Sunday, 12 June 2011

A new School in the Making, Gardening and Making Black Champagne

Last week was a long and, at times, a confusing week. There was one more panel to sit on – a ‘Any Questions’ type of panel focused upon the relationship between a supervisor and a student undertaking a PhD – the panel was part of the University’s Post Graduate Student Research Conference, where students get to present their work. The conference was attended by 180 people and was inspirational in its variety, vibrancy and sheer energy; it was a real privilege to be part of the event.

On Friday the School had its last School Development Day in its current form. From September this year the School will be re-born as the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work. The new School will be the largest in the University with some 200 academic staff, and 4500 under graduate students, mainly studying on pre-qualifying professional programmes. It was the first time I had the opportunity to meet all the colleagues who will make up the new School. My passion for chickens seemed to confuse those who were hearing me present at School Congress for the first time.

However, apart from a lovely meal at the Mint Hotel with colleagues from the other Greater Manchester Universities, much of the week was unremittingly stressful. And yesterday was a wonderful opportunity to unwind and relax, to find a way of recharging my batteries. A good friend recently reminded me that: if you want to be happy for an hour, have a glass of wine; if you want to be happy for a year fall in love; but if you want to be happy forever, make a garden. So after doing the chores, it had to be a day in the garden.

Once the lawns were mown, hedges trimmed, trees pruned and weeds pulled, there was time to take in the changes. This year the Sambucus nigra is in full flower, with lots of blossom. Predictably perhaps, I prefer this black version of the popular elderberry. And I am not alone. Black elderberry has been used medicinally for hundreds of years. It’s even been known to cure ‘man flu’. More seriously, a 2009 study found that the H1N1 inhibition activities of the elderberry flavonoids compared favorably to the known anti-influenza activities of Tamiflu.

My interest is in the flowers is more esoteric – despite the fact the leaves, seeds, roots and flowers contain cyanide, I want to find out if I can make black elderflower champagne. I’ve made ordinary white elderflower champagne for years, but this is the first time I have enough black flowers to have a go. Watch this space.

The perfect end of a day in the garden yesterday was hearing Robert Miles ‘Children’ coming on the iPod as I cooked dinner. I have two 160 GB iPods each holding different sets of music – it’s a lot of music, and as the iPods are set to random play, it was serendipity that I got to hear this music again. I defy anyone to listen to the music and not start dancing – this music will make you move – even Billy was dancing up and down on his perch.

I first listened to this music some 16 years ago, driving across the Mojave Desert on my way to Las Vegas. From LA to Vegas it is one straight long long road, and putting Robert Miles Dreamland tape in the player made the journey such a good one. Ironically, Miles wrote the music in response to the number of deaths due to car accidents as clubbers drove across the country overnight, falling asleep at the wheel from strenuous dancing as well as alcohol and drug use. DJs such as Miles recognised the need to create and play slower, calming music to conclude a night's set.

And that quote about happiness, it was one David Burpee (he dropped out of University to look after the family business selling seeds), who is acknowledged as the person who made the original Chinese proverb famous. Interestingly, as a gardener, Burpee was more concerned in the nutritional value of flowers rather than the vegetables his family had traditionally sold. However it’s not known what he thought about drinking Black Elderberry champange.