Monday, March 30, 2009

'To justify the ways of God...', Molly, and a nicer class of amphibian.

This pile of ironing represents two books of Paradise Lost, the audiobook, read by the heavenly Anton Lesser, who I think was probably born to read Paradise Lost aloud. Lovely sister lent it to me when I was visiting.

I have written before I think, of the benefits of the heavier-weight classics of English literature to listen to when one has ironing to do. Milton may not yet have succeeded in justifying God's ways to me, or leastways not the ways of patriarchal religion in blaming it all on the woman, but he does justify spending a chilly March afternoon ironing to the rhythms of the great epic.

I often relate what's been going on to Tom in the demotic. For example, Book 5,

'So, Adam said to Raphael (sociable spirit, affable archangel, you know the one), Eve's just whipping up something tasty, no need to worry about it getting cold as there's no hot food in Eden. Do you fancy some or do you angels not eat stuff like we do?"
And Raphael said "Don't mind if I do." '

Or, Book 8,

'Then Adam asked, "What about the stars, I've heard there's this bloke Galileo, and it makes you wonder... " but Raphael quickly cuts in with "That's on a need-to-know basis. You don't need to know." '

Occasionally, after a lengthy period of immersion, the process starts working in reverse, and I find myself talking about everyday matters in Miltonian blank verse. So when Tom says 'I hope my car's OK where I parked it.' I reply along the lines of

'Thus questioned Thomas, trembling lest
Some arch fiend or malignant spirit should
His argent chariot scrape or otherwise impair...'

But this is unusual.


Dear Michelle asked after Molly. She had a checkup the other day, since it's a month since she came off the injections. Her regular vet says there's no sensitivity around the ear, and she seems well. She certainly is lively and full of the joys of spring, as, oh so tentatively, are we. This isn't an especially good photo, as she's barking and it's a bit dark. She saw me photographing the ironing (above) and started jumping around in front of me and barking, as she does when she sees me wielding the camera indoors, presumably thinking she should be the centre of attention. She's looking somewhat scruffy and her ears are still lopsided from the op, but I've made an appointment at the poodle parlour to get her tidied and evened up a bit at the end of next month.

Like Eve, I've had my own visitation from a scaly slithery creature. This one is really rather a beauty, and is also perhaps redeeming the image of amphibious life forms in our back yard, following the nasty business with the toads. It's a European Fire Salamander, and quite the largest living one I've ever seen - they are slow moving and frequently come to grief on the roads, which, along with water pollution, accounts for the demise in their numbers in recent times. Our neighbour said when they were children they saw them all the time. The bricks it's standing on are 10 cm square, so you see it was quite large, it's tail being easily as long as its body.
This one was motionless on our back terrace late one night when I let Molly out. She practically trod on it, and it didn't move, nor did it when I took the flash photo. I closed the door and curtain but peeked out at it ten minutes later and it was still frozen in this attitude. A handsome beast indeed.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Narcissus buds, and making the most of roleplay in the ELT classroom.

After some rather disappointing and frustrating efforts with the Inktense pencils, when I wondered if my competence was up to the medium, I'm quite pleased with this one. They really are more like painting than drawing, with the concommitent relative difficulty in controlling the result, and the unpredictable brightness and and intensity of colour and consequent risk of heavy-handedness are still a little unnerving. I still wish I could be more subtle and delicate and understated in drawing and painting, and indeed photography, and cooking, and probably everything I do, but there we are.

I was also quite pleased because I didn't use any photos for the picture, but sat down with a cup of tea after an afternoon's grass-cutting (I initially typed 'lawn mowing' there, but that is rather to glamourise the activity and our grass...) and drew the plants quite quickly. I find the buds of these late narcissus very attractive, with a touch of allium shapeliness about them.

I never draw or paint anything larger than A4, in order to be able to scan it.


Something rather good has happened with my students. We suddenly find they are capable of roleplays in class. Roleplay in language teaching can be dismal, if it isn't pitched right, if the right language isn't provided and drilled first, if the subject is unclear or inappropriate, or if the students simply lack the confidence or the desire or don't understand what they're supposed to be doing and why. So we haven't done a great deal before, but they must be making some progress as they are doing it and enjoying it now. And I enjoy it too, as it feels less like I'm having to pull them along all the time, and it's really quite entertaining sometimes to see what they come up with.

I find if I prowl around listening to try to help them while they are preparing, they become inhibited, or get distracted, so I tend to place my chair in the middle of the horseshoe of tables, and listen, and chip in occasionally when it sounds like they need it. It helps too if it looks like I'm purposefully occupied, rather than watching them or gazing into space. So I began jotting. It's a nice way of reclaiming a little bit of space and time for myself while working, and at the same time being engaged with people round me. Here are some results. I tidied them up and completed them a bit afterwards.


Head down listening
laughter in two languages
my eyes here, ears there.

Restaurant roleplay

Somewhere in the main course the appetite falters.
It's too late to ask for a clean fork,
and the table by the window proves to be draughty.
You wonder what the bill will be, and get ready to leave,
feeling that you could have chosen better, though
the starter and the sticky toffee pudding weren't too bad.


Outside, a tailless magpie flies
into a St Andrew's cross
of faded jet trails,
and the plane tree buds
chase on the tails
of last year's pompoms.


Raymonde wears beads
of cranberry resin,
and a scarf striped like a bee.
The antsy child spills out
from the busy, urbane woman
of a certain age. Beneath
the peppered-and-salted centre parting,
the odd black bob,
the mischief is infectious.

(Raymonde drove me mad for several years, then I realised how fond I was of her.)

A few more minutes

A few more minutes, another sip of juice,
striped socks with ballerina laces,
and Sunday will be a grasse matinée.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A chocolate sardine for Setu, dinner for two, some spring things, and a haiku.

The mysterious and very clever Setu, over in Finistere, whose lovely blog is in French and English and who seems to have equal facility in Breton and German and Spanish too, and to know about all kinds of things, very kindly came up with the word 'engoulants' for the crocodiles which swallow the beams in the last post. There doesn't appear to be an English translation, the nearest being the heraldic adjective 'engouled' which means 'being half-swallowed by'. So probably it's like grisaille, one uses the French term.

Setu also had a short funny post featuring a sardine motif, and another very poignant one about the Algerian war of 1962, which together put me in mind of 'L'equipier', a film I like very much.

So by way of thanks, because a new word learned is like chocolate in the mouth, here is a chocolate sardine! Or rather the wrapper from one. I always fancy these when I travel in Finistere (I daresay I could get them more locally but haven't looked), but have never treated myself to a tin. I mentioned this to lovely sister once and she sent me some for Christmas - Breton chocolate sardines from Essex, sardines to Brittany!

I photographed them before I ate them, but unfortunately lost the photo. But I had smoothed out the foil from one and pinned it on the board, so this I scanned. This was something my father always liked to do with Easter egg wrappers; I remember him patiently smoothing out the colourful metallic foil, and trying to copy him and getting frustrated when the material ripped and flaked.


A tête-a-tête over the duckweed.


Yellow forsythia
with floss pink flowering cherry.
Only Spring would dare.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Angels on the architecture, St Gal's church, Langast.

This was supposed to be 'A Painted Church for Winter', a counterpart to the 'Painted church for Summer' post of a year or so ago, about Morieux. For while the church at Morieux, out by the coast, its doors open to the west and the sea air, is all sunny gold and pink ochre, and the characters in its frescos seem to smile and grin with irrepressible aestival jollity, St Gal's at Langast is more pensive, austere, twilighty, and better suited to the paler, colder light of winter passing through its monochrome, grisaille windows.

And, as one looks and travels outward to the sea coasts and the playful places in summer, so one turns inward in winter; likewise Langast lies inland, in a quiet, interior landscape.

However, I had already left visiting the place for a couple of winters, and by the time I did, last Sunday, spring was already upon us. But no matter; the woods that lined the road there were still bare and silvery, with just a flicker of new green from strands of honeysuckle starting to leaf. The light is still low, and this clear, spare Lenten time is also a good moment.

The church does not look remarkable from outside, and, indeed, until the early eighties, no one thought it was. Like its bell tower, and most of the visible outer structure, and its very fine stained glass window, the oldest and best preserved in the region, it was assumed to be 16th century, old but not especially so for round here.

Many years ago, in my bookselling days, a friend and colleague showed me a picture in a Thames and Hudson catalogue of a beautiful yellow ceramic cat with black spots. It could have been ancient Egyptian, or from a 20th century craft pottery. 'How old is it?' I asked. He laughed, 'Why do people always ask that?'

Why indeed? Why does it give us a special thrill to learn that an artefact we might see and touch, that pleases and appeals to us, is exceptionally old, from a time we can't easily fathom, or imagine the people who made it? Or that sometimes the very old seems more contemporary and accessible in its aesthetic than something of just a century or two?

In 1982, the church was in need of serious structural renovation to stabilise it. Even restored and shored up, the interior structure has a swaying, slightly drunken look - this isn't just the effect of the camera.

While they were scraping off plaster, they found this herringbone stonework (below), and older, higher windows filled in, which were the clue to its greater age. It is reckoned now to date from about the 8th century, and to be perhaps the third oldest church building in France.

Investigating further, they discovered the frescoes. The church was closed for 12 years while the restorations took place.

In preparation for visiting Chartres cathedral in May this year, I have been reading Philip Ball's marvellous recent book 'Universe of Stone - Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Mediaeval Mind'. He stresses that it is not enough to appreciate the beauty of mediaeval church art and architecture from the point of view of a modern aesthetic, without understanding the minds, the world and the culture from which they came (and he gives an excellent synopsis of this, one of the best and most accessible to a non-specialist I've come across). This especially applies perhaps to the Gothic and the 12th century Renaissance from which it came. You might be better allowed to attribute wild and exuberant flights of imagination, a sheer sensual joy in decorative flourish, the kind of thing St Bernard of Clairvaux detested, to the less enlightened and ordered, more chaotic Romanesque and early mediaeval period. The transcendant meaning in pre-Gothic religious art is applied, not integral to the whole structure; the angels are on the architecture, not in it.

And it is difficult not to ascribe a sense of fun, of aesthetic pleasure for its own sake, in creating the shapes and patterns of the Langast frescoes. Yet there is a significant order and meaning in them.

The delightful rinceaux, the swirls and curlicues and foliate patterns which decorate the arches nearest the back of the church, represent the natural world, the lowest order in the divine hierarchy.

In the next set of arches, come old testament figures, this unidentified prophet or priest,

and Melchisedech. Oddly I remember him form a reggae song from my youth, the high priest of Salam, a mysterious personage who paid homage and tithes to Abraham and who was possibly not born of man and woman but was some immortal priest figure. His significance here can only be guessed at.

And from there on down the church toward the altar, angels.

And how old are they? We inevitably ask. There is a great wish to believe they date from the 8th century too, and it was for a while assumed they did, but more recent research indicates they can be no older than the 10th, though the signposts and guides still refer to them as older. Nevertheless, that makes them more than a thousand years old, which is impressive, even for immortal beings. I remember, many years ago looking into similar faces, in an ancient tiny chapel among olive groves in the Mani Peninsular on the Pelopponese, where an old crate in the corner proved to be a makeshift ossuary. Those paintings, of Byzantine saints, had a date inscribed 0f 991, almost exactly a thousand years before I stood there. (It's only lately that I've come to realise that that date cannot have been authentic, they would not have been using Arabic numerals then. Nevertheless, the paintings and the chapel were considered to date from that time.) But the Pelopponese Byzantine saints' faces were more pitiless and alien than these.

They all maintain the same position: a book held to the chest in the left hand, and the right hand raised, palm forward, in a gesture of ... what? Blessing, or interdiction?

All that is, save the Archangel Michael, who is on the pillar opposite Melchisedech, and with him, the only character to have his name written beside him, or at least still extant. In his draperies he is carrying a little human figure, a soul being taken to heaven, to all appearances like a child enjoying being swung and carried by a loving adult.

This depiction of Michael, the fighter, the guardian of high places, defeater and crusher of Satan, as the gentle psychopomp is a rare one, only known in two other places, once in England and once in Ireland. It is seen as confirmation of the early, Celtic origins of the church and its foundations.

Which brings us on to the matter of its patron saint. St Gal is the same St Gall of the monastery which bears his name in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Constance, which played such an important role in the preservation of learning and of manuscripts in the dark ages, which, whatever the sanguine revisionists try to make out, really were often fairly dark, save for the redeeming influences of the Irish and the Islamic world. An Irishman, in the 6th to 7th centuries St Gall travelled with St Colomban to the continent of Europe to spread learning and found religious houses. Many and doubtful are the legends about him, but the local story goes that when they fell out with a certain Queen Brunhild, she put the monks in a boat and sent them home to Ireland by way of the Loire. However, St Gall and his company sneakily disembarked in the vicinity of Nantes, and spent a short hermitic sojourn in Brittany. There is a small chapel somewhere in the countryside in the neighbourhood which is said to be on the site of his original hermitage, but I've yet to explore that.

So he is another of those elusive, protean Celtic saints who haunt these regions. While there is little basis to the story of St Gall's Breton digression, like the Swiss monastery, this place was founded barely 100 years after he died, so the connection is not impossible. Unless, of course, 'Gall' simply referred to another saint or missionary of Gallic origin, and the derivation is a false one...

Yet, as we keep finding, the need to affirm ancientness, originality, authenticity, a sense of reaching back to the source of things, is important. And to a tiny and otherwise featureless commune , in perhaps the least known and visited part of the westernmost region of France, the idea that, in time out of mind, a saint of true Celtic pedigree and legendary renown made his home here, and then stonemasons and artists came to create a special church and fill it with angels, is a matter of great pride.

The timberwork of the side aisles is later, but also interesting. More angels, 16th century cherubic ones this time, and a lively bestiary of carved creatures,

including these intriguing crocodile/dragons (below), who have horizontal beams springing from their mouths. I have seen these as a feature of the woodwork in churches and other old buildings throughout Britanny, but don't recall seeing them elsewhere, and I have yet to learn the correct name for such an architectural embellishment - an end, like a capital, only for a horizontal beam.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in spring, there wasn't another visitor in or near the place. After my visit, Molly and I went a little further on to walk by the plan d'eau in Plessala, a charmingly landscaped artificial lake, complete with an unusually well-equipped children's playground, mini-golf, boules and tennis courts and exercise circuit, which, again, we more or less had to ourselves, though by the time we left, just before 4 o'clock, a few sedate and probably well-lunched families with children and older couples with dogs were coming out of the woodwork.

Treasures are well hidden round here. I love it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

" the engendering of toads"

Sometimes I think I get a bit too Hello-clouds-hello-sky-robins-and-roses about nature, especially at this time of year. The perfect antidote to this is toad-spawning time. I seem to remember I did quite a sweet little poem and picture about this a while back, but frankly, it's fairly vile. Someone on a blog somewhere expressed this kind of thing as 'miserable ecstasy', which describes pretty well the toads' approach to the matter. The couple above look quite happy, but it gets worse.

I could cope with the multiple partners, it's the necrophilia that turns me up. One gets the impression that the big old females use most of their remaining energy just getting to the pond, and the final spasm of mating and spawning finishes them off. The males don't seem to notice.

I can't believe I'm posting this. And this is supposed to be a pretty blog. Lovely toad-phobic sister will probably never read again.

The title quote is from 'Troilus and Cressida'. "I do hate a proud man, as I hate the engendering of toads" says Ajax, the proud and stupid bully. Evidently the spectacle had made an impression on Shakespeare at some point. For some reason the line stayed in my mind. I set out to read my way through the canon in my 17th year, and did fairly well, though I stalled when I got to 'Titus Andronicus', speaking of gross-out experiences. Ned Sherrin, I think, told an anecdote about going to an inevitably unsparing performance of that play at Stratford, and overhearing a husband saying to his wife on the way out 'Now all we need is to find the dog's been sick in the car.'

Anyway, I promise to post something tasteful very soon.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Found when spring cleaning.

Spring cleaning is such an animal impulse. We shove out the old winter's bedding and droppings from our holes, start to rebuild and refurbish.

Let's get that skirting board job done at last! cries my mate, and before I know it, he's doing it. We pull out the shelves, and I'm turfing out the drawers and box files. How much room we will make! But soon it is apparent that creating space by tidying is like the thrifty measures of cost-cutting that those who seek to govern us promise will finance all manner of wonderful new things elsewhere; there comes a point when it can only be achieved by painful ruthlessness, and is that what we really want? And I find myself shoving things back into holes rather than make the decision to throw them out. and that's usually the point when I say 'Bother spring cleaning!' and go off to mess about in boats.

And it's doubtless what has happened in previous years to these couple of items. This is a scan of an amazing capture Tom made with the old Canon film SLR we used to have, when we had an old rope washing line outside the back door, and the swallows used it as a stopping off point.


Do you remember the days before the internet, when the office or staff room photocopier served to circulate things considered edifying or entertaining? Do I remember the days when I frequented an office or staff room? Only just. This one I've kept around as it makes me chuckle every spring, so I'll give it a new lease of on-line life.

Training courses

New courses are available to heighten the need for human resources development appropriate to the challenges needed for the 21st century.


S110 - Creative Suffering
S111 - Overcoming Peace of Mind.
S112 - Ego Gratification through Violence.
S113 - Whine Your Way to Alienation.
S114 - Guilt without Sex
S115 - Feigning Knowledge - a career advancement strategy
S116 - Keeping Facts out of your Management Structure.
S117 - Carrying a Piece of Paper whilst Walking Briskly.
S118 - Effective Stupidity.
S119 - Discovering Clockwatching
S120 - How to Appear Interested
S121 - The Art of Problem Making


BC10 - Money Can Make You Rich
BC11 - Packaging, Marketing and Selling your Child
BC12 - How to Profit from your Own Body
BC13 - The Under-achiever's Guide to Very Small Business Opportunities.
BC14 - Tattooing your Colleagues as an Income Supplement.
BC15 - Credit Purchasing with your Kidney Donor Card
BC16 - Stressed for Success
BC17 - Indecision - Which Way Now?


FH10 - The Joys of Hypochondria
FH11 - High Fibre Sex
FH12 - Skate your Way to Regularity
FH13 - The Repair and Maintenance of your Virginity
FH14 - Optional Bodily Functions
FH15 - Baked Beans and the Contortionist
FH16 - Standing up to Haemorrhoids
FH17 - Preventative Self-abuse
FH18 - Nasal Hair in the 21st century


CR10 - Bonsai your Pet
CR11 - Needlecraft for Junkies
CR12 - Drawing Genitalia in Soft Pastel Shades (Spring term only)
CR13 - Orchestrated Flatulence Appreciation
CR14 - Making Others Panic
CR15 - Enhancing Others' Reputations
CR16 - Introduction to Backstabbing
CR17 - Recycling Bodily Waste


HE10 - Cultivating viruses in the Home Refrigerator
HE11 - Sinus Drainage in the Open Plan Office
HE12 - Khmer Rouge cookery for Beginners
HE13 - Advanced Dandruff Sculpture
HE14 - Interesting Bathroom Fungi
HE15 - Indentifying Toilet Smells.
Ok, some of them were pretty tastelss or oherwise not very funny, but it's a quick and easy blog post, and that's two sheets of A4 that can go for recycling and their contents saved for posterity, which will make room for some other treasure.
Off to find some fresh bracken for the lair now...

Monday, March 09, 2009

Eleven lines of terza rima, with subsequent illustrations.

Twelve lines of terza rima, Joe suggested. Turns out you should really do fourteen, if you do the finishing couplet, which I think you should. Think Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind', easier than Dante. However, I didn't really like it with fourteen (four lots of three and the couplet), so I scrubbed that and collapsed the last five lines into the final two.

Form is, can be, liberating in its constraints. This may not be ready, I should perhaps have worked on it longer, but I feel inclined to jump in anyway, kick start myself into poetry again. This morning was something springlike, and I felt moved to walk the camera in the garden (except the fritillary, which is on the windowsill and came as a gift from A. who came to lunch yesterday. Roast chicken and potatoes, glazed carrots, stuffing, cherry sherry trifle, all a Sunday lunch should be...). I've put pics and poem together, whether appropriately or not I don't know.


Leaves and earth, chocolate and iodine brown,
decay and comfort, dullness, depth and sorrow,
longing for life, but draws the spirit down.

"I'll grab and grasp, beg or steal or borrow
just let me live!" She asks
too much, or nothing, waits for a green tomorrow.

With webs of mingled threads she masks
the worm-wrought woodwork, powdering stone
pours rotting matter's liquor into dusty flasks,

fingering the last left relics, shell and bone,
and numb and shameless, knows she'll be alone.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Odd corners at the Opera House.

Of quite recent years I've acquired a charming nephew-in-law who has a gift with anything sparkly. This talent being recognised, he has recently come into the job of his dreams at the Royal Opera House in London, in the lighting department. He very kindly gave us a tour. I'd never been there before, and I was astonished how big it was, and how much he knew about it, after really quite a short time of working there.

He took us from top

to bottom.

We saw the Flying Dutchman's ship being built, and a great room full of young dancers, long-eyed boys like fauns and slender girls like wood-nymphs, and much more besides.

We saw the stage being prepared for that evening's performance. Something about watching, from above as an outsider, the stagehands going about their purpose in pools of light,

while the decontextualised translated surtitles for the opera hung in the dark above them, was unsettlingly, mysteriously beautiful.

But the very vastness of the place meant that I could only really capture corners,

and glimpses.

In fact, we weren't really supposed to be using cameras at all. And almost certainly not in one particular corner.

There was some concern that Kiwi Nephew and his younger auntie (moi) came out of the Queen's private toilet carrying cameras and giggling. We were indeed tempted, but refrained from writing something rude on the wall to greet her when she next came, but the documentary photo opportunity was too good to pass up, we thought.

In fact, any such gesture would have been wasted, since it's said she's only ever been to the Opera House twice in her reign. This may be because she is actually jealous because the Bedford family's private loo is better than hers, as may be seen below. The Bedfords own the land on which the place is built, and thus get free admission, the jammy buggers, a privilege which apparently they rarely take up either. Even though their toilet is fantastically cool.

All in all, it was a marvellous outing, for which I heartily thank my Sparkly Nephew-in-law! (who, I think, has earned his own epithet on this blog, a fairly rare thing...)
This is my final post about my UK trip. Now I will turn my face towards the spring which must surely be just around the corner, and look forward.