I know that many of you have sat through various indulgent travelogues that I have written in this blog over the years – most of them concerning slightly eccentric jaunts to Russia. I am afraid that this is another  story but this time I am on my way to China to judge a show and to give a talk to various assembled eminent horticulturists. I have never been to China before and my garden at home is full of the joys of spring so it is with mixed emotions that I pack too many shirts, a selection of striped ties and lots of charging cables and truck off to Heathrow.

Wednesday 25th: I am going to Shanghai about which I know next to nothing – there was a Bay City Rollers song called Shanghai’d in love but I don’t think that counts as a genuine cultural reference. From there I am going to a place called Haining about which I know even less except that it is the site of a flower show.

It is the grandly named World Garden Show and I am here to judge stuff and give a talk to quite a lot of Chinese horticulturists.

Thursday 9:30: I am met at the gate by a stern looking Chinese lady who escorts me through passport control and baggage claim before depositing me with three more people who put me in a car. It is like being a cross between a visiting dignitary and a prisoner under escort.
The sun is bright and my car zips along wide motorways populated by interesting trucks carrying interesting things like copper wire, watermelons, the contents of septic tanks and lots of building supplies. Shanghai seems to have cornered the market on cranes. They are everywhere. My driver says nothing but does a lot of horn honking.

Eventually we pull up at a massive resort hotel and I am ushered into a very cushty fifth floor suite. They know how to look after a chap: charming interpreters and delightful guides. I am quite knackered but push on with lunch – apparently the Chinese have lunch at 11:30 so we are unfashionably late by expecting to be fed at 1:00. We eat shrimps, broccoli, a bearded fish and very good soup with translucent phallic mushrooms floating in it.

14:00: There is a vast river at the rear of the hotel – vast to me, modest to the Chinese – which apparently has a spectacular 10m high tidal bore every so often. I cannot get at it though as there is a large fence between us so am writing this while sitting on a stone bench under a loquat tree. There are outdoor speakers unconvincingly disguised as rocks so I am listening to Simon and Garfunkel singing Scarborough Fair which seems a bit odd.

Dinner is not suitable for vegans. A couple of us opt to walk back too the hotel through the town. There is a dance class on the street every evening which is a lovely thing to watch – only women, mostly of a certain age participate. It is perfectly coordinated and very elegant. A lot of China is regimented – even the security detail at the airport and the road sweepers march onto shift in close order – but nobody seems to mind as much as we would. There is plenty of room for entrepreneurs and businesses but the government reigns supreme. All infrastructure is financed by them, all development is supervised by them and, although people are happy to outline the flaws and mistakes, they population seems mostly content with their lot.

Friday 7:00: The mystery of the breakfast buffet. I have always been confused by hotel buffets, I am never sure where to go or what to eat especially on the first day. By day three I am swaggering around juggling muffins and custom made omelettes. Chinese breakfast buffets are even more confusing as they add even more layers to the yoghurt and fruit or full cooked shebang choice. There is also pork porridge, noodles, potatoes, rice, assorted cakes in many colours, peanuts, gummy bears, weird bread, croissants, ice cream, shellfish and baked beans. Eating a fried egg with chopsticks is a challenge.

7:51: Missed the bus but caught up eventually and arrived at the show in time for judging duties. I am judging 26 plants, 16 gardens and 36 tradestands. It is fearfully hot so I am issued with a red Donald Trump style baseball cap to protect my tender imperialist bonce. There are five of us, three distinguished Chinese, a delightful Anglo-American nurseryman and me. Our deliberations are independent so no discussions or debate. This involves a great deal more mathematics than makes me comfortable.

Assorted judges.

16:30: Judging complete we stagger back to the hotel for an eccentrically mixed dinner. It includes pasta, pizza, sushi, a chocolate fountain, chicken feet, suspicious looking chops, pumpkin soup, lettuce, boiled eggs, tripe, cucumber slices and sundry other things. Chinese cuisine is always interesting.

Saturday 8:00: Bus to the convention centre which is quite large. There are various other Europeans and Americans in attendance but they all know each other well and many have been selling their wares in China for years. We all sit down in this anteroom where we are brought coffee and interpretation kit by very young, well educated people of whom there seem to be an abundance.
By this stage I am getting a tiny bit nervous as I am first up and I have absolutely no idea what to expect. The auditorium is in an enormous university and holds a thousand people, there are lots of speeches to get the whole thing launched including a bit when the assembled dignitaries (all men) lined up on stage and pushed buttons which released a lot of fanfares and flashing light action.

10:45 ‘tis done. I pranced and pontificated as is my wont and it seemed to go down okay if judged by my usual criteria which is that if nobody sleeps, interrupts or throws things then it is a resounding success. It is nice to get it over with so I can now spend the rest of the day listening to other speakers. It is always good to see how other people speak.

11:50 Lunch. I am oddly starving especially as this is becoming quite an intense day as there are a lot of talks in very quick succession. The Chinese are only half listening as they are completely obsessed with their telephones- people answer them (quietly) during talks and are endlessly checking We Chat which is the Chinese WhatsApp. WhatsApp, incidentally, is not available in China – nor is YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Google so if you wish to avoid having your data harvested you could always contemplate moving to China

There were many selfies…

18:30 A banquet. It is quite a grand affair but not terribly relaxing as every five minutes I have to stand up and drink a toast with an important local dignitary. This happens at least fifteen times during dinner – they are drinking wine and I am on the cucumber juice so at least I unfuddled. I have, however, run out of business cards so the ceremonial exchange is somewhat one sided.

The banquet has also managed to give me food poisoning. I suppose that if you to be forced to spend the greater part of the night in close communion with a lavatory then better it is caused by a banquet than a casual sarnie.

Michael, Gary and some of the many other guides and interpreters

Sunday 8:00: I wake up feeling a little wan as I bustle off to a ‘fan meeting ‘ which, disappointingly has nothing to do with the fan dance and more to do with me being asked questions by fifty assembled putative garden designers. From there we zip off to the city of Hangzhou along rose lined motorways that are quite crowded due to the fact that we have picked a public holiday for this jaunt. We wander round various sites of historical interest and inspect a tea garden all of which is interesting but would have been more interesting if I was feeling less like a flounder who had recently had a contretemps with a mangle.

Final call of the day is the office of a large landscape architecture practice where they are doing extraordinary things. Huge developments in distant cities, a revival of the rural economy through building and tourism, mansions on islands and the conversion of a power station into a complex of shops, offices, flats and parks.
Nothing in China is little or unambitious.

I thought I was just having a look around but actually was taking part in a small seminar about rural development. Until you have sat through a picture free PowerPoint presentation in Chinese for over an hour you really haven’t lived. After that I talked about I am not sure what for half an hour and answered questions about gardens, the RHS and Britain.

In the end it was great but I was quite pleased to get back for a lie down.

7:00 Monday: I am back in a cab speeding towards Shanghai airport. It has been a brief but fascinating visit: I should have stayed for a couple more days and seen more places but that is life.

This is a country of such energy, variety, vastness (there are 110 million people living in the city and suburbs of Shanghai – there are 65 million people in the whole of the UK) and potential that it is easy to see how screwed we are in the west. Makes you realise that democracy is possibly not all it is cracked up to be.

16:30 (UK time or 23:30 Shanghai time): Land at Heathrow having watched five films, eaten two indifferent meals, read half a book and written this blog).

I am listening to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac through the inflight system. I have no idea why.

I am off on a trip…
Firstly, it involves a train from Banbury to Heathrow via Hayes and Harlington. Very simple in theory but, as is the way sometimes with the oft laid plans of mice and men, likely to gang aft agley. It is like dominos- one train is ten minutes late so you miss the next train by nine seconds (after a frantic rush across a bridge and a shove through an oncoming crowd ). This means being stranded on an empty platform at Hayes and Harlington for an hour before finally arriving at the airport.

I am going to Moscow to give a seminar nominally entitled Gardening across Continents with the aim to jazz up the world of Russian horticulture. More specifically to talk to them about show gardens, design and planting and also to talk about an exchange we have instigated at Malvern and about which I wrote in my last blog.

Red Square at night

It is an overnight flight- not long, only about 3.5 hours – in that it leaves at 10:30 (london time) and lands at 5.00 in the morning (Moscow time). I, however, am far to old and set in my ways for this sort of interruption to my routine. I go to the hotel and go straight to bed.

It is cold out there: about minus 10. This raises a few sartorial dilemmas: I emerged into the street all wrapped up like a bear in a duvet. Coats, hats, Horatio’s Garden Alpaca Socks (available here and a perfect Christmas Gift), gloves etc. I walk five steps and get into a car so hot that you could probably roast a duck in the glovebox. I then go to an equally hot office followed by a sweltering restaurant, another car and back to a hotel room where, in my absence, a diligent cleaner had cranked up the radiator. I flung open the window and welcomed as much icy air as possible. Tomorrow I will not be so thermally aware. The restaurant, by the way, was next to the Bolshoi Theatre and involved crab from Kamchatka (a species of red king crab that has a leg span of nearly six feet) and six different sorts of caviar.


Theatre filling up

The reason why I am here: I tootle along to the auditorium of the Moscow Museum where there is a milling multitude of assorted interested parties. I am quite happy giving talks of an hour or so but today I am doing four talks of about one and a half hours each plus a two hour Q&A. It is quite tiring – there is a relay of simultaneous  interpreters who do a sterling job trying to keep up with me: they change over every twenty minutes to prevent exhaustion. It is interesting as the audience each have a headset into which the interpreter drips a translation of what I am saying but, like an old fashioned transatlantic telephone call, five seconds after I have spoken which means that timing of jokes and frivolities can be a little tricky. You deliver a punchline, pause for reaction and then, just as you are about to give up, a small section of the audience – those who get the joke – laugh politely.


The main purpose of the day was to drum up some entries for the Malvern/Moscow exchange so many participants brought sketches and ideas which continue to flood in – it will be a good thing and you should all come to the RHS Malvern Spring Festival to see what happens.

I have no idea why there is a chicken on the lollipop stall

We retire to a Chinese restaurant where all the waitresses are dressed up as members of the Red Guard which seems like an odd thing to celebrate. They jazz up their khaki uniforms with very red lipstick. The food is delicious and we then troop off to Red Square where there is a bustling Christmas Market and a skating rink – which was sadly barred to us as it had been booked for some spiffy private party for Prada (I think). We posed for many photographs – for that is one of Russia’s favourite national activities and Valenkis (felt snow boots as worn, if I remember rightly, by Solzhenitsyn in “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch”) were bought for me. The snow is light but the air is a strange dry cold which seems innocuous at first but then gives you a headache and seeps into the bones.
It is fun and I dance with a group of people dressed as Christmassy Cossacks.


And home again – first breakfast in the hotel, an early cab through the appalling Moscow traffic, second breakfast in the Aeroflot Executuve lounge (hmmm.) Third breakfast (strictly speaking an early lunch*) on the aeroplane as we fly through clear skies over miles and miles of snow dusted birch forest. Then an equally fabulous approach to Heathrow all along the river from the Thames barrier. Every landmark is clear and glinting in the sunshine – I can even pick out my mother’s flat.
Then four trains and home again.
The time difference may only be three hours but I feel as if I have been pushed slowly but steadily through a mangle .

Birch forests, lakes and snow
Millennium dome and the Thames

I am listening to Slow Movin’ Outlaw by Waylon Jennings.

The picture is of the Bolshoi theatre.

*Russians have a very charming way of saying lunch. ‘Then we will have a lunch…” pronounced larrrnch. Sometimes it is a “friendly larrrnch”.

My goodness, two blogposts in under a month: it is quite like the good old days when people used to read blogs and the world was not completely swamped with words.

Anyway it is that time of year again when I skip off to Moscow to judge the Moscow Flower Show. This will be the fifth year and it is always interesting – the gardens are usually a bit of a mixed bag but never dull. This is my week

Hampton Court for a recce, watch Iceland lose to France then return to the Teddington Travelodge. This is worth a brief mention as it is basically a multi storey car park with rooms and if possible should be avoided. There was a postcard on the bed which said (and I précis this rather than quote verbatim) ‘Welcome to the British summertime. For your convenience we have drawn your curtains to keep out the heat of the day, we have also removed your duvet and left you with a single sheet. We suggest that you open your window at night when the temperatures cool”. This is, we assume, in lieu of air conditioning

Monday is judging which was all very jolly. Then lunch, then feedback then drive home and try not to sleep on the M40.


Tuesday :
Fly to Moscow. Aeroflot this time which has it air crew in very jaunty orange uniform: like a group of Slavic satsumas. I am eating mushroom risotto and fried almonds followed by a perfectly passable tiramisu
Clouds are funny things’ all soft and fluffy to look at but as soon as you go into one in an aeroplane they get all uppity and shake you about in a most alarming way. I had my knee firmly grasped by the very large man next to whom I was sitting on a flight from Glasgow the other day as we lurched through a crowd. I think he was very embarrassed.

Wednesday :
Began with Russian pancakes, boiled sausages and Brussels sprouts but, more importantly, it was judgment day.

Eccentrically the rest of the panel had already judged in my absence so I was mostly on my own and then added my marks to theirs. This resulted in some slightly odd decisions which I had to moderate. There are some okay gardens and a couple of shockers but this is a very young show which needs time to find its place. It would be even better if everybody thought about things a little earlier – some garden applications did not arrive until June – which is not something that we would tolerate at the RHS!

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Obviously, as this is Russia, we have to have dignitaries and speeches and a full blown awards ceremony with fanfares and clapping. I signed all the medal certificates and then, after a moment for a swift change of suiting, I showed the deputy British ambassador round the show. He was rather captivated by the idea of gardens uniting countries etc etc and it gave him a rest from talking about the Chilcott report to inquisitive Russian journalists.
We also had the minister of culture who made a longish speech* about something. Then various other people popped onto the stage and talked about how amazing everything was and how grateful we all are etc etc. Russians love a speech even more so if it is made by a government apparatchik. Then I made a speech and dished out medals: this involved two girls – one dressed in a Russian flag and one in a Union Jack – who darted forward and gave each winner a bunch of roses, a bag contains a book and some tea, another bag containing more tea and an MFS pen tidy. My job was to give out a certificate and kiss people when appropriate ** then there were more speeches and more certificates to everybody involved. This included the show’s pet Orthodox priest who has an amazing beard and comes every year to bless us all. He made a speech and was rewarded not only with the tea and roses but a Bosch cordless screwdriver.
Dinner followed in a former chocolate factory with a great view of the river.

I woke up this morning to a bit of a bit of a judging rumpus which always adds a bit of a frisson to proceedings. Facebook was jumping with a certain amount of disgruntlement so I had to pour a lot of oil on a lot of waters – if there had been a cormorant in the vicinity it would have been in trouble. I think all was fine in the end – the problem was that we gave one Best in Show rather than rewarding a best in each category of which there are many – Show, Russian, Balcony, Urban, Art, Chic,Trade etc etc. For some a Gold Medal is not enough…


Having done this I tootled off to give a seminar to the assembled designers and interested parties about judging and show gardens and garden design in general. It was a long seminar with many questions.
I am now also the (apparently) only foreign member of Russia’s largest ecological society. Founded 90 odd years ago by Lenin’s wife they are responsible for planting about 5 billion trees and do work to improve the street planting in towns and cities all over Russia. I have a very smart badge.

Lunch was bortsch and dumplings followed by more feedback. Then a couple of interviews and time for a very swift change and off to a Ukrainian restaurant for dinner. This involved a particular national speciality called, I think, sala. Paper thin slices of pig fat wrapped around a sliver of raw garlic – it melts in the mouth but I am not sure that I am in a hurry to eat it again. This was not all there were, I hasten to add, many delicious things that were less piggy in particular little savoury pastries called Pirojock which I could eat all day if called upon so to do.


More interestingly the restaurant was on the second floor and, on the other side of a glass partition was a large cow – chewing the cud and regarding the assembled diners with a look of abject scorn – a goat, a vast rabbit, some peacocks, a couple of golden pheasants and a very sturdy woman in national costume. It was very weird.

Home again, home again jiggetty jig via a certain amount of turbulence near Visby.

I am listening to Louise sin the Blue Moon by Alison Moorer.

*I have a very patient and diligent interpreter called Evgeny. He is a great pleasure to be with and is very good at his job. He also has an interesting mixture of pastimes. He looks very bland – which is his job as he is there to blend into the background – with a suit and tie but in his time off he has three cats, he reads an enormous amount, he goes to the gym and is a devotee of House dancing. He is a diamond.

** Russian social kissing involves three points of contact (right cheek, left cheek, right cheek again) so when you have thirty odd medals to give out and most of the awardees are women this takes quite a while and involves a lot of friction.

“In one minute I bring you cake.”

This is a phrase to lighten the heart of a chap. In this case it is uttered by a very slinky blonde air stewardess 30,000 feet above Poland en route to Moscow. It says a lot about my stage of life that the idea of cake is marginally more alluring than the stewardess.

I am travelling once again to the Moscow Flower Show this time with Transaero Airlines. This is not a company of which I had previously heard but they boast on their website of winning an award for Most Improved Airline so I must be grateful that I did not fly with them the first time I came to Russia. That was three years ago when I flew BA and had a full length bed in which to cavort. The next time was Aeroflot and not quite so luxurious. This time it is Transaero. My stock is obviously diminishing. However, as the flight is only 3.5 hours I reckon I can cope.

The in flight entertainment system is interesting. A screen flips down from the ceiling but it only has one channel showing a cartoon in Russian. The cartoon seems to involve handsome princes with improbably barrel chests; the ending will, not doubt, be happy but I am not sure that I have the patience to stick with it to the end. Instead I am going to read Raymond Chandler and watch Cat Ballou.

I have had lunch. Duck confit with something which is described on the menu as “coffee mustard jam” and a strange chicken thing with red potatoes which were very difficult to spear with the fork provided – I suppose that there must be a rule about blunt tines to avoid stabbings. Oddly the coffee-mustard jam was quite good – perhaps the fact that there appeared to be not a trace of coffee helped matters.

Arriving in Moscow is much the same as arriving in any airport anywhere except that the passport control people seem to look much harder at you than in other airports.

Day Two: Judging day at the Moscow Flower Show.
At Chelsea the judges usually assemble at about 6:30 to look over the notes and eat bacon sandwiches, we then sally forth and judge 17 gardens in time for lunch. In Russia things are a little different.
My schedule for today reads:
10:00 Judging commences
12:30 Official opening and press briefing.
13:30 Interviews
15:15 Break. return to hotel.
18:30 Gala evening (Cocktail dresses)
Which sounds perfectly manageable.
The reality is much more interesting.


10:00 A wander around getting my bearings and finding out a bit about the gardens. There are 31 of them so if we were to judge them all by 12:30 then we would get 4minutes on each garden which seems quite tight!
11:00 We are still waiting for one of the judges to turn up.
11:30 We start judging. There are lively discussions and lots of sparkiness. All good.
12:30 Official opening to the press. Judging is halted: we have managed five gardens, it is very hot. There are a number of speeches in Russian ( I have a delightful interpreter called Evgeny who whispers a translation in my ear) and then I suddenly hear my name being called so hurriedly rush onto the stage and add my speech to the growing heap of welcoming words.
13:30 I give interviews to various television stations, newspapers, websites and a magazine called Snob. My co-judges are similarly occupied.
14:15 One of my judges has to go to work so leaves. We carry on judging. Another judge has to go and give another interview so we are down to four.
15:15 Lunch is announced so we all trek off to the other end of the park for a very welcome break. It is still very hot. You may recall that this was the time designated for return to hotel, quick snooze, change and back for the gala.
16:00 Back to work. The missing judge has returned but we have now lost another one due to heatstroke.
19:00 Finally we finish judging. Medals are listed and allocated.
19:30 Gala (I am unchanged and not very cocktaily) in which various Muscovite glitterati wander around and we eat cold meats on skewers. Clive Boursnell (the photographer) and I have a cup of tea.
20:30 I may have made a speech but I cannot quite remember.
22:00 Taxi.


Day Three: Today I have done various things.
I have been rained upon.
I have helped to open the Flower Show to the public by sharing a podium with the Culture minister and the deputy mayor of Moscow.I made a speech.
I have given an interview to a journalist who was convinced that I was Prince Harry’s gardener. It seemed a shame to disabuse her.
I then went to Moscow’s 24 hour television channel where I gave an interview about urban greening to a shiny suited journalist called Ivan. We sat on opposite sofas in a huge studio. The conversation was very stilted as I would say something and wait for it to be translated for him, then he would say something and wait for it to be translated for me. It does not make for snappy repartee.
I had fish soup for lunch.
I made another speech and announced the winners of the medals – they were given out along with goody bags and huge bunches of Ecuadorian roses.
I then listened to more speeches.
I then made another, very short, speech.
I sat on a comfortable sofa and talked about museums and the restoration of imperial palaces.
I wandered around the show giving feedback.
I then danced with the show director to Mr Sandman.
I ate some rather delicious stuffed Russian buns. This is always a highlight – buns with spinach, buns with egg, buns with something obscure and buns with apple.
I drank some filthy pumpkin juice.
I went back to the hotel.

Day three
No speeches from me today which came as a bit of a relief to all concerned.
Gave out more feedback before being whisked off to the largest children’s hospital in Moscow to look at potential sites for gardens. It consists of a grid of early 20th century buildings surrounded by dour patches of grass and trees. I was photographed with the director who is delightful even though he looks a little intimidating.


Launch of a new variety of rose. More speeches.
It is French day at the show so the French trade attaché is being feted.
More time on the comfortable sofa this time with a very insistent client.
Off to Red Square and the Kremlin for a bit of touristing. Trundle around the metro a bit.


Day 4
It is raining. Hard. Lots of it.Proper old fashioned superpower rain.
I am going to the airport in the care of a taxi driver who is treating these monsoon conditions with disdain. As a result there is quite a lot of aquaplaning and nervous gripping of the upholstery.
We get there unscathed and return home. Quite knackered but in time for Hampton Court and to see my friend Ann-Marie Powell win a Gold Medal. Hurrah.

I am listening to Melancholy Polly by Alison Moorer. The picture is of a fountain in the Alexander Park by the Kremlin. You have to walk under these jets of water behind these enormously muscular horses bottoms. There has to be a metaphor in there somewhere.