I first fell for boats, sailing boats, when I was about 10. Before that it was horses. My yearnings were for big things, animate or otherwise, which could carry me places and give me an exhilarating ride on the way; dolphins and magic carpets also swam and floated around the borders of my imagination.
I had riding lessons, for a year or two, which were OK; I'd cheerfully get up early on Sunday, and my dad and I drove through the bright or misty or frosty edges of Ashridge forest - I still dream of those roads and woods, I think. He'd read, come and watch me ride for a bit, wander round the stables, chat with the rather posh stable owners. Thinking back, they were rather pleasant times we had together, though neither of us made much of it. He kept a bit of the countryman in his heart, and like his father, who had left the land on account of his family's poverty and his own fecklessness, since he prefered to head on down to Priddy horse fair, appraise the stock and chew the fat with the gypsies, so the story goes, than mind the sheep on Mendip, my dad liked to be around horses.
However, though the hacks through the forest on fine mornings were great, plodding round the indoor school on fed-up and stubborn ponies, their mouths hardened by the clumsy hands of learner riders, grew uninspiring. When the instructor, who was, I think, as fed up with her job as the ponies, hauled me off a bigger horse who I couldn't get to do anything, and got on him saying 'This horse is deaf to the leg, this is what you have to do...', thrashing him with her crop until he shook and stumbled, I decided that it was time for me and horsiness to go our separate ways. Yet horses still have a place in my heart, horsy people rather less so.
Then I read 'Swallows and Amazons' and most of the Arthur Ransome canon, and my inner narrative switched and coalesced into that vision of independence and escape, to an island or a further shore, propelled by the wind and one's own gumption, of sheltering and feeding oneself, of cutting loose from the adult-ordered world, while still, of course, maintaining safe links to it. I know Arthur Ransome is a terrible cliche of the English middle class childhood, that whole scathing critiques could be written about this from every psychological, sociological and historical persective, and that probably no child would even look at them now, but they were meat and drink to me then. I wanted to live them out, and I wanted to sail.
Practically this was difficult; even if such adventures had been possible in the Lake District of the 1920s they weren't in the Home Counties conurbations of the 1970s. There weren't the 'Outward Bound' opportunities for kids then that there are now, so I had little chance to get on the water. But they nourished further games and fantasies, and we did get a small inflatable dinghy (without a sail), which in summer Ruthie and I used to paddle about on a quiet stretch of the Grand Union canal, our parents steeling themselves presuambly against fears of our drowning, being poisoned by canal water (more likely than drowning) or being abducted, and in the winter we sometimes inflated it in our dining room and played 'Swallows and Amazons' around the gateleg table. My parents were quite accommodating when I come to think.
About this time, my second brother came back from a stint working in Bermuda, where he had taken up sailing. He climbed the box elder tree and slung up the rope ladder I had had for Christmas, and though, as I've remarked before, box elders are not well-designed for climbing, tree houses or other three-dimensional adjuncts to childhood fantasy, in a pair of red rope-soled shoes I'd found in a chandlers in Falmouth, I made believe I was climbing the rigging. I can still make a reasonable fist of climbing a rope ladder, though I don't often get the opportunity. He also gave me a couple of sailboat recognition books, which I loved; with the youngster's (particularly perhaps the boy's or tomboy's) fascination with typology which I was only just beginning to apply to birdbooks, I studied them until I could recognise and give chapter and verse on any dinghy or small yacht by its sail insignia, and identify any rig or mast configuration going. Most of this has left me now.
Despite living in landlocked Herefordshire, my brother bought a small blue fibreglass Moth dinghy, and sailed it on Llangorse lake in Mid-Wales. I was fairly impressed, but the Moth was purely and simply a ride, a light flat craft with a single sail for one person to scoot around the surface of the water on at speed - no room for a pudgy little sister on board - little more than a sailing surfboard, the forerunners to the as yet unknown windsurfers. It wasn't quite what I was looking for, I wanted something to travel in, not just sit on.
Well, painted wings and giants' rings ... the craze dwindled and passed, and I never really got to sail. By the time I was old enough to take up the offer of a PGL holiday I shrank from the idea of spending a fortnight in a crowd of other teenagers being energetic, preferring to stay with the familiarity of holidaying with my parents in the caravan with Scrabble and bird books and solitary exploration. The nearest I came was a few years later with my 6th form sailing club, a couple of the younger male teachers and a handful of students, pottering round a Sussex gravel pit in some old Mirror dinghies during the evening after school. Looking back though, those sessions, the laughter, the relaxed chat and friendliness, the trips in the minibus to and fro stopping at the bakers, being wet, windblown and scruffy and somewhat outside of my usual orbit - I was never sporty in any way and the other students and teachers were not people I saw much otherwise- the clunky little wooden boats and their bright red sails, and the occasional pleasure of achieving a satisfactory manoeuvre in a gust of breeze, are very good memories from a time, my later teens, which on the whole I don't look back on with much rosiness.
The stories and dreams of childhood, the books, films, games and activities that create and feed them, don't all have to be lived out and fulfilled. They don't all have to be a source of sorrow and failure and disappointent either. If we are allowed to hold to them as dreams on our own terms for as long as necessary, and not have them stripped brutally away, so we can weave and smooth and inlay them into our growing realities, they can be there for us always, revisiting and enriching our lives with surprising joy and intimacy.
Now I live in a place where I can quite easily go and meander and dream around ports and harbours, and the sturdy old-style boats, like the sturdy old-style horses, are preserved and cherished, and that's really rather fine. Since I never came to know and understand larger sailing boats from the floating, moving, in fact rather frightening, inside, seeing them in boatyards, up out of water, is like being able to wander among and look closely at awe-inspiring great creatures, tethered and docile and able to be approached, stroked and studied. They fill me with wonder, but not with any great longing.
Though I may yet take a trip across the bay in La Pauline...
The Molé menfolk were in very sparkling form when I came to give Maxime his English lesson on Saturday, their good humour was infectious.
Maxime himself had the air of a boy in love. If this is the case, the object is a lucky girl, but it may be simply that being young, comely, full of grace and hope and energy and the joys of spring, having turned 18 and been given dispensation to turn your trusting parents out of the house for the night for the occasion, voting for the first time a week later, then driving three hours into deepest Normandy to find a course in town planning for those with a philosophical bent which was epiphanically revealed as exactly what he wanted to do, is enough. At the last minute I had slipped into my bag a comprehension text of an Economist review of a book by Darrin McMahon called 'Happiness: a History', which I'd put together for adult students a while back, and which I thought would probably be too difficult for him, and he devoured it with enthusiasm, unhesitatingly translating 'happiness' as 'joie' rather than 'bonheur'. I felt the better for seeing him, and two hours in his company was a tonic.
His dad was almost as twinkly. 'I'm off to St Brieuc, to Le Légué' he said 'Maxime, feed yourself. La Pauline is on the quayside!' And off he went.
This is more innocent than it sounds. La Pauline is a renowned local beauty, to be sure, but a wooden fishing smack, from the turn of the 20th century. The original sank with her crew in the 1930s, but this is a cherished replica of her, maintained and sailed and chartered by a voluntary association, which Jean-Jacques has belonged to for a year or two now. Usually she operates out of Val Andre, up the coast, but was having a spring clean at St Brieuc. I've never seen her actually sailing, but you can see her on many a postcard and tourist image of the Brittany coast, as she's very photogenic, and there's a page of information about her, with a photo of her in full sail, here. She'd be there, he told me, until Monday, when I asked if I could take photos, though it was just the hull, no sails or anything...
We didn't make it that day when they were working on her, we took a Sunday saunter on the following. I soon recognised the boat on the other side of the river, though I was surprised how neat and upright she looked out of water.
We worked our way round. I became aware that Le Légué at that moment, a fine breezy Sunday in early spring, with people emerging and milling and boats out of water being scrubbed and scraped and repaired and repainted, with its novelty and variety of shapes and angles and textures and colours, cobalt and sky and mimosa yellows and rusty reds, was exactly where I wanted to be. Nature and its greenery are all well and good, but the itchiness of spring demands always something other than what is there around one.
I took more pictures than I can really put in one post, so I'll put them up in bursts over a few days. For starters, though, some views of the lovely Pauline, and thanks to Jean-Jacques for the spur.
... was what Tom asked when he saw I'd been photographing and posting other people's.
'I've photographed purple crocuses before' I said with a shrug.
As if, like the Athenians, and all the strangers that were there, we can spend out time in nothing else but to tell or hear of some new thing. As if spring hasn't been here before, and as if it doesn't knock us over every time. But this year more than ever, I'm certain. The crocuses are most particularly intense, I seem to see and hear of them everywhere, in the earth, in pictures, in the words and images of others.
And our purple crocuses ( I generally eschew Latin plurals, and 'croci' sounds very disagreeable) are looking rather fine, among the leaf litter and chestnut husks and shells of last year.
The hellebores don't look bad either,
and nor do the tiny daffodils, by next door's wall.
We've arrived, they all say, we said we would, what were you worrying about? The others'll be along shortly, let the party begin...
Rather in one of those states where I am doing neither what I should nor what I want. Bored with seeing nothing happening on my blog, but disinclined to apply myself to doing anything worthwhile here, though I've some photos of a scaffolded church spire, and even some gleaned and researched information to write a bit more about it. I've some knitting wool not yet ordered, a weekend away not yet booked, and sundry other things in a state of half-finishedness and non-consummation...
So perhaps rather than putting off and feeling dissatisfied, better just to take a photo here or there, and post them anyway, and stop worrying about whether they're good enough or not.
We went for a walk this morning, Molly and me.
Finally, there was a softness in the blue air, the blackbirds were singing. I know that nature has no kind intentions, to me or any other, but at times like this, it's difficult not to interpret a gentleness.
The English people who I don't know and who are hardly ever there, have nevertheless planted some early bulbs in troughs on their front wall. A pity they can't be here to enjoy them, but I can.
Spring has evidently drawn young Hugo and his sisters out into their world of garden fantasy: a makeshift table set for an odd tea-party, rocks and stones for an entree, and a fondue of pebbles and tent-pegs to follow.
Other folk are stirring, we were watched carefully.
When I set off, I had hoped the morning's mist would still be in the hollows, but on the north side of the hill, going down the road, it was already making its exit, though lingering visibly in small, discrete, mobile patches, too faint for the camera.
However, on reaching the ridge and looking south, the country for miles inland, was submerged under opaque blue. The spires and roofs and roads I'm used to seeing were invisible, and the further lines of hills, their wind turbines and grain silos, rose up out of it like headlands or islands across a bay, perspective was confounded along with my familiar sense of the landscape. I thought of the legends of cities lost beneath the sea in punishment, their church bells ringing under the waves, and our modern fears of being drowned for our sins. It was an agreeably melancholy reflection, not a fearful one; the blue ocean of mist seemed to offer a calm and gentle dissolution. But I was on top of the hill, safe in the brightness; down in the villages it must have been cold, grey and dull, hard to imagine a sunlit world above.
And while we're on the very mildly saucy (mango salsa?), these pictures came to me via my friend and student Marie-Hélène, who follows this blog and who found them in Ouest France, the newspaper of the region. She expressed the hope that my Melusina was luckier than this.
Eliza Gonzalez in New Jersey made this fine replica of the Venus de Milo in snow. She is clearly a more skilled snow sculptor than I am, if somewhat derivative in her style. However, next thing she knew a policeman was on her doorstep, requesting that Venus be either snowballed or covered up, as a neighbour had complained. So she was embellished with a sarong and bikini top. Which is amusing and charming in a way, but Ms Gonzalez made the serious point that the sculpture now looks 'more objecitified and sexualised' than before, with which I think I'm inclined to agree.
There's a short BBC article here. Ouest France was inclined to take a head-shaking chuckling attitude, confirmed doubtless in the belief that le monde anglo-saxon is yet in a state of benighted prudery and puritanism. I replied that Melusina was tucked away in the back garden, so would not scandalise anyone, but that I thought such an event was unlikely here anyway.
Thanks for those who have expressed concern about us in this storm-swept country. We have been lucky enough to have been on the edge of things. I had a disturbed night's rest on Friday, with a rain-lashed skylight and thunder, and there are certainly lakes and pools a-plenty where they aren't normally to be found. It seems the port area of St Brieuc was evacuated for fear of flooding, and not very far away in Guingamp there were serious problems.
However, the worst thing to befall us so far has been the loss of the internet for much of the weekend, which really wasn't too bad. So I found other diversions. I strained the sloe gin while listening to The Archers Omnibus on the radio, and got cross with myself for getting maudlin during Phil Archer's funeral. I blame the mother's milk with which I took The Archers in.
I also finished the slipper socks.
I always liked that sweater, with its other-side-of-sunset colours.
It was only quite a cheap one, and not very well-made, so when it went into holes I put it through the washing machine on a hot cycle so it went felty, and kept it about seven years, the prescribed time after which my mother always said one would find a use for anything, before making it into slippers, indulging at the same time my weakness for pompoms.
Molly is now equipped for wet weather. Anyone who tells you a cocker spaniel's coat is water resistant has never kept one. Molly's is more like black cotton wool, and once wet, you have a fidgetty, chilly and uncomfortable dog for hours who will do everything she can to rub off the offending moisture onto you. I resisted for a long time as I thought dog-coats were for wimps and Yorkies, but now I have given in.
I reckoned this fleece lined waterproof in French navy was suitably sober and rugged enough. The blur at the far end is a rapidly wagging tail. Paws and head still get wet, but back and sides stay drier.
She can't see a camera without barking.
Finally I've come up with some possible responses to 'What's in the Box?', over at 'Questions'. I sometimes think the stuff that comes out in these poems from me is a mite gloomy, bleak and fey, compared to the cheerful and ironic demeanor I generally try to maintain here, along with the pompoms. It has to come out somewhere, perhaps; thanks to those who stay with it.