Scottish play and English vegetables

Browsing in my local greengrocers, I found a veritable cornucopia of vegetables. Oregano, mange tout, pak choi, rocket, okra, samphire, fennel, sweet potato . . . all wonderfully cosmopolitan, but no sign of a humble marrow.

I don’t mean zucchini or courgette, often described (wrongly) as being baby marrows. I mean full blown cucurbit, described in finedictionary.com as ‘an egg-shaped gourd, commonly eight to ten inches long. It is noted for the very tender quality of its flesh, and is a favorite culinary vegetable in England’.

Not so favourite that I can find one.

I asked in my local greengrocer and not only had they no marrows in stock, but also asked me to spell it, so they could write it down (M-A-R-R-O-W) to ask their wholesaler.

In the unlikely event of anyone finding a marrow anywhere, the usual way of serving it is to stuff it with meat, served grilled or as a curry; or make into a cake; or turn it into soup. For me, I just like it boiled and sliced, then served with beef mince or lasagne, peas, red wine and copious amounts of gravy!

My vegan daughter says marrow’s tasteless. But then, if you looked at my record collection, you’d say the same about my musical tastes! So marrow and me are a perfect match.

In the absence of any on the shelves of the shops, I could always grow my own, I suppose.

But my garden is a small, city space that supports wildlife (frogs, toads, newts, birds of all shapes and sizes) but has insufficient room for me to become a modern-day Tom Good and go for self-sufficiency. And anyway. my fingers are better suited to a keyboard than being green.

Perhaps I am forever scarred by my father’s failed attempts at horticulture, with the annual ritual of green tomatoes lining the window frames and rotting until December before being consigned, with a reluctant sigh, to the rubbish (in days before there were compost bins).

It has occurred to me that I should initiate a Marrow Appreciation Society, to spread the word, commend marrow to the world at large, build up some enthusiasm for it. It has led me to carrying out some research on its history. Disappointingly, I found only two references in literature. Dickens mentions marrows in Nicholas Nickelby;

What!’ said Nicholas, ‘cucumbers and vegetable marrows flying at the heads of the family as they walk in their own garden!’

Use as a projectile was not what I had in mind.

Then, as I recall from my schoolboy Shakespeare, growing them crops up in Macbeth.

To marrow, and to marrow, and to marrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’

At least, that’s what I thought he wrote. Maybe that explains my C- grade in O level English Literature.

But popular culture aside, my tastebuds still crave marrow. Except it’s November and marrow is seasonal. I’m fearing this could be a marrowless autumn. This blog is my last hope. Should you happen across one on a shelf somewhere, please let me know. Failing that, I’ll have to go to my local greengrocer and ask for turnip. Yes, that’s T-U-R-N-I-P.

(From http://www.finedictionary.com/)

If you’ve been wondering why my blogs had dried up over the last few months, it’s because I’ve been concentrating on a second novel. It’s now with my editor and any day now, after months of working on it, I’ll get it back with the inevitable ‘good draft, now it needs some work. . . .’ In the meantime, if you haven’t caught the first, Homeward Bound, you should still be able to find it on https://amzn.to/3mI9MpB

Strange sightings in the garden

Who is Phileas? And what’s he doing in the back garden of a north London terraced house?

This is Phileas, a pheasant that has miraculously appeared in the back garden of our north London terraced house. A pheasant meeting the peasants, a neighbour in the posh houses up the other end of the street commented. But it’s a mystery what brings such an decorative creature, common in farmland and woodland, to Zone 2.

I first spotted him pecking beneath our bird feeder, seeking out the grains carelessly discarded above by the ubiquity of sparrows and whatever collective noun applies to blue tits and great tits. It didn’t take him long to discover the heap of seeds that, not long before, I’d carelessly spilled when refilling the feeders, gorging on this free and easy feast.

I first spotted him pecking beneath our bird feeder, seeking out the grains carelessly discarded above by the ubiquity of sparrows and whatever collective noun applies to blue tits and great tits. It didn’t take him long to discover the heap of seeds that, not long before, I’d carelessly spilled when refilling the feeders, gorging on this free and easy feast.

We are lucky that, over the years, our feeders have attracted as diverse a selection of birds as you could imagine this far into the city. Robins, blackbirds, parakeets, woodpeckers, even the occasional sparrow hawk, along with magpies, crows, jays and the inevitable pigeons, are amongst those costing me a small fortune on bird feed every week. But Phileas the pheasant was a first.

As he worked his way through the seeds, he met with another of our garden visitors. Squirrels. When they’re about, the birds normally scatter. But not Phileas. He was standing no nonsense. When one brave squirrel dared to investigate the booty, Phileas squared up, beak to nose.

The squirrel backed off. 1-0 to Phileas. Yet I feared defeat was still on the cards, if not from a squirrel, from other intruders into our small space.

Once satiated, Phileas retreated into what he must have considered to be the safety of the undergrowth. Maybe in the New Forest he would have been invisible. But here, his camouflage through a clump of daffodils against a trellis and concrete wall was not convincing. It certainly wouldn’t convince the foxes that roam the streets each night and trespass in our garden. My wonder turned to worry. If I fed him more seeds, would I not be encouraging him to stay, luring him to a certain fate of snarling jaws and journey’s end?

There was also another problem. Keeva the greyhound. She’s ours. Friendly, docile, somnolent. Until she sees something that she can chase. An ex-racer, a serial winner at Romford, Harlow and Crayford, she makes the end of the garden in next to no time. A cat or squirrel that catches her eyes needs to be quick off the mark and over the fence.

Even after finishing fourth, third and a lowly fifth in consecutive races three years ago, before being subjected to a life in retirement, she’s still quick. Probably too quick for a slightly ungainly pheasant.

Keeva running free, three years after retirement.

So for a day, we kept Keeva from going into the garden where Phineas was taking shelter, leaving her to stare balefully through the patio door windows, looking longing at the bright-colours of a potential prey.  But we couldn’t keep her cooped up for longer than a day. I made a decision. As hungry as Phineas appeared to have been, I must offer him no further inducement to stay.

It was with some relief that, as evening fell, he loped off into the trees, perhaps disappointed that dinner was not going to present itself. That just left me to worry about the night, and a likely encounter with the foxes and his becoming dinner.

I needn’t have worried. Early next morning, there he was, back in the garden.

But Keeva needed to use the space. There was no option but to let her out.  Although we kept her on a lead, for Phileas, the sight of a dog built for speed was too much. He hopped into a tree and from there, out of sight, to we know not where.

It’s what I’d hoped for really. All for the best, make his own way on his round the world journey, free and without human intervention.

For me, I was grateful that I no longer needed to feel a sense of responsibility, to protect him from an environment he is not ideally suited to. Even though I know I’d not be up to the task.

And yet, even as I write, I’m still glancing out the window, worrying about him, contemplating throwing down some more seeds should he be hungry and wanting to come back.

When I’ve finished writing this, I’ll go and have a proper look.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might just enjoy Richard’s first novel, out now. A heartwarming story of ambition, ageing and family, it’s called ‘Homeward Bound’. It’s available online, through bookshops and here.