Oliver Cross: Why you can’t trust me with keeping the aspidistra flying

LEAFY: A healthy aspidistra plant.
LEAFY: A healthy aspidistra plant.
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My friend Martin Cliff married, years ago, a very attractive woman called Rachael Thistlethwaite and I’ve never thought (because in those days the bride always took the groom’s name) that Cliff-for-Thistlethwaite was a fair swap. It was dull-for-delightful.

Anyway, the newly-wed Cliffs went on honeymoon and left me to look after Martin’s aspidistra plant, which he valued above all his other possessions because it was his grandmother’s legacy and had many leaves – aspidistras were valued by the number of leaves they had and this was a truly outstanding plant.

Incidentally, I learned on radio this week that aspidistras were the favoured houseplant of the Victorians and other generations preceding the Clean Air Act (1956) because they were one of the few plants which could survive in the polluted atmosphere of the times; it wasn’t so much the smog outside as the coal and gas fumes inside which did for most greenery other than aspidistras.

And I can’t mention aspidistras without returning to the gloriously daft song The Biggest Aspidistra in The World (1938) by Gracie Fields. The song ends:

The dogs all come around for miles, a lovely sight to see
They sniff around for hours and hours and wag their tails with glee 
So I’ve had to put a notice up to say it’s not a tree
It’s the biggest aspidistra in the world.

I love the idea of pointing out to dogs, who can’t generally read, that they’ve made a category mistake which can only be rectified by way of a public notice. It’s the sort of nonsense you might find in a government green paper.

Anyway, as I was saying before Gracie Fields interrupted, Martin left his precious aspidistra on our sideboard (we shared a flat) and jetted off on his honeymoon in the Lake District.

Next to the plant were watering instructions and a plastic bottle of clear liquid , which I assumed was either water, because Martin was very protective of his plant and might not trust me to find the kitchen tap, or some homeopathic plant food that looked exactly like water.

As the days went by the aspidistra started to look, as we used to say about ailing things, green around the gills – although green wasn’t the right word because it was rapidly turning brown and losing its precious leaves and by the time Martin returned, it was on its last legs.

I explained that I had exactly followed his instructions using the liquid provided and he explained that I was a complete idiot. The liquid was 80 per cent proof home-made Jamaican rum and he had left it there as a reward for looking after the plant, not as a way of poisoning it.

I once read (can’t remember where) a similar cautionary tale about an impoverished young couple in 19th century France. They were approaching their first wedding anniversary and their only possessions of any worth were her beautiful hair and his gold pocket watch.

So he decided to buy her a silver comb for her beautiful hair, while she decided to buy him a gold chain for his watch.

Then, when it came to anniversary day, it turned out that she had sold her hair to a wig-maker to pay for the chain, and he had sold his watch to pay for the silver comb.

As I probably said to Martin, sometimes you can’t do right for doing wrong.

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