Plot 10 latest

I haven’t posted in a while but Plot 10 has gone from strength to strength. Herewith our first harvest – beans! I once asked a wizard up at the allotments (I knew he was a wizard by his beard) what grew up there. ‘Beans,’ he muttered. ‘Beans beans bloody beans.’

Beans beans bloody beans

Introducing Plot 10

See this dopey sod in the woolly hat? That’s me, that is, planting a gooseberry bush (Invicta strain, since you ask) with my old friend Dan in our allotment. I put it here because it’s the first fruit bush I’ve ever planted. Having spent more than half a century being violently opposed to gardening, I now find myself – gardening?

If my father’s got an RSS feed running in whichever realm of being he now finds himself, he will be enjoying himself. When he was alive in this reality, he was the keenest of gardeners, an inveterate builder of rock gardens and turfer of open spaces, and it must have been an endless disappointment to him that his eldest son had no interest whatsoever in such matters; in fact, that he actively resented being asked to help out with mowing the lawn or mixing concrete or watering in the summer. We shared lots of things – books, music, history, politics – but we did not share that.

I put my name down for an allotment at the Rosendale Allotment Association more than a decade ago, I think – mainly for my wife’s benefit, since she loves her garden, but perhaps a part of me was ready to give it a go. There’s a lovely moment in the new series of that fishing show with Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse where Whitehouse says he doesn’t really garden, and Mortimer responds by saying something like all gardeners know that non-gardeners will, eventually, come round to it, that it’s a natural response to getting older.

Covid played havoc with allotments, I reckon – lots of people just gave up, perhaps because they were ill, perhaps because they couldn’t face going back to plots that had run riot along with the virus. Whatever the reason, plots at Rosendale became available last year, and I found myself at the top of the list. When the phone call came through I nearly panicked and said we no longer wanted it, but stuck to it and made the essential move of asking our friends Kerry and Dan if they fancied coming on board with us. They’re both enthusiastic and knowledgeable gardeners, and were keen. And so, in August, the four of us embarked on a journey with Plot 10.

The plot was horrifically grown over when we started. But even in three months we’ve made huge strides – mainly because Dan is retired and loves the hard work of digging, moving the clay on which the allotment sits from one side to the other, and building beds and shed-bases from old pallets and scaffolding boards like the Dartmoor farm boy he was. My wife and Kerry provide the horticultural know-how, and I do what I’m told – dig a hole there, hold that stake straight, shift that manure. Here’s a quick before-and-after.

We’ve already planted white and red onions, spring onions, garlic and broad beans. This weekend, four fruit bushes went in: two gooseberry Invictas, a blueberry Duke and another blueberry the name of of which I’ve already forgotten. There is so much to do, and so much to learn. But the onions, garlic and beans are already sprouting like crazy. there’s manure from the local stables rotting down, the shed base is ready and we’ve built a place for strawberries out of a pallet. Pallets, it seems, are now a big part of my life.

So there you are, Dad. Who would have thought it? Sorry for being so grumpy about working in the garden. And sorry, again, for that time I tried to burn it down – which is another story, for another day.

Tinnitus and me

When I was a child, I assumed everyone had the same ailments as me – though that’s the wrong word, as I didn’t consider them to be ailments. They were more like the price you paid for owning a body. So I thought everyone got breathless after climbing the stairs, everyone struggled to see the blackboard from the back of the class, everyone got a bit confused where the concepts of ‘blue’ and ‘green’ were concerned, and everyone had persistent ringing in their ears. And this was even before I got to the confusion swamps of puberty.

As it turned out, most people didn’t have those experiences. The breathlessness was asthma, which was managed with inhalers before disappearing completely in my mid-teens (around the same time as I started smoking – apparently many asthmatics have that experience). The misty blackboard was down to mild short-sightedness, easily cured by glasses. The blue and green issues were colour-blindness – I can still remember being told I could never be a fighter pilot when the colour vision tester came to school. But the last one hung around. I just always thought people had a high-pitched drone working away in their ears. I sort of thought of it as the sound of my brain working. Turns out that’s exactly what it is, though not in a good way.

About five years ago, that noise in my ears became steadily and dramatically worse. Actually, in one ear only, the left one. At the same time, I lost a bit of hearing in that ear, then a bit more, then a lot more. Conversations in crowded environments became difficult (but hadn’t they always been a bit difficult? Where was the boundary?), and I went to my GP, who confirmed I’d lost a bit of hearing (though not enough to warrant a National Health Service hearing aid) and sent me for an MRI scan to check nothing more sinister was going on. He never said what that sinister something might be, but I assumed he was talking Tumours and possibly Cancer, capitalised and scary.

The MRI showed – well, nothing. No scary bits, and no explanation for the ear-noise and deafness either. I went to a private hearing clinic and got myself a hearing aid for my left ear, which I wore sporadically, and shifted the balance on all my headphones well over to the left. This, it seemed, would be the new normal. The noise was tinnitus, I was told, and it was just my brain compensating for the weakening audio signals from my ear (oh, great, overthinking again).

It wasn’t a particularly nice new normal, because sometimes the noise can feel deafening. It isn’t really ‘ringing’ either. It’s more like a chord held down at the right hand end of a keyboard – I like to think of it as an A-minor, because I like A-minor, and I’ve learned that the best way to deal with tinnitus is to turn it into something more positive, because the grim reality of losing your hearing and having the gap replaced by your brain making random sounds is pretty depressing. I read somewhere that the number one treatment for tinnitus is antidepressants. This is one of the lousiest things I have ever read.

My tinnitus has a quantum quality. If my brain is busy – if I’m talking, or listening to music on headphones, or basically thinking hard about something, or anything, I can go whole hours without noticing it. But then you do notice it, and it wrenches into reality like a superpositioned electron. The noise, the noise, the fucking noise. The worst times are bedtime (though it doesn’t keep me awake, thankfully), watching low-interest TV, or eating without talking. At those times, it can even become scary, the thought that you’re going to have to live with this droning squeal forever. You begin to think you can never switch off your brain, that you need to keep the damn thing distracted somehow, like I’m doing now, every word and phrase a brick in the wall. The best thing for keeping it away, I’ve found, is a pair of Airpods Pro and a podcast. Maybe that’s how I should live now.

But then, occasionally, it goes away. Not completely, but mostly. And the hearing comes back. It’s happened to me twice now, the second time lasting months. Why this happens, I do not quite know. I do have cranial osteopathy once a month because that works for some people. I take gingko biloba, because that works for others. I take multivitamins, just because. Are any of these working? All I can say is something worked, and then something stopped working, because three months ago the tinnitus came back. But I have to keep on doing those things, because maybe one of them will work again.

Normal medicine seems helpless in the face of this. Despite several doctor visits, and a second MRI scan, I’m no closer to discovering what is causing this distressed soprano buzz. I think the best thing for me is to go back to my younger belief – that everyone hears these noises, and that the frown you occasionally see on a stranger’s face is because they have just, despite themselves, noticed the sodding ringing again.

Where the Thames begins (or not)

I’m going to post a bit more on here about my adventures with @moongolfer for our Curiously Specific Book Club podcast, as part of a general effort to use this blog as a vehicle for creating sentences again.

There’s some lovely places to talk about and some nice stories to tell, so in deliberately obtuse style I’m going to start by being underwhelmed by a place, although its underwhelming nature is interesting in its own way.

On Monday we made our way to the source of the Thames – at least, the official source, more of which in a bit. It took some finding. It’s at a place called Trewsbury Mead in Gloucestershire, just outside Cirencester. This is what it looks like on the OS:

The nearest village is called Coates, there’s no obvious access or car park or even a road sign. We turned off the main road looking for a way to drive into it, only to find all the entrances to lands beyond gated off by Trewsbury Farm and Trewsbury House. Adding to the get off our land vibe was the sight of dozens of Range Rovers and other random SUVs parked up along the roads, outside which were gaggles of folk of a certain age bedecked in green gilets and wellington boots. It didn’t take long to work out what they were up to, as we quickly caught a glimpse of a pair of local specimens on horses wearing red jackets. It had never occurred to me that there might be people who got kicks from watching a hunt.

We drove round all four sides of a square which we believed contained the Thames Head, eventually figuring out that there was a public footpath from the main road which would take us up to the source. We left the car on one of those tractor openings to a field which serve a nationwide double purpose as illicit parking spots in the country. A five minute walk took us across an open field, apparently owned by the National Trust, because what isn’t? We found ourselves at a slight declivity at the bottom of which was a pile of yellow stones. Behind this was a stone monument, next to which was a fingerpost.

And that, if you are to believe it, is the official source of the River Thames. Dry as a bone – Brockwell Park is wetter. Apparently there’s only water here when the water table is high, and it has been a pretty dry few months. But I smell a rat here. There’s apparently a second candidate for the source of the river – Seven Springs, a place 11 miles further to the west, where seven separate springs feed into the River Churn, which itself feeds into the Thames. So the Churn is a ‘tributary’ of the Thames, rather than the Thames itself. But who decides these things? Why isn’t the Churn the Thames? Shouldn’t the place that’s furthest away from the estuary be the source? Call me old-fashioned, etc. Matt Brown has a very good piece here on the two places – but even he can’t unpick why we have the situation we have.

Inevitably, the French do this better. The source of the Seine isn’t debated. It’s even got a town named after it – Source-Seine, a name that actually has its source (arf arf) in the anti-clerical fervour of the French Revolution. It was a source of pilgrimage. It has a park and a statue. It even has a bloody Tripadvisor rating.

Come on, Brexit Britain. We can do better. Get King Charles to build a town at Thames Head (or Seven Springs, just pick one for pity’s sake). Stick a car park on it. And give the hunt watchers something better to do.

Me and Mr James

As of late last night, I have read all the prose fiction that Henry James wrote.

That’s 20 novels and 12 volumes of short – and not-so-short – stories. I didn’t include two unfinished novels, nor a collaborative novel he wrote with 11 other authors.

It’s taken me a little over two years to read through the work of a lifetime.

I’ve never done this with an author before, but I have a bit of history with James. I first read The Portrait of a Lady – more of which later – when I was 17. I can’t even remember why I read it – it wasn’t a set text, I don’t think.

Soon after finishing reading it my English teacher at the time asked if I fancied having a punt at the Cambridge entrance exam, on the understanding that neither of us thought I had a particularly good chance of getting in. I said I would, but didn’t take the exam at all seriously. I mean, I wasn’t going to get in. Why should I? I didn’t even tell my parents I was taking it.

The exam itself must have fallen on a day very soon after I read The Portrait of a Lady. So I looked for a question that would allow me to shoehorn a ton of references to the book that was freshest in my memory. I can’t even remember the question now, but I can remember a line that the 17-year-old me put in the essay:

The Portrait of a Lady is the finest novel ever written.

I know, I know.

A few weeks later, I was invited for an interview at Peterhouse, the college I’d applied for on the scientific basis that it was very old. I hadn’t even been to Cambridge at this point. I took the train from Kent, wandered into the town, found the college, stood gawping for a while, made my way up a stone staircase, and found a man in an academic gown sitting before a fire sipping tea, surrounded by books. Books and books and books and books.

I introduced myself, though writing that makes me sound a lot more self-assured than I actually was. The robed ancient said: ‘Ah! Mr Shepherd! It is a rare delight to meet someone who has read all the books ever written! And so young!’

I don’t remember how I got out of it. I must have done, because to my even greater surprise they offered me a place. The man in the gown with the tea and the books was a splendid fellow called Martin Golding, who would become my director of studies. And I genuinely think that he offered me a place because I showed an insane enthusiasm for a single book – and didn’t back down when I was pushed on it. I did believe at the time that I would never read a better book than The Portrait of a Lady.

And, so far, I never have.

Peterhouse. You get the idea.

I had read perhaps half-a-dozen other James novels before I embarked on this new journey, and maybe a dozen stories. Which seems a little odd to me now – given how much I’d enjoyed that one novel, why did I not devour the rest of them? I don’t have an easy answer, but I do have a theory. Life intruded, and life in my late teens and into my twenties involved activities not conducive to reading long books. If you know what I mean.

And I suppose this always slightly bothered me. Not enough to do anything about it, until recently. But enough to think I should perhaps fill in some of the blanks. I didn’t feel that about any other author – that need to be a completist. But I sort of did about James. But I never got down to it.

So it was with a sense of guilt, almost – sorry, Henry, for not spending more time with you sooner – that I set out to rectify things.

I nearly gave up near the beginning, I’ll be honest. Watch and Ward, the first novel, is a seriously weird and not very good little story, which James later disowned. If I tell you it’s about a man who adopts the daughter of a suicide, and then later marries her, you’ll get a sense of that icky weirdness. But I would also say there is something about that weirdness that captures what was to come.

Roderick Hudson, the second, was a good deal better, but still felt incredibly forced. It was the third novel, The American, that really got me going. Here, I thought, were all the things I loved about James: incomprehensible emotions and passions, luscious settings, and glittering sentences and paragraphs which masked deep, dark, dangerous chasms of feeling.

Also keeping me going were the stories, which I read in real time along with the novels. Again, some of the early ones are awash with stylistic noodling, but there are enough gems, and enough signs of serious artistic progress, to keep one enchanted. There’s one tale in particular from the early 1870s, ‘The Madonna of the Future’, which I absolutely loved.

And so I came to the period that is often thought of as James’s ‘peak’, the great middle years: this is the time of Washington Square, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers and, yes, The Portrait of a Lady. The sense of reading James through this period – say, the 1880s – is of a man at the absolute peak of his powers, full of confidence, successful, presumably delightful company, but always conscious of the dark side, the swirling undercurrents of fate.

James doesn’t do the working classes (apart from perhaps The Princess Casamassima, which seems to be a warning to steer well clear of the nobility), he doesn’t really even do work. His world is drawing rooms and parties and deer parks and Florentine palaces and English estates. But he emphatically does do economic and social anxiety, disloyalty and adultery, betrayal and despair. A nice frock doesn’t protect you from evil.

And money. Always money. It’s startling to find how much James worried about money even at this time of his greatest artistic success, although the relative failure of his sequence of three novels The Princess Casamassima, The Bostonians, and The Tragic Muse – and to be fair these can be pretty hard going – didn’t help. Money worries were so acute that, like a thriller writer getting the train to Hollywood in the 1930s, he started eyeing the theatre.

The result: disaster. In 1895, James’s play Guy Domville opened in London. At the curtain, he went out to take a bow, presumably hoping that this new medium would unlock the riches he craved, as well as providing a new channel for artistic experimentation. And they booed him. They actually booed him. He left the theatre white-faced, his dreams of being a playwright shattered.

Reading the novels and stories in order, the crisis is obvious, like a black seam in the fossil record telling of a cataclysm. For a period, his stories get seriously weird. This is the time of the major uncanny tales like ‘Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. There is also the short, and exceedingly good, short novel The Spoils of Poynton, which feels like an experiment in style which did him the world of good. And also What Maisie Knew, a terrible story of divorce and abandonment told through the eyes of a young girl, through whom we see the old social order of the glittering parties fracturing and decaying (you can sort of read James through the lens of the social history of divorce, though it’s impossible to see quite what he thinks of it). What Maisie Knew is chilling and amazing and extraordinary.

And then there are two very, very odd books indeed. The Sacred Fount is about…. well, what is it about? An unnamed narrator goes to a weekend party and tries to unpick the relationships and secrets of his fellow guests entirely through their public behaviour, sharing his theories and thoughts with the guests as he goes. It feels like a very – dare I say it – modernist take on reality and fiction. To me, it even reads like a satire on the theatre. It’s very weird indeed.

But not quite as weird as The Other House, which James originally envisaged as a play, and features a twist so mad, so shocking, so downright enraging in its on-the-noseness that I wonder if he went a little bit mad writing it. It came out the year after Guy Domville. Maybe that’s all you need to know about it.

Henry James, photographed by Frederic Hilaire D’Arcis in 1913 (National Portrait Gallery)

During this time, James moved out of London to a (surprisingly big, given his money troubles) house in Rye. There’s an amazing picture of him some time after this which I have had, at intermittent times, as my desktop wallpaper. It reminds me very much of Graham Sutherland’s infamous portrait of Churchill, combining as it does bulldog determination with ageing rage and incipient, growing exhaustion. I love it.

Now we enter James’s final, some would say imperial, phase, the time of the great trilogy: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl. It’s here more than anywhere that the stereotype of Henry James is located – where sentences and even paragraphs curl and extend and occasionally seem to fade away into nothingness, where you can read entire pages in a fugue-like state of incomprehension. Some people love this phase and these books best of all. I am not one of those people. I applaud and admire the attempt to do something genuinely new – and James was always, always, always an innovator – but occasionally I feel like people sometimes feel about jazz, that the artist is having more fun than the audience.

The novels end – apart from a few collaborations – with The Outcry, which, like The Other House, was originally conceived as a play but then adapted into a novel. In fact, by all accounts The Outcry is very faithful to the original play, and for me it’s delightful. A simple story, well told, and very, very different to the great trilogy that precedes it. Maybe he was exhausted. Maybe he was trying something new again. Maybe we would have seen another phase – one of shorter, more direct books, inspired or even goaded, perhaps, by HG Wells, whom James publicly admired (and isn’t that, in itself, interesting?) and who, in a satirical novel called Boon in 1915, described a Jamesian paragraph as a hippo trying to pick up a pea in a corner. James was intensely wounded.

Which brings me back to The Portrait of a Lady which, as a reminder, is The Greatest Novel Ever Written. I saved it till last in my readathon, the only thing I read out of sequence. It was my third reading of it, I think – I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel three times through unless I wrote it. I’ll read it again. And again. And, probably, again.

It’s a delight, this book. It makes you smile as you would at a beautiful painting or a lovely park; it even makes you laugh. And in Isabel Archer, it has a heroine who is intelligent, mysterious, infuriating, captivating and ultimately heroic (or is she?), whose inner life and motivations are both unknowable and transparent. It has two villains, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, who are each worse than the other. There is no hunger or deprivation or even discomfort, but there is a bleak sadness at the heart of everything, because love and fate are beyond our control, and there is always evil in the world, even if it wears nice things and always knows the right thing to say.

As I said at the top, I have yet to read a finer novel, and the word ‘fine’ seems to capture so much of why I love it. It is very fine indeed, and like all the finest things – wine, poetry, food, houses – there is always more to it than you thought there was, and always more to discover.

John Milton, Screenwriting Don

I’ve just listened to the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Paradise Lost, with Ian McKellen as Milton and Simon Russell Beale as Satan. The adaptation, by Michael Symmons Roberts, is?exquisite, but I had some thoughts on Milton’s work itself, and why it’s endured for so long. Yes, the poetry is transcendent, but it’s the?storytelling that comes through beautifully in this adaptation.

Basically, Milton was a screenwriting don. Look at the evidence.

Start in the middle of the story

We open with Satan and his hordes groaning in the pit. How did they get there? What will they do once they’re there? We’re right in the story, with zero exposition.

Establish motivation

Milton uses the demons themselves to explain Satan’s plans. One suggests war. One suggests doing nothing. One suggests revenge, in cold, hard verse. Guess which one the Fiend goes for?

Use flashback creatively

Raphael tells the story of the Fall to Adam and Eve, which allows Milton to absolutely go to town on describing the bloodbath (plasma bath?) on the fields of heaven.

Set up the what before the why

We know what’s going to happen to Adam and Eve. But Milton’s got a better plan to keep us on the hook. It’s not?what they do, it’s?why they do it. In fact, it’s not even?why, but?what in Heaven were you thinking, Father and Mother, given how clearly the danger had been laid out for you. The inevitability of the sin is remorseless. We’re locked into it as surely as Eve is. It’s cold and hard and awful.

So, if you’re thinking of trying your hand at an epic poem about Original Sin, the Fall, and the Birth of Humanity, remember this: it’s gotta have a story. However good your versification is.


Things to do in Berlin

I went to Berlin last year and asked Twitter what to do there. I got a ton of responses so I’m putting them here for the Public Good (and more immediately because Rachel asked for them and I needed something to link to).


DDR Museum
Checkpoint Charlie museum (two people)
Museum Island
History Museum
Stasi Museum
The coins in the Bode museum
Head of Nefertiti on Museum Island
Jewish Museum




Brandenburg gate and museum
Holocaust Memorial
‘Art installations on the water towers, built over the Nazi stadium’
Wall Memorial
‘Best bit of Wall is at Bernauer Str.’
Telecom tower


Friedrichstadt Palast (get last minute tickets from box office)


We ate at Fes in Sudstern and it was AMAZING
Roast pig’s knuckle (two people)
Pasternak in Prenzlauer Berg (Russian)
Diener Tatersall
Peter Schlemihl
Beer gardens: Prater, Schleusenkrug (by streetlamp museum)
Cafe Oper
Pfannkucken @Brammibals


Original Walking Tours of Berlin (two people)
Rent bikes
‘Poor but sexy’ bike tour
1930s dancehall
‘Avoid the big cat enclosure at the zoo. Appalling overpowering stinks’
‘Take the tube’
Walk Tiergarten to Brandenburg Gate
Swim a lake
Hang out in Neukoln