Friday, November 30, 2007

Thank heaven for nice young men, and how dog hair is not really the enemy.

I am beholden today to the kindness of strangers, more particularly I am grateful for the generosity of nice young men.

We've been putting off the hivernage of the geriatric Citroen BX, cancelling appointments at the garage, because we've had other things to do and pay for and it seems to be starting in the morning and going on its way uncomplaining. Similarly, the washing machine which seemed to have been having intermittent problems draining was manageable if turned to the drain only and then spin programmes separately afterwards, so I procrastinated about that too.

However, then one sad day it happened, the washing drained no more. The machine died mid programme and would not be cajoled. I baled it out by hand and called the repair people, the second time this year I was thankful to have been inveigled into buying an extended warranty.

A week to wait, I discovered the joys of the prefab shack outside Leclerc in Lamballe which seems to be the only launderette in Department 22; I had to trail the concourse of the supermarket like a mendicant trying to extort enough coins from the unwilling shop workers for the machines, and loitered about the intallation while large lorries with suction equipment seemed to be clearing blocked drains outside, but inside had the interest of providing me with an impromptu sauna experience. Took me back to studenthood, only I didn't have a copy of Sophocles or Gawain and the Green Knight to read somewhat pretentiously while supervising the rotating drums as I did then.

Anyway, the repair person was due this afternoon, so I hurriedly left work and stopped off at the garden centre on the retail park which is one of the few places to stock the special croquettes which piggy pooch is recommended to eat by sundry veterinarians, and the newsagent that kindly imports a Radio Times for us so that we can shake our heads despondently over it and say 'Crap on the telly as usual'. I returned to the car and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. Not a cough or splutter, rien du tout. I had just enough credit on the mobile (I haven't got round to sorting that out either) to bewail my sad fate to my husband and try to supply him with the phrases necessary to explain a non-draining washing machine to a repair person. He said go to the car place by the supermarket, which I suppose I would have come round to the idea of eventually on my own but only after a requisite time spent in existential paralysis.

The first place a fellow with a lacklustre manner and bad skin gave me a shrug and accompanying expulsion of air from between pursed lips, said he could do little for me, but referred me to another place. There, a very young and bright-eyed chap was courtesy and compassion personified, picked up battery and leads toot sweet and instructed me to jump in his car and off we went back to the car park. I had to ride in the back because he had a baby seat in the front, though he really didn't look old enough...

The battery solution was unsuccessful, so he asked if I had anything large and heavy on board with which to bash. I found a jack handle and he duly bashed. Yes, he said, as the car started, it is the charbons du demarreur which are worn out. I memorised this in total ignorance of its meaning. The arcane illogic of the naming of car parts in my mother tongue is doubly confounding in a second language. Even when a translation is supplied I am none the wiser, there seldom seems any relationship between the words in one language and another, or in either language with my rudimentary grasp of their functions. Tom said when I got home 'Oh yes, the carbon brushes .' Fine.

'What do I owe you?' I asked.

'Nothing at all,' he said with a grin. I asked his name, so I'll drop by with something later. If he's got a baby someone will probably be happy to share some chocolates.

So, I arrived home just in time for the washing machine man. He was very jolly, particularly tickled by a dog with a bucket on its head. He fiddled with the drainage pipe, then turned the offending item of household white goods on its back and located the culprit. Feel this, he invited, guiding my hand to a lump in a piece of rubber tubing. (Why do I always ingenuously do as I'm told in those kind of situations...?)

We seem to live our lives under a steadily advancing tide of fine black dog hair. It forms dust bunnies the size of tumbleweeds in every corner every day, three times the volume in hair of the dog in question is collected in the bag of the vacuum cleaner every couple of weeks, and it coats all the textiles in the house in a clinging film of grubbiness. Fortunately I am not a houseproud person. Fearing however that the tubes and filters of the washing machine must be also under siege from the creeping menace, and being a bit of a sucker for the kind of catalogues that market inexpensive tricks and trucs, I purchased a number of these (above) fuzz-catching baubles from Vitrine Magique, a kind of downmarket French cross between Lakeland and Innovations, and have been throwing them abundantly into the drum of the washing machine, as is their destiny. I don't keep track of them as I just seem to have A Lot and they are frequently escaping, rolling underneath things, turning up in pockets or the corners of duvet covers and so forth. So I didn't notice there was one missing, which had surreptitiously squeezed between the drum and the outer casing and was making its way towards a new life wherever the washing machine water goes ( a place yet to be discovered and a point of contention with the septic tank monitoring team who featured in an earlier post ). It never made it, but stayed in a limbo in the aforesaid rubber pipe, in a very sorry state indeed.

Tom raised his eyebrows. 'How much will that cost then?'

'Is it covered by the guarantee?' I asked hopefully of the jolly young man.

'Not really,' he replied ' it's your fault. But just this once.'
So we have got away without paying twice today. And it wasn't the thing I feared, the dog hair, which caused the problem, but the measures I took to prevent it and fight against it.
There's a moral in there, I'm sure.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


One cup of oats, one each and a half of water and soya milk. The vitamins and minerals make a long-nosed, wall-eyed face at me. A spoonful of syrup is a doubtful concept, more like a pigtail, not discrete.

Wishing for cream, I add salt instead, to satisfy the need not to be virtuous. Deferring the gratification of the syrup, I fold it to the bottom of the bowl.

Tom undresses the coffee pot.

( How, you may ask, does he do that? Here's how.

A cafetiere cosy. Made by my ever inventive and creative sister, she of the magic quilt, who had the idea when she saw us wrapping tea towels around said coffee pot to keep it hot. Silk lined and most effective, I'm sure she still has stocks and would take orders...)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


What do you want for your birthday? Tom asked. I can't really think. On the whole, I want what I have. Now I have photography, I said, I don't really want much else. Jos the painter offered me a powerful, up-to-date Nikon reflex for a good price, but still more than we could
really afford. But it's not the price anyway. If I took on such a camera, I would really need to learn about photography, its techniques and technology. I would be encumbered by lenses and tripods, I would look the business and need to be the business. I feel I could no longer travel light. When I see sumptuous macro shots elsewhere, or glorious landscapes ( I was going to supply links, but there are so many it would be invidious ), I am envious, but I am resolved to make the best I can of what I have, which is riches enough. A 'proper', ambitious photographer would jump at the offer, raid the piggy bank and relish the challenge, but I am happy, happier, to work within limitations, within boundaries.


I read and am stirred by Tall Girl's post on wildness, on letting go, on living authentically. Am I settling for second best about myself? Am I confined and constrained by my own fears?

Does letting go mean losing? I dread and fear losing the bonds and ties I hold so dear, that I have spent so long weaving and knotting in patience and love. Perhaps there is a wildness that seeks to protect, too.


In the back of my bird book are the maps. Simple outlines of Europe coloured with red, and often a broken line around the western shores, out into the Atalntic, the birds' migratory range.

I think I might close the door behind me for a while when the time comes, and follow the birds to the western fringes. From Ushant to Scillies, and then to Bardsey, and from there to the Skelligs, to climb that long stone stairway into the upper air, to the stone beehive cells where the hermits lived on the flesh of the seabirds. Then back to Iona, to come full circle. To sit and look out at the Bay at the Back of the Ocean, where Columba knew by second sight that the crane which was to become his companion, his talisman and psychopomp, had landed from its flight from Ireland and lay exhausted on the sands, to follow corncrakes again through bogs and bracken and never see one, to marvel at the detail of eider ducks, and the black backs of ravens below me, to pick up tiny pink-ridged cowry shells on the beach where the monks were murdered by the wild, iconoclastic, pagan vikings, so that the wheel could turn again.

But then what?


I fear I have offended a friend by speaking too much.

I have potential new friendships I should be tending, but I have a sliding courage.

I have caused pain and anxiety out of carelessness, a weary, remorseful headache results.

But I have posted again today!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mish mesh

Try as I might, I can't make them as cleverly as Jean does!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Cabbage white # 2

This is the other poem and photos I sent to qarrtsiluni. I think they made the right choice; the anthropomorphism in this one is a bit strained, and it's not without sentimentalism and cliché. Also it lacks the distinguishing element of the chrysalids being on the wind turbines. But I'm sort of fond of it.


- Why did you go?

- It was necessary.

- Where are you?

- Here. Or there. Or nowhere.

- What are you?

- What I am. What I was. What I will be. I am growth and hunger, I am binding and parting. I am a mush and yellow deliquescence in a silk shroud. I am becoming.

- Come back. To the satisfying of the soft and hungry mouth, the suckered, hugging, undulating feet, the rolling intimacy between the veins of the leaves, the fat and juiciness of green, the ease and sweetness that we had all summer.
Come back to me.

- I can't. There is, it seems, more.

- What more could there be?

- Perhaps a morning burst of dandelions and daisies, a heady afternoon of marjoram in flower. A deep epiphany of buddleia and savage sunset of mad marigold. The clinging golden dust of pollen and evanescent pearl of black edged silvery wings. A flying crooked dance of love against blue skies, then the dim-remembered pungency of brassica leaves, calling us down to lay and lay in ovipository, eviscerating ecstasy...
Then perhaps an ending, by the bird's beak, or treachery of cobwebs in the corner of a window, or finally the first fall of brittle frost and nothingness.

- I am afraid.

- As well you might be.

- I miss you.

- And I you. Come join me?

- I daresay soon I shall.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Spaniel eyes

At Catalyst's request, some pictures of the newly shorn Molly.

A dog of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
Woof woof! Just kidding!

(Tom thinks it really is too short, says he likes his girls with rather more hair, and it's true the ears in particular are a bit drastic. But for the sake of a clean-up, and that she didn't look too lopsided with one shaved from the op and the other not, it's a good move. The look of melancholy pathos is a breed trait, and one which has been perfected to a fine art!)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Reasons to be cheerful

First off, I am orgulous as a peacock because I've got a poem and photos up at qarrtsiluni. It's called 'Cabbage whites', and it came from a walk I did with my sister, niece and nephew-in-law to some local wind turbines. They are in fields on a hilltop, one of which had had oilseed rape in it, which had been harvested, and a huge number of cabbage white caterpillars were in the process of pupating all over the lower part of the wind turbine. It was an odd and oddly moving sight. I took a number of photos and wrote a couple of poems. I sent them both in with pictures, and they accepted one. The other I'll post here in a day or two.

I haven't submitted anything written there before, only photographs, including the first 'Handbook for Explorers' collaboration I did with Joe. If that had been rejected I would have felt entitled to be miffed on his behalf, as he doubtless would have done on mine. As it was, if they had returned both the poems, I was determined to be grown-up and take it in good part but privately accept it as confirmation of what I had always suspected, that my poetry is rubbish. And better writers than I have been turned down by qarrtsiluni. I would have tried not to say sour grapes. I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for both the guest editors, Marly and Ivy, their work and their judgement.

However, they accepted one, with a few editorial reservations about things which they invited me to revise. A rather woolly extended metaphor went nowhere; having had it pointed out I was immediately irritated by it and was able to change it. Some punctuation was sloppy, failed to define ideas as it should. That sorted, we had a three-way discussion about whether a past participle linking back to a modal perfect some lines previously was too much of a strain, and should be replaced by a simple past, which in order to scan would need another syllable, which to my ear didn't really sound so well...

Now this may sound a bit like angels on pinheads but by this time I was beginning to enjoy the process of being edited. It all felt rather flattering, no one, especially no one as clever and special as Marly and Ivy, had ever paid so much attention and taken so much trouble over anything I'd ever written before ( not that I'd ever invited anyone to before...). It was somewhat akin to going into a hairdresser or other beauty professional expecting to be laughed off the premises as a lost cause or hopeless frump, then being taken in hand, one's possibilities assessed, plucked and preened and given a careful and expert makeover, and ending up feeling rather pampered and the better for it.

I was not least impressed by their care and attention since they clearly received a lot of submissions, both of them have other significant and demanding responsibilities, they aren't getting paid for it, and I have the impression that they were finding possibly hurting people's feelings and making them unhappy about their work difficult and invidious.

So thanks, Marly and Ivy, and the q. regulars, and confetti to you too. And I'd have said that even if you'd rejected the poem. ( Oh, and I was allowed to keep my past participle.)

Other honourable mentions. Jean is doing fantastic things with Picasa collages, involving repeats and rotations and all kind of subtleties. When I try to do subtle it just looks dull, Jean does subtle. Jean is subtle. She thanked me for putting her onto Picasa, and I must thank Joe for putting me onto it. Also check out Andy's dancing leaf, quite enchanting, and a post about a blanket over at Sheila's with a photograph of an interior which I found beautiful and compelling.
Molly is back from having stitches out, and getting full cuddle treatment with Tom on the sofa. While she was knocked out I stayed around, and jokingly suggested to the vet that we should have her coat clipped while she was out for the count at the poodle parlour next door, since she is nearly as recalcitrant about grooming and haircuts as she is about vets. He said, yes, yes good idea, went and grabbed the dog grooming lady and roped her into the job. So now she is the best coiffed she's ever been, all her felty bits gone and in between her toes done and everything. She should be bucketless and back to normal in a week or so. A huge relief.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Elegy for a nenuphar

Out of time tonight except for a picture, even for some links. I'll do them tomorrow.

Molly goes to have her stitches out in the morning, she seems to have healed well, the antibiotics and second stitch-up having done the job. Fingers crossed one last knock-out should be all.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A cheery subject

" Why do people always die in November?" I asked.
" They don't always. Sometimes they die in other months."
We pondered whether this last sentence made semantic sense.


" These coats were a good buy."
" Yeah, if only for funerals." I reply.
" Not only. We've worn them for concerts too."
" I know. And parties, and lots of things. But quite a few funerals."

The coats are both charcoal grey, simply cut, the best we could find a few years ago now. I balked a little at the price, but Tom doesn't believe in cheapskating ( or looking for bargains as I call it ). Mine is long, with a full skirt, somewhat Napoleonic. His is straighter and shorter, but has a touch of cashmere. When I saw him step out from the crowd later and embrace the dead woman's father, who had come towards him holding out his hand, I felt an enormous surge of love and pride. Tom is not tall, but in a Breton crowd he is, the charcoal cashmere coat was a further distinction.

I regard funerals as something like going to the dentist. They hang over me, almost certain to be a less than pleasant experience, but I'll see how much they hurt when the time comes, and mostly try to absent as much of my consciousness as possible. They seem to be more frequent in our life than weddings or christenings, an aging population of course, but also, while it is possible and more and more common to be born, fall in love, live together and have babies without ritual, it is more difficult to die without it.

In France, it seems, one's spiritual state is like many things, neatly pigeonholed into a limited system of categories: croyant et pratiquant - believing and practising (you go to church), croyant mais non-pratiquant - believing but not practising (you don't go to church but God doesn't mind, so you can use the church for stuff when it suits you) , non-croyant - atheist. That's about it, though I daresay there are quite a few people turning up at church without really believing a word of it, the category of pratiquant mais non-croyant is not as far as I know acknowledged. Where it leaves France's apparently very numerous Buddhists, many of whom could also be said to be practising but not believing, or the likes of me, living 'a life of doubt diversified by faith', for whom the essence of worthwhile spirituality is to dwell ever in a cloud of unknowing, believing sometimes in I-know-not-what, sometimes in nothing, hoping and holding always onto those moments a sense of ineffable knowing, or rather being known, supporting utterly the necessity of reason and scepticism, at times longing for and tempted by a home in organised religion, but fearing that that home would soon become a prison etc etc, I don't know. " I don't know", Peter Abelard's last words, they say...

"Straight to the cemetery," Josette said, with a shrug. "they were not croyants."

And straight to the cemetery we went, in the filthiest weather November could manage. Because although this is a secular state, where they don't even know how many people call themselves believing, non-believing, Christian, Moslem, Buddhist or any thing else, because it's forbidden to ask on the census, if you don't want a the Catholic works in the church, or presumably another religious equivalent, you are, in this case quite literally, out in the cold. It ain't necessarily so; when an English friend died a few years ago, there was a small service at the crematorium chapel. It was officiated by an English speaking RC priest, (a very likeable Irish-Australian who often does bilingual offices of this kind, and who, as a hospital chaplain, befriended a hospitalised elderly friend, a staunch atheist, who has since had nothing but good to say of him,) but we had the impression that there was little religious requirement. Yet there are still relatively few takers for cremation, it was illegal until the 20th century here, and people are still frankly spooked by it, a hangover from the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and also, I've heard suggested, from the Nazis, the Deportation and the ovens. In any case, there wouldn't be enough room in the small crematorium chapels for the hundreds who like to show up to pay respects, as much to the family as to the deceased themselves, at many funerals. The crowd at this one packed the open part of the cemetery and extended way beyond the gates, umbrellas and all.

" I prayed to the Good God " said Josette ( as opposed to which other, I sometimes wonder when this expression is used) " to stop the rain for just long enough, then it can ... paf ! "

However, her petition must have been put in the wrong slot, as it carried on raining fairly uninterrupted throughout, though it did brighten up a bit afterwards. We stood under a porous carapace of shared umbrellas, which created a kind of sheepishly amused camaraderie amonst the mourners. Unable to understand most of what was said over the appalling sound system, I tried to look at the scene in front of me dispassionately, in terms of shapes, colours, textures and movement. The different fabrics of coats and hats and scarves patterned with rain on the hillocks of people's heads and shoulders, the negative shapes of sky in the interstices of the umbrellas, the pinkish flossy edge of a woman's hair at the nape of her neck so teased and overworked and bullied by the hairdresser ( and I could almost certainly tell you which...) that it resembled acrylic fibre, the elderly man in front of us who from time to time pulled down the spoke of his umbrella to watch the trickle of water that ran down it, like a child playing in the bath.

I knew the woman who died, a little, for a longish time, liked her well enough. She was three years older than me. The sight of her parents, for seven of our years here the dearest, kindest, most welcoming neighbours we have ever had, without whose help and friendship I don't think we could have settled as well as we did, so laid waste, so broken, was the drill biting through the novocaine. I felt unreasonably enraged at her for breaking their hearts this way.

Josette was pleased to have a spare kleenex, Tom held her beige and brown umbrella over the two of us.


Old Pierre did it well. A small man of uncertain temper, but much loved, notably by his four beautiful granddaughters, he died last August, two days after celebrating his diamond wedding. He danced with his wife, his daughter, and the four grandaughters, but had to keep sitting down. " The motor" he said, tapping his chest, "is running down. Time was when I could dance all night and work in the field all day, never having slept."

He slept all the next day, a Sunday, while his family made holiday together. On the Monday eldest beautiful grandaughter took him to the doctor, who sent him express to hospital, but I don't think he lived long after that. It being summer and school holidays, his family were able to turn around and come back fairly easily, and there we were less than a week later back in the same church, same cast, different outfits and minus the accordion player. Everyone (except us, we somewhat disingenuously plead Protestantism in this event) showered the coffin with enough holy water to float it out of the church, and after the walk to the cemetery, we all repaired to the old village hall for coffee and hot chocolate and wine and cakes. Tear-stained, weary faces became flushed and animated with sugar and alcohol, and affectionate words and gestures were exchanged. Such was Pierre's good record with the church that he was accorded the special privilege of a Monsignor to officiate, as well as the rather more dubious honour of the Plemy church choir, of which he had been a member ( Tom's silver lining about yesterday's event was " At least we didn't have to suffer that lot, they only know two hymns and they sing them on every occasion". On reflection we thought it might only be two notes). The Monsignor was a handsome, solidly built, bass-voiced African, splendid in purple, and he really gave it some for the eulogy. " Yes, weep for Pierre. But envy him too, he has triumphed. He has kept his faith and now he is with God. Pierre is a happy, happy man!"
Perhaps, perhaps.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Watching paint

" You're supposed to be mixing it, not bloody photographing it."

He just doesn't understand the creative impulse. There are good reasons for mixing your own paint. You get the same practical buttercream colour ( I refuse to call it magnolia ) every time, any time, by adding one tube of raw siena to five litres of any white paint, in theory, or at least the same tint if not the same shade. We use this on woodwork and ceilings throughout the house. The other good reason is the fun of doing it.

You squirt the tube into the paint and pretend you're Jackson Pollock,

Then you stir it a bit, and maybe you find a face in it,

swirl it round a bit more,

and a bit more,

and a bit more still,

give up with the bamboo stick and decide you'll sacrifice another kitchen whisk, to get a smooth emulsion.

For at last, after ten years, we are decorating the living room. The problem is, as soon as a space becomes even remotely usable it is used, becomes colonised with the effects of living. Bookshelves are inhabited by books before they can be varnished, and you can become quite used to plasterboard with just a skim of gesso on it...

Tom dislikes painting, so I do quite a lot of it. He can do wallpaper.

And despite his sometimes disparaging attitude to my artistic tendencies, of his own accord he got two long vertical frames of five windows each for me to put ten of my photographs into, to hang one each side of the wall light. Which is a nice kind of icing on the cake.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Under the lime trees

I just found this. I wrote it a short while after the suicide of a fairly elderly former neighbour some years ago now, which left me feeling I wanted to honour the things I knew of her, her family, her past, which was also something of the history of our village. I wrote a few things, but felt and feel it is slipping away from me; the distance I have as an outsider is a mixed blessing. The old people are disappearing, and many of the younger ones too, one way and another. Too lazy and guarding of my own space, I don't talk enough, don't ask enough questions, I listen but still miss too much. On the other hand I value what I do learn, I hope I use it creatively but with honesty and respect, without undue romanticising or abusing the inevitable picturesqueness of the foreign...

Under the lime trees of the Sacred Heart

Under the lime trees of the Sacred Heart they learned to sew,
The girls, that was. What the boys did I'm not so sure,
Woodwork perhaps, or telling stories of a man so drunk,
Who lived at La Belle Brise, he drowned in the ditch,
The tadpoles and the salamanders slithering about his head...

It was a happy memory. The sewing stood her in good stead,
Earned her a living, and later, as I saw her in her porch in winter sun,
Seemed to bring her calm, a purpose and a pattern, music in her hands.
The lime trees stand there still, cool and fragrant, densely shading
Other children now, and also wedding drinks and open days,
Grand, whole and unmaimed, escaping saws and winter fires.

They spoke only in French at school, the rule was, fixing firmly
In their merely Gallo-Breton heads, that French was something other,
Harder, colder, finer and more difficult,
Than the kind or cross and working words you spoke at home.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bel Orient

Otherwise known as the Barking Dog Village, for its preponderance of mouthy canines, which range from not much bigger than a chihuahua to some fairly burly ones. The next village but one to ours, two 'blocks' away(- village is more than two houses, anything with any kind of centre, church, shop, school, mairie, is a bourg). Despite its name, an unlovely place in many ways, though the views are good. The farmers there are feckless, not fastidious, they throw things out anywhere, leave them to be gradually ingested by the landscape, or occasionally set fire to them. Picturesque it is not, yet, loafing around there with the camera for want of anywhere better, it has become one of those places where, in the detail and variety of its banality, and my familiarity with it, I have probably taken more photos than most:

an old wing mirror in the hedge to see round a corner,

honey in the making,

And cider too,

gear and nettle,

the nasturtiums that scramble round the house with the gnomes,

and a shed for nothing, with sad vacant eyes.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

La Petite Chèvre, and where she led...

Only recently I was thinking to myself, a) that I haven't discovered any completely new blogs for a while, and b) that I have yet to come across anyone on-line with the same name as myself. Now it seems both things have happened at one time, by one of those pleasant googling acts of serendipity, which have yielded treasures before.

A few days ago, one of my students was saying that she had been telling her grandson the story of 'La Petite Chèvre de Monsieur Séguin'. I raised my eyebrows at this, 'You tell that story to your children?!' Yes, she said, it's a lovely little children's story. No, I said, it isn't. It is sad and terrible, the wolf eats poor Blanquette, and why? Why does she have to go out onto the mountain? The meaning is difficult for children, it is about innocence destroyed by its own choice... By this time they were giving me the amused, interested but slightly non-plussed looks they often do when I get into one of these two-and-eights arising from inter-cultural incomprehension.

'La Petite Chèvre' was one of the first things I remember reading in French. It was a staple of school textbooks, and I seem to remember we even had an old boardback children's book of it with pictures in the attic at home. Later, 'Lettres de mon Moulin' was one of the first books in French I remember owning. It puzzled and perplexed, as well as charming me, and persuaded me that there was a streak of the darkly morbid mixed with the maudlin in the French soul. I still get that feeling sometimes, but I think much of it is simply a darkness that accompanies the unfamiliar, something that is gained in translation.

The darkness in the soul of one's own culture is often overlooked, but in turn my students help me to see it afresh. We were listening to English Christmas carols, and I remarked that 'We Three Kings' was a favourite of the traditional school Nativity Play; coming to the (to my mind wonderful, and that since I was a child) verse on myrrh: '...its bitter perfume/Breathes a life of gathering gloom/ Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/Sealed in the stone cold tomb', their response was 'You give that to your children to sing?!'

On going back to the story of the little goat, of course what I had forgotten, and what is usually left out of the children's version, is that it is being told by Daudet, the worldly-wise, world-weary man of letters, as a cautionary tale to a young poet who has turned down a cushy but limiting job as a journalist to pursue his dream of artistic freedom. The allegory is spelled out nearly as baldly and transparently as one of Perrault's jaunty, wry morals, so that more or less all complexity, any mystery or layering of possible meanings, is tidily ironed out and put in order, we are not really left to wonder what it is about, there is nothing haunting or elusive after all, it is a simple fable, this equals that, from which we deduce... I think this is perhaps quite French too.

So, thinking on this, I went looking on the web for a summary or translation of the story. And not only did I find a lovely one, but I found it on the quite literally delicious blog of another Lucy, Lucy Vanel, who, I think, is American, living in Lyon. She writes and photographs just beautifully, most and especially, but not exclusively, about food. I could spend a long time over at hers, just salivating.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Green carnation

I was going to write something today, on the basis of the one picture/one writing balance I set out to achieve. However, in the time I had set aside to do so, a friend rang up, then the internet died on me for a while, then I had a date with Tom, Molly, the sofa, a bag of popcorn and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which DVD arrived the other day. Scoff all you wish oh Arbiters of Good Taste, ( to say nothing of Healthy Eating and the Not on the Furniture School of Doggy Discipline...), so writing will have to wait until tomorrow.

Fortunately, I had a picture I'd prepared earlier. The parasol pine as seen from our window always makes me think of a Japanese woodcut at this time of year against the evening sky. I thought I would try to enhance this effect with a bit of mucking about. This is using Photoshop 'Threshold', or 'seuil' as it's known in my French version - took me a while to work that one out - then a double dose of Picasa's graduated tint, plus a squirt of extra saturation for good measure.
Never could resist guilding the lily.

Friday, November 16, 2007

After a few months absence...

...the foals are back in the paddock . And big strong girls they are now.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

" A magic web with colours gay..."

This post is a bit of a cheat, because I did not make the quilt, nor did I even take the photos (I only edited them a very little). However, I've been enjoying seeing them in my photographs for ages and thinking that it would be really nice to share them, in the way I have of taking vicarious pride in the gifts and achievements of those connected to me. This is a very inexpensive and easily come-by form of satisfaction, and beats jealousy, to which I would like to say I am not susceptible but it wouldn't be true.

These are some of my lovely sister's lovely photographs of her lovely quilt, which I think is probably still in the making, it was when the pictures were taken.

It is positively a patchwork bestiary of geometric birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians:

white peacocks and white swans,

polychrome peacocks and black swans,

zig-zag snakes and swimming goldfish, and recurring roundels of yellow-billed geese,

and, of course, button-eyed frogs. I say of course, because, in truth, my sister is a frog phobic ( and I will leave it to you to find out the correct Greek-rooted word for that ), and as so often happens with phobias, the object has become something of a motif in her life and work!

I blame her intense and single-minded genius for creating unimaginably intricate, meticulous, breathtakingly beautiful textile works on the fact that, if maternal mythmaking is to be believed, as a tiny child she would sit by the hour upon said maternal knee begging to have 'The Lady of Shalott' recited to her.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Waiting at the lattice, which dulls still more the off-white light,
or sieves it into speckled, slanted prisms,
footbound, sclerotic, eyes smeared with cataracts,
there never was a time (though the miniatures she hordes
in the marquetry and fretwork cabinet,
could be touched up with meretricious restoration...)
when, with measured, strong and agile grace
she stamped or sprang around the floors inlaid
with malachite and lapis and carnelian,
or through the embers of the fires of wanderers.

Yet still she waits at the lattice for the gap-toothed pedlar
to bring, along with bands and bolts of textured cloth
in shades from heliotrope to madder, ribbons
woven with signs and characters, known and unknown,
outlandish knicknacks, penny dreadfuls,
jewjaws and Jew's harps, toys that fly and speak and break,
news of her people, and the land from which she came.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fungal thumb

I've just spent the best part of an hour fruitlessly looking for a photo I've been saving. I must have deleted it by mistake.

Barely a third of the way through Nablopomo, and having doubts about everything. Almost. Probably a good reason to continue.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A cobwebby morning

These were taken a month ago. The fog and the light were such that I considered it worth braving the countryside of an October Sunday morning and the doughty French chasseurs - weighing up that although they couldn't see as well in the fog they were less likely to be drunk at that hour, and if I stuck to the roads I'd probably be OK.

Then it seemed as though everyone in the northern hemisphere was photographing misty morning spiders' webs, which was no reason not to do it myself, but I didn't get around to it anyway. Now I'm wondering about blogging out of season, as it were, when the moment has passed, posting things after their 'sell by' date... I'm not sure.

I do remember, though, seeing some really effervescent, vivid photographs of bees on summer flowers in the middle of last winter, and how they seemed to bring a burst of welcome light and sunshine and warmth. That was over at Andy's; he has also been egged on by Jean to post every day this month, and is producing consistently, enviably good posts too, despite many other demands on his time and energy, and frequently in the past being beset by self-deprecating doubts of the 'to blog or not to blog variety! Yesterday's, on Remembrance was one of the best things I read, heard or saw on a day when I always have mixed feelings. Makes my month-old cobwebs look a bit sad really!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Compasses fin

Sonnets 46 to 50 are posted.

It is finished.

However, and having said that...

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Generally, as I said in the comments the other day, until recently, writing poetry here is something I've steered clear of. Others do it better. My poetry is, like me, tending to the prosaic, the old-fashioned, the unoriginal. Dazzling feats of poetic imagination and the language to convey them are a bit beyond me. I know good poetry, I think, when I hear/see/read it, and it makes me feel very dull. I suppose we often equate what's good with what we can't accomplish ourselves?

However, I still quite like writing poems, and one-a-day posting has encouraged me to put things on here I might have rejected formerly, recycle some old material, get new things written up and out, and if they're not up to much, they'll be fish and chip paper tomorrow, when I put something new on...

This one I wrote in a fit of whimsy a couple of years ago, before I had a web log (as one sometimes tries to call it in the interests of grace and correctness!). I decided to set myself an exercise of sticking to a really tight and constricting rhyme scheme - it goes A-B-A-B-C-A-C-C-A ; the first and last A rhyme in the verse (stanza is really too pretentious a word!) is the word 'string', in all but the last verse, as you'll see.

It's doubly overweeningly ambitious as it's also a story, and I don't do fiction either, or not in any serious and sustained way, plots and character development also being beyond my scope. Hence the story fizzled out, as I couldn't think of a way to finish it, and also the rhyming potential rather exhausted itself ! So the last verse, which I wrote more recently, leaves it to you to conclude the story. But the mood of melancholic whimsy rather suits me at the moment.


" A pair of scissors and a ball of string
Are what I give you to take on your quest."
So the young knight bade farewell to his king,
And rode from the castle into the west,
And the sun was setting all orange and red
And he screwed up his courage and tried to sing
And tried not to think of his home and his bed,
And puzzled and puzzled his poor young head,
As to what he could do with scissors and string.

As a boy he had treasured pieces of string,
Not knowing quite why or what he could do
With them, yet had them stored in a tin,
Long bits, short bits, old bits and new,
In apple pie order, and hoped he would find
A sad lost bird with a broken wing
Or some other poor creature to which to be kind,
A unicorn even, or rare snow-white hind
Or just a stray dog to lead home on a string.

He lay down in a wood, and put his string
(And scissors too) in a prudent place, before going to sleep,
He kissed his horse and blessed his king
And said his prayers and tried not to weep,
As he thought of the valley from which he came
Of his home and his sisters, the apple tree swing,
Of his dog, and his sense of unjust blame,
And his choice to leave, his desire to shame
Those who'd had him kept on the end of a string.

He dreamed through a nightmare of unravelled string,
Impossible tangles, skeins falling apart,
Of spiders' webs that strangle and cling,
He yelled in his sleep and woke with a start.
He reached for his sword and became aware
Of a rather alarming and curious thing
Which he rose and examined with exceptional care,
For his foot was encircled as if in a snare
By a loop that was made in the end of the string.

One end so accounted for, the rest of the string
Was unwound and led into the heart of the wood,
Quite out of his sight -"Now what will this bring?
Who has done it and why, is it evil or good?
But I'm seeking adventure, and my courage is nought
If I give in to fear or the least little sting
Or scratch, or misfortune" the young knight thought
"When there's dragons to slay and foes to be fought"
And he got up and followed the trail of the string.

It appeared to be endless, the line of the string
It led him through thicket and bogland and briars
He followed through autumn and winter and spring
In woodland and mountains and moorland and mires,
And as summer drew on he was weary and tattered,
His horse often stumbled, he just had to cling
To his will and his hope which was all but shattered,
His sword had grown rusty, his armour mud-spattered,
Still he followed the devilish, marvellous string.

I wish I could tell you the end of the thing,
That he found his dear love, or a chest full of gold,
Or a faraway land where they made him their king,
But the rest of the story remains to be told.
If he followed and triumphed, at the end of his trail
Found his goal or some other, was able to bring
Home great glory, or wisdom, or the one true Grail
I don't know. You must make what you want of the tale
Of the knight, and his quest, and the strange ball of string.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Lady Buckethead

Milking it rather. The blur in the bottom left is a rapidly wagging tail ( intact, we requested it be left that way even before she was born, why deny a dog a fundamental form of self-expression?)
Pick me up and cuddle me, even though I weigh nearly 30 lbs.
The bucket has been found to be a useful battering ram against the shins of humans not doing what you want quickly enough, and sets up an interesting wave motion in conjunction with the wagging tail when the dog is accelerating.
Back to the v-word place tomorrow, perhaps to have stitches replaced. Pooch herself is in rather overwhelming good spirits, with overabundant energy from lack of exercise and being the centre of our devoted concern and attention.
We, and our bank balance, are in tatters.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


Awake at a small hour. Try an arm overhead, between the pillows,

Recovery position, one leg crooked. Forearm chilled

Neck stiff, abandon the attempt that way.

Turn on my back, straighten, stretch, don't twist

In the middle, hips will feel the strain before too long, but straighten.

Close eyes, better to rest, awake, than tire yourself in the hunt

For sleep that will outrun you.

Thoughts proceed, branch or end, join again, touch one another,

Where one dies another springs, opaque or translucent, linear or discrete,

Or run like whorls or rivulets, unpredictable, irregular but still

Their shapes discernible. Until, quite unexpectedly,

Something steps in, their patterns are broken, occluded,

By a solid, living form. Hush, there, see! It's sleep.

Don't move towards it, or try to touch it,

Don't scratch that itch or ask that question,

Or sleep will off, elude, escape you ...

Like when ( and is this a real or created memory? I hardly know), as children,

In chalkland beechwoods we kicked, mildly bored, through leafmould,

Looking for a cloven print, observed the chewed off tops of round-stemmed grasses

(The pith of their peeled insides like white sponge rubber), resigned,

That would be all we'd see of fallow deer, until the moment

When the doe stepped out into the path, her dappled substance now

And not the wood suddenly the sole reality.

Or when I stood by the stream that runs into the ponds at La Tantouille,

Idly watching and hearing its movement over the stones, then became aware

Of another movement, another presence, moving towards me up the streambed.

Momentarily I understood true panic,

The bewildering gift of the god of wild things,which turned

To wonder, and gratitude, when the fox, her head lowered,

Paddled out from beneath the overhanging twigs and leaves,

And raised her eyes to look at me, held my gaze

An instant, and was gone.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


... to the garden, we enjoy the autumn colour there.

( Collage done using Picasa. Easy and fun, even for a technodunderhead like me.)

I think I'll probably try to do one written post one day, a picture one the next.

Not only is this Post Every Day Month, it's also Novel Writing Month. This I cannot do. How people write even bad novels is a mystery and a prodigious feat to me and not one I have any expectation of mastering. It's also Knit a Sweater month. Ilan's coat will have to do for that, which is coming on OK. I'll post about that another time.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Moping with Mithradaites

The weekend not easy. I wonder to myself why, when I am marooned with a disabled and dolorous dog, a consequently miserable and tormented husband, missing walks with dog, stalked by fears and fantasies of losing her, generally strung out and unhappy, have I chosen to read WG Sebald's Rings of Saturn, and to sit down and watch 'The Hours' with a lapful of dog and knitting on the Sunday afternoon? Neither book nor film were exactly cheery. Or perhaps choosing rather bleak and mournful stories to read and watch and listen to is rather as listening to sad music when one is sad: cathartic, a kind of homeopathic treating like with like, Mithradaites swallowing a little poison every day, died old. Better to turn and face the shadows, let them in and sit with them a while and than turn them away, reject them in favour of company that cheers you up. "A sad tale's best for winter..."

The Sebald is quite literally a marvel, not like anything else. I like the way it's so clearly not English, its dreamlike, melancholy (overused about him I'm sure but really the most apposite word), alienated lugubriousness vaguely reminiscent of Bergman, if of anything, very northern European, but so English in its setting. I keep wondering, didn't he have any ordinary, banal encounters or conversations with anyone? But if he did, he probably wouldn't have remembered them as such. And frequently I can't remember how on earth we got to where we have, wasn't he talking about something else just now... but it turns out that was pages ago, and he's taken you somewhere else altogether just à propos of an element in a dream he was having while in Lowestoft or somewhere, or because someone or something reminded him of someone or something else... This sense of dislocated narrative is increased by the way he switches into different first persons without much warning or indication of reported speech. It's also increased by my lack of concentration while readng it.

About 'The Hours' I can't really think of much to say ( the link above is to IMBD, which I decided on finally, having got thoroughly absorbed reading various reviews, including one from a Depression and Bipolar website, which explained it positively in those terms, and another From a World Socialist site which trashed it completely, found I agreed with both and gave up...), except the rather shallow observation that for some reason I found Nicole Kidman with a false nose marginally less annoying than usual, except that the nose itself was distracting because I kept looking to see if I could see the join. Again, counting knitting stitches and with a part of my mind on the dog, I wasn't concentrating fully, so sometimes missed a switch from twenties to fifties to nineties narrative, thereby increasing my general impression that I was in a fragmented and twilighty limbo.

I got around a few blogs, but didn't accomplish my usual Sunday afternoon scroll down (or up, depending on how the fancy takes me...) the blogroll. Sorry if I haven't been around for a bit. I'm sure your lives will continue notwithstanding.

Tom very sensibly immersed himself in 'The Hobbit', in between distressing episodes of ministering to Molly. He has taken on cleaning the wound, and does it well and better than I, being generally neater and lighter handed. But he suffers agonies of anxiety about it. We feared our dog was becoming a mistrustful and disturbed neurotic, who would never be the same again. I didn't care, as long as she got better, as long as she lived. That was until we went back to the angelic Docteur Monnerie, she of the philosophic bulldog and the still small voice of calm, yesterday.

We'd already been back on Saturday when we saw her younger male colleague, who is impressive and competent but slightly scary, to have the dressing off. They called us back yesterday because the swab from the laboratory indicated a change of antibiotic was called for. We had a pitched battle with the cleaning before we left, which left us shaking and exhausted. Moll, on the other hand, is clearly picking up. The fight seemed to energise her, which we were glad to see; at signs that we were going out, she was up and at it, racing round and leaping into the car, bucket on her head and all, apparently forgetful that the last three journeys had been to and from the scene of her suffering.

The journey to Plérin is becoming wearily familiar, but I can't say boring, because I am unfailingly charmed by what must be the most beautiful autumn after the lousiest summer ever. We don't tend to get a lot of autumn colour normally here; the climate is too maritime, the weather strips the trees before they can put on any show. But now Moncontour sits in a bowl of russet beechwoods, oaks and chestnuts luxuriate in unaccustomed amber, single glowing yellow apple trees decorated with rosy red fruit stand proudly in empty fields, occasional gash-gold-vermilion cherries, scarlet sumacs, rainbows of liquidamber and shocking pink spindleberries add splashes and accents. Quite a show.

Edging his way along the roof ridge of a house by the road I see a man precariously wrestling like Laocoön with the fat, segmented, convoluted coils of a steel chimney flue. Not worth drawing Tom's attention to it, it's past too quickly, and I wouldn't be able to convey the oddness and interest of the image. I'm glad for the man it isn't a cold wet November day to do the job, when he might lose his unco-operative, serpentine burden or even go slithering down the slates after it.

Molly's chirpiness has given us heart. I think, I say, perhaps we have turned a corner. Shortly after, I glance down at the offending ear, which earlier had seemed inflamed, and it is clear that at least some of the stitches have torn. My heart sinks. Tom is about to negotiate the imbecilic drivers on the quatre-voies, so I elect not to mention it. But when we arrive, and Docteur Monnerie greets us, she says, not to worry, annoying but not serious, the last dog she did it on lost all the stitches and it still healed. Mol trembles a bit but calms down in her presence; without tying her muzzle she cleans the wound with barely a flinch from the dog. We are impressed, relieved, envious. We sit down at her desk, and Molly on my lap watches with alert and cheerful interest as she portions out new pills and potions, explains their application. Now and then the vet looks into her face with an intelligent and complicit smile, tells her she has been a good girl today, occasionally touching her on the nose with a finger or her pen, like a kindly teacher in an infant school, and at the end of the consultation picking up a cellophane-wrapped bag of healthy dog-treats tied with a ribbon, showing it to Moll, and popping it in the bag of medicines. I have never known a vet at once so calm yet so warmly engaged with the animals she treats, and with such a magic touch, to say nothing of the humans. We are all three besotted with her; Tom asks if she would like to come and stay with us for a few weeks. Reassurance is not so much what she does as what she is.

Of course, Molly is not quite so angelic at home with us, and Tom is still painfully anxious about treating her, but we have returned calmer and more confident about handling her. The wound is still an ugly, sore, mess, but she is remarkably brighter all the time, insisting on coming up, with only the odd bang and crash of misjudged bucket on stairs, to jump on the bed for the first time again this morning, and very pleased with herself when the cleaning routine is finished, and she gets oneof Dr Monnerie's special healthy dog treats.

We are all feeling better.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Every day???

I've been wondering for a while - well, a few days - what NaBloPoMo was. Zhoen's been talking about it, then Jean explained it (whose consistently high quality of posting is a hard act to follow). Post every day for a month. The month of November. So I'm five days in and it probably doesn't count.

I'm not sure why I'm doing this; I'm preoccupied and tired, which is perhaps why I think a bit of discipline might not be so bad. I've never tried to post every day, for various reasons. Partly because it seems too much to expect people to come and read it, and that's possibly another good reason to do it: I'm writing as a practice for myself rather than in the hopes of catching comments. Also I've a lot of photos I like but which I've never blogged because they've never fitted into a proper post, so they could have an airing.( I've always stopped short of a Flickr account, I'd never be off the computer...).

So, here goes. This is the first post!

And this is a picture of my left big toe, getting over familiar with a sea anemone. Mostly because I just posted this today on our family blog, where the subject of feet has come up, and it was all shrunk and ready to go. (The photo, not my foot).

Saturday, November 03, 2007


Amid all the concern it almost passed me by that Box Elder is one year old today.

It's original subheading was 'A good enough place to start'. It was dark blue. I explained why it was called Box Elder very briefly in the first post, and wrote about the box elder tree in question at greater length a bit later. The writing looks to me now wobbly, apologetic, little-me-ish, and rather waffling, so I suppose that must mean it's improved a bit ( don't say a word!). There weren't many pictures, partly because I was still on dial-up then, and they took ages to upload, even when I got the hang of shrinking them. I used to go off-line while writing posts to save dial-up time, and Blogger continually upbraided me with warnings for doing so. I did occasionally lose the lot when I forgot. It all seems such a long time ago.

I hardly knew any of you then, and my first comment was from another new blogger called Moe in Maryland, who hasn't blogged since last Easter, I still sometimes check on him. Then darling rr sniffed me out ( she it was got me started), and then... but the rest is history. Not very significant history, but my on-line history anyway! And I'm very grateful and filled with love and affection for all of you.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Molly update

Thanks again, so much, for all of your concern and support on this one, we are quite incredulous and very, very touched at the thoughtfulness and kindness people have shown.

The patient is in really quite good form, all things considered, and pleased to be home. The trademark cocker spaniel pathos is increased manyfold by the addition of a bandage round the ears and a bucket on the head, and she smells downright funny, but she's getting about all right. I bought some chicken legs and slow-cooked them with carrots and rice (spare me the lectures on spoiling dogs and the starving millions, it was more economical than those prissy, over-packaged little foil containers and sachets of animal food, and I haven't personally added to the global total of human mouths to feed so I claim the right to indulge my dog...), thinking she might want only soft food, then came upon Tom feeding her prawn crackers and almonds - her usual early evening nibble which she shares with him. She ate all with gusto. Then went outside for a pee, negotiating the terrace steps with only the odd collision and stumble, and seemed rather intrigued by the way the smells off the grass were funnelled up to her nose by the bucket, and quite pleased at her achievement of the normal things of life. However, this bout of exertion seemed suddenly all too much, and she set up the same distressed and plaintive wailing and sobbing she did when we first collected her. I don't think this is too much because of pain, but more remembering what a horrible time she's had, frustration about not being able to scratch, roll, move around as freely, and wanting to be in permanent physical contact with one of us at all times to make up for the aforesaid causes of distress. Tom's on cuddle duty at the moment, I did a long stint earlier, we just about were able to take enough time to eat together before giving in. I've managed a couple of rows of knitting and read about 40 pages of WG Sebald, where, with tiredness (not much sleep last night, naturally, and an early nil-by-mouth start, she couldn't have breakfast and we didn't fancy it in sympathy) and distraction, I felt as if I was moving in and out of his extraordinary changing and alternating mental, historical and geographical landscape in a most peculiar and untethered way, which is probably quite a good way to read it. This is the first chance I've had to sit down at the computer.

Unfortunately, we have to take her back tomorrow to have the drain and the dressing removed, so we could not in all conscience tell her it was all over. But we hope she'll be a bit more comfortable after that. I foresee a weekend of sedentary activity that can be accomplished with a somewhat malodorous spaniel on one's lap. It could be worse.