Strawberry fields forever in Thailand

Most important news of the week is that 28,000kg of strawberries and gallons of thick cream have been consumed during the Wimbledon tennis fortnight. It is an annual reminder of how much the strawberry is embedded in English culture. But the appreciation of the fruit is spreading.

It was intriguing to see a Bangkok Post report that the growing of strawberries as a potted plant is increasingly popular in Thailand. Back in the early 1970s the only strawberries available were of the imported variety in expensive hotels because it was regarded as too hot to grow the fruit in Thailand. But these days, during the cool season, strawberries grown in the northern hills are a regular sight in supermarkets at reasonable prices, although may lack a fruity taste.

When I was a kid my dad used to grow strawberries, or at least try to, in our Berkshire back garden. He would look after the strawberries with loving care for weeks on end as the fruit transformed from a green-white colour to the tasty red berry. Unfortunately, slugs and other pests are also partial to strawberries and always seemed to devour the fruit just before we got round to "harvesting". The defenceless strawberry is apparently the favourite food of 200 varieties of pests. So the best of luck to the new Thai strawberry growers and watch out for those greedy fat slugs.

On occasions when we outwitted the slugs and had a decent crop, my mum would make strawberry jam. I can vouch that strawberries bubbling away in a giant saucepan create one of the finest aromas in the world.

Not too bad

Strawberries have been popular in England for centuries, but the fruit received an added boost in 1967 when the Beatles released Strawberry Fields Forever. The song had nothing to do with the fruit, but was the name of a Salvation Army children's home near John Lennon's residence in Liverpool and a place Lennon would play as a kid. Lennon regarded it as the best song he ever wrote and it certainly was very different to previous Beatles offerings.

The working title for Strawberry Fields was It's Not Too Bad and it certainly wasn't. Alas it did not make No.1 in the UK, being held off by crooner Engelbert Humperdinck with the insipid ballad Please Release Me.

The house on the hill

You can't escape strawberries in England. During my college days, back in prehistoric times, I regularly took a tedious train journey from Reading to Kingston-upon-Thames, via Twickenham. On that last stretch known as the "Kingston Loop" there was a station called Strawberry Hill, a rather fancy part of Surrey named after Horace Walpole's 18th century Gothic villa "Strawberry Hill House". The station sign was enough for me to launch into an out of tune version of Strawberry Fields, sparking funny looks from fellow passengers.

Walpole's "house" was in fact more like a castle and a much fancier establishment than Lennon's home for orphans, but nobody wrote a hit song about it. However there was a pop group from the area called the Strawberry Hill Boys, who later became the better-known Strawbs. They still occasionally perform locally in what are referred to, with a wink, as "jam sessions".

Off with his head

Strawberries may even have played a key role in English history. The year 1483 is remembered as the time Richard III came to the throne after committing a number of dastardly deeds. According to a new theory, Richard showed up at a meeting of the Council in June 1483, seemingly in a good frame of mind. Then he announced he was going off to have a breakfast of strawberries. When he returned he was a changed person, "fretting and frowning and chewing his lips". He then promptly ordered the execution of advisor Lord Hastings, accusing him of treason.

Some believe Richard's dramatic change in personality was a result of suffering an allergic reaction to the strawberries. His behaviour continued to be erratic and it is thought his continuing strawberry consumption was to blame for Richard taking over the throne instead of the teenage Edward V who conveniently "disappeared".

On a less dramatic note, another English king, Edward VII, had an unfortunate experience while awaiting his strawberry dessert. When a footman inadvertently spilt cream down the king's suit, Edward rebuked the fellow saying loudly, "My good man, I am not a strawberry".

The raspberry blowers

My dad was more successful with his raspberry patch. The only drawback was that I was delegated to pick the fruit and ate half of them while engaged in the picking.

It is a little unfortunate that such a tasty fruit as the raspberry is also associated in the English language with less savoury moments. A raspberry, in common parlance, is a rude sound resembling flatulence, expressing derision or disapproval. It appears to have originated from cockney rhyming slang with "raspberry tart" rhyming with a certain word that you can work out yourselves.

Blowing a raspberry became a key part of the Goons radio programmes in the 1950s. Harry Secombe was the raspberry-blower in chief, ably assisted by Spike Milligan, and hardly a show escaped without a raspberry sneaking in somewhere.

In the Goons' hit The Ying Tong Song, Secombe outdid himself by actually performing an entire solo of raspberry blowing, which by any standards is quite an achievement.


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