Thursday, March 29, 2012

Chatting to my blog

That's what I should do more of, in the way that I used to write letters of old, rather than aspiring and failing to say or show anything original or self-consciously beautiful or structured or important.  In fact the blogs I read that continue and continue to be enjoyable are possibly, I think, by the people who are least concerned with any sense of their own importance, and just do it anyway, without it claiming too much of their own or other people's time and energy.  The tendency of my memory to go into holes troubles me somewhat, here as elsewhere ; I often do think of or see things which I think would be worth putting on here, but by the time I come to sit down with the computer, they have completely evaporated.  Carry a notebook, of course, and remember to the use it.  I don't how people manage to tweet all the time; I suppose they carry mobile devices, and remember to use them.  I lurk on Twitter enough to know that much of what people say there is drivel, but sometimes it's not, but witty and creative.  


Sunday afternoon and I took myself off to Viscomica's place to see puppets, with Iso and Princeling.  We had understand it was a Guignol show, the seeing of which is one of those things in my bucket list (being very backward, I've only recently learned of this expression, though I've had one for a long time), not an important thing it's true, but one of those easily accomplished things. It turned out to be Polichinelle, a French version of Pulcinella, and a kind of  forerunner of both Guignol and Punch and Judy.  The puppets were beautifully made but there weren't many of them, the story was insubstantial, too long for children and too simple and repetitive for adults, and too samey for both, and everyone grew bored before the very charming, faun-like young man whose show it was even embarked on his lecture on the history and etymology of the genre.

But it didn't matter, because the main thing was it was one of those glorious early spring days that take you by surprise, every time, when the low warm sun makes everything flat and pearly, and we sat outside on the grass before and after, and with the change in the hour - not a thing I usually feel very merry about - we did so until quite late in the day.  Last time I saw Princeling and his mum back in the winter he was having a bad day and I was grumpy and critical and interfering, and the memory of it was sour, but he raced round and beat on the car door as I pulled in, hugged me cheerfully, and then there was a small troupe of sturdy, friendly children for him to play with, and best of all a fabulous big old gentle dog, who should have been Nana in Peter Pan and who could catch and manoeuvre a large squashy football between its paws time and again, never letting it roll towards the drive where the cars were occasionally passing.  Sun and spring worked into us and loosened up the stiff places, the boy rolled around and got covered in grass cuttings so he looked like a green shaggy monster, there was a bar with beer and apple juice,and we relaxed and enjoyed each other's company.  We'll get to see Guignol another time.


Another thing, which hardly quite constitutes a placing on the to-do-before-I-die list but which I've been meaning to try for a while,

violet syrup. I was wondering in fact about the alcoholic version, crème de violette, which you come across occasionally, offered as an alternative to crème de cassis in kir and suchlike.  Flower flavours - elderflower, rose, limeflower, orange blossom etc always intrigue me, and the colour of this stuff was especially beguiling, but I have an abiding memory of buying Parma violet sweets as a child, expecting them to be like sherbet or  Refreshers, and being disgusted with them as tasting like soap or talcum powder.  So I thought before shelling out on the boozy stuff I'd try the cheaper non-alcoholic syrup first.  The colour is weird, and does look a little like methylated spirits, but is very appealing all the same, so unusual and delicate.  The flavour? Hmm, still a bit scenty, and improved by the acidity of a slice of lemon, which also adds a wacky bit of lurid complementery colour.  It is rather nice, and goes oddly well with sheep's milk cheese and winter's sweet pickled figs.


The beeswax candle in the glass candle jar goes into meltdown.  'Quick, before it goes out!' says Tom.


Nuccio's Pearl.  This camellia, only planted last year, is flowering quite late, but that's all right.


I saw the first swallow a week or so ago, crossing the field below the house.  I waved to it but saw no more.

Today, sitting out in the warm sun, my hands rough and scratched from dry soil and weeding, I heard a 'kee-wik, kee-wik' overhead, and for a moment I barely noticed it, the combination of summer sensations seemed so normal.  Then I remembered there were no leaves on the trees yet, and it the only flowers were daffodils and hellebores and the brick-red wallflowers,  for the sake of whose spicy perfume, as much as the sunshine, I've been snatching all the time I can to sit outside.

Now the swallows, are clearly back in earnest.  The one above was singing on the old TV ariel, and preening his magnificent tail forks, which have seen him all the way from Africa.  


In the same spot, in the pitted and uneven soil where the old grease trap used to be, a number of wild bees are nesting, and taking advantage of the wallflowers.  A huge black-and-white-and-orange-jerseyed bumble bee, its legs clad with heavy pollen sacs, buzzes in to its home.  It seems to have trouble sometimes finding the entrance, but once it has disappeared underground it is often there for a long time.  Its food-collecting absences are also lengthy.  Though I am sitting very close to the nest sites the bees show no concern or aggression.  Other bees in the same spot are a small amber orange bumble-type bee, and another like a large honey bee, liberally dusted with bright golden yellow, whether pollen or its own colouring I'm not sure.  If you see a two types of bee going into the same hole one after another, there's a strong possibility they're klepto-parasites.


Planted the window boxes with orange ranunculus, white double daisies and pansies like big blue ink blots. 

Peas are putting their heads up above ground, the herbs - mint and marjoram, lovage, sweet cicely, chives and fennel - are throwing shoots lustily.  Odds and ends in the cold frame, but I am always slack about writing labels, and now I can't tell my nasturtiums from my sunflowers, as I can't always tell my marmalade from my chutney.  Ah well, the proof of the pudding...


Enjoying EM Forster out-of-copyright (mostly) on the Kindle.

We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it's no good moving from place to place to save things, because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won't do harm - yes, choose a place where you won't do very much harm, and stand in it for all you're worth, facing the sunshine.

(A Room with a View)


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Slipper limpet, oyster and worms, with a hidden shard of mussel shell.

No, not a recipe from the Noma cookbook, but more squiggly things brought back from the beach;

Not picking up seashells from the beach is like not eating peanuts when they're put in front of you with a drink, you tell yourself you won't, but you always do. Though I think seashells are nicer than peanuts.

Though I didn't exactly pick the slipper limpet up because it was nice, but because it was stand-out weird.  In fact Rouchswalwe supplied a good alternative title for this post in the comments to the last one, a Mary Barnard Sappho translation:

If you are squeamish
don't prod the beach rubble. 

The shell had evidently been colonised by perhaps more than one kind of worm and/or parasitic sponge, either during or after its occupant had lived in it, and was perforated and sculpted by excrescences almost beyond recognition.  The fragment of mussel shell was originally secreted inside it.

Slipper limpets are rather nasty and not at all personable things anyway.  They are an invasive alien species that came to Europe on ships hulls in the last century; they are unattractively coloured and shaped and form rather grotesque masses by piling up on top of each other, and they steal food from oysters and other shellfish.  They are also know as fornicating slipper shells, presumably not to their friends.  There's another good link here which tells the sorry tale of the oyster and the slipper limpet.  (It's quite interesting to try to say 'slipper limpet' over and over very quickly).

I am aware that the above on the character of these gastropod molluscs is lamentably subjective and unscientific, but that's me.  However, I do have curiosity about the natural world, to satisfy which my first port of call is always the set of hand guides to which this volume belongs.

They are delightful little books on all kinds of  nature-related subjects, this one and the one on butterflies and moths being amongst my most used. Tom bought them for next to nothing in a remainder bookshop about twenty years ago, before I knew him and a very long time before the internet; they are long out of print and were perhaps designed with school libraries in mind, but the painted illustrations, which show whole scenes and habitats, which you can look at for ages, often revealing minute and whimsical details.  In the one on wild animals (taxonomically sloppy, including as it does mammals, amphibians and reptiles but not birds, fish, insects etc which are in separate volumes) for example, there is a scene of a river bank where otters and mink are playing and in the distant background, behind a dead tree, a tiny naturalist with binoculars, perhaps two millimetres tall, is watching them.

It's just one aspect of what I think I really like about them, which is the presence of affect, a personal touch, and a sense of wonder. The text is clearly accurate, carefully condensed and written by someone who knows their stuff, but also loves their stuff.

For example in Saltmarsh: Middle Level, Turf

... the sea-pink is the same beautiful plant as lives on the cliffs.  All the middle level of the saltmarsh is coloured by it in May and June, followed by sea lavender, blue-purple in high summer.  These hazes of colour, picked out by the other flowers, embody the essence of the word 'saltings'.

Scurvy grass is a close relation to watercress, and not a grass at all.  Rich in vitamin C it was used to combat scurvy long before becoming an essential medicine on those sailing voyages from the 16th century onwards.  The taste is revolting.  Crews must have cheered when lime juice replaced it.  

This is the page on Rocky Shore: builders and borers in the Sea Coast volume. 

Nobody knows how 'serpulid' worms extract molecules of calcium carbonate from seawater and then pass them from glands behind the worms head to be moulded by the worm's collar with mucous into rock-hard tubes, each species with its own shape.  Building is mainly in summer.  Externally the tubes are variously cemented to the rock.  Internally there is no organic union between the body and the tube.

It seems a little sad to me that the work of such evidently gifted and skilled writers, naturalists and artists should be languishing in the pages of relatively humble and forgotten books; I hope they enjoyed themselves anyway, and felt sufficiently appreciated at the time. The information on individual species is necessarily limited by space, but I always prefer to go to a book first if I can, then follow its lead to more information on the internet, so I shall probably try to find out more about the bizarre aliens that made my sculpted shell.

But, as the writer advises in the notes at the back of the book on Things to do', along with such solid advice as have a hardback notebook (nobody can write in a floppy one), 

Nothing replaces seeing for oneself... recognise at once the insidious illusion that understanding can spring from just reading books and watching television... Never mind science for a moment, let the beauty sink in...'

Along with the slipper limpet, I also brought back a whole but empty oyster shell.  It is not a native but a Portuguese oyster, (by the look of it from the book), a species introduced to strengthen the indigenous stocks which were, I think, affected with disease and the encroachments of invasive creatures like the slipper limpets.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A walk on the beach and a Molly maquette

Prompted by this and that around the place, I have almost got around to posting those blog posts I have been meaning to post for almost the whole five-and-a-bit years I have been blogging: about not having children, and about the double-sided Hohner harmonica I inherited from my Bachelor Uncle Jack-the-Only-Musical-Member-of-My-Family (I even took the photos for that one about five years ago).

Almost but not quite, and I wonder if really the urge to talk about, and the conviction of the importance of, these subjects, and others, are no more; if I were going to write about them and post it I'd have done it by now.  There's perhaps too much and too little to be said, and do my reflections and reminiscences, uncooked and unremarkable, really matter?  Perhaps, like Margaret in Howards End (I love my Kindle and all the free out-of-copyright books I am finally reading on it, but I must give a donation to Project Gutenberg...), I am 'passing from words to things'.  Though I rather doubt it. 

So, I went for a walk on the beach with my dear ones instead.

We looked at and across and through the water,

and saw a lot of squiggly things.

It did the heart good.  We have to keep Mol on the extending lead most places these days, because she becomes rather worried if we don't, and comes and asks for it, especially in wide open spaces, where she's always been a little uneasy and agoraphobic.  She doesn't see or hear very well, which makes smelling things even more absorbing and distracting, so she loses us rather easily, and tends to run back towards the car in a panic.  I tend to think of it as being like the invisible link between people and their daemons in the Philip Pullman books, or like a heartstring.


And I made a Molly maquette.  I used black paper to save time colouring it, and just scribbled on it a bit with coloured pencils.  I didn't want them all to be straight profiles, so tried for a kind of three-quarters view.  It won't, I then realised, work for the Three Musicians, as they all have to be facing the same way to stand one on top of each other's backs to look through the farmhouse window, and anyway, the dog in the story is an old working hound or farm dog cast out by his owners, as all the animals are - except the cockerel, whose fate was to be cooked and eaten - so Mol doesn't quite fit the bill for that, but I kept a pattern as a template which I can easily adjust and reverse.  It was small enough to scan. 


That'll suffice for now, there are pansies to plant and grass to cut and teenagers to coach.  I've a lovely new one of these, a 17 year old girl (I think I quite like 17 as an age, at least in others, I don't know if I cared for it when I was 17...) who towers over me with black hair and bright brown eyes who is overflowing with fun and a desire to communicate but desperately short of language to do so, and whose English teacher never invites her to speak.  The pansies are blue and yellow.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


... on a March morning,

on a yellow teapot,

on a red wall,

on black fur,

from Jupiter and Venus (father and daughter, rarely seen out together).

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Thanks so much for all the kind comments on the last post, it really does help.

Now though I'll move on to something more cheerful, as, by and large, cheerful is what we are. I've been maquetting.  This is in response for a 'call for maquettes' at Clive Hicks-Jenkins Artlog.  Clive inspires.  He inspires creative activity, but above all, he inspires enormous amounts of love, affection and admiration from many, many people (to say nothing of other creatures).  There's really too much to say about the wonderful things that can be seen at the Artlog, which is just one window on to a life which simply overflows with the making and doing of beautiful things, which, marvels further abounding, he finds time to post about the process of much of it, using high quality, high res photos and lovely bright, clear descriptions, the energy and generosity of which never ceases to amaze. I can't urge visiting too strongly, it's a glowing, joyous place.

Clive makes maquettes, paper models, usually jointed with those paper fastener things that look like little nails which you push through the paper then divide and bend back, which he uses to set up and adjust the composition of his paintings.  However, the maquettes are also objects of beauty and fascination in themselves, and others have been taking up the idea and making maquettes of their own, notably Zoe with her quirky, seductive tango dancers and blue cats.  

So, unworthiness to fasten shoe-latchets notwithstanding, I thought I'd have a play, not with a view to developing paintings or anything, just for the amusement of making them.  First though, find your paper fasteners.  Looking in on an art shop for something else, I thought to ask for them, but didn't know what they were called in French, so I had to give a rough translation of the same description as in the paragraph above.  After a few moments of puzzled frowning:

'Ah' said the assistant 'attaches parisiennes!' 

And owing to the, to me, inexplicable craze for le scrapbooking, which along with rubber stamps, seems to be what keep the few remaining art shops open, the shop stocked not only the traditional chunky brass and stainless variety, but also an array of exquisite, tiny multicoloured ones of different shapes and weights.  Seduced by their kaleidoscopic prettiness, I bought far more than I needed.

It seems they are sometimes also called brads, I don't know if this is an Americanism,  

but to use brads, you need some kind of bradawl.  I'd never thought about that word before.  This isn't a purpose-made one though, it's a winkle pin.

I've always rather liked the story of The Musicians of Bremen, the way the animals cheat the humans and get to live long in amity together, so thought I might try some maquettes of them.  So I decided to start with the donkey and found a picture of a one on-line, 

then found another use for the Kindle.  You can send yourself JPEG files, but they only open as small, low contrast grey-scale things, but that's quite good just to use as a drawing aid, without too much distracting information.

After the initial drawing, I made a tracing of it, overlapping on the areas to be jointed. It reminded me of making sewing patterns when I was younger.

As well to trace it larger than you finally want it to leave room for trimming and adjustment.  Then I transferred it to heavy cartridge paper, and played about to position the joints.

Then I de-constructed the donkey,

found a set of unused gouache paints, 

and painted him.

It's annoyingly cute; as ever shades of the primary school begin to close on stuff I make and do.  But the exercise was interesting and absorbing, and it is a first attempt.  Dog, cat and cockerel still to be done.