The other day a viper (Vipera aspis) fell on my head. I opened the french doors in the living room, then pushed the heavy outside shutters open. The top edge of these shutters is a favourite haunt for sunbathing lizards, which often manage to cling on as the shutters swing back towards the wall of the house – or alternatively drop themselves at a strategic point from which they make a dash past me into the house.
But snakes, I suppose, don’t have those scrabbly lizard toenails, the ones that drive me up the wall at night when some imprisoned reptile is cavorting on our stone floors. And so they can’t cling on so efficiently. I flailed and flapped and yelped as the flying object hit my head then plopped on to the brick paving of the outside terrace. But my blood ran cold when I saw not an undignified lizard scrambling back upright but a thick bootlace with its very distinctive markings lying there stunned, its head snaking (haha) up and down in that “duh, what happened?” way that vipers have.
Now each time I approach that particular door I crane up to see what horrors might be lurking before opening, closing, or passing through it, which is of course completely irrational: why on earth would the viper choose that spot again? It made me realise, though, that – even more irrationally – I still tend to peer upwards as I exit through the front door too. When was it that I went out, then turned back to discover that the little head peering down at me from above was not the lizard I thought it was, but a viper cleverly suspended right above where I had just passed? So many years ago! Some part of me is still expecting it to return. Odd.
It says much about this warmth of this remarkable October that there are still snakes about to terrify me. They should be tucked up in their winter hidey-holes by now but I’ve spotted several in the past couple of weeks – to date rather less traumatising grass snakes.
Today is grey and cold, and there’s a north-easterly slamming into the house in angry gusts. I had a fit of “that’s not fair! I want my lovely days!” when I looked out on the miserable scene this morning. And with just one measly millimeter in my gauge, there wasn’t even the comfort of inclement weather blowing in lots of rain after what must surely count as a drought.
Planting large trees last week in two of my on-going garden projects, it was quite remarkable how deep you could dig without finding the least trace of damp. Granted, one project is on sandy terrain, where water drains away rather too freely. But the other is on clay which is still hard-baked like high summer. All our weather averages are being turned brusquely on their heads.
We have a large group of far-flung friends coming to stay in a couple of weeks’ time, so I’ve been taking advantage of the balmy days to restore something like order in my garden. My capacity for turning a blind eye to things that I simply don’t want to see quite amazes me, in those rare moments when I snap out of it and try to be objective.
What was that upturned broken bench doing there among the weeds by the compost bins? And why were the compost bins weedy, wonky and overflowing, in full view of the carpark which everyone – including myself, obviously – uses? And what about that bank as you drive into the place, the one where bullying clary (Salvia sclarea) – pretty when in flower for about two weeks in early summer but otherwise unremarkable and in the end quite smelly – had beaten everything else into submission to rule as sole, scrappy occupant: why had I left that to its own devices?
I could go on. Some of these faults have now been rectified but it’s a slow process, especially as my occasional garden ‘help’ Indi has bought himself a house and is dedicating weekends more to his own property than to mine: understandable perhaps, but unhelpful too.
So I’m thinking (as, admittedly, I often have done before) if my garden were less (faux-) spontaneous and more structured, would I be better placed to keep it looking as it should be? Is it time to put those plans which have been being honed in my imagination for so long into action? I am certainly planning to make a start this winter – though of course I’ve said that before.
This time I’ve already asked a builder for a quote for work around our wonderful concimaia – that beautifully crafted brick manure-heap floor, almost imperceptibly sloped to funnel run-off from the mounds of dung into an underground tank at one end: solid and liquid fertilizer in one easy move. These were made obligatory by a 1926/7 law, in which Mussolini dragged Italy into the early 20th century by banning farmers from dumping manure any old where, such as on the doorstep where children played.
They had to be ten metres from the house, far from water sources and wells, rectangular on a north/south axis and on the opposite side of the house from most doors and windows. Ours, with its runnels direct from what we call the chicken house but which certainly once held larger animals, followed these rules to the letter.
The barbecue which I rather over ambitiously built there many years ago is yet another one of those abandoned, crumbling monuments to my gift for turning a blind eye, bits falling off steadily. And how the hydrangeas planted beyond have survived since the whole watering system around that bit of garden gave up the ghost a few years ago is anybody’s guess: presumably it’s their water-retaining weed-cover that has saved them.
And that’s what I see beyond my bank of sweet-smelling Felicia roses (once again splendidly in flower, I must point out): neglect and disorder. Let’s see if I can rectify the situation.
We had my least favourite people lurking in the fields and valley yesterday: hunters. After last year’s tragedy there was a noticeable charm offensive – on their part, of course, not mine.
I was stopped as I drove up to town by one of their number who pointed out that he hadn’t come down early in the morning to warn me that they’d begin shooting mid-morning “because I didn’t want to wake you up.” When did that ever stop them before? Winter Sundays for me are synonymous with being startled out of bed by sun-rise gunfire.
And the old-timer they posted a couple of levels down in the field to ‘protect’ me was singularly disquieting. “We won’t shoot towards the house, I promise we won’t,” he repeated, swinging his gun round and pointing it in my general direction each time I emerged on to my terrace. Well thanks guys. That’s very reassuring.
It was this outlier who in the end got the beast – or at least one of the beasts they shot yesterday. It was a weird noise which shot (haha) me out of my seat: a very old-fashioned shotgun noise as opposed to the echoing boom of the high-precision weapons that the younger hunters favour. When I looked out a massive boar was rolling in the bottom field, dogs worrying it as it writhed. At times boar are a regular sight on our field but I hadn’t seen any down there for months – a very sad way to see the first one of the season.
Thirty six non-stop hours in London last week were just about enough to sate any desire I might have felt for a bit of dirty air and urban crush. It was warm there too, and unseasonably sunny. Semi-naked Brits were much in evidence in parks, and immediately post-work all streets outside pubs were completely impassable.
We snatched our chance to compare and contrast Bellini and Mantegna which was superb and fascinating but of course we are spoiled for art.
So it was our trip to the National Theatre which stood out. Because for all that our little theatre here does its very best (and theatres in Rome and Florence of course have rather more to offer), when I do finally get to the theatre I realise how much I miss it.
Antony and Cleopatra: a superb Ralph Fiennes, a truly marvellous Sophie Okonedo. Shakespeare could have tightened up the second half a little, but this production was so fantastic that even the on-off to-fro battle scenes were acceptable. It brought home – as any good production of Shakespeare does – how amazingly relevant he remains. In modern dress, exploring the temptations and foolishness of declining masculinity, and the machinations of politics, especially when mixed with passion – there was much to take home.