Monday, October 31, 2011

Reflections on the season, and all that.

A perfect All Hallows Eve, we drove up to the coast and walked, watched a surprisingly surfy sea for the Bay, little spray-topped curling waves and a collection of kite surfers enjoying them, their kites bowed over like herons' wings.  

On the way, raggedly effusive reds and pinks of lingering geraniums, petunias and roses embroidered the backdrop of gold-brown-yellow-orange leaves.  Where have the field maples been until now, how is it they only become visible in autumn?  The shimmery, sandalled verticals of the poplars are best of all though.  I know Tolkien divides people fiercely, but I hold to the middle ground, or sit on the fence if you like; I remember someone saying about Wagner that, all his sins notwithstanding, he sometimes entertained angels unawares, and that's rather how I feel about Tolkien*.  I can't look up into autumn-turning poplar woods without the word Lothlorien speaking itself to me.

We'd cried off a dinner date for this evening and have relished the relief of doing so all day.  I lit the first fire of the season - having cleared out the grate including a poor dead sparrow and the soot it had brought down with it - and soon was pulling off fleece and thick socks and experiencing delightful levels of warmth - we've turned our radiators on but are resolutely leaving the thermostat at 18˚, and so far they've barely come on, but it's started feeling slightly damp and chilly at times.  I made a stewy-soup with chicken and butter-nut pumpkin and chestnuts and dumplings in it, among other things, and we were warmer still.  And just before that there was some unaccustomed noise and commotion in the road, and peering out we saw some eerie small personages outside.  

Now trick-or-treat may be commonplace for better or worse to most of you in the Anglo world, but here it's still not widespread. Some years I make pumpkin lanterns, and soup or pie from their insides, and our elderly neighbours used to look with bafflement on them in the window and remark that it was a bit early for Christmas, and they were equally nonplussed about the pie.  Since the family next door (not Charmless, the other side) nearly broke our hearts a couple of years ago by moving away to live down the road in a big smart new house the bourg without saying goodbye, I haven't bothered putting the Jack O'Lanterns in the window, though I might put one on the hearth.  They didn't slip off  without saying goodbye ( filer à l'anglaise, as the expression goes) because they didn't like us, I'm sure, but out of a kind of shyness, a dislike of departure, not wanting to fuss, or upset the children, or something.  But we were fond of them; Sarah used to come to the downstairs window sill when she was barely high enough to look over it and repeat 'Il est où, Tom?' so that sometimes Tom used to duck out of sight to be able to get on with whatever he was doing.  We've seen them around since of course, and before they let it to the elderly lady who's there now, I asked Gwen, the mother, what they might do about the little old house which was still empty. She said that they weren't allowed to think of selling it as Sebastian, who's eleven, insists that as soon as he's old enough he's going to come back and live there, as he was so happy here.

But there on our doorstep were three wee horrors, Sebastian, Sarah and their cousin Laure, with a paper bag, big grins, wigs, hats and face paint.  We made a show of astonishment and non-recognition and Sebastian, being in charge, hastily  informed us that he was Sebastian, and this was Sarah.  No, I said, that is a small witch.  No, really, he said, it was Sarah, who opened her mouth to reveal vampire fangs, at which we squealed dutifully.  I wished I'd made the butter-nut into a lantern.

Thankful for our boiled sweet habit, I dug into the jar and dropped a handful into the paper bag.  They trooped off and Gwen, who was taxi-driving in the background, gave us a cheery wave and said that they knew they could come to us as we'd know all about it.  We waved them off and told them what a pleasure it was to see them and how beautiful they were, and really meant it.  We kept grinning about it for the rest of the evening.

* and all his angels notwithstanding, his poetry was truly awful.


Well, the first fire, Halloween, golden groves unleaving, and its the time of year for daily blogging again.  I know a lot of people are sniffy about Nablopomo as a slavish following of what others begin, an affront to their freedom of spirit, last year's model, a grotesque acronym etc, but no one has to do it, and I enjoy the push to daily practice and the opportunity to use up odds and ends, so I'm giving it a go as usual. See you tomorrow. 


(Window carving, Saffron Walden church.  Apropos of nothing much.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Windows again (looking out)

Isn't it our geometry,
the window, the simplest shape 
effortlessly drawn around
our enormous life?

The one you love is never lovelier
than when you see her 
in the frame of a window,
made nearly timeless.

All risks are done away with.  Being
stands at the heart of love,
with just this small surrounding space 
of which you are master.

(Rilke, Windows III )

It's enough that, on a balcony
or in the frame of a window
a woman hesitates ... 

                ... to be
the one we've lost
on having seen her once appear.

And if she should lift up her arms,
a delicate vase, to tie her hair:
how much our loss
gains sudden emphasis by that
and our misfortune brilliance!

(Rilke, Windows I )


(Looking out from a Costa coffee shop in Cambridge, thinking I'd been lugging the camera about but not taking many photos, so decided I'd try a bit of street photography through the windows.  Kind of thing when Jean does it it looks full of mindfulness and atmosphere and possible meaning, when I do it it just looks like mucking about pointing the camera at random, which it is.  But as Rilke keeps saying, things seen through a window...

The only person I reckon is really recognisable is my sister, drinking her coffee, so I hope this doesn't offend anyone's sensibilities on matters of privacy.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

More Windows

Window, a measure of waiting,
filled up so many times,
when a life pours out and grows
impatient for another life.

You pull apart and pull towards,
changeable as the sea,
a glass where, suddenly, our faces mirror
themselves and mix with what we see there.

A scrap of freedom compromised
by chance's presence;
taken up by something that's inside us that levels
with the superfluity of what's outside.


(Rilke, Windows IV.  My translation again.  I'll get around to appending the originals at some point.

Photos taken from London Bridge.  Not sure what the building is.)

Sunday, October 23, 2011

'Today I'm in a window mood...'


Today I'm in a window mood
where living seems only to look,
and every taste surprises me
as filling and as knowing as a book.

( Rilke, The Windows XII, my translation/version from the French, as I can't quite get on with Poulin's and there don't seem to be many others.  I've got a bloody nerve.  RMR wrote some 400 poems in French near the end of his life, after the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.)

- Photos - Saffron Walden and Cambridge.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Saffron Walden

Saffron Walden is picture postcard pretty.  So here are some picture postcard pretty pictures.

I took them really to show to Tom when I got home, but then thought I'd make a collage just to give everyone a taste of ye olde half-timbering, pargeting. warm brickwork, greensward churchyard etc.  According to my niece, who lived there for a time, it gets surprisingly rough of a Saturday night, however.

Still, a nice thing about it is the Fry Gallery (good link, if you keep returning to the home page, they background image changes every time), which is a small but beautiful space chock full of things by the likes of Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, which are so much in the cultural and visual idiom in which I grew up that even when I hadn't actually seen them before I felt like they resonated with some atavistic, DNA-based part of me.  There's a small room off to one side that contains Festival of Britain china and shelves full of illustrated books such as the Shell Guide to Britain which quite create a sensory hallucination of slipping back in time to somewhere I never quite left.

That's my sister going through the prints.

Outside was a wall covered in variegated ivy,

complete with wagging butterflies, like in Intercession in Late October.

As any fule no, or could deduce, Saffron Walden is called that because they grew saffron there once.  (But how many know that Croydon was also called after the autumn crocuses grown there for saffron, which pleased me because Charmless Dutch Bulb-growing Neighbour once pompously corrected me for referring to colchicum as autumn crocus, since, he said, they were unrelated.  Or that saffron is to be found in cookery wherever the Phoenicians went, from Persia to Cornwall.  Amazing what an upbringing immersed in Radio 4 and the Shell Guide to Britain can do for you...).

Anyway, the saffron crocus (colchicum) motif is to be found around the place in the town, from the crest with the three rather bizarrely heraldically rendered flowers in the top left of the collage,

to a rather handsome bit of woodwork, a rail and table, in the church, which is more elegantly autumn crocus-like.

Postscript: Thanks to Zephyr, who is unparalleled in matters horticultural, I must east humble pie with saffron (which wouldn't then be so humble, in view of the costliness of the spice).  Colchicum, though called autumn crocus too, is not the flower from which comes saffron, but is in fact highly toxic.  The saffron autumn crocus is a true crocus crocus sativa which looks a bit similar but has different leaves and growth habit.  In fact I think that the church carvings look rather more like colchicum, so perhaps others have been confused too.

This also means Charmless was right.  He often is, which is somehow serves to exacerbate his general annoyingness. Alas, I am not always a nice person.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Red bus lemon cupcake rose door white cats

on London bridge

a hand with coffee

in Saffron Walden

Blue (and his brother Zig)


A mighty fine trip to the UK.  While carrying the camera everywhere, I was often too busy enjoying myself to use it, and there were few paparazzi moments, but I'll post more over the next few days. 

I have new glasses, including reading glasses, which I've not had before.  I was taken to see War Horse without being told where I was going, met up with Tunbridge Wells' finest, and went to choral evensong at King's College Chapel,(yes I know I said I don't do congregations but this is a bit different) and more besides.  As I say, spoiled rotten.  

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cloisters and gift shops, and living with ambivalence.

Well, I probably shouldn't have thrown in the glib remark about atheists and believers, it's the kind of thing I regret and want to take back immediately I've said it, the kind of thing that that can lead to a widening gyre of pointless qualification and rebuttal which is everything I want nothing to do with, and as if it matters. It compromises the ambivalent tension and wonderment of my agnosticism, long held carefully in healthy and creative balance, as I see it anyway, which probably sounds intolerably pompous.  

Can you draw out leviathan with a hook? or his tongue with a cord which you let down?

There are so many I care about and respect of so many persuasions, none of whom I wish to see on any kind of defensive.  I have been so blessed and enriched in so many ways, and there are so many ways to be blessed and enriched.  Trouble is, so many people are convinced there's only one way: their own.

Howsoever, I do spend quite a bit of our time exploring religious places.  Not so many churches,  not here anyway.  English churches I still miss quite viscerally, but only when they were empty; the Tory party at prayer (still too true, in many areas) and congregations in general, always repelled more than they ever attracted. This is, of course, one of my many major stumbling blocks with exoteric religions that demand commitment to fellowship, community, gregarious people-personship and general galloping-about-doing-good, I'm well aware.  Yet, though I was unbaptised in infancy, unchurched for all my upbringing and loudly and intolerantly rejecting of the small-town, socially preoccupied, unsearching Anglicanism of my schooling in adolescence,  aesthetically, culturally and psychologically, the English mediaeval, swept out and trimmed, as well as vandalised, by the Reformation, emblazoned and overlaid and generally fannied up by the Victorians, and lovingly turned into heritage in our own time, is still a kind of home to me.

In contrast I find a lot churches here just plain grim, either decaying or overblown or both, their iconography alien and grotesque.  I know there are a couple of dozen posts here tagged with the label churches, and going deep into the folk religion hinterland fascinates me, and then there was Chartres:

But one tower was great, was it not? O Angel, it was -
even beside you.  Chartres was great 

(Rilke, Duino 7) 

But the long history of anti-clericism and separation of church and state, which by and large I support wholeheartedly in principle, has led to an uneasy and resentful unwillingness on both sides to cherish ecclesiastical buildings and art as heritage outside of their religious and political role, and also produced a series of grandiose church buildings from various times in history, from the Counter-Reformation to the 19th century and even later, which sought to reassert the church's power and win back the faithful, filled with overwrought and mawkish imagery to try to whip up their emotions, and which overreached themselves in the attempt, becoming under-used, ill-maintained and tawdry. 

One such we found was the Abbaye de Paimpont  

which is apparently esteemed by some but not by us.  Paimpont might claim to be rather Brittany's Glastonbury, with its odd mix of New Age Arthurian and Catholic revivalist pilgrims, but Glastonbury it ain't.  We stopped for an ice cream and moved on.

Our main focus on this trip, a Saturday afternoon drive into the interior, all the way over the border into Morbihan, was the Abbaye La Joie Notre Dame, a Cistercian convent where they make good chocolate. Religious communities do interest us, always have.  We had our wedding bash at Emmaus House in Bristol, the sisters there were friends of ours at the time, and when we lived in Devon we lived near Buckfast Abbey, I did quite a lot of supply teaching at the Catholic primary school there (no problem for me or the management), and we used to buy honey and other things from the shop, though not the infamous Buckfast Tonic Wine, the bane of the homeless alcoholic community in Glasgow, it seems, which has always puzzled me.  In Gloucestershire we enjoyed the bird gardens and hankered for the china they sold at Prinknash, where Tom's much loved friend and counsellor, a C of E ordained priest, lived in an adjacent bungalow. 

(Can I just say at this point, that for all this and anything else I've said, I fairly much loathe the Catholic church and everything it stands for.  I live, as I say, with ambivalence...)

La Joie was recommended to us by a very sweet lady dressed in a cotton shirt and glass beads of heavenly, belle verriere, blue, who made friends with us outside the Abbey of Timadeuc, some miles to the west, on another such trip.  Timadeuc is a Cistercian monastery, architecturally austere, where they make very excellent cheese and fruit jellies, which was recommended by our dear old friend and stonemason Jean-Paul, who on the cusp of retirement has fallen in love with a large lady who has clearly done him a power of good.  She is a magnetiseuse and guerisseuse, essentially a faith healer.  She has cured him, he said, of all the ills that a life in stonemasonry and self-employment had left him with.  When he said this, Tom posited that that may have been love that did that, and JP assented, that too.  At weekends they too make jaunts into the interior, and she likes to visit Timadeuc to buy essential oils and cds of spiritual music.  

You may see a theme emerging, along with friendship, the happy co-existence of the religious and monastic life with marketing and consumerism.  It was ever thus, I think.  Tom's son, who was for a while a very enthusiastic RC convert, said that Buckfast abbey in particular was known in those circles as Fast Buck Abbey.  There now exists a special, Europe-wide 'Monastic' label for their products, which range from incense and essential oils and toiletries through every kind of comestible, cheese, wine, sweets, grains (hence the muesli), cakes, olive oil.  They are of uniformly high quality, a little expensive, but I gain some satisfaction from the feeling, hopefully not entirely romantic and spurious, that I am buying a little outside of the system, and from people whose philosophy is to be, as far as possible connected with every stage of the means of production.  Also, less worthily, coming from a culture where part of the point of any day out was to enjoy the gift shop and the tea rooms, I tend to find large tracts of France rather lacking in such facilities.  This lack of commercialism is in some ways admirable, but I'm afraid it often leaves me with a sense that something is missing.  The monastic gift shops are rather nice places to visit, even if much of their stock is actually olive wood rosaries and books about Catholic luminaries,and other things I don't want.  Timadeuc's is especially beautiful, with polished wood rafters and lovely light, and the sisters and brothers who staff them seem to enjoy having the dispensation to chat with the customers.  In addition to the muesli and some chocolate and fruit jellies at La Joie, I also found some very pretty hand-knitted items, and bought a Breton-style stripy jumper for our friends' new grandson and a wonderfully soft aubergine-coloured scarf for I know-not-who.  I think they were being made and sold in aid of a new sister foundation in Madagascar, so let's hope they won't be displacing too many lemurs.
And by contrast with the decaying Baroque monstrosities of the older churches, there is clean, well-kept simplicity about the place.

The church was built in the 1950s, I think, by the monks of Timadeuc.

The presence everywhere of white symbolises the joy of the name ( I was amused and pleased to find white as the colour of joy confirmed by Rabelais!).

The gardens are very peaceful and lovely, with many fine trees, and pools of deep shade and bright light, including a splendid avenue of tall American oaks at the entrance.

You can't actually get to see very much of the overall site, which is extensive and includes a farm and a lake; it is after all a place of silence, work and withdrawal, and their commercialism and open welcome is within bounds.  But what you can see is worth seeing.


I'm hurrying to get this done before my sister arrives bearing curtains, and then I go back with her for a few days to the UK, where all sorts of treats are planned, so garden photos from the sunny days will probably have to wait.  I'll try to get some links into this for some of the places I've mentioned later, but now I must get on and tidy the house a bit!

Friday, October 07, 2011

More applish things for breakfast, and stranger fruit.

Oh, I am so healthy.  I don't really live on toast and marmalade and wine and garlic butter and potato gnocchi and boiled sweets (soft centred ones), I sometimes eat this puffed spelt muesli from the Abbaye La Joie Notre Dame

(I may post more on the role in my life of religious communities as retail experience at another time, except by doing so I would quite possibly lose the respect of both people of established faith and convinced atheists - excuse me is there a difference? Except I often find the former more gentle and tolerant than the latter, only of course I live in Europe... enough, parenthetically, enough.)*

With this rare-varietal, cereal-based food, which also contains coconut and is reassuringly un-crunchy, I mix diverse things, such as chopped prunes, Medjoul dates, apricots or bananas, I'm nothing if not fusion - or perhaps that should be ecumenical - in my tastes.  On this occasion I added more gift apples, this time sweet eaters from B the German Doctor (espoused to the Quiet American), with a little light muscavodo, some soya cream and, a last minute notion, a pinch of cinnamon. And very good it was too, in the blue green hand-thrown bowl which is one of my favourites.

With, of course milky coffee (Fair Trade Guatemalan at the moment, or is it Haitian?), and supplements: lots of B complex, probably so much that most of it passes through me without touching the sides, zinc, and most important of all, magnesium, which I swear by. and which also is to be found in spelt.

TMI, no doubt.  So what did you have for breakfast?  (Thereby confirming this blog's place in the division one banality stakes.)

These physalis fruit, I feel, deserve to be portrayed because they are things of quite spiritual beauty too.  Discovered and purchased on a trip to Lamballe market, along with a bunch of earthy but not woody radishes, some gorgeously corrugated big tomatoes, a small aubergine with a long stem still attached, some dried butter beans which here rejoice in the name haricots de Soissons ( though that was the council that condemned poor Peter Abelard and his book, I still think it sounds better than butter beans...) and are quite hard to find, and a net of pink Roscoff onions.  The physalis were grown by a lady selling organic stuff and she grew them herself in a polytunnel, which she said was the only way to ensure a long enough growing season.  Tom was quite surprised one could eat them at all, as he assumed I had bought them purely for their beauty, which I might have done, if they didn't taste so very good too, and if the act of unwrapping them from their papery raiments and popping them in one's mouth wasn't so exquisite.


Well, that's a pot boiler of a post for the weekend, since though I have sorted through, shrunk and exported (oh hear me, you Trojans, your Blogger allowance will burn up before your eyes if you do not heed my words and shrink and export your photos... I have seen it!) the pictures I have just downloaded from the astonishing Indian summer we have just experienced, I ran out of steam and time to do any more with them just yet, so this will have to do for the moment.  

And so to bed.  Have a good weekend.


* In fact the abbey is a beautiful, graceful and warm place, which I'd recommend anyone to look in on, except very convinced atheists, I suppose.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Fruits of memory

quelle est la force qui fait qu'elles soient rondes
ces pommes si bien en main     rien ne déborde
mais rarement il advient qu'on les cueille
impeccables dans les airs avent leur chute

( Heather Dohollau, from Le Dit de Couleurs )

'Here are your apples,' said Heather 'don't forget them.  T. picked them specially, they're not windfalls.'

They come from a tree which arches over her delightful walled garden, which isn't far from the centre of the town but where the loudest sounds are often those of seagulls in the distance from near the port or the bell of the sombre neo-classical church up the road or the occasional flutter of the collared doves in the apple tree itself.

T, her son, whisked in shortly after, and, when I thanked him, gave a quick gruff chuckle and his little-boat smile.

I've been eyeing up the apples for a little while, as to me they looked like they might be Bramleys,  Bramley cooking apples are one of the things you just don't see here, but which were a seasonal commonplace of life in Britain.  We had a tree in the garden of the house where I grew up.  It was the apple tree, tucked away at the end of the garden beyond the caravan and the bonfire, on a raised piece of ground supported by chunks of flint and Hertfordshire puddingstone, in between which there were red ants nests - we knew every one. It was next to the raspberry canes and the compost heap and just before the ageing, snaking low brick wall which gave onto East's woodyard beyond.

The tree was in fact three stems, a kind of 'w' shape, just about possible to climb when I was small, and low-hanging so that it was easy to scrape one's scalp on it carelessly, or be swiped at by our ginger cat who became a merciless jaguar when overhead on a branch.  In the spring it was thick with blossom, fragrant and  always surprising.  When my sister Az was in her teens and I was a young child she often used to draw it, and for a long time I had a small Scraperboard picture she made of a blossoming twig, but sadly I have it no longer, lost along the way.

Yet the tree was something of a disappointment to me when I was small.  Raised on story books and readers containing romantic tropes of swings hung from the boughs of apple trees, and longing to be able to pluck a sweet and rosy fruit from our own tree and bite into it, the shape and low stature of the tree were unsatisfactory, and the huge, lumpy, light green Bramleys were all wrong: 'You can't eat them raw, they're cookers!'

And being an unsophisticated, sweet-toothed, spoiled brat, born post-rationing and used to fruit sweets and milk chocolate and orange squash (though I could eat the fresh raspberries till the cows came home), the apple pies and crumbles my mother made them into were not interesting either, and seemed sour; she probably didn't quite dare use the amount of sugar required really to make them palatable to us younger ones, so we doubtless got chocolate cake instead.

As I grew older though, and began to mess about in the kitchen (to call it 'learning to cook' would be to exaggerate my efforts at the time), I did enjoy making  my own crumbles, using brown sugar and sultanas and perhaps some spices, and on warm late summer Sundays one year, I had a craze for making apple snow: whipped egg whites folded into sweetened apple purée, for which, with their even, white, rather dry flesh which softens and fluffs up on cooking, Bramleys are excellent.  It was light and refreshing and genuinely quite a sophisticated dish. I can't have made it for well over thirty years now.

The bold green satin skin of the fruit among the leaves I came to see as beautiful too. I remember hearing or reading about a restored steam locomotive which was repainted in 'its traditional, apple green livery'; and the phrase made my mouth water and pucker at once.

So I grew to appreciate the necessity and goodness of cooking apples.  Here though, there seem to be only eaters for sale or giving away (unless you count commercial Granny Smiths, which are supposed to be dual purpose, though to my mind neither fish nor fowl, so to speak, and not good for much), and out here in the countryside of course there are the various mongrel and wilding cider apples going begging in the hedgerows, small and hard and thick-skinned and full of tannins, though useful to add a bit of bite and pectin to jams and jellies and other preserves.  The tree in Heather's garden seemed to offer the first real cooking apples I'd seen since leaving England.  She is not certain that they aren't really Granny Smiths, and I haven't quite convinced myself that they are truly Bramleys, the colour and texture isn't quite right, but if they are they are Grannies then they are bigger and lumpier and of a far more interesting, tough and astringent flavour and texture than any you find in the shops.  I have just cooked a panful into purée, and they certainly soften and fluff into the very pale green-gold softness that I remember.

Perhaps it is time to rediscover apple snow.