Brian Viner: Why no grieving when plants go?

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The Independent Online

We suffered a death in our house this week. Actually, the death might have occurred weeks or even months ago, we can't be sure. And no, it wasn't the great-aunt we keep in the attic. It was the old plumbago that lived in our conservatory, our absolute pride and joy, with its delicate pale-blue flowers that every summer and autumn, and sometimes into November, filled an entire wall, from floor to roof.

It had become a family mantra, when we saw plumbago outdoors on holidays in hot countries, that ours was better, bigger, lovelier, bluer.

We assume it was the unusually cold winter that killed it, though it may have been old age or, less palatably, lack of care. We never did much to keep the plumbago going, never needed to. It was one of the fixtures and fittings we acquired with the house when we moved in nine years ago, and it seemed to thrive every year with hardly any feeding or watering.

My father-in-law, much greener-fingered than me, said it was so well-established that the roots must have found water, deep under the impoverished topsoil.

The most likely culprit is the cold, judging by everything else we've lost in the garden this year. It's not until the spring that you know what havoc has been wrought by the frosts, some of which, this winter, were harder and more merciless than any I have known since we came to live in the Herefordshire countryside.

A glorious bush, that every summer bursts with thousands of little pink-and-white flowers, looks as if it might have copped it too. And our two small bay trees are history.

But it's the plumbago that saddens us most, probably more than is entirely healthy. After all, it's not as if we've lost a close relative or even a beloved family pet.

That said, I'm pretty sure I feel sadder than I did when Ralph and Rufus, the hamsters, died. I wouldn't define this feeling as grief, exactly. I don't think we need bereavement counselling. But we're still in a kind of mourning, which isn't something anyone warns you about when you begin to take an interest in gardening. Come to think of it, maybe somebody should start a support group for people who have lost much-loved trees, bushes and plants.

We could all sit round a table eating HobNobs, swapping bud or blossom stories, and assuaging each other's guilty conviction that we might have done more to save our loved ones.

In the meantime, I am wrestling with the guilt I feel for learning more about the plumbago in death than I ever did in life, the broad equivalent, I suppose, of showing interest in the experiences of an elderly relative only after his or her passing.

Its name, for instance, stems from the Latin word for lead, plumbum, and the verb agere, meaning to resemble, and can be traced all the way back to the Roman writings of Pliny the Elder.

Apparently, the sap causes lead-coloured stains on the skin. Not that, if you'll forgive me for getting maudlin, we will ever have to worry about that again.

Hannah refreshes parts other actors cannot reach

Death in one form or another seems to be this column's theme today, although of course the sudden expiry of Simon Callow's character Gareth in Four Weddings and a Funeral (following a heart attack brought on, perhaps, by an excess of ham) was only fictional.

Nevertheless, not many cinematic deaths have had quite the impact of that one, for it made an unlikely hit of W H Auden's poem "After the Funeral", as read by Gareth's partner Matthew, stirringly played by John Hannah.

All those who shed a tear during that celebrated funeral scene, however, should probably avoid the questionnaire in next week's Radio Times, in which Hannah confesses that the script of Four Weddings wasn't at all his "kind of thing" and that he only decided to accept the part because he had been out of work for eight months.

On the other hand, I would heartily recommend it to anyone who considers standard celebrity responses to magazine questionnaires not at all their kind of thing.

Eschewing the usual inoffensive one-liners, Hannah comes across as quite splendidly spiky, asserting that comedians Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair and Graham Norton are all as funny as "a kick in the balls", and adding that he would happily shoot Tony Blair.

He also returns to the testicular theme, by suggesting that he would rather cut off his and eat them, fried with onions, than appear on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

A whole new reality show comes inexorably to mind.

Tall tale of a gift from beyond the grave

Friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend stories almost always turn out to be apocryphal, but I am assured by my friend, who has the solemn word of her friend, of the veracity of this one. It concerns a woman, I'll call her Elaine, who recently died of cancer in her early fifties, leaving behind a husband and a teenage son.

In his address at the funeral, the husband made everyone laugh by affectionately referring to Elaine's shopaholic tendencies, and her insistence always on having the last word.

A week later came a ring on the doorbell, and the unexpected delivery of a new Alfa Romeo Spider Convertible, together with a note: "This is for you. I want you both to put the roof down, go for a drive, and think of me. All my love, Elaine." It was the poignant but marvellous final act of a shopaholic, who always had the last word.