About three weeks ago James and Wendy, my wonderfully energetic in-laws were over for a pint and a pie.
Can you keep a secret? he asked.
Moi? Journalist and all-round nosey person? But of course!
He handed us a very official looking letter with crests, gilt edge and everything. Damn, uttered Noel under his breath, his ranting has REALLY got him into trouble now. Probably a summons to The Tower after a tussle with some bureaucrat somewhere.
We had to read it twice. MBE? Member of the British Empire? M-B-E?!
The first reaction was extreme pride. James and Wendy have devoted years of their lives to all things horticultural. I always describe them as Big in Flowers, as names in the Royal Horticultural Society where, among other things, they judge at the Chelsea Flower Show. The inside word on that, though, is it's not as glamorous as you'd think, a lot of petal politics and bulb bureaucracy.
But it's for his absolute doggedness in keeping the English Florist Tulip alive and kicking in the face of the Dutch invasion that he is recognised. For the not-very-tulip-minded, the English Florist tulip is smaller and prettier than its relatives. The mass market rejected it many years ago because it carries a virus that put feather and flame-like patterns on the petals.
The Society has a north of England bias. Miners who spent so long underground wanted to stay in fresh air as long as they could when they surfaced. Flower shows have always been popular in our communities here – and the English Florist Tulip flourished. That throwback is seen at the annual show in May where the tulips are shown not in fancy poncey vases, but in brown beer bottles, tha' knows.
Each year James plants, grows, shows, harvests, digs up, sorts and distributes hundreds of bulbs all over the world. The dining room at their Wakefield home is usually full of bulbs which are meticulously cleaned. This year he gave me a few, which I cleaned, as shown, and handed to friends and neighbours. Of course, they weren't show tulips, but English Florist Tulips nonetheless – and have been a great source of curiosity to passers-by.
James is the first to recognise that this award isn't just for him. Wendy is always there to support and actually to lead. It was Wendy who, shortly after they were married more than 50 years, cultivated an interest in daffodils, something encouraged by James' dad, Jim, himself a prolific gardener, often harvesting enough tomatoes in his heated greenhouses to feed a small nation.
James took a bit of coming round to the whole gardening thing. After all, he's spent many a back-breaking hour with his dad in his gardens, allotments and at the many flower shows. But come round he did, specialising first of all in orchids – he has quite a collection in the conservatory – then daffodils and tulips.
They spend their springs and summers searching for new specimens. We have had frantic phonecalls from out-of-the-way places asking about grid references and terrain. A couple of years ago he even broke his leg leaping over a ditch deep in rural Spain clutching his prize. He didn't realise it was broken and carried on regardless until he got back to the UK and thought he'd better get it checked out. Now THAT'S dedication.
He is a little cautious of heights, but that's not a problem, he just sends Wendy. She also makes sure he's organised in his more distrait moments. When we're on the phone, we can often hear him calling: Wendy, where's my ….? She was recently in Japan where she fielded a frantic call from James back home, Wendy, where's my…?
I can see it now. They'll arrive at the Palace. It'll go quiet except for the one voice:
"Wendy, where's my….?"
"MBE, darling? It's pinned to your chest"
Today's lovely thing
Celebrating someone else's success