Whitework embroidered alphabet: letter O


Whitework O for orchid (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

We are taking not going out very seriously. My last day actually going anywhere was on Monday when I took 2 parcels to the local sub post office (one parcel of bedlinen for the family in London and the other with last week’s little Fair Isle jumper), relieved to be doing something constructive. Since then I try to run on the spot for a minute every hour which is possibly useless and pathetic and I aim do more hoovering – always necessary as our fluffy black cat trails loose fur everywhere. My husband, however, goes out every day for a walk or to shop and has odd random greetings with people he doesn’t know across the width of the road as fellow intrepid but rule following individuals shout cheery good mornings or offer random information about things like the fact that Marks and Spencers are empty but the shelves are full (Tuesday, not Wednesday).

Whitework O for orchid (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

The self isolators in London are coming to the end of their confinement and as yet no one else seems to have been made ill by whatever it was that the smallest person had. For a while household numbers were swollen by another relative who felt unwell and understandably very panicky on her own with just her two children. This was great for the small person as his cousins, who he loves to be with anyway, taught him how to play chess. It was, however, quite difficult for the family as self isolating means no helpful cleaner (or granny) to clean all those loos and clear up all the pots and pans. Meanwhile Daughter No 2 arrived back from Iraq, via time in Cambodia and had to spend her first a night in a hotel and a the next few days with a friend elsewhere due her sister’s household’s battened down hatches. Since then, a kind neighbour, between tenants for the house next door and with no prospect of a new let for some time, has said daughter No 2 can live there. Daughter No 1 is tiger mothering the small person whose times tables already take in part of the 13 x table. Together they have also been working on Daughter No 1’s series of children’s stories involving a band of superheroes riding – and even turning – the tides of history. The small person regularly runs 4k with his mum at the same time as keeping up a detailed analysis of the books he’s currently reading/being read/writing, including plot intricacies (and deficiencies), character assessment and scene setting. “Don’t you think running and talking should be an Olympic sport mum?” On top of all that, 7 cats – 6 kittens, now half mum’s size, occupy the playroom, while kitten mum’s brother seeks maximum human comfort in all this confusion. In Cheltenham, I have now washed everything that needed washing (sofa arm caps, not yet the whole sofa covers – not warm enough) and feel it’s such a shame I can’t be more helpful to those in London.

Sketches for O for orchid

When Rosemary and Peter Williams came to discuss making my replacement wedding ring, they brought along with them a present of a little potted orchid, so O is for orchid in my whitework alphabet. We take these exotic flowers for granted now since clever people worked out how to propagate them cheaply and in their trillions and it’s easy to forget that not long ago they would have been seen only  rarely and then in specialist glass houses in horticultural gardens or in the conservatories of the more eccentric botanists. Very few would have seen them in the wild.

Susan Orlean “The Orchid Thief”

To get a feeling for the power of orchid love at a time before they became commonplace on garage forecourts, get a copy of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief (1998). The story began in 1994 when a group of Seminole native americans and a man called John Laroche were arrested for poaching rare orchids in the Fukahatchee Strand State Reserve in Florida. Susan Orlean was at first just interested in the crime but as she delved into what had happened she herself became fascinated to the point of obsession by orchids in general, by an orchid known as the ghost, in particular and by the unique individual John Laroche who lived a marginal life, running a plant nursery on the Seminole reservation near Miami. For two years she was Laroche’s shadow and dived into the swamps and the sub culture of orchid fanatics in equal measure. The New Yorker describes Orlean’s strange companion as a man, moral and immoral in equal measure, gripped by sequential natural history passions which “boil up quickly an end abruptly like tornadoes”. Laroche began orchid hunting in the swamps as a child with his mother and though other passions came and went, the orchid love rumbled on beneath, obsessing not on what he’d call corsage orchids but in the rare and endangered ones – the strange looking and often not even vaguely lovely ones. The ghost stood out for being the only pretty orchid in the swamp and as such it was hunted like a wild animal, compared to which it was equally elusive. Laroche knew where to find it but his main mission was to stamp out the illegal trade it engendered. The paradox was that in trying to protect the ghost, Laroche and the Seminoles were accused of poaching it. A film with title Adaptation of 2002 had Meryl Streep as Orlean and I have to say I didn’t care for it. Nor did Orlean to begin with although she later came to love it, especially in its depiction of obsession and in its rounding out of the book’s more subtle undertones of longing and disappointment. Perhaps I’ll watch it again. I’d like to read the book again too, but when the film came out, it contaminated the book for me and I sent it to charity.

Tom Hart Dyke & Paul Winder “The Cloud Garden”

A couple of years after Orlean’s book, the newspapers were full of another adventure involving orchid hunting. In 2000, plant hunter Tom Hart Dyke and his back packing companion, Paul Winder, were kidnapped by FARC guerrillas in the Darien Gap between Panama and  Colombia –  “waltzing round the jungle like a school trip gone wrong”.*

Tom had discovered orchids when he was nine and from there on he was obsessed, “I tried to count every native orchid on the golf course near my home. Four days later, I finished. I had counted 63,424.” *

Held for 9 months they were threatened with death and British officials were said to have given them up for dead. Tom occupied his mind by designing a garden in the form of a map of the world which he hoped to live to see coming to fruition in the gardens of his family home, Lullingstone Castle in Kent. He even tried to make little gardens around his kidnap site in the mountains though this irritated his captors who could understand digging and even weeding but orchid growing was beyond them and they burnt his seeds.

No ransom demands were ever issued and the pair were released just before Christmas 2000. Their book The Cloud Garden was published in 2003. The garden Hart Dyke designed in the mountains was opened in 2005 with the planting of an Agave americana just above the Darien Gap (remember his garden was in the form of a world map). “I chose it (the agave) because Paul hates orchids,” says Hart Dyke. “And because it is the spiniest and prickliest of all the plants — which was a pain to plant.” *

We may be seeing more of our own garden walls and fences than we might wish, but we can always escape with a book that makes you happy to be at home.

Whitework O for orchid (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

(*All quotes from an article in the Sunday Times July 31 2005).


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Fair Isle Cardigan 6- 9 months

Fair Isle Cardigan (Debbie Bliss The Baby Knits Book, Ebury Press 2002)

Another Debbie Bliss Fair Isle cardigan – such a delight to make and (experience suggests) a pleasure to receive  too – quite incommensurate with the effort put into making it. The pattern is from Debbie Bliss The Baby Knits Book, Ebury Press 2002 and the yarn is her baby cashmerino, the main colour being navy.

Fair Isle Cardigan (Debbie Bliss The Baby Knits Book, Ebury Press 2002)

What peculiar times we live in. I’m not quite in the age category to be advised to stay home although having a great affinity to any passing flu bug, I am being cautious. I have a bit of susceptibility for respiratory infections I think because my childhood ailments include emphysema (induced by over inflation of the lungs during an operation to have my tonsils and adenoids removed) and whooping cough (spending 6 weeks on a mattress on the dining room table in a tiny room with a constant coal fire which my father had decided was better for me than lying in a cold unheated bedroom!), added to which I’ve had pneumonia at least once in adult life. Meanwhile, my husband, fifteen years older than me, has a splendid respiratory system. There will be some irony if I am the only one allowed to go out and forage for food!.

Fair Isle Cardigan (Debbie Bliss The Baby Knits Book, Ebury Press 2002)

My husband’s main medical problem is ankylosing spondylitis in which the small bones in the spine fuse. He doesn’t have it severely and usually copes with the pain by lying down on his back for 15 minutes or so. Sometimes he takes paracetamol. Irony number 2 in this blog is that at the moment you can’t find paracetamol to buy anywhere, yet a couple of years ago I was so worried that he was accumulating too many boxes of the pills which came with repeat prescriptions for something else, that I made him stop getting any more on prescription, feeling we should buy them ourselves. (Now, no paracetamol are available on prescription.) He’s philosophical and will cope.

Sample Fair Isle pattern in different colours

And thinking about childhood ailments, I feel for the benefit of my grandchildren who may one day read this blog, I should remind them of the nasty illnesses that they no longer have to suffer as long as sufficient people take up inoculations on offer. Whooping cough was horrible and often had long term consequences. Measles was also not very nice. Somehow one of my children missed out being vaccinated for this. It affected her eyes most and it is interesting that  she is the only one of my 4 children to have to wear spectacles. I knew of no one of my age group who had Diphtheria which we must have been inoculated against but a neighbour  in the 1980s, who was born in the early years of the C20th in a little artisan terraced cottage across the road from where we lived recalled that she shared a bed with her 3 brothers and sisters, 2 of whom caught Diphtheria and died while she and her brother had it and survived. I remember just one case of someone who had polio and walked with a stick and had callipers on their legs. So, dear children, it is very worth it to have the childhood jabs on offer and let’s hope that, unlike me, your parents are up to date on which jabs you should have when!

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