Arts and Entertainment

The idea of The Great American Novel feels like an albatross around the neck of that country’s literature. Sooner or later every white middle-class male writer with any kind of reputation feels obliged to have a stab at it, usually with limited success. Eventually they think it’s time to pack away all the fun stuff like storytelling, energy and plot, and make some big state-of-the-nation address, telling people exactly how things stand in the good ol’ US of A. Interestingly, America’s women writers don’t tend to feel the obligation to grandstand so strongly, and their novels are usually all the better for that.

Bright spark: As autumn approaches there is one firework of a flower that really catches the eye

A little curling fountain of pink firework sparks, each flower head is made up of a studded set of tinier flowers, a bit like a Barbie-toned Agapanthus. There are only a few floral highlights at this time of year, but among them are the prettiest, frilliest and slightly pink-spidery of early autumn treats, the Nerines. The name sounds mythological, but it turns out nobody's really sure. Apparently it was a cheeky Regency vicar, the Rev William Herbert, who coined the name, possibly just out of his wonderful head.

Tom Hodgkinson: Lusty friars trick credulous ladies into shagging them by pretending to be the Archangel Gabriel

People have completely the wrong idea about the Middle Ages. In the popular imagination, it is an era of bad teeth, short lives, no anaesthetic, religious intolerance, the suppression of women, rampant superstition, boring food and recurrent plagues. But this caricature is very wide of the mark. In actual fact it was an intellectually lively period that was playful, sophisticated and enormous fun. And if the 14th-century Florentine writer Boccaccio is to be believed, it was pretty relaxed when it comes to sex.

Weekend work: Time to tie up climbers

What to do

Chaffinch Brook on Wimborne Way

10 years on, Thames Water ordered to pay sewage victims

'I have to call Thames Water at least three or four times a year. The smell catches my throat'

TV review: The Great British Year (BBC One), Unsafe Sex in the City (BBC Three)

"We are an island nation..." boomed the Churchillian voiceover, thus announcing, in case the title hadn't already given it away, that The Great British Year is yet another TV programme about how great Britain is. TV schedules are currently awash with patriotically themed shows such as the BBC panel show I Love My Country, but unlike some of its ilk, this wide-ranging nature documentary had something truly worth boasting about: our magnificent weather.

Eight-year-old boy suspended from school for using hand as pretend gun in game

Pupil was playing cops and robbers with his friend

The News Matrix: Wednesday 2 October 2013

Attacks cost £154m in lost tourism

Erena Wilson was struck by a cedar branch in wet and windy weather

‘Fluke’ that falling branch at Kew killed only one, inquest hears

It was “a fluke” that only one person was killed by a falling tree branch in Kew Gardens last year, an inquest heard today.

Invisible Ink: No 192 - Axel Munthe

It was said that in Axel Munthe’s one major book there were enough plots and short stories to fill the rest of most writers’ lives. It became a beloved classic, variously described as amazing, horrible, hilarious, romantic, pitiful, enchanting, and possessing that strange simplicity of mind which is often the attribute of genius.

Weekend work: Time to clear out summer bedding plants

What to do

Sow long: If you want a beautiful cuttings garden next summer, get those seeds in now

Annual flowers are profligate with their seed. Which is why, with very little effort now, you can collect free supplies to provide next year's flowers. This summer has been superb for both producing seed (plants have grown with tremendous vigour) and ripening it. I had an unusually peaceful session with the small, thin seedpods of larkspur, cracking them open and spilling the hard black seed on to a sheet of paper on the kitchen table.

Great works: Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound (1914) by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

You say tomato, I say potato: the TomTato

The TomTato: Plant which produces both potatoes and tomatoes launched in UK

Plant can grow sweet cherry tomatoes while producing white potatoes

The News Matrix: Friday 27 September 2013

Want to marry? First switch on brain…

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