the photos to her employer, the Resettlement Administration in Washington, prompting a quick response by federal bureaucrats who rushed food supplies to peapicker camp. She also gave them to the San Francisco News, which featured two wide-angle shots in a March 10, 1936, article on the hardship endured by harvest workers. On the following day, it placed the iconic Migrant Mother picture above an editorial on the New Deal agenda. The ensuring uproar was a catalyst that inspired John Steinbeck to write his most influential novel, the Grapes of Wrath.”

That was all good but not much use for Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the picture, and her family, who had already left the camp by the time the extra food arrived. In later years, Thompson noted that Lange had not even asked her name and said that she wished the picture had never been taken. She’d earned nothing from it. As it was a government funded project, neither did Lange, although, of course, she did go on to have a renowned and acknowledged career. So not quite equal.

On the upside, apparently there are no restrictions on the use of these pictures so it might be the only imagine I can safely put on this blog.


I think some other people were annoyed with me. I tried to say that I couldn’t imagine the current Government funding photographers to document the damaging results of their policies, as the FSA funded Dorothea Lange and the others. “Yes, that happens,” said one woman. “The Arts Council gives out grants like that all the time.” This didn’t seem very likely to me but I lacked any facts with which to counter her.

The teacher was good, very knowledgeable, and acted a little like a French Annie Hall. She thought almost everything was “very interesting.”  I saw that the man next to me wrote on his evaluation form, “The worse class I have ever been to,” which shocked me. He was looking at his phone the whole time anyway. Maybe if he listened more he could have avoided being so darn rude.

And, to finish, here’s a lady I like, Margaret Bourke-White, who seems to have photographed everything, from the liberation of Buchenwald for LIFE to capturing the young Marlon Brando. Quite a career.


The Road West

August 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

We’re just back from Wales, from Saundersfoot, near Tenby. We go there every year and it’s lovely, even when it rains, which it does a bit, but not as much as you’d think. For the past five or maybe six years we’ve spent the first week of the school summer holidays there, sometimes just us, sometimes with others. It marks the start of summer, the beginning of the fun.

That’s still true, although now it also marks the anniversary of my diagnosis. Two years ago, I had to come back on the train to attend my appointment, when I was told I had breast cancer. I then took the train back to Tenby and played beach cricket with lovely people in the fading light of a beautiful, warm summer evening, the kind of evening that was already nostalgic and sentimental just by dint of it being perfect.

So now two years have gone by and this year I was less tense than a year ago, and certainly less tense than two years ago. Two years is a good length of time and, as a friend who went through all this herself predicted way back, I no longer wake up every morning with cancer as the first thing on my mind. And that’s good, very good. Time goes by and I’m calmer. I still assume that every new ache and pain is something hideous, but I also have a bit more perspective and less often these days do I look at random people walking by and think, “It’s alright for you,” assuming that strangers have no problems and nothing going on that is half as bad as what’s happenng with me. I’ve talked to lots of people, checked out this and that with doctors and counselors (but never online, never, never), and I try to be sensible and not worry too much. Not always easy but it’s the only way I can think of to approach things.

I just reread all that and I sound a bit glum and sorry for myself still, don’t I? Clearly, it is time to cheer up and I think I have, mostly. There is other stuff to get my head round now but keeping busy is still apt. Without wanting to sound too Oprah, there are lots of things out there to do and maybe it’s time to start doing some of them.  I wondered about taking an evening class but couldn’t decide on anything. And actually what I want is just to know more, generally. So here’s the plan: to go to as many talks (or similar) as possible and to write about them here. Talks about anything and everything. In London, where everyone is their own little expert, that must be possible. If there’s anywhere to learn what everyone else knows, it has to be here.

To kick off the new Anne is Keeping Busy, this evening I’m going to a talk at City Lit, “Great American Photographers.” So, in that spirit, here’s a great American photograph which says something about going forward, the road ahead and so on. (I think this might have been taken during the depression, when the Road West wasn’t really much of a solution for all those migrating, desperate farmers, but let’s now worry about that now.)

Dorothea Lange, "The Road West."

Dorothea Lange, “The Road West.”

Naked lady having a picnic

February 21, 2013 § 3 Comments

Last week I went to the Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy. It made me think about this blog and how I haven’t written anything about anything for a goodly while. There are many reasons for this – fear, idleness, getting in too deep with Coronation Street – but maybe it’s time to say something again.

Firstly, the exhibition. To paraphrase my friend Hilary, I liked some paintings very much and others not at all. I can only muster so much enthusiasm for nineteenth century Parisian writers, dancers and thinkers, most of whom I haven’t heard of, too many of whom looked like King George V. Having said all that, there were some lovely portraits of some cool sounding ladies, including Berthe Morisot in her fashionable black hat. (Apparently Manet was particularly good at painting black.)


Then there’s this painting, The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe), 1863.


There’s a certain craziness to this picture, everyone having lunch, chatting about art and such, but oh, hang on, the lady is completely naked. She looks bored, like the guys are just talking on and, even without clothes, no one is paying her any attention. If we are to believe Wikipedia, the woman has the body of Manet’s wife and the face of one of his favourite models, while the two chaps are his brother and future brother-in-law.

So now I’m going to make a terrible link from this picture to a “how am I” section (I’m a bit out of practice at this writing business remember).

I look at this lady and a bit of me thinks that would be ever so nice, to sit as she is, not really bothered about being naked. A year after my surgery and I couldn’t hand on heart say that my body feels like my own. I mean, it does, of course, it isn’t anyone else’s, but it’s not what it was. It feels different, more achy, tighter, and I really don’t know what’s what. Is an ache just an ache from being pulled about or being 47, or is it something more sinister? Not sure what I can and can’t trust.

On the other hand, my new breasts, built by the finest plastic surgeon ever, Ms Caroline Payne (if you need one) are good, everyone says so. A year on and I’m about to have nipples added through the medium of the tattoo  (yes, really, and on the NHS, God bless it’s little surgical socks). The nurse doing the work asked if I would mind having some before and after photographs taken. Plastic surgeons and their crew are very keen on the before and after shots, so they can show other patients what things will look like. I’m fine about it. It helped me to imagine what a double mastectomy might look like so what the heck. No head shots though. Previously it’s been my plastic surgeon and her little camera snapping away in her small consulting room. This time, it was all rather professional, in a department called “Medical Photography” – who even knew such a facility existed? It was a proper studio, with a back drop and lighting. I stood, top off, turning a little to the left, then to right, chatting away to the nice lady photographer. She was impressed, hadn’t seem work like it, apparently.

And the odd thing is that all this seems perfectly reasonable to me nowadays. The world and his medical wife have seen my baps by now and presumably even as we speak I’m being downloaded into the pre-nipple tattooing photo gallery. It’s way too late to crave modesty.

So, lady sitting having lunch with no clothes on, I do kind of get you. Half one woman, half another, you’re just trying to make the best of your day, and if there’s anything I understand, it’s that.

(OK, how did that link work? I told you I was out of practice.)

August 2, 2012 § 6 Comments

I know a few folk have asked, usually via Russell, what’s going on with me, and apologies for not updating this blog for sometime. Here are some thoughts.

Firstly, the end of July marked a year since I was diagnosed. I marked it by trying not to mark it. We were in lovely Tenby in South Wales, enjoying perhaps the only week of real sunshine we may see this summer. Lucky us. We played on the beach with the amazing Barnes family and I felt glad that it was this year and not last.

Two days ago, Russell reminded me that a year ago on that day we all cycled to the Design Museum. I remember that day as it was in front of the museum, by the side of the Thames, that I told Arthur about the cancer. He took it well, asked me if I would die, and we joked about, if I did, how he and his dad could eat takeaways every day and he’d probably never be nagged to clean his teeth or wear a bicycle helmet. I then ate a huge portion of macaroni cheese, the relief at having told him suddenly leaving me with a huge appetite.

So, that was all a year ago. I had my final chemo at the end of December, and then my double mastectomy with reconstruction in Feburary. Went back to work in April. Work folk have been lovely, very patient and caring, but letting me get on with things too. I couldn’t have asked for more.

I have hair again, which is not to be taken for granted. It’s odd and different, curly. Who knew? I did the Nightrider cycle ride in June (55 miles overnight round London). I see a gentlemen from Muddly Plimsoles for some outdoor training once a week and have started some yoga with the lovely Kate Walker. All text book keeping busy, I think you’ll agree.

I have check ups every few months. My oncologist tells me that “we have to find a way to help you get on with the rest of your life” which I take as reasonably optimistic. I am finding this bit something of a challenge though. I seem to have a bunch of ongoing aches and pains, which could be anything from being 46, to early menopause, to having had major surgery and chemo. Of course, it’s only too easy to slip into worrying that all this is something more, even when the doctor tells me otherwise. I suspect this is pretty much what every post-cancer patient goes through. I can’t read or watch anything about cancer or illness in general, just don’t want to put myself in the way of more things to worry about. My lovely friend, Fran, in the USA, who is going through exactly the same thing as me (awful coincidence) posted a reference to an article in the NY Times about, well, I’m not entirely sure what it was about as I couldn’t bring myself to read it. (However she also wrote a lovely post about us on her blog.)

I am seeing a CBT therapist to help me with some of this, which is proving hard work. Apparently, its not about getting rid of worry, which is impossible, but more learning to get some perspective, or, as she put it, “turning down the radio which is always going on in your head, otherwise that sound will prevent you from living well.” There’s lots of talk about “living well”, and separating thoughts and feelings. Not sure I quite get that yet. And values. What are the values that I want to drive my life? It feels a bit like I’m being asked to put together a mission statement for my own life, something that hasn’t seemed necessary before. Work hardish, be nice, never vote Tory. Is that enough?

It sounds a bit lame, but I’m trying to take inspiration from the Olympics, or more precisely from the athletes and particularly from those who don’t win. Years and years of work to just take part, often overcoming all kinds of rubbish to get where they are which is not, after all, being the best in the world. I’m not sure what all that means for me. It isn’t the same. I’m a middle aged, unfit woman, and they are not. But there’s something, and being inspired is always good, no matter how remote the real connection.

Cross your fingers while touching wood

March 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

I’ve never considered myself to be a superstitious person. All that about umbrellas being put up indoors or smashed mirrors and seven years – clearly nonsense. My mum will never put new shoes on a table. What an earth can that be about?

But that was before. Nowadays, I am highly superstitious. It’s way too risky to say, “Yes, I feel better.” That’s like tempting all the illness, bad luck fates that ever were. If I were religious, it would be different. I could say something like, “Yes, I feel better, thanks be to God”. Instead, I have to say, “Yes, fingers crossed, I’m continuing to improve,” or, more pathetically still, “Hopefully, I will be feeling better by then.” I’m not above touching wood, for goodness sake. There have to be some words or a gesture to support the feeling better/things might be alright line. (See, I can’t even comfortable say that things “will” be alright; they only “might” be alright – hopefully, fingers crossed, please God, etc. [the “please God” isn’t really something I can use but I’m more than happy for anyone else to have a go with that.])

The difficulty becomes more acute when planning for the future. Doing anything that involves assuming I might be fit and well in a month, in the summer, beyond, seems like taunting those same illness fates. I haven’t bought any new clothes, for example, and I’m finding it hard to think about getting fit again – that’s a huge investment in the future, after all. Today, I couldn’t bring myself to post the deposit for our summer holiday (Russell offered to do it, bless him). I even hesitated to renew the Family Railcard.

Is this all a sign that I am slowly going bonkers? If the cancer is coming back, I think medical opinion would suggest that it’s doing so regardless of whether we have an up to date Family Railcard. And I’m not proud of behaving with no more enlightenment than a medieval peasant, thinking I can control this by not buying a new pair of jeans (or whatever the medieval equivalent was, a new long frock, presumably). I suppose it’s about control. None of this is in my control, after all or the bits I could control, I’ve done. So now, after all the science, it is rather down to luck, which is just superstition in another guise.

So fingers cross people, fingers crossed.

In case that was a bit too bleak…

March 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

… here is our work to bring the ancient and long disappeared Motte and Bailey castle at Thetford back to life. We are particularly proud of the church and forest details. (When I say “we” I mean Arthur of course. It would be madness to think that a parent would sit alone in their kitchen, making small cardboard houses and sticking cocktail sticks together to make an authentic palisade.)