Don’t tell them but the French didn’t in fact invent etiquette

When dining in France, it is considered rude to finish the bread before the main course has been served, and ruder still to slice the bread with a knife, lest the crumbs land in a lady’s décolletage. In China, you should never place your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and in Bangladesh you may eat with your fingers, but should avoid getting sauce above the knuckles. If you are guilty of any of the above, may I direct you, politely, to a new documentary on the World Service. The programme takes aim at many outdated traditions (including those that resign women to the kitchen), but the conversation is

The best of this year’s gardening books

What makes a garden is an increasingly pressing question, in the light of what Jinny Blom, in her witty and wise What Makes a Garden: A Considered Approach to Garden Design (Frances Lincoln, £35), calls ‘hairshirt hubris’. By that she means the refusal of some gardeners to call any native plant a weed or any slug or aphid a pest. She wishes to inject a little sense into what has become an ill-tempered dialogue between ‘traditional gardeners’ and the self-deniers who cannot see gardens as anything but parcels of sacrosanct earth, in which any major intervention by a human is to be regretted. But to Blom, garden-making is one antidote

Roger Deakin – at ease in the countryside as a poacher with deep pockets

Few authors have left such an immediate legacy as Roger Deakin. When he died of a sudden illness in 2007, aged 63, he had written just two books: Waterlog, which set off the wild swimming craze, and the even more influential Wildwood, which helped kickstart the publishing phenomenon of nature writing. Yet both books only really became well known after his death. During his lifetime he was, at best, a cult taste. When I approached the BBC 20 years ago with the idea that he should present a televisual version of Waterlog in which he swam ‘across’ England, through its ponds, lakes and rivers, I was told no one was

The politics of trees

Trees glorious trees. People can’t get enough of them. They don’t want to take care of trees, they just want to plant more and more of them. We have so many trees not being cared for by our local council that I was utterly amazed to see volunteer do-gooders planting saplings around the village green and surrounding common land when I was out walking the spaniels the other day. Surely they can’t want more trees not to pollard, coppice or treat for processionary moth, I thought. But perhaps I should not be surprised. I wouldn’t say people round here are naive when it comes to land management, but I saw

China’s great log forward

Every year, China plants trees over an area the size of Ireland. The country may be the biggest polluter on Earth, but its reforestation efforts are enough to make Saint Greta look twice. In the last decade, the ‘Great Green Wall’ project has cost more than £73 billion, and the country aims to expand its forest cover to 24 per cent by the end of 2025 (the total area of the five largest European countries combined). So this week’s announcement that China has signed up to a deal to end deforestation by 2030 together with world-leading tree-cutters like Brazil and Indonesia is not, in fact, a huge surprise – or

The Welsh village taking on the tree planting industry

The village of Cwrt y Cadno sits in a particularly pretty and unspoiled valley in Carmarthenshire, south west Wales. The steep sides of the Mynydd Mallaen plateau rise to the east; the foothills of the Cambrian mountains look down from the other side, and the Cothi river cuts a path between the two. But in this quiet village a scuffle has broken out over the fate of a tree planting scheme in the area. It’s a fight that may well reveal the folly of mass tree planting in Wales, the side effects of ambitious carbon targets, and the futility of government subsidies. Large forestry plantations have been a feature of

Floods you with fascinating facts: Trees A Crowd reviewed

Listening to Trees A Crowd, a podcast exploring the ‘56(ish) native trees of the British Isles’, solved one of childhood’s great mysteries for me. Why, when you plant a pip from one type of apple, does it grow into a completely different type of apple tree? The answer — one kind of apple tree will typically cross-pollinate with another variety to pass on a different set of genes — is less interesting than the next bit. Which is that if you do plant, say, a Braeburn seed, and it takes, you’re likely to end up with crab apples. The reason, as explained on the podcast, is that the wild crab

A tree is for centuries, not just for COP26

We are being urged — and, in some cases, paid — by the government to plant more trees. Actually, this happens most years. I can even remember ‘Plant a tree in ’73. Plant one more in ’74’. It is a bit like saying ‘Have more babies’, without any provision for their care once born. It all depends which trees, where you plant them and how you tend them. If you walk through the country nowadays, or near new-build housing estates where trees have been planted in ‘mitigation’, you will see large numbers of saplings dead or dying, still in their tree guards, planted too close together and then forgotten. New

Why Boris’s tree planting plans could damage the environment

Tree planting is one of those motherhood-and-apple pie policies that it’s quite hard to argue with. We have a climate crisis, and a dreadful decline in biodiversity, and more trees will help with that. They will restore our denuded landscape to something more natural, and they’re good for our mental health. Only a curmudgeon could carp about tree planting, which is presumably why the main political parties spent the last election having a plant-off about how many trees they want to get in the ground. The government has a target of 30,000 hectares a year across the UK by 2025, and Boris Johnson has been linking his tree ambitions to

Letters: Churches have risen to the challenge of lockdown

Back to schools Sir: I share Lucy Kellaway’s enthusiasm for seeing school-life return and inequality gaps closed (‘A class apart’, 20 June). I was also glad that she debunked the myth that teachers have been on holiday during lockdown. It doesn’t feel like a holiday to me, as I sit contemplating a set of essays, the second set of predicted grades of the year and my annual Ucas references, not to mention daily work postings, live sessions on Microsoft Teams, Zoom staff meetings and a long list of emails. Where we depart is at Lucy’s call for a return to school at all costs, rather than the ‘blended learning’ approach

Letters: Did Bristol really want to see Colston fall?

Hong Kong’s success Sir: Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson are right to compare the UK’s Covid-19 response with Hong Kong’s (‘Who cared?’, 6 June). We write as UK-trained emergency physicians, who have worked as specialists in both the UK and Hong Kong. In many ways, the economic and healthcare contexts are similar. The majority of care is delivered at minimal cost to the patient at the point of care; we share similar per capita GDP and human development indices. But we responded very differently to Covid. In Hong Kong, initially all patients with possible Covid were admitted to hospital until they tested negative. No one with suspected Covid was transferred

Is it too late to save Britain’s ash trees?

Once we wrote poems when we lost our trees. Now we just watch them rot. In 1820 John Clare was moved to mark the end of a single tree he had loved: ‘It hoples Withers droops & dies.’ In 2020, so many English trees are dying that it would take a library of Clares to record the casualties. This year, locked-down in Derbyshire, I have been watching skeletons amid the green, hoping that they will return to life. Almost all have. The last of the great field ashes are only just coming into leaf, scarred by late frosts and drought. A row of oaks I ride by most days has

How John Constable got masterpiece after masterpiece out of a tiny corner of rural Suffolk

Before his marriage John Constable returned regularly in early summer to his native village of East Bergholt. When he wrote from there to his wife-to-be, Maria Bicknell, he almost always exclaimed that Suffolk was ‘in great beauty’. His enthusiasm was never more eloquent than on 22 June 1812, when he declared: ‘Nothing can exceed the beautiful appearance of the country at this time, its freshness, its amenity — the very breeze that passes the window is delightful, it has the voice of Nature.’ I often think about Constable (1776–1837) as I pace across the water meadows on my daily constitutional — partly because this too is an East Anglian landscape

Mother nature is finally getting the art she deserves

I guess that few would currently dispute that the world is in crisis. I’m not talking about Covid-19. Nor am I primarily addressing the issues arising from the 36 billion tonnes of carbon that the human project sends into our atmosphere every year. Climate chaos is a part of the issue, but I’m thinking principally of those things that most impact upon the biosphere as an ongoing live enterprise. They include the additional billion humans that our planet acquires every 12 years; the four-fifths of fish populations harvested to or beyond sustainable levels; the half of all the world’s trees felled by our species; the catastrophic depletion of soils by