Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Springing all the way into summer

It's March. Okay, it might be late in the month, but it's still only March. And on a day off today, I spent hours in the garden, in shorts, a vest and sandals, potting plants in the scorching sun.

It was the same yesterday - and the forecast suggests it will be the same for the coming days.

And it's not even April. This is not a complaint, you understand - although the consistently haywire seasons do make you think about climate change - but simply astonishment that it feels as though we actually skipped spring pretty much altogether and landed rather suddenly in the summer.

The planting has continued apace over the last few of days, after two Sunday morning visits to Columbia Road and then a trip on Monday to B&Q with a man and a van to load up with gravel, compost and as many pots as I could pile onto the huge trolley.

There used to be shops on Columbia Road itself that sold pots, plus ones on Hackney Road, but they either don't exist any more or have simply stopped selling pots. It's difficult to know why: there doesn't seem to have been any reduction in interest in gardening.

But it meant that even after the pots I've had for years had all been cleaned out, more were needed, so there was little option but to organise such a trip.

Having not been out to the Lea Bridge Road area for years - it's not a trip you do if you don't have a car - I'd totally forgotten that its slap bang next door to the Olympic site. As we crawled past roadworks in the dense early-morning traffic, it was pretty much impossible not to look up and go: 'Oh there's the velodrome oh god it's going to be total chaos'.

Vast amounts of everyday traffic and they're taking a lane out just so VIPs and corporate sponsors can get from the centre of town to the Games site.

Ian, who was helping me, pointed out all the high fencing and CCTV camera and noted, dryly, that after helping pay for it all with our council tax subsidy, it was debatable just what we'd get out of it.

B&Q was hardly the best shopping experience I've had. In many ways, it's convenient and easy. There was a really good selection of pots - although you need to be careful, as a lot were slightly chipped, and not in a design feature sort of way.

But you can forget basic advice - or even much clue about stock. Perfectly polite and as helpful as possible with no in-depth knowledge, but not able to do more than optimistically point me in a vague direction.

And when you go to pay, it's self-service tills - although a woman did come over to start me off with that process. It's no wonder such staff hardly seem happy when the customers are being expected to help put them out of work.

In March 2011, the Kingfisher Group, which owns B&Q, reported a 22.5% rise in profits to £670m. Perhaps if they invested in their staff a little more, it would be possible to get information when you need it - and get a human touch when you're paying.

Are such basic ideas of service really so out of fashion? And if you had a better shopping experience, perhaps you'd return more frequently. And you certainly wouldn't write blog pieces like this.

Perhaps this is the point at which to note that investing in staff clearly is unfashionable when you can get free, taxpayer-funded labour on the somewhat ironically titled 'Workfare' scheme instead.

And that's without mentioning that many big companies also rely on further taxpayer subsidies to their profits as such in-work benefits as tax credits help make up for low, low pay.

Nope, service is out of fashion because service demands investment in people and that costs.

Anyway, I survived. And back in the garden, it was time to get potting in the sun.

Over the course of two days, I've now planted up a pert little box, a hebe, some Cape daises and succulents, plus sorrel, two varieties of parsley, strawberries, chives, garlic and oregano.

There is something emerging that I'm really happy with. Colour and texture, decoration and culinary staples - although the latter two are frequently one and the same. There is more to come, but what is coming together is now also making it easier to think about what to do next.

And in the meantime, it has already become a more wonderful space in which to soak up the sun.

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