Monday, September 29, 2008


Although this piece is to do with growing vegetables in pots, allow me first to picture my London walled garden. It measures 4 paces by 14 paces. So by most people’s standards it is a very small garden.

The ground surface is paved with concrete flagstones, except for a narrow strip of soil at the north side of its length.

At one end of the garden is a small, two-seat summerhouse, known as “the shed”. In it, summer and part winter, we spend a lot of time. Blackbirds enter to eat crumbled Scottish oatcake on the carpet floor, and robins fly in to eat cheese bits from either our hands, from my knee or from the top of some birdseed boxes next to where I sit. A dunnock likes small cheese bits thrown out to it. Goldfinches (who seem to be the only birds that eat niger/nyger seeds, but drop a lot for mice and the creation of seedlings galore), great tits, blue tits, green finches, wrens and dreaded wood pigeons all visit the garden for food and drink. Rare visitors have been parakeets and a great spotted woodpecker, the latter robbing our robin’s nest of young.

On the house wall at the other end (west end) of the garden is wall box accommodation for swifts, sparrows, house martins, flycatchers, wagtails, blue tits, great tits, robins, bats, butterflies, bumblebees and other bees. Not many are used, but they are there – in case. All are hand painted to roughly match the London stock bricks behind them. Beneath these potential summer homes is a large tank for collecting rainwater from the roof.

VINES. When I left living in the country some 19 years ago (1989) I brought with me several varieties of vine from my experimental vineyard. The experimental part was to find disease-free or certainly disease-resistant vines – and other tests, mostly regarding fertiliser, methods of pruning and vinification. So there had to be a place made for the transported vines.

I found a blacksmith who made for me arches, made of 1” (2.5 cm) reinforcing rod that were attached to the north and south walls of the garden to form an arbour. These arches were braced diagonally with fencing wire that was also used to form intermediate arches.

Having once designed scenery for the theatre, I created this arched arbour in perspective – making the near arches (to the house) higher than the far ones and positioning the far ones closer together than the near ones. The intermediate wire arches, the bracing wires, and the rod arches themselves, were then painted with black mastic paint for preservation.

There are now several disease-free vines covering the arbour and trailing along wires on walls. The white grape grown is Seyval Blanc, and the main red one, Triomphe d’Alsace. The white is there for the pleasure of seeing its lovely bunches and making a little white or rosé wine. And the red one (Triomphe d’Alsace, which now runs for 73 metres (say 220 feet) over and around the garden can produce from a dozen or so to a maximum 88 bottles of excellent wine each year. Birds love the red grapes, and are a constant threat to a good harvest. They leave the white ones until last. I am unable to net the vines, so have to rush out to rattle a bamboo on hard surfaces to deter the birds. They are quick in learning to be careful, but love to glide in quietly and deceive me.

ROSES. Grown along the strip of soil beneath the north wall are roses (one Reverend F. Page Roberts and, in my opinion, the best of all roses, Typhoon).

SCULPTURE. A 4’ 6” (137 cm) high elm sculpture of lovers stands beneath the arbour. It is inclined to split in the summer and close up in the winter. That is the way of elm wood. Done by me in 1981 (as discovered from the sculpture link in my blog), it is sprayed occasionally to combat rot and woodworm. Few people are brave enough to get on their knees to look beneath after I have told them of the generously carved action details that I added after creating it.

FLOWERS. In pots of various colours, shapes and capacity, are flowers, grown on moveable brickwork, organised at different heights to form of a peninsular, almost dividing the paved garden. This configuration is altered throughout the year.
The flowers grown are two kinds of fuchsia, three large pots of impatiens (for a constant blaze of summer colour), hibiscus, Bolivian begonia, hydrangea, mahonia, pieris, geraniums (pelagoniums), potentilla, cyclamen, lilies, camellia, tulips, foxgloves (gratefully, as digitalis once saved my life) and calendula.

TREES. From the soil exposed by extracting a flagstone beneath the south wall grows a morello cherry, trained in espalier fashion on wires. The cherries are harvested in late summer for céries eau de vie, to be enjoyed at Christmas time.

The trees grown in pots are two bay trees (one given to us as a cutting by a dying religious lady, now trained to point to heaven), an apple and a pear (both more decorative than productive). A fig tree and ivy share a pot. A horizontal, pot-growing juniper, rises to cover the surfaces of both apple and pear pots.

Cuttings of Triomphe d’Alsace grapevines are grown, not in pots but in a corner of the garden as gifts to those locals who want to collect them in early December each year.

HERBS. Since coming to London I have had a collection of herbs in pots – some being more successful than others – depending on soil, light and shade, and the weather conditions during the year – not to mention neglect when on holiday. In these pots I grow parsley (from the supermarket), rosemary, chives, French tarragon, and thyme. I have had trouble in growing sage, but having obtained one with variegated leaf, it has done well. But the leaves are not as strongly flavoured as “vulgaris”. Initial coriander growing was a disappointment. I should have known better, having written on the subject for the Financial Times in November 1988. Sometimes rocket, grown in a corner of the garden, has done splendidly. It did not do well this year. But I saved some seedpods, from which I obtained summer-dried seeds to plant in a pot in September - for autumn harvesting. Mint, grown in a large, sunken pot to keep it within bounds, does well each year. But this year, many of its late leaves were eaten by some bug or other – probably flea beetle. I should have harvested them earlier and turned them into mint sauce for winter use.

Inside, on the kitchen window sill, I grow a new lot of sweet basil each year (obtained in a pot from the supermarket, thinned and replanted in good compost), a small “tree” of chillies (they turned out to be jalapino this year – and very successful), and an aloe vera. I give branches of this spiky and fleshy plant to a West Indian lady, who uses it in cooking and for healing purposes.

SOFT FRUIT. To grow strawberries seemed a real possibility when I saw a special earthenware pot for them, made with an open top and holes at the side. Several varieties were planted, working from the bottom up, keeping their potted roots in place and sticking the foliage out of the holes as the pot was filled with compost. The outcome was disappointing despite plenty of watering and fertiliser. What runners developed were pushed into already-occupied holes. We await better results next year. The pot looks quite decorative – and fun. The gift of a blueberry bush has produced fruit – mainly for the birds. We expect brilliantly coloured leaves on it in the autumn.

VEGETABLES. It was in 2007 that my sister, June, thought about giving up part of her allotment and growing vegetables in pots in her little London garden. It was about this time that people were becoming more conscious about using some of their town gardens for growing vegetables – sensing that the financial pinch was on its way, seeing that self-sufficiency was becoming popular and fashionable, and wanting to reduce the import of foodstuffs. Her initial experiments with carrots were a great success, as they were with her mixed lettuces.

For me, growing vegetables in pots started in the spring of 2008 with, of all things, ASPARAGUS. I was given a very large flowerpot by a near neighbour and did not know where it might go in the garden and what to plant in it. Asparagus came to mind, not as a large crop for future degustation, but to be able to eat one or two spikes and enjoy the sight of its ferns and autumn berries. So into the big pot went a lot of composty soil and two bought asparagus crowns, claimed to be two years old.

In spaces around the crowns I planted seed, with considerable expectation, having once established a large asparagus bed, all from a packet or two of seeds. The rest of the seeds were planted in a small pot.

The crowns produced one thin spear each. The seeds planted near to them grew and subsided quickly. But the seeds in the small pot did splendidly. Their little crowns will augment the larger crowns in the big pot, and the rest, I think, be put in the soil beneath the cherry tree, where a short row of mini daffodils flower each spring.

I wanted a globe ARTICHOKE for its foliage and possibly a fine flower or two. Given an off-cut with a little root, it started well, died away, but has now (almost October) started to produce new leaves. Not all is lost.

CARROTS were an obvious choice. My gardening sister told of the delicious thinnings to be enjoyed before the main crop could be harvested. Our thinnings were very small, but delicious. And those left to grow fatter never became much larger. I will experiment with other varieties, as hers were far better than mine.

BEETROOT made a decorative pot, and the leaves were used in salads and omelettes. But the bulbs were never large enough to count as beetroot.

FENNEL, grown as a single plant from a garden centre pot, provided fronds as wanted in the kitchen and a good crop of fresh seeds. In a way it was a success.

DWARF FRENCH BEANS. These did well, but I did not plant them thickly enough in their pot.

CLIMBING FRENCH BEANS (Blue Lake) provided several dishes, but as the garden is not really large enough to grow them, despite a “cat’s cradle” of string for them in a corner. I will grow more dwarf French beans on a high shelf next year, and add a few climbers to them see if they will trail.

BROAD BEANS. I grew two buckets-full in a darkish corner. They grew well, but produced no more than half a dozen pods. I intend to persevere, planting a dwarf variety very soon (autumn).

SORREL, from seed, has been a success. We have harvested the leaves several times for omelettes.

TOMATOES have usually been most productive, beside being a decorative and delicious crop. All went well this year, until I came into the garden one morning to find that blight was spoiling the entire lot. The leaves had shrivelled and patches of rot had appeared on the tomatoes. It was a disheartening and disgusting sight. But I will persevere.

COURGETTES (zucchini) were both a success and failure. We harvested quite a few courgettes and they were delicious to eat. But the failure was mine, in not realising that the plants would crowd us out of our small garden. They will not be tried again – due only to lack of space.

GARLIC has already been autumn planted in the area where rocket grew. Rocket has now been consigned to a pot.

SHALLOTS have been planted with the garlic. Both are from magnificent French “seed”, sold for culinary purposes in the Dieppe market.

LAMB’S LETTUCE will be planted in a pot as soon as I buy some seed.

MIXED LETTUCE will be planted in the spring.

SPINACH will also be tested.

That is as far as my London garden experiments have got. I recommend anyone to join me for the fun and upward learning curve.

Friday, September 26, 2008

AVRO LANCASTER (drift scale)

Jim's latest art work (A1 size) Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rising costs in France? September 2008

We had heard from friends returning to London from Paris about how much more it now costs to stay in that lovely city. Is this the case in other parts of that country? We were about to spend a week in Dieppe. So I would try to find out.

I foresaw difficulty in putting together my modest survey, as being almost enumerate was not going to help. But I had Margreet at my side.

On descending from the ferry in Dieppe I heard a lady complain that £1.50 for a tea bag and some hot water from the bar on board was extortionate.

Margreet’s first cup of tea in Dieppe cost nearly £2 and her second nearly £3 (more than the price of my beer). But the profit made from serving tea anywhere has always been excessive. Although this did not convey much in the way of rising prices, it was an interesting start to my modest little survey about whether costs in France have rocketed in the same way that they have in England.

It seems that one of our first purchases in France is for a good cake of soap to use instead of hotel soap. But not remembering how much we had paid for it in the past gave no indication of any rise (or fall) in prices. So that wasn’t much help.

In Dieppe we found that it was still possible to obtain an excellent three-course meal (the menu) for around £10 a head. I had an excellent three courses at the Restaurant New Haven, and Margreet chose, for £15, Choucroute de la Mer (Grandmother’s recipe) for about £15. She said that, with its cumin and cream in the choucroute, this was one of the best dishes she had ever eaten. We had enjoyed a wonderful bottle of Crozes-Hermitage in the past there, so we had one again. I need hardly add that, except for carafe (pichet) wine in France (usually quite adequate and not pricey), good wine is expensive. It cost twice as much as our food. But we were on holiday and splashing out, and it was worth it.

Our breakfast “buns” (super cookies) from La Mie Câline bakery were no more expensive than in the past, nor was the grande crème coffee more costly at the Globe bar nearby.

We used to lunch at the Victoire with some regularity. It was a typical French red-checked-tablecloth café/restaurant, overseen by the appropriately French-casual dressed patron. It closed down, much to our disappointment.

Now it had re-opened beyond the Pollet “island” where the Michelin-starred La Mélie once served small portions of expensive food.

The patron must have bought out the Mélie’s fixtures and fittings, but now, dressing as he did before, in much smarter surroundings, nothing seemed to fit. Gone was the busy café atmosphere, the regular clientele, check tablecloths and intimate repartee. But with the patron’s wife in charge of the kitchen, the food was just as good as before, and the three course menu only marginally more expensive. But with the café feeling and cramped conditions had gone all the fun. However, for about £13 for the menu of moules, fried plaice and chocolate mousse, the meal could hardly have been bettered for the price. And the sparkling cider was quite up to scratch. It had been great value, as before, but now, sadly, in dreary surroundings.

One of the great pleasures in staying in a foreign seaside venue is to walk a lot in bracing air. Our visit had coincided by chance with the biennial Kite Festival (Cerf Volants). There has always been masses to see as you walk around the town and sea front, but now, kites of every description, shape and colour, flew in the salty wind either under human control or tethered to the ground by bags of gravel. The seaside sky was alive with movement and colour – a feast for the eyes.

So international was the festival that it seemed every country on the globe had a booth where the staff sold their national designs of kite and talked about their art. An English couple at our hotel did not fly kites, but went over to Dieppe in September every two years just to watch the magnificent display. And as for wind, it is usually windy in Dieppe.

So what with a visit to the well-organised Castle Museum, where an astoundingly good Van Dongen looked quite out of place among the collection of Braque prints and dark Sickert paintings, we found ourselves to be walking around 8 kilometres a day (measured by Margreet’s electronic pedometer).

At one time we sheltered from a storm beneath an awning outside Restaurant Heidi. There we saw that a three-course menu was obtainable for about £8 – including a ¼ litre carafe of wine. So, as this piece is about prices past and present, we thought that we must try it. But it was a menu for accredited kite-flyers only.

So we settled for an evening meal at the Sully (an old, comfortable and well-run favourite), ordering a £10 salade Nicoise for Margreet and £10 worth of two courses (whitebait and ice cream) for me. All was excellent value, with prices probably much the same as in the past. But with a splendid bottle of Vacqueyras the meal came to £20 a head – which by present-day standards must be pretty good value – especially in such a nice place.

We often stop at the Café de la Paix, situated at the centre of movement and life in Dieppe. From it one can see all that goes to and from the town, and from glazed-in comfort. There I chose Chimay, a Trappist Belgian beer that is hoppy, dry (bitter) and strong. It is a sipping rather than a swilling beer. For a (possibly) 1/3 litre glass, the cost was about £3. Not having drunk this beer before I could not relate its price to past experience.

Had the price of a meal at a favourite lunch place (the Bar Rouen) risen since we were there some six months before? No. For £13 a head we enjoyed 3 excellent courses and (in pichets) the equivalent of a bottle of wine. The place was just the same - same family – same ambience – same clientele (office workers and police) – same friendliness – same noisy landlord and quiet landlady – same cost - same everything. It was by chance that when clearing out junk in London on our return to England that Margreet found some four-year-old Bar Rouen meal bills. Prices had not changed at all.

And the Saturday market? We bought huge strings of two kinds of garlic – Rose du Tarn and Violettes, with enough shallots to see us through the winter. But did we pay about £21 the last time we bought such a supply? I have no idea. But about a third of the quantity of our string of Tarn garlic costs £5 in Chiswick. So French garlic is probably a little cheaper in France. But I think that prices both here and there have probably risen.

We had read about a bar just beyond the Pollet “island” that had a complete mix of mostly local customers. It’s name was Mieux Ici Qu’en Face (better here than the other side). And it was better than many a place across the Marina on the smarter side. Not only was it a most convivial bar but half the price of “over the water”. Their pression beer was very cold, and the coffee excellent (£3.50 together, £5 over the water) – a great find in every respect, and, moreover, with wifi (internet café) available.

At the Restaurant o’DKLE, at 10 Quai du Carénage, on the Pollet “island”, where we ate adequately one evening, it would have been possible to have had two courses at lunchtime for £8.

Nearby we lunched at Le Turbot. Good it was, but expensive because we ate (turbot obviously), and drank well. Margreet plans to return, to order what she saw being eaten at another table - the Assiette Danoise (a variety of mostly smoked fish.

Before we ate there we sat in sheltered sunshine on the harbour wall watching fish (bream) galore being hoiked from the harbour and sea, along with the occasional sea bass. These must have filled many a freezer for winter eating.

Our evening snack at the Tout Va Bien Brasserie of salads with a dessert of Dame Noir and a Trou Normand (calvados with apple ice sorbet) would have compared reasonably with prices of the past. And the pichet of ordinary white wine was modestly priced.

In the course of one afternoon we found what we already knew about, yet had never discovered, as it lay within an ochre-coloured sort of “town hall” building. It was a quite beautiful little early 19th century theatre, devoted now to a memorial monument/museum of tragedy and valour, concerning mostly Canadian soldiers, involved in the 1942 wartime raid on Dieppe. The Canadian troops and ours were slaughtered through the gross ineptitude of our military and naval commanders.

The museum itself is of considerable interest, with a unique film recording the disaster, its aftermath, and implications. But the theatre in which it is all housed (built in 1826 and given to the Duchesse du Berry who promoted if not initiated sea-bathing in Dieppe) is the unsung jewel of the town.

As a small and intimate theatre, with proscenium arch and much plaster removed to reveal its wooden construction, I thought it to be quite the most charmingly beautiful theatre I had ever seen – and French to the last cherub.

The modest fee for viewing a tragedy within a small palace of delight can not have changed much since it was opened as a memorial museum in 2002.

To find this building it is best to first locate a medieval gateway (les Tourelles) to the town that leads to and from the sea front near to and beneath the castle. Behind the gate is the fairly ordinary-looking building (with no hint of a theatre inside) coloured in yellow ochre. Inside an ordinary door, with little or no advertisement to indicate what lies inside, is all that I have described above, and more.

After a 100 mile drive through Normandy roads, lanes and tracks, and over hills and across deep valleys containing sometimes enormous fields, we reached Londinières, where lunch was recommended at the Relais Lion d’Or (but we were too early). So we had coffee and beer nearby at half the price for the same in Dieppe. So prices in the countryside are certainly cheaper than in town.

I wanted to discover how much hotel prices had risen in France over the last six months or a year. Charming Christine, who runs the Aguado Hotel, where we stay in Dieppe, told me that they review prices in March each year, and last March (it was now September) they raised prices by no more than 2 Euros (£1.60) a room, and for some rooms not at all. This indicates that the price of hotel rooms, in Normandy anyway, have hardly increased at all.

That great illustrator and artist of the “retro”, Frank Martin, had a house near to Dieppe for most of his life. In one of his delightfully illustrated books on Dieppe and its environs, he mentioned one of his favourite restaurants on the outskirts of Envermeu, some 10 miles away from the port. The Restaurant de la Gare (closed Mondays) is run by Jean-Marc and Françoise, and caters for everyone – smart, white-collared, and plasterers and their like. We had to try it.

From our 3 course (£8) menu we chose mixed sliced sausage, minced raw beef (steak tartare, and at least twice or three times the cost of our entire menu if ordered in Paris) and apple tart. So, with beer, a bottle of sparkling Normandy cider, the menu and coffee, the entire cost of this grand repas for the two of us came to about £28.

Oh, if we could only eat like that and in such congenial surroundings in England for so little it would be marvellous. And this was in “expensive” France. Well, it was Normandy.

How, then, might the cost of an evening picnic in our hotel room compare with a restaurant meal?

For the same average price of a meal (less wine) for one person, we bought a bottle of 2006 La Croix St Louis, Lalande de Pomerol, a coeur of local Neufchâtel cheese, a thick stick of bread and half a kilo of plums. The wine we finished (excellent), and half of the rest remained uneaten when we had had our fill. We picnicked splendidly, overlooking the black- and red-roofed landscape in evening mist, and watched starling families learning to fly together in preparation for their winter careerings about the sky in their thousands – a sight that should be witnessed by all (and it happens in Dieppe in the winter).

Petrol was more expensive in France. And as it seems to have been the cost of oil that has been the crux of the increase in living costs everywhere, so prices in France should have be rising. So far we had not found this to be so – in that part of Normandy anyway.

To enjoy shellfish in wonderful circumstances in Dieppe, there is one place to go – well, many, but this one in particular.

Seen in the distance from on high at the back of the Aguado hotel, beyond badlands of desolate and not yet redeveloped scrub land, stands, almost isolated, with two other interesting-looking eating places, the Comptoir à Huîtres. It lies on the Cours de Dakar, Quai de Norwège.

You could drive or walk there, and would find, in its unprepossessing environs, a charming Edwardian-style restaurant of the highest order.

As you enter you might see, as we did, a gourmet sitting alone in front of a layered, mountain of tinwork on which rested two dozen huge oysters on crushed ice – oysters, obviously, being a speciality of the place.

Even the prices for their menu were reasonable. And the white Edelzwicker, en carafe, was as good a white wine as you could possibly encounter for the price (well it was when we were there).

For the rest of the shellfish, shelled, charcoal grilled and sprinkled with sea salt and resting on miniature dark lentils, you could find no better.

And there was no need to change to red wine for the three-cheeses and salad course. The Edelzwicker complimented them just as well.

So what can be concluded about the present-day (September 2008) cost of living in France?

For Normandy anyhow, the price of accommodation, food, carafe wine and cider seem hardly to have risen since we were there some six months, or even a year, before.

So for good value and good food, Normandy beckons.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Reverend F. Page-Roberts

Although I hardly knew my paternal grandfather, as one who is interested in most horticultural matters, I am very proud of him.
Educated at St. John’s college, Cambridge with a brother who became Dean of Salisbury, he chose to live as a horticultural country vicar. There were quite a few in his time. He was the parson at Schole, Norfolk (around 1875), Halstead, Kent, and finally, until 1927 when he died, at Strathfieldsaye, in Hampshire.
Although his brother was more famous than he was in their day, except for the stained glass window in Salisbury Cathedral and some books on religion, it is the Reverend F. Page-Robert’s name that lives on.
I knew grandfather’s gardener, Arthur Keep, and stayed with this lovely old boy, who smelled of smoky beehives, in his retirement cottage when I was painting landscape in the vicinity during the early 1950s.
With the advent of the motor car, Keep (as he was called in those stratified days), was offered the post of gardener/chauffeur. But when given the car to handle, he took it to the end of the drive and got out, saying that such a new-fangled contraption was not for him – gardening was.
When I stayed with his daughter, Doris, also when painting, she told me that one of her jobs as a small girl, at the end of the 19th century, was to follow the Reverend as he budded briar roses. These he had paid his parishioners to recover for him from the hedgerows thereabouts.
He would bud a thousand to two thousand a year, with Doris Keep following behind to tie in the buds with sticky string.
The Reverend was, indeed, a rose specialist, becoming President of the National Rose Society (now Royal) and Dean Hole Memorial Medallist.
Doris told me of when grandfather was walking with a friend in the country, they came across a body lying in a ditch. The Reverend was for walking past, when his companion suggested that they stop, which they did. Grandfather poked the parishioner with his stick, saying with a laugh: “you see, drunk again”, and on they went.
His name lives on in several ways. Cant’s, of Colchester, named a handsome yellow-flushed-with-red rose after him, which was very popular at the time, and was used for hybridising in Israel. It still exists, though hard to find.
His stately, bearded figure was much illustrated in rose books, which he often edited, in magazines like Gardeners’ Magazine (1898), where he is pictured in his rose garden with my father as a child, and in The English Flower Garden (1901 edition), standing, flat-capped, beneath towering Eremurus robustus flowers. In writing on this plant with authority, he must have been quite knowledgeable about it.
And what should pop up in Which? Gardening’s September 2008 issue but a picture of Sidalcea “Reverend Page Roberts” – again, I suppose, available. So he must have had some strong connection with that flower.
He was already dead when, in 1935, the Duchess of Marlborough sued the writer of an article in an American magazine, called Hooey, for a “foul libel”. It was suggested in this piece that the Rev. H. Robertson Page and the Duchess of Marlborough share the same bed. The Reverend F. Page Roberts and the Duchess of Marlborough were, at that time, both well-known and popular roses.
McGill, that great saucy-seaside-postcard artist, cashed in on this national joke, using the Reverend Page Roberts’s name (he being deceased) and, for fear of being involved in another libel case by raising the Duchess’s ire, changing her name to “Queenie Robinson”. How grandfather would have loved all that.
Why the discrepancies in the seemingly arbitrary use of the hyphen in our name? It seems that grandfather’s brother, the Dean, who married a titled lady in the latter part of the 19th century, paid to have the hyphen added between the surname and the last Christian name given to all members of his family. With it he added a coat of arms, crest and motto. But grandfather initially declined to use it, thinking it to be too ostentatious, but later he seems to have done so. I have chosen to include it in my correspondence and books, but not on my paintings. It is a sort of compromise that both churchmen might have approved of – clergymen’s compromise, perhaps?

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Scents, smells and body cream

For mostly better, and sometimes worse, I have always had a very acute sense of smell.
Had I been aware of this natural ability early in life I might have made my way in the scent trade instead of plying my way through a myriad of other endeavours. But anyway, the war intervened and made all of us who participated in it see and think things differently. I became a medical student.

As an example of my olfactory attributes, some 30 years after leaving a preparatory school, a man passed me as I was sitting in a London bus, and I knew exactly who he was by his smell.
That I always knew when I was near to a woman enduring her menstrual period is a sensitivity that I am glad to have lost in my later years.

After I had broken my wrist as a sculptor and been unable to complete a large exhibition of objects/creatures out of elm wood (soon after the disease had infected and killed England’s large elm trees), to enter the wine trade seemed a natural change of direction for me. As a writer on wine (several books and lots of articles) my ability to distinguish and separate smells was a great asset when determining grape varieties and districts, etc.

Throughout the 1960s I could discern each Bordeaux year accurately, and sometimes the district from whence came the wine. But in those days good claret was every-day wine – delicious and moderately priced. So the English drank a lot of it. I even imported Bordeaux in cask and bottled it in London – but that is another and longer story.

What I am leading up to is Body Cream.

Women of my knowledge love to use body cream. After a bath or shower and then drying off surface water, they like to apply body cream to their skin.

So, being the loving husband that I hope to be, I once bought a fancy pot of body cream that was perfumed with one of my wife’s favourite scents. It cost so much that I thought it to be unfair.

There is an inexpensive substance available called cold cream. The white bulk of the expensively scented creams must, I thought, be this cold cream. And there it was, obtainable in every chemist, not as cold cream but as aqueous cream (although the chemist believes both creams to be comparable in many ways) – and very cheap it turned out to be.

So I thought that all I now needed to do was to buy aqueous cream, add scent to it and, hey presto, I would have made body cream.

Those of us who buy scent for wives and girl friends know that when buying some expensive (they all are) scent, sample phials of perfume, usually made by the same house, are given away as samples to test. If these are not offered, it is wise to ask for them.

May I digress a second to tell you that during a friendship with the mistress of a French scent baron (who gave her samples which she sprayed on ants to keep them at bay), I learned that nearly all scents are made in chemical laboratories (he kept a factory in Grasse only as an advertising medium for tourists). And on later consideration, I thought that many a powerful perfume must be dirt cheap to make when you consider that lavatory deodorants, often pleasant, and always strong, are available at a modest price – as are near identical copies of famous marques of scent obtainable, for instance, in Greece.

So take these small sample phials, given away with a scent purchase and, with a dessert spoon, stir their contents into a 50-gram pot of aqueous cream. Decant the result, if wanted, into smaller and smarter jars as gifts. And out of it all have a happy mate at minimum expense - well, certainly a lesser expense than normal.