Saturday, 14 April 2012

Death of a Messageboard


My garden in the early days after my re-design

This week I read the sad, although unsurprising, news that the BBC Gardening Messageboards were finally to close down.  I have rarely contributed over the last few years - they weren't the vibrant, fun place they used to be and in any case I had moved on to other virtual circles - but the Garden Clinic was still busy answering queries with more informative, easy to digest answers than any garden magazine, the Grow Your Own board quietly getting on with it whilst sharing posters' fruit and veg secrets and a group of virtual friends chatting happily about something and nothing in the Potting Shed thread. The Gardening on TV board was something of a wilderness but what can you expect with such a paucity of programmes to comment on?

Fifteen years ago I was diagnosed with ME, the culmination of years of stress over various things too tedious to recall and perhaps I had actually had it since childhood, the bouts of unexplained viruses and ill health gradually leading to a final and horrendous collapse. No longer could I canoe down gorges in the South of France, mountain walk in Wales, surf down waterfalls in the French Alps, abseil in the Lake District for my 40th birthday celebration.   I had always been  fireworky - burning brightly, sparkling, then fading quickly, my mental and physical energy spent - and now I was totally and completely burned out.  I don't often revisit the early years of ME - I remember the places we went and things we did but mentally photoshop out the wheelchair and the frustrations of .. well I could spend hours listing the frustrations - just everything really.  I DO remember that in spite of all that we had some great times and some of our best holidays because you learn that you can do so little that you MUST get the most fun out of everything you do and train yourself never to think of what you can't do only to treasure what you can.

But whilst we fought for some good times there was much bad.  In common with many who suffer long term illnesses most of our friends disappeared even before I got chance to bore them with the details. In any case I found it too tiring to sustain friendships with those few who occasionally called round. What little family we had vaguely offered help but showed no real understanding, my father unforgiveably telling my brother that "I think she makes a lot of her food intolerances" and Oldmasock, as usual, refusing to take on board anything that might upset her own equilibrium. It was me and the Bedsock against the world.  Sometimes when the Bedsock was working abroad I could go for weeks without speaking to anyone or, if I had the energy to go to Sainsbury's, replying at far too much length to the checkout woman's disinterested question "How are you today?"  I began to feel that I was nobody, nothing, no present, no future, only a past.  And even this was taken away from me by one of my rare visitors, a friend from old times to whom I said "I sometimes find it difficult to believe I was ever attractive, witty, fun...." to which he replied "Don't flatter yourself, dear".  His response, of course, was the kind of thing you expect on twitter now where so often the ruder the jibe, the deeper the affection for you. But at that time it just destroyed what I had believed of my past and there was nothing left.  I lay in a heap of miserable, empty, nothingness.  I no longer existed.  I had died but there had been no funeral send off and I wasn't even allowed the luxury of grieving.

You're wondering what the heck all this tale of doom and gloom has to do with the BBC Messageboards?  Well obviously you can't keep a good Sock down and this is how Rhoda Dendron rose from the ashes of the funeral there never was...

One of my biggest achievements in 'ME the early years' was to redesign my garden.  I made cardboard models and thought up planting schemes and then languished in a garden chair, occasionally cracking the whip, whilst the Bedsock did the work.  It was pretty frustrating not to be getting down, dirty and digging myself but hey ho - you can't have everything.  And I did end up with a garden I felt very proud of.  Sadly there was no-one to share this triumph over adversity with! Oldma and Pa Sock visited and were impressed but out of the two very-nearly-ex-friends who came round one merely grunted and the other said "Well as long as YOU like it!" which I think was probably the most mealy-mouthed response of all time and in her position I would have lied and said how marvellous it all was!

I needed somewhere to share my gardening achievements with like-minded people and found my way to the BBC Gardening Message Board.  This was early in 2005 an older style board and in the days  before face book had taken off or twitter had been heard of.  My first foray into messageboard land - I actually felt quite scared. A lot of people on there already seemed to know each other and be chatting amongst themselves.  One thing I grew to like about the BBC Message Boards is that although it can sometimes be difficult to join in a board that already has an established 'culture' there is none of this "Welcome the Newbie" "tell us all about yourself" pressure that you get from some of the smaller interest group boards.  You can just slide in at the back and join in when you feel like it.  I gave myself the name Rhoda Dendron and went unnoticed for quite a long while before drawing attention to myself with some funny comment about Monty Don cleaning the greenhouse windows at the beginning of GW.  It made some people laugh and I was IN.

Over the next few years the Gardening boards became a major part of my life. The boards changed to a new style and my circle of friends widened, many of them from background, countries, and gardening conditions very different to mine. Anneliese in Belgium, Fat Rascal up her mountain in France (who I stayed with last year), TorontoTrini - a lovely Trinidadian man gardening in Toronto,  Lottie, Princess Anabana, Captain Cabbage, all closer to home. Virtual friendship was fun and I could dip in and out of it when I liked or had the energy - I could be anyone I wanted and not confined by the limitations my fatigue or health dictated.  I no longer felt a useless burden and embarrassment with nothing to give - I could offer my wit, my little bit of gardening wisdom and my interest in other people's lives.  I loved the virtual company of others and the great feedback and interest I at last got on my garden.  I started to feel real again but I was no longer my old self, I was Rhoda!

I felt a great affinity with one particular poster I had never met, after she had said that in her youth they used to sit in the pub banging tea trays on their heads to the tune of Raw Hide! I knew she was my kind of woman and I was right as years and a name change later she is still my dear friend Lazy Trollop!

In those days people were much more wary about making virtual friends a reality but we braved our first meet-up at Wakehurst Place - a success! [Although I did notice that Lazy Trollop phoned a coded message to her daughter just after we met to confirm that I was apparently fairly normal and probably not an axe murderer.] As my garden grew so my confidence with people started to grow back too and my health improved enough to venture out into the unknown.  A few days away at the RHS Tatton Show with Obelixx, a mad ex-pat living in Belgium who frightened me to death speeding down the motorway during the flash floods that hit most of the Midlands that night.  We met up with Dame Wombat an Australian living in Manchester and also chatted to Trillium (Sue Beesley) at her winning show garden.  Others had turned up from the Gardening boards just to say hello.

Matthew Wilson didn't realise what he had let himself in for with motley crew of BBC messageboarders!

A visit to RHS Harlow Carr where the divine Matthew Wilson was Curator and had, in a fit of generous madness, posted on the BBC Gardening boards inviting to guide a group of us around the gardens.  Brighton to Harlow Carr? not far enough to stop me from going - ME be blowed!

Rhoda (2nd left) and messageboard friends at Harlow Carr

But as board friendships formed so did different groups with different agendas. Not everyone was happy with the set-up and every now and then a group would break off to form their own boards where they had control over their own culture without being forced to conform to the rules of the Beeb.  I never wanted to join these - they brought their own hierarchy, rules, regulations, and sometimes pettiness. Boards with hordes of performing avatars and 'smileys' gurning and waving at you out of everyone's messages.  I was always keen to keep the main thrust of the Gardening Boards to be about gardening not a mass of chat threads about posters aches and pains, offspring, or desultory meanderings with no real content which some of these offshoot boards seemed to encourage.

Whilst the Garden Clinic and Allotment Board were seriously helpful places and the Gardening on TV board never for the faint-hearted, the Garden Design Board on the Beeb was a playground for us. Although there were rules, they could be bent or circumvented particularly if those hosting the board were inclined to turn a blind eye.  They had been turning a blind eye to one very long thread which was personal chat and not always about gardening, open to anyone but no doubt dominated by myself and group of friends. There were also occasional hilarious threads which were pure fantasy theatre such as one surreal evening where ex-board members had taken offence about something said on the Beeb board and had posted on their new message board threatening to come over to the Beeb and sort us out that evening.  A group of us amassed on a thread along with assorted, pets, garden tools and the Donkeys of Mass Destruction, ready to repel borders! Sadly, it was a no show on the invaders part but I spent the whole evening laughing over the ridiculousness of it.

An early celebration of CB on the BeebBoards

There was the ridiculous 'Chris Beardshaw Killed my Hebe' thread which started with my tongue in cheek comment, going off at some wonderful tangents, but always returning to the fact that he did indeed kill my hebe (I now even have a cat called Hebe named after the incident). The  fabulous Chris Beardshaw Fanclub which I started for two very lovely ladies who were genuinely his No. One fans, going to all of his talks and generally swooning over him. We once spent a virtual day out taking a bus tour to Chris Beardshaw's house which had just come on the market, viewing each room on the Estate Agents blurb about his home.  The only restriction on enjoyment was a lack of imagination! There were threads of poster's garden photos, gardens visited, even help threads on how to get the best photos of your garden.  When I started to learn how to use photoshop it was a natural place to post my creative pictures. It was a vibrant, funny, sometimes silly sometimes educational, often supportive place to be.

Then started the inevitable spite and spats. The usual accusations of "cliques" by those unable or unwilling to join in.  Whilst we had been 'getting away' with the one long off-topic thread new posters wanted to run their own off-topic threads they could grandstand from. Every thread started up would be turned from gardening to pointless chat. In trying to defend the position that we had established and maintain the balance of chat and gardening we were accused of being prefects and worse.  The new (to us) phenomenon of socks (users created by an existing board member to cause mischief) and trolls started up. One woman who had taken a particular dislike to me started posting as a man in order to have a go.  The 'socks' were usually pretty easy to spot but often vindictive and spiteful losers - the kind of people you would never associate with in real life.  Another person got her drunken husband to come on the board and have a go at me in a particularly vicious and unprovoked attack.  The board was filling up with garrulous grandstanders, bellicose bores, manipulators, misogynists and Daily Mail reading miseries all with the agenda that if they couldn't have the fun we were having they would spoil it for everyone.  And they did.

Fed up with the in-fighting and bad board behaviour the hosts/moderators finally turned up like the cavalry - too late to stop the slaughter - and closed down all the fun and personal threads.  I could no longer post my photographs which left me feeling quite devastated as I loved using Photoshop but there was now no outlet for my creations.  The new host regime was harsh and unhelpful - treating the posters like the enemy which perhaps they were.  Many posters left to form yet another new board but it wasn't one I could stomach, I have a deep dislike for the Proboards set up and this was one was more badly designed than most.  There was nothing left for me on the Beeb boards and in a fit of misery and depression I killed Rhoda off.

Three days after I had hammered the final nail into Rhoda's coffin I realise that something wondrous was happening! The wood suddenly self-combusted and burned brightly for some hours in astonishing rainbow colours..and then out of the ashes rose a grey figure finely clothed in 100% cashmere and wearing an exceptionally chic hattiewat!

Since then the Gardening boards have carried on with other groups of friends forming who I hope will withstand the closure and continue their friendship in another virtual place.  Although it has never been as good as it was when my 'clique' ruled, I still by habit look in each day and I remember it fondly as having helped me a long way along the road to health and happiness. I still have many of the friends I found on those boards, some I have met and some who will probably always remain virtual but who I have now been in correspondence with for over five years.

As the boards are about to be closed people have been bumping up some of the old threads from years ago that were not just fun but are now an archive of our everyday lives, loves, births, deaths, and of course gardens, over a long period of time. It's the final end of that era.  I cry when I read them... I am crying now.

Thank you BBC - it was good whilst it lasted.


One of my favourite threads illustrating the best of the gentle mental meanderings of gardening friends was this one Heucheras - the Good the Bad and the Ugly


Victoria Summerley said...

It's always a bit sad when things change. But had you not become Arabella Sock, I would never have met you! (Which might be a blessing, you're thinking...)
Anyway, I love your blog, I love your animations and I think your garden looks AMAZING. And anyone who doesn't agree can f*** off. xx

Ms B said...

I have gone all maudlin over this - what a crazy time we had whilst getting down & dirty about gardening. We had the knitted uterus, the many & various posters whose names were very very close to that of Chris Beardshaw, the garden parties, kidnapped donkeys.......

I would never have missed it for the world even though MrB kept saying "Are you on that computer again" & didn't understand when I tried to explain & my kids laughed like drains at the thought that I had on-line friends.

Without the boards I would never have met you & look at us now!

I shall raise a glass & shed a tear.

Fat Rascal said...

I too have found your blog very poignant and a fitting tribute to what the message boards did for us.

I landed on them because I had a gardening question but stayed because I was missing home and the wit and general Britishness of it all.

There were some barking loonies and unpleasantness but there was nowhere else I could have met so many different people who were so generous in the help and advice they offered as well as laughs and sympathy when needed.

But I mainly stayed for Rhoda and I'm so pleased I did. Through her I met the Trollop and saw the birth of Arabella and fell in love with Heucheras and have shared, and continue to share so many things.

The Beeb is much maligned and far from perfect but there is nothing anywhere anything like it as an institution. We were all equals under their rules and moderation, no individual could suddenly close your account on a whim or censor your posts because they didn't fit their agenda so it is indeed sad that they have closed so many messageboards.

I have maybe raised too many glasses already but am with you in the maudlin camp, Ms B! Vive le cupcake, vive Chris Beardshaw, cats and clematis!

janerowena said...

No-one could ever forget the knitted uterus - and what about Obama? I seem to remember he came to a sticky end!

Arabella Sock said...

Thank you Victoria. They say a messageboard poster's time on any one board is average 3 years and we got a pretty good innings on the Beeb. I think it was time to move on even if things hadn't gone pear-shaped and Being Arabella is one of the best things ever!

Ms. B. and Fat Rascal - yes I've been having a little weep. I've been reading some of the threads back to 2006 and I'm amazed how much I had forgotten about what I was growing in the garden and/or how old some of my plants are. I do hope the boards stay there for posterity. Good times indeed!

Jro - I had forgotten about Obama the ostrich. Such rich fantasies we dreamt up.

One of my favourite threads which illustrates the best of our friendly chat in the days of messageboard innocence was the Heuchera thread. I've put a link to it at the bottom of this blog. Seems both yesterday and a long time ago..

janerowena said...

I came on here because I felt dreadful - I had a horrible thought - wasn't it Osama, not Obama? What does that say about my thought processes? Hopefully, they are chalk and cheese!

The board helped me through a sticky time too, also I had just undergone yet another relocation to a large wild garden and although i didn't particularly need the knowledge, I did need the suppport and friendliness of people who understood the challenges and successes and how much sheer hard work is involved.

Arabella Sock said...

Ha ha, Jro. I think it was Osama the Ostrich. I had forgotten as well another sure sign of getting old. I looked at some of the threads back to 2005 and can't believe the stuff I had forgotten including the fact that as early as that I was trying to grow Green zebra tomatoes. I thought I came new to these last year so presumably the 2005 pre- greenhouse crop was a failure. Memory going a bit worrying tho'

Ps JD is me Arabella different account

Arabella Sock said...

Pps. I managed to sign in as Arabella so scrub that last ps

James A-S said...

I was scarred by my encounter with the BBC message boards.
Just after I had presented a couple of television programmes a few years ago I foolishly thought that it would be interesting to see what the public reaction was.
Big mistake.
The gardening on TV board was merciless and vicious so I never went back.I think I was described as mincing, annoying and affected.
They were probably spot on the money!
Wish I had known that you were there: sure you would have been nicer!

Arabella Sock said...

If you had ever come on the message boards when I was there with my gang we would have been just as nice to you as we were to Matthew Wilson - nicer in fact! I did read one of the old threads where one of my friends described you as "the foppish one in the pink shirt with the hat" I think it was meant as a compliment.

Anyway your trouble is that you are used to everyone loving you (and so they should) and have never had to deal with the "haters" that now seem prolific on messageboards. Monty always did quite well - he would come on oblivious of the discussion about his trousers and kindly explain to us why we were all wrong. Unfortunately Chris Beardshaw never turned up on the board in person which was sad as he had such a following on there and we would all have liked to know exactly how tall he was.

Laurentia Koulermos said...

I truly have no idea who you are, but I just read your long message. I just have to write and say, "God Bless you." You seem like such a wonderful person. I really hope you are doing well. Anytime you get down, just remember that you are blessed to live in the UK. I am so jealous of you. I grew up in California, and now am living in Texas. California will always be my home, but Texas, no way. I was blessed to have visited England, Scotland and Wales for two weeks last year. I didn't want to ever leave, and I was there in January and February! I can't imagine your Spring and Summers! Hopefully, my daughter will live her dream of living, and teaching there and I can come and be the "Mum" in the back house. Just needed to say that you sound like a truly awesome person that God put on this earth. Chin up and carry on. Laurentia from Yucky Texas.

Arabella Sock said...

Hi Laurentia

Thank you for your kind words. I posted that blog a few years ago and re-read it after seeing your comment on it. It bought tears to my eyes even though I did drivel on for ages about everything - it felt right at the time!

Texas! Eek. It wouldn't be my first choice either but then I am not very familiar with the US having only visited New England. I always think of Texas as being rather arid. That having been said it is cold and damp enough here in the UK at present, to feel that a few months 'aridness' would be really rather nice.