Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Our wonderful friend Sally is not accident-prone, exactly, because the things that happen to her are not exactly accidents. But there is something of the Inspector Clouseau about her. Indeed, readers of this column might remember my tale of the day she found herself in Hereford, after a shopping trip for some school shoes for her daughter, rummaging through several municipal rubbish bins after realising that she had dumped her car keys along with the old shoes.

Her immense relief at eventually finding them - and I should add that Hereford's bins have metal flaps that necessitate intensive rummaging operations - was compounded by the fact that she had not felt a tap on her shoulder, and had not turned around to find a fellow-parent from her daughter's school murmuring sympathetically that school fees do indeed require cost-cutting measures in other departments of life, and would she like some money for a sandwich?

Anyway, Sally's latest embarrassment began with another shopping expedition, this time in Ludlow. While browsing in a shop selling quirky knick-knacks, Sally found two ceramic mugs, one marked "Chef" and the other marked "Slacker". Since her husband Simon does most of the "event" cooking in their house, sweating over the Béarnaise sauce while delegating peeling and grating jobs to her, she thought they might provide the family with a laugh. Not that she's by any means a slacker, but she doesn't mind a joke at her own expense, and is often the first to crack them. She bought the mugs.

A week or so later, a man came to cut the lawn and weed the flowerbeds. He had been hired through a gardening agency and it was his first time at Sally's house. It was also a warm day, and after an hour or so Sally popped into the garden to find him, quite understandably, resting on his fork. She asked him if he fancied a cup of coffee. He did, and I suspect you can see where this story is leading. She made two mugs of coffee, took one out to him and sipped the other herself while she did the ironing. On draining her coffee, she realised that her mug was the one marked "Chef". Would he notice that he had been handed the slacker's mug? When Sally spoke to the guy's boss at the agency, she found that he had, and had been duly indignant. It could only happen to Sally.

If there is any slacking in my garden, meanwhile, I certainly can't accuse the vegetables. The felicitous combination of bursts of May sunshine and torrential downpours has had a dramatic effect, with the broad beans and peas in particular reaching almost visibly for the sky. Even more gratifyingly, the asparagus is shooting rapidly skywards, too. I have shied away from growing asparagus until now because it seemed so damn complicated. My vegetable-gardening bible - or perhaps my Kama Sutra, since it tells me what to put where - is The Complete Gardener by Monty Don. This is partly because it is a fine book, and partly because he lives only five miles or so away, so his soil and climatic conditions are ours, too. Anyway, Monty's advice on asparagus was singularly off-putting for a gardening ingénu like me. If even he finds it "a bit tricky to establish, and quite hard work", then for me it would be like one of the labours of Hercules.

But my friend James gave me eight asparagus crowns, so I felt I had to give it a whirl. And when those first spears started pushing through the soil, I was delighted that I had.

Increasingly, I find that successful growth in the kitchen garden gives me the kind of pleasure I once used to derive from taking a sharp catch in a cricket match, or serving an ace on the tennis court. I even bought a copy of a magazine called Kitchen Garden in the newsagent's the other day, and not just because it had a cover-mounted packet of basil seeds, which would have been truly sad. Whatever, leafing excitedly through it, I realise that I have now officially succumbed to middle age - although at least I haven't yet started putting my car keys in rubbish bins.

Tales of the Country, by Brian Viner, is out in paperback (Simon & Schuster, £7.99)

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