Object of the Month: April 2017

Over the Easter weekend, the children who live opposite were applying the life lesson of the Parable of the Talents to raise money for charity. Their school had given them £1, which they had to make grow, and the options were (a) to do an Easter egg hunt in their minuscule front garden, (b) buy a home-baked chocolate brownie, or (c) buy a shell. I went for options (b) – excellent! – and, guided by some strange recherche du temps perdu – (c). Continue reading

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Plant of the Month: April 2017

The forget-me-not is one of those plants which are ‘only a …’. But like so many apparently over-familiar pieces of nature, it repays closer examination. It must be one of the most widespread (and toughest) plants in the northern hemisphere, grows in the least promising conditions, can reproduce two or three times a year, and can over-winter except in the harshest of conditions – but it is precisely this resilience and profligacy that cause it to be regarded almost as a weed. Continue reading

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Only Connect

As I never cease to remind everyone, everything is connected to everything else. This was once quoted in the immortal Yes Minister: as I recall, Sir Humphrey asks Bernard ‘Who said that?’; Bernard: ‘The Cabinet Secretary?’; Sir H: ‘Almost right, Bernard – it was Lenin.’ Last week’s instance was the unexpected link between the Magnolia figo in the botanic garden at Lucca and a funerary monument in the church of Santa Croce in Florence. Continue reading

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I never quite understood what was so great about St Martin slicing his cloak in two and giving half to a beggar: why didn’t he just hand over the whole cloak and be done with it? He was a soldier – would he have to account to his superiors for a missing cloak, whereas half a cloak he could get away with? Continue reading

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William Cobbett, Nurseryman

Though the constant thread running through his adult life was radical journalism (for which he spent most of the years 1810–12 in Newgate prison), William Cobbett (1763–1835) had many careers: farmer, soldier, grammarian, language teacher, author, economist, printer, publisher, Member of Parliament – and nurseryman. A plant and seed catalogue published by him (from internal evidence, one of a very frequent series, this issue dating to 4 December in a year after 1826) has just come to light in the archive which I am helping to sort through, and it is completely characteristic of the man. Continue reading

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Madonnas and Miracles

I’ve recently had the pleasure and privilege of not one but three ‘private views’, with talks, of the new exhibition, ‘Madonnas and Miracles’, on at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 4 June. I’ve also popped in several times for a further mooch round, and therefore can confidently pronounce that I really, really like it. It’s not an amazing, stunning blockbuster like last year’s incredible ‘Colour’, and there’s not (thankfully?) quite so much to take in, but it is just as interesting, and benefits from a similar multi-disciplinary approach. And it also has, in spades, that potentially ambiguous virtue, charm. Continue reading

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Plant of the Month: March 2017

I have to confess that I had hoped that the Persian ironwood tree, Parrotia persica, had obtained its botanical name (first applied by C.A. von Meyer in 1831) because it was observed to be a favourite perch for parrots, but alas, real life isn’t like that, and the eponymous Parrot turns out to be a German called Friedrich Parrot. Since the German for ‘parrot’ is ‘Papagei’ (as in Papageno, which had never occurred to me), there isn’t even a secondary connection, alas. Continue reading

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