Reversing the caravan of Eccles Cakes

I am going on an adventure.

Day One:
I am currently in the back of a cab where the driver has decided that I want to chat – he is sadly mistaken as I would rather sleep. This week I have spent over 15 hours in taxis, for various reasons which will probably become clear within the next twelve months and I have developed a routine of friendly silence dotted with small snoozes. And podcast listening. Suffice to say that I am now a black belt in taxi travel.

The taxi deposits me at Terminal 2 at Heathrow where I am to catch an aeroplane to Beijing. I am flying China Air which is a new experience- there seems to be lots of legroom but a seat lacking a bit in bottom supporting upholstery. An extra security announcement apart from the usual guff about life jackets and emergency exits is from the security officer who tells us in no uncertain terms that “Interfering with the safe and efficient running of the cabin could result in criminal punishment- the security officer and the crew will perform their duties conscientiously”.

I have three hours to kill at Beijing airport- the smog is so thick I can see nothing from the windows except the gloom of distant hangers. I drink coffee and watch the world go past. A lot of people are wearing masks that cover nose and mouth which seems a little overboard when inside the terminal. There is a boy whose face is almost completely obscured who is being followed around by a lot of young women with cameras. He is either extremely famous or they have mistaken him for Monty Don.

I am going to Chengdu which is the capital city of Sichuan province. A largish city by Chinese standards with an urban population of about 11million. The aeroplane is leaping around like a excitable mouflon and I am finding it hard not to think of the possibility of plummeting earthwards. As you can see, I survive and arrive at Chengdu airport to be met with a wall of 37 degree heat that is like standing in a Sauna while wearing a morning coat and a cashmere muffler. I am whisked off along immaculate roads which are still swept by hand; there is a woman wandering along the side of the road, inches away from a stream of enormous trucks, with a broom made from grass and a dustpan on a stick.

We go the hotel where I shower and then to the venue where I will be doing my thing for six days – there are large posters of some my gardens and a divinely air conditioned studio. It is organised by a ompany called Sikastone who are all charming and efficient. From there we go and look at some model gardens and then to dinner – of which more later.
I flop into bed – long day, thank the lord for melatonin.

Day Two:

We are going to a market. This is Chengdu’s equivalent of Covent Garden
market: many plants and assorted traders. There are halls full of containers, accessories and all the stuff you would expect but with the enlivening addition of a lot of koi , terrapins, crabs and at least one pissed off squirrel.

There is a good range of plants and stuff and we roam about looking at things while being photographed by the marketing people. We then eat lunch and go off on a jaunt. Chengdu is on the edge of the mountains and, in those mountains live pandas. As we all know these animals are impossibly cute looking but absolutely dreadful at sustained reproduction. The females are only receptive for a very short time and the males, apparently, have inappropriately short penises. An invitation to a swinging party at the panda pad might result in disappointment. However, this city houses the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding where you can fill your boots with panda based smoochiness. Our one mistake was to visit in the afternoon as the pandas, having spent the morning cavorting, conversing and possibly minuetting have now lunched handsomely on the finest bamboo shoots and are all asleep- with one exception.

They are still gorgeous and cute ranging from small bundles who were only born last month to lumbering stud males that lie like endangered rugs on the floor of their pens. I reckon we saw about twenty five of them which is probably the most you will ever see anywhere.


My students Are generally delightful although they are unembarrassed about using their mobiles during talks.* The Chinese are wedded to their phones more than anybody else – everywhere people are head down and scrolling. I thought I was bad but I have never considered doing it while riding a motorcycle in traffic.

Environmental note – the Chinese currently have no idea/interest in the perils of single use plastic. Even plates in restaurants are wrapped in plastic, clingfilm abounds and plastic bags are everywhere. It is all very well for us to get all smug about Bags for Life and banning plastic straws but until we get the x million Chinese on side we are pissing in the ocean – if that is not too inappropriate a metaphor. That is not to say we should give up our modest efforts but we should not kid ourselves into thinking that everybody is hanging onto David Attenborough’s very word. There is very large mountain of micro beads to climb.

First day seemed to go fine – I talked a great deal. Having a translator is good and bad. Good because it means that they (in this case the delightful Laura) talk for half the time so, in theory, it is less work. Bad because the talk becomes slightly staccato and constantly interrupted so one never gets the chance to riff freely.

Second day I had designated as a studio day where they all drew gardens and then I critiqued them politely ensuring (I hope) that nobody lost face and everyone felt loved and encouraged.

Day Five (or four, quite frankly I have rather lost track)
We are going shopping- each student is to design and plant a container and , when divided into teams, a quadrant of a small gardener. I have suggested a choice of different styles and it is now up to them.
In the morning I talk about various gardens followed by
We pile onto a bus and return to the market.

It is gleeful chaos. The students charge off, get separated, come together (Because they are summoned by the extraordinary power of WeChat), get lost, buy a load of plants and finally return to the bus. Everyone seems to have had fun, the nurseries had a bit of a bonus afternoon and the only damage was to me when I got whacked on the leg by a falling window box. We load up the plants: this statement makes the process sound considerably easier than it actually was. Three wheeled trucks keep appearing laden with yet more grasses (the naturalistic style seems to be popular amongst the up and coming Chinese garden designers) that are squeezed into three trucks and the boot of a large bus. We make our way back to the studio as it begins to rain.

I am grabbed by a stall holder who is eager to both sell me roses and talk English he goes about both tasks with gusto and at volume. He shows me an okay rise bred by his father and tells me how much he loves Zmr Bean and Michael Jackson. I feel that this is the wrong moment to talk about the latter’s many failings as he may not be aware and who am I to shatter illusions?

Day Sixish
It is raining quite hard and my students are supposed to be planting containers (two groups) or their gardens (other two groups) but I cannot send them out in the rain- although they would probably have been fine with that such is their stoicism. So I deliver a slightly impromptu hour and half on the history and inner workings of the Chelsea Flower Show. By the time I do that the rain has eased and off they go.

Lunch is followed by more garden supervision until I realise that the container lot are going to finish well before the garden lot. I need to deliver another talk so put together an hour on colour in about eight minutes. I get away with it but it sounded a bit off. Nobody noticed except me.

By five o’clock two gardens have been planted and the teams are in high spirits. We go to dinner with the chap who owns the studio building and much of the land around. He is the only person I have met so far who is older than I am. He used to be an artillery colonel for 24 years having been brought up during the cultural revolution when there were no universities not school exams do all he did was draw. Having becomequite good he joined the army and because of this skill got involved in drawing propaganda posters and the like. Because of this his term was relatively cushy in comparison to his contemporaries and he progressed from army to government. He left in 1992 with some land upon which he started building apartments and studios for artists and is now doing very nicely thank you having invested in modern Chinese art and property.
We eat frogs.

Uber, or at least the Chinese company that bought Uber China, sends a driver on an electric scooter. This is folded up and popped in the boot, the driver covers the driving seat with his own seat cover, hops in and off we go. All this because my friends have been drinking (not much) and I sure as hell am not going to even think about driving anytime Soon in this city.

Day Zero
Here we go again. The other two groups start building their gardens while more containers are put together. In the afternoon we judge gardens, there is much jollity and a graduation ceremony which involves me expressing my gratitude and congratulating everyone on their diligence and enthusiasm. It has been a very interesting and entertaining week. I enjoyed the students, I enjoyed the teaching and I enjoyed Chengdu very much.
I also ate a lot of odd things- so many that I think it is worth a blog of it’s own otherwise this post will try the patience of even the most diligent of reader- if there are any left out there.

After the graduation we tootle off for dinner with the whole organising team (those who have not already legged it back to Beijing). There are many sad faced fish swimming around glass tanks awaiting the inevitable. I am quite pooped and was expecting that we would rumble off for early bed before going to the airport in the morning: I was wrong. We wander up the road for a Chinese massage. Three of us are in one room where we change into pyjamas and are attended by three very jolly women. Our feet are plunged into warm water and then the ladies lay in with a will. My head is pressed and squeezed, my legs punched and pummelled, my feet are rubbed – I have very sensitive feet so this is an extremely painful fifteen minutes, I endure this in a very stoic way by use of steady breaths and thinking of England. It jolly well won’t do to let Johnny Foreigner see us cry: came within a whisker of letting the side down. I think it was doing me good.
After that we all lay there while the therapists assembled various tools including a feather, a little bulb that puffed air, a headtorch,a tuning fork, some long tweezers and a selection of probes. They then proceeded to clean our ears: a novel experience.

Day Eleventy four:

To the airport in the rain. There is a motorcycle with umbrella attached to the handlebars weaving in and out of thundering lorries and swishy new cars. On the hard shoulder a man in a coolie hat and sweeps his section of the road by hand. China old and new: it is a amazing country with marvellous people: it is also far removed from a western style democracy which, looking at the mess Britain is in because of democracy may not be an entirely bad thing. At the moment it is a toss up whether I would rather have Boris Johnson or a serious man in a grey suit looking after my interests.

I am listening to silence as I am sitting in Glasgow Airport waiting for an absent aeroplane. It is four hours late. Thanks Flybe.

  • WeChat is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp and a bank all rolled into one. They communicate, watch videos, post stuff and, most interestingly, pay for everything via WeChat. Every shop, street stall, cafe or car park has a QR code. Even a bloke wandering through the streets hawking a bike load of peaches eschews cash in favour of a QR code. You scan it with your phone and the bill is paid. No messing around.
    It is amazing and works without problem- the advantage is that there is no competition, none of the other social networks are allowed here. Except that there are always ways to get round this small inconvenience…