Highland fling!

Tomorrow Molly and I are heading north to Scotland for a Highland fling on the shores of Lochs Linnhe and Leven.

Philip & Derek (my friends in Barbados) are currently at their home at Onich for a month, and are welcoming 22 friends for a houseparty this weekend (Friday to Monday), a highlight of which will be dinner, in kilt and dicky bow, at Port Appin’s well-known Pierhouse Restaurant on Sunday evening.

As you can see, my kilt rather stands out from the crowd. The tartan is ‘Ruthven’. I’m very (very) remotely descended from the infamous Lord Ruthven who, in 1566, murdered secretary David Rizzio in front of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The weather looks mixed wet and dry, which means having to pack for all eventualities. Thank goodness I’m driving and therefore have unlimited space for our clobber!

Are you going to Chelsea?

If you are going to the Chelsea Flower Show next week you must make a point of visiting the Toff’s Garden that I have specially designed.

As you pass through the entrance with the sign saying “Trespassers Will Be Horsewhipped”, elegantly inscribed in poker-work on the cross section of a sustainable tree trunk, you will notice the row of top hats I have used as hanging baskets. I have alternated grey and black toppers and I think they set off the blooms most effectively.

Riding boots also make amusing plant containers. Just drill a few holes in the sides for the plants to emerge. You will see them placed strategically round my garden. They are ideal for growing strawberries. In these times of austerity it’s a good idea to cultivate one’s own vegetables, so I have included half a dozen very handsome Lobb boots in which I’ve planted potatoes and tomatoes. You can see these at the far end of the garden, just beyond the rockery – which, incidentally, contains many chunks of stone that have been in my family for several generations.

All my bedding plants have been privately educated. They are therefore much hardier, having been through a regime of daily cold baths and lots of Latin. I had the bright idea of planting my petunias in diagonal stripes of different colours to correspond to the ties of some of the smarter regiments. This is something anybody can do – provided you know your regimental ties – and it also works wonderfully well in a window box.

I’m rather proud of the lawn in my Toff’s Garden. Notice the way I have broken up the conventional rectangle shape by laying down Rolls-Royce tyre tracks across the far right-hand corner. It gives the impression of some careless toff guest having reversed his vehicle across the lawn at the end of a party for old school chums. You don’t have to own a Rolls-Royce to achieve this effect. Most decent garden centres now stock the Trakmasta, a neat device for printing the tyre tracks of your chosen car on any lawn. It costs £29.99, including VAT.

I have also poshed up the garden shed by the simple means of digging a moat round it and adding a tradesmen’s entrance. Speaking of moats, I know we have all gone mad for water features these days, but why not try something a little more original? In a secluded area of my garden where people can go to stitch up deals with fellow members of the Establishment, fix a place at university for a son or daughter, or organise a peerage, I have installed a Pimm’s feature, in which that delightful beverage trickles over cleverly arranged cubes of ice. It’s nothing too ostentatious; just very discreet, in keeping with the whole atmosphere of that spot.

It’s always a problem, with seedlings, to find a way of scaring off the birds and the lower orders. I find champagne corks are the answer. Ideally, you should pop them roughly every two minutes, but you can also just string half a dozen or so together and hang them over the plants so they swing in the breeze. I find Veuve Clicquot corks best for intimidating most types of garden bird.

The only way of dealing with slugs is to make them socially ill at ease. Just stick two or three copies of Tatler in the soil near your most delicate young plants and most slugs will just want to slink away and the rest will shrivel up with a sense of inferiority. On the other hand, it is time to accept that there is nothing you can do about greenfly. The only thing you can do is ensure that the greenfly on your roses are upper class. Breeders can now supply batches of greenfly from privileged backgrounds which you can place on your roses to drive out the more common aphids. This is the natural, class-war solution to the greenfly problem.

I am convinced that the Toff’s Garden is the future, so don’t delay a moment longer. Sprinkle cigar ash on your compost and get your dibber monogrammed.

A little bird told me …

Did you know that the little bird referred to in the expression “a little bird tells me” is a wren and is a pun on the name of the great Christopher Wren?

Christopher Wren

It seems that in 1664 Wren drew Samuel Pepys aside and murmured: “Don’t mention this to a soul, but I’m told that now is the time to get out of bricks and mortar and into timber-framed houses and the real up-and-coming area for property is just downwind of that baker’s shop in Pudding Lane.”

Of course, Pepys was a notorious gossip, and after the Great Fire broke out in 1666, everyone was buying into domes and Christopher Wren cleaned up.

Incidentally, the graveyard attached to the lovely Wren church of St Magnus Bonus in Cheapside is widely believed to be the site of the original mother’s grave on which financiers of great probity used to swear when they launched a new package of false information.

In the old days, business was conducted in the coffee houses, and figures such as Dr Samuel Johnson engaged regularly in market-sensitive tittle-tattle. It is not really so different today. Now the mood of the City is assessed in the queues for takeaway coffee in Starbucks. Indeed the level of jibbering anxiety in the City is measured scientifically on the Starbucks Sachet Index, or SSI.

The underlying principle is that, as dealers become more anxious, they furtively pocket more extra sachets of sugar. In normal times of mild paranoia the average number of extra sachets pocketed is about seven. During the worst moments of 2008 it hovered around 17 and even reached a record-breaking 19 at one point. The Bank of England was poised to bail Starbucks out with two million tons of sugar.

Before the Big Fright in 1986, when regulations were suddenly eased to allow financial institutions to earn vast sums and also reach even higher levels of trepidation and euphoria, the City was run on old-fashioned gentlemanly lines. In those days it was all done by the Fibbers and the Jitterers. The Fibbers, easily identified by their plausible manner and the top hats they wore, would gather at street corners near the Stock Exchange and tell their spine-chilling tales to Jitterers who would then run wild-eyed and whimpering through the narrow streets.

When they had completed a circuit, taking in the main merchant banks, the Jitterers would return to the Fibbers, who would tell them a completely different and much more optimistic rumour and they would be off again, wild-eyed and yelping with joy. It was always a colourful spectacle. If things crashed entirely, somebody else would be left holding the worthless investment – hence the great City saying, “My word! It’s your bond.”

The Great Fright and huge advances in electronic communication now mean that when somebody in London taps the side of his nose knowingly, almost instantly a person in Singapore, looking at his computer screen, will fall off his swivel chair and alert New York to the impending catastrophe, and in Tokyo they will be stuffing fistfuls of Starbucks sugar sachets into their pockets.

Some woman in the bourse, in Paris, begins a sentence with the words “It’s probably nothing” and two minutes later someone is shaking the head of the US Federal Reserve Bank by the shoulder to wake him and get him to deal with an international meltdown.

London still holds its pre-eminent position in the increasingly competitive international rumour trade, and the London-based Implausibilities Exchange has reached new heights. It is worth noting that it is London institutions which dominate the Chinese Whispers market in the Far East.

We now have a flourishing market in rumours. Traders actually buy and sell scare stories. The idea, of course, is to sell tall and buy short. The knack is to get out of rumours at the peak of their preposterousness.

The man in the street has no need to be concerned about his savings being used to finance a trade in total fabrication because it is strictly regulated by the Rumour Standards Authority. This, by the way, is the origin of the expression, “I have it on good Authority.”

I hope this article has helped to reassure readers and shed some light on how international banking works. I got it from a man who heard it on the grapevine. He asked me to keep it under my hat.

Can you lose a key marginal?

Relieve the monotony of the election campaign in the last three days by participating in my free-to-enter game.

The rules are very simple: everybody picks 12 candidates from any political party and the object is to see which player can lose the greatest number of key marginals.

In your team of 12 candidates you must have at least one representative of a weird independent party, such as the Abolish Thursdays Alliance or the More Pedestrian Crossings in Kirkwall party. You must also have at least six women candidates and no more than seven Liberal Democrats.

Bonus points are awarded for gaffes. If, for example, one of your candidates forgets what he is supposed to think about university top-up fees, or publicly contradicts official party policy on, say, urban renewal schemes, you get three points. Score zero if anyone makes reference to Duffygate.

You can prompt a gaffe by playing your John Humphrys Killer Question card. This card causes your candidate to be tripped up in an embarrassing way on the Today programme. The Killer Question card may be played only three times.

In order to cancel out your opponents’ gaffe bonus points, you may choose to adopt the Full Confidence gambit, in which the party leader announces, on the record, that he has full confidence in the candidate who has made the gaffe.

The Full Confidence gambit cannot operate in a Fisticuffs Scenario (see below) and an expression of full confidence which is only off the record cancels out just one single gaffe point.

If your candidate makes a politically incorrect remark, you automatically double your gaffe bonus points. You are also allowed to call for a surprise inspection of a candidate’s wheelie bin in order to notch up bonuses for Hypocrisy over Recycling.

There is a 50-point super bonus if one of your candidates pulls off the magic treble – that is, recycling hypocrisy, sending children to private school and having links to a bizarre Right-wing American sect.

If more than five people in your team defect either to or from the Liberal Democrats you are disqualified. The only way you can get back in is if another player’s team of candidates is found to include a bigamist.

The judges will declare a Fisticuffs Scenario if a candidate punches another candidate, or, better still, a voter. While this scenario lasts, all points collected score double, so this is a good time to get rid of your low-scoring “I once smoked pot” cards.

The Fisticuffs Scenario lasts until the next Newsnight Row occurs. This requires at least a studio walk-out or a politician reducing Jeremy Paxman to tears, preferably both.

You can spend points on a political gamble. You can pay five points and try the Hustings Lucky Dip. You may get, “Tony Blair visits your local polyclinic; all other players lose 10 points.”

Or, maybe: “Three thousand of your postal votes mysteriously disappear; this cancels out all Liberal Democrat gaffes.” Or, “Osama bin Laden releases a video pledging support for the Green Party; go straight to Meltdown.”

A player may also claim Meltdown after three consecutive Shock Opinion Poll Findings. By calling “Meltdown”, he automatically quadruples the scores held by his loony independent candidates. And all candidates revealed to have gas-guzzling 4×4 vehicles qualify for an extra wheelie bin inspection.

On your entry form you will find a box in which you put down your guess for the number of times Alex Salmond will repeat his call for a head-to-head televised debate with the three main parties.

All those who guess right will receive an endorsement for their team from the Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik. This is beautifully inscribed on parchment-effect material and may be cashed in to claim 100 gaffe bonus points or to call for another Meltdown. It also comes with a Cheeky Girls CD.

The winner of the game will receive a magnificent peerage. And 300 runners-up have a chance to win a lovingly handcrafted replica of Gordon Brown’s moral compass.

Information on how to obtain entry forms will appear shortly.

May Day traditions of time immemorial

Did you remember, when you woke up this morning, that it is 1st May?

Your first words of the day should have been “Give me strength!” It is one of those ancient country superstitions associated with this date, although the origins are lost in the mists of time. Some scholars suggest it is a distortion of an old English saying: “Geese in May are straying” – a reminder to farm labourers that, as the breeding season approached, it was time to do something to ensure that the goose pens were secure.

There are lots of old traditions like this which I think it is good to keep alive. For example, I would never empty a dishwasher on 1st May. As the old saying goes, “Empty your dishwasher on May Day and you’ll rinse away a loved one before the year is out.” This is a variation of an old Norfolk superstition that on this day you should leave out a plate with congealed gravy on it so the Devil can come and lick it clean. This will make him fat and lazy for the rest of the year.

It was common in many other parts of the country to avoid doing the washing up on the eve of 1st May for fear of rinsing away a loved one. It also applies to washing oneself in the morning. “Skip a bath and you won’t tempt the plughole,” as they still say in many parts of Devon. This is certainly the day for just a perfunctory wash. It is also advisable for men to avoid shaving, if possible.

Before you leave the house, make sure that your shoes are slightly scuffed rather than highly polished. On May Day they say that people of the opposite sex can see all your faults reflected in your shiny shoes. Maids will ne’er find a husband and young men will woo in vain, as the old song has it. That is why unmarried people in the country would always smear their footwear with mud on this day.

When you do leave the house, it’s a good idea to leave something behind – an umbrella, a credit card, a key or a mobile phone. Many people in Cheshire still believe that there are charming little pixie-like creatures known as Reminders who live in cracks in people’s front paths and have the job of reminding people of things that have slipped their minds. That is why some of us like to leave something really important behind on this day to show the Reminders that they are really appreciated and to keep them happy for the rest of the year.

I once met a very old hedge clipper in Dorset who told me: “Never beat a pig or pay a bill on the first day of the fifth month. If you do, the streaky bacon will be too lean and your cheque will bounce before noon on the ninth day.” I have stuck to this advice ever since.

Other activities which, according to tradition, should be avoided on 1st May include having your cat neutered, sharpening a scythe, going to the dentist’s, clearing the reeds in a river, putting up shelving, thatching your neighbour’s garden room and emptying a Dyson vacuum cleaner.

In the village of Toot Baldon, in Oxfordshire, there has been a long tradition that 1st May was the day for giving in to temptation. This usually took the form of young maids doing a bit of indiscriminate kissing, young men swallowing large amounts of ale in one gulp and everyone else throwing vegetables at each other. Originally, there must have been some religious significance to all this, but it is not clear what it was.

Interestingly, the idea of giving in to temptation on this day also survives elsewhere in the country. Usually it applies to eating (or perhaps drinking) something you normally try to avoid. Hence the well known May Day saying: “Eat a chip and bewilder the Devil.” In Somerset they say: “On May Day, everyone in heaven eats pastry.” (This is probably the origin of the expression “pie in the sky”.) There is also the annual springtime tradition in Warwickshire of “eating a doughnut for St Muriel”. I believe these are charming traditions and it is important to do all we can to keep them alive in our increasingly materialistic age.