Thursday, May 31, 2012

A sonnet in as few words as possible

Another deadline, taken to the wire.  The only way I do things really.  Some months ago now Lorenzo daPonte (the blogger formerly knows as BB), issued a challenge to write a sonnet in as few words as possible, the results to be announced on the 1st of June.  So here we are on the 31st May, and I'm posting my effort. (which reminds me tomorrow is the 15th anniversary of our coming to live here in Brittany).  It's 56 words, I've no idea if that's at all a low word count for a sonnet.  I suppose theoretically and if you weren't all that fussed about conventional sentence structure you could write one with one polysyllabic word per line but it wouldn't be easy.  This one is a conventional Shakespearian job, which I don't usually go for, but as the poetic muse seems largely to have deserted me and gone off to powder her nose, even a bit of facetious versifying like this is something.

Inspirational daPonte, that
tirelessly charming persiflager,
luminary of my commentariat,
proposes playfully a wager:

reductionistic sonneteering - make,
Italianate Petrarchan, or Miltonic,
Wordsworthian, Spenserian or Shake-
spearian form - example most laconic.

Yet minimalising semantemes, while meeting
pentametrical demands - conjunctions,
prepositions, articles, pronouns deleting -
linguisticality, alas, malfunctions.

Syllabic prodigality alone
provides excessive flesh, deficient bone.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

End of the Camino

More confetti for a great achievement:  Brother # 1 walked into Santiago just before Pentecost weekend, just a bit over a month from when he started out from St Jean-Pied-de-Port, somewhat over 800 km (500 miles), which seems to me pretty good going.  Here he is in front of the cathedral.

He looks leaner and fitter than I remember seeing him. He said the woman who stamped his compostella that he was only the second person over 70 that day to have completed the whole route from St Jean.  

A few days earlier he wrote -

The Camino is ones life in 35 days. From the pain of birth, which is the journey up to Rouncesvalles, one's middle life is the journey across the meseta ... the mountains where you reach great heights, the coming off those mountains with the end of the journey in sight. And you don't want it to end. All the people you meet and love and hate in your life are encapsulated in the people you meet on the Camino. How to re-adjust when its over?

He's now back in England and flies home to Australia next week.  We spoke on the phone last night, I have a feeling we'll talk quite a lot about it.  I'm tremendously proud of him.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

Better late than never, but I've been shilly-shallying as to how to write about Marly's book. I've more or less concluded, after several false starts with long quotes from her equally wonder-filling poems and other ultimately tangential lines of writing, that I'm barely up to the job.

Since being a blogger, I have read all kinds of books - novels, poems long and short, collections of stuff both serious and light - by other bloggers; sometimes already published sometimes not. They  have all been good, some very good, and I've felt very privileged to know the authors of them, if only in an etheric, blog-illusory kind of way, and I've been led to reflect on the vagaries and injustices of who gets published and noted and rewarded for producing books and who doesn't. There's a lot of talent about and these are good times in which there are ways of sharing in and enjoying it; on the other hand with such a proliferation of good writing, and more and more people able and wanting to get a look-in, what stands out, and how? The whole discussion on whither-publishing-and-what-will-become-of-the-author-in-the-age-of-the-internet is interesting and ongoing, and has been thrashed out many times by people cleverer and more articulate than I am.  To me, though, now and then, a book just does stand out.

Of course one is bound to be well-disposed to the work of people one knows and likes; I'd really rather read something that someone I cared about had put their heart and soul into, even if it wasn't a work of dazzling virtuosity, than slog away at some acknowledged classic by some towering person of letters which left me cold.  But this can cut both ways; a friend lately compared reading books by a person one knows well to watching an actor one knows personally performing: a familiar voice, their mannerisms, tics, the whole matter of ordinary acquaintance can show through the artifice and the fiction, and distract and detract from one's appreciation of it.  This isn't only true of 'real life' friends and acquaintances, but can happen when one becomes accustomed to the more relaxed, personal, rather more banal voice that is often heard in blogging.

Marly is an engaging, loyal and very generous member of what's become, over a long time now, a very rich and varied on-line community. Her observations are astute, original and often helpfully constructive. I think I'd know a Marly comment anywhere even if it wasn't attributed, they sparkle in a very special way. She came here very early on and has always been around, much to my delight, notwithstanding that she's not only a Proper Writer, but an extremely busy mother, wife, and member of her earthbound community.  Knowing some of Marly's previous writing, and loving much of her poetry, having formed an impression of her life and vision as she shares them on-line, deepens the experience of reading the novel, but really isn't necessary to an appreciation of it.

It is a stunning book; both cruel and tender, dark and light, but always shot through and stitched with a powerful beauty.  Poetry, character and narrative never get in each other's way, but create a compelling fusion.  The rich period detail, from the lives of the rail-riding hobos to the coloured print of a woman's dress, is riveting, not merely research tacked-on for authenticity, as it can seem to be, but real and known and tangible. Beyond a nodding acquaintance, I'm not steeped in the literature of the American south and of the Depression era, so my mind doesn't reach for parallels and comparisons, which I'm rather glad of, reading the novel for what I think it is, something fresh and remarkable.

So what I'm saying, in short, is: I'm not just recommending A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage because Marly's an on-line friend and fellow-blogger, but because it's an exceptionally fine novel. Happily, it looks more and more as if she is getting the recognition she deserves for it; it has received one award and is in line for more.  She has a neat bouquet of fantastic, intelligent and sincere reviews over at Amazon (stateside), including Dale's very individual, moving, as-he-went-along response to it which he posted in instalments at his place.

I'm aware I'm rather preaching to the choir on this; many of you here will have read, and praised, the book already, but if not, buy it now and read it forthwith.  Only don't make the mistake I did and get it on Kindle (I was impatient to read it and uncertain of being able to buy it in Europe, and couldn't really afford the postage from the US, but it became available at Amazon UK within a couple of weeks ), buy the proper book, because it's one you'll want to have and to hold and to show it to people, and however wonderful and instant and and world-expanding  electronic and on-line reading is, there's no substitute for a proper book.

 A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage  is available at here, and at Amazon UK here, and also at Amazon France here, and surely elsewhere too.  Marly's page for it at hers, with lots of good things about the novel on it is here.

Friday, May 25, 2012


Peas and broad beans really are the most worthwhile things to grow.  Most other veg really I can buy cheaply or be given just as good if not better than I can grow in season anyway,  but with these you can never get better than out of the garden.

And the peas put so much effort into getting there,

and broad beans would be worth growing for their black and white flowers.

Probably more garden stuff to come.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The journey home, a sawdust loo, and an excellent place to stay

I wanted to give a mention and a plug to, and show a few photos of the wonderful chambres d'hôtes where we stayed on the way home from the Pyrenees trip, then that'll be the last of it.

We reckoned we needed to stay somewhere in the vicinity of Fontenay-le-Comte (rather a cool town website this, with a good slideshow banner) on the way home, just going by the itinerary he had plotted from the atlas - we don't do GPS.  We marked the turn as we passed it on the way down, and thought it would be no sweat to reach it on the first leg of our journey back.

The drive from St Jean Pied-de-Port to there on the return trip was mostly horrendous.  We got sent scores of kilometres out of our way on unforeseen diversions for roadworks, the rain beat down in torrents in the slipstream of the lorries most of the way up through Les Landes, we took a wrong turn on the Bordeaux ring road so we were going into the city instead of out if it, then when we came off we couldn't get back on it again, and finished up driving round and round a lifeless suburb.  As I was the navigator and had misread the immaculately planned itinerary, it was All My Fault.  Finally we saw a supermarket in the distance, and drove towards it.  Opposite was a pharmacy, we went in and asked how to get back to the motorway heading out of town. The lady pharmacist stopped, thought hard, took a deep breath and a pencil and paper, and carefully drew us a perfect map, explaining as she did so, which took us effortlessly through a complex network of roads and roundabouts and back onto our route. So the moral of that is, if you want to know the way, ask a pharmacist.  Seriously, we've found this before, I suppose it's because they're trained and experienced in giving clear advice.

We'd barely averaged 30 mph thus far, so we broke with habit and took the toll-paying motorway, which was a breeze and a relief, and we got off, later than anticipated at Niort, but felt confident we were nearly there, since we knew Fontenay was the next reasonable sized town about 15 miles away down a large straight major road.

However, it may as well not have existed.  We saw no signposts to it, and found ourselves yet again driving fruitlessly around a town centre with no clue how to get out of it.  In the end we went most of the way back to where we came in, and on one roundabout sign, below the directions to the local exhibition centre, in very small letters, was the name Fontenay-le-Comte.

When we finally arrived at Dormir ben'aise, our billet for the night, after a more than 8 hour trip, without stopping for lunch but only a quick coffee and then bolting a couple of pains raisins in the car, Cécile, who owns it, confirmed my suspicions as to why the town of Niort fails to acknowledge the existence of its smaller neighbour: because it's in the next département.  Ho-hum. France.

But our disgruntlement evaporated in the delightful atmosphere of the place.

(This one is kind of ironic, I think that's a near-enough correct use of the word, as the small blue oblong thing hanging from the chair contains my reading glasses and is meant to be hanging around my neck. I took this as we were more or less going out of the door to leave that morning, then a mile or two down the road I looked for them to read the map, and couldn't find them.  I didn't know if I'd left them or if they'd been stowed in the boot, so we had to stop, rummage, phone Cécile and ask her to look... it half-crossed my mind to look on the photos, which would have revealed the facts much more quickly. We had to go back for them anyway.)

It was colourful but restful; the ethos was ever so organic, everything restored, repurposed, recuped, recycled. Including the loo.

This was a dry composting system using sawdust.  I've seen a few of these in open air public places, but this was the first time I'd seen one inside a private house.  The sawdust was kept in a container to the left of the loo, and it smelled so sweet, I asked if it was made from cedar wood or something, but apparently it was simply from very freshly cut ash wood.  Once it was sprinkled, that was the only smell there was.  Funnily enough what bothered me more than not flushing was not having a door on the bathroom space, though it was discreetly tucked away...

Much of the this part of the Vendée is vast and flat and agrarian, but then in the south-western corner one comes to the Marais Poitevin, an area of marsh, woodland, natural channels and man-made canals that's been dubbed 'Green Venice'.  Cécile is a former Parisian relocated to the country with her two teenage children, a beautiful warm person with lovely, quirky taste and quite a bit of the erstwhile hippy radical about her.  She and the children love it there, she says - her 18-year old daughter cycles miles out to see her friends in the surrounding area and works in the holidays on the boats which punt about the canals providing green tourism.  Living in the wetlands they are especially aware of taking care of water, not wasting it and keeping it clean; all the household water went onto the garden, where there were chickens and goats and a donkey.  I collected a flask of hot water for morning tea, and breakfast was good bread and jam and coffee, all organic. Cécile lit the old Godin wood stove for us for the evening, and glory be, after a week sleeping in a bottomless concavity of a mattress in the house in St Jean PdP, the bed was marvellously firm.  And there were nightingales which sang in the very early morning.

It's a lovely place to stay, and at a very good price indeed, a good 30% cheaper than any other bed-and-breakfast where we've stayed of recent years.  Cécile says she knows this, the tourist office are always telling her she should charge more, but she prefers to keep the price down, and more often than not people stay on longer and come back.

We were certainly tempted to stay longer, and would have, but Mol, who'd fortunately been OK the week before, was showing signs of discomfort and a flare-up of the infection symptoms  - which had further added to the stress of the journey there - so I was anxious to get her home and to the vet, (who decided against further antibiotics, and she now seems to be recovered and back to normal).  But we mean to go back there one day, and explore the byways and waterways, and if you're travelling that way, I recommend you do the same.

Dormir ben' aise
Les Oisillères
85420 Maillezais /


The next day, we decided to stick to motorways all the way back to Rennes, and thanks to the Duchess Anne of Brittany, who, in the Middle Ages, made a deal that Bretons never never never should  have to pay tolls to Paris, we didn't have to pay anything after we got to Nantes, and got home comfortably in about four hours. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

St Jean-Pied-de-Port

St Jean-Pied-de-Port is picture-postcard pretty.  Put it into Google image search and you'll come up with hundreds of even more picturesque pictures of it than you'll find here, but it just likes having its photo taken, even on a bad day - and the Sunday we had there at the end of our trip was by no means the worst - so who am I not to indulge it?

It's the capital of the old Basque kingdom of Lower Navarre, it's resonant with mighty names - Richard the Lionheart, Sancho the Strong, Roland, Vauban ...  and chock-a-block with history, most of which I know next to nothing of, the past is vast and my power to retain this kind of knowledge was always weak and grows weaker.

Even my power to retain knowledge of my own past is fallible and full of holes.  I finished up in St Jean once before, thirty years ago, for no particular reason except that was where the road stopped for me.  I wanted to get to Spain, but, as we did this time, just stepped over the border for a quick look, then came back, discouraged by lack of time, money and Spanish. (For 50 francs, at that time, I could at least have got a coach to Pamplona for the day, but shied at spending even that much money, though I could probably have afforded it.  I was so timid and lame.)

Then, I camped in this field, just outside the town, beside the river Nive.  One wouldn't want to now, because it's somewhat overlooked by smart, fairly new houses, but otherwise it looks much the same.

But though I must have walked past this ruined watermill many times, I had no memory of it.

This time we were watched, here and there, by other beings.

On one building, according to Wiki but which I failed to see, the price of wheat in 1789 was literally engraved in stone above the door.  How odd, that it was felt that this was such a certainty; a kind of innocence in matters economic must have gone out of the world, even currencies, never mind prices, cannot be seen as so immutable now. These hand prints on the wall of the church have a greater sense of timelessness, but why and how they're there I can't find out.

There were other curiosities of flora, fauna and human works.

Wall pennywort we have in abundance here too, but I liked the way it lodged in the rocks there.

the pale white-mauve flower, ladies smock, is also widespread,

 But the dark purple cranesbill is not something I see around here, (I'll find out its exact name anon, of no one fills me in, I thought it was bloody cranesbill but a search implies not...).

This was something I was delighted to catch sight of: a dipper feeding its young.  I've not seen one of these birds for many years, and parent birds feeding fledgelings is always fun.

These pollarded plane trees with their camouflage bark we saw a lot of; the way they had absorbed these metal posts was most strange.

 By the time we'd finished our walk, the church clock said it was time for lunch, which, as it turned out, was an excellent white-fleshed trout, ewe's milk cheese and  black cherry jam.

St Jean-Pied-de-Port, snuggled down under the mountains, a good town to visit.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bascassan and Alciette

(Which sound rather like the protagonists of a troubadour romance...)

I'd read about these 17th century twin chapels out in the countryside a little north and east of St Jean Pied-de-Port, very similar to one another in design outside and decoration within. The morning the pilgrims set off and we decided we really needed to get out and about, damp weather notwithstanding, or fall into a slough of anticlimactic despond. Tom just about tolerates my fondness for quaint and colourful (which he's inclined to see as crude and creepy) folk art and religion, my sister indulges it happily, so we wound our way through the tangled lanes of the back country to find them.

Find them we did, first of all Bascassan. (Not Alciette, as I said in the last post, now corrected) 

It was locked, we poked around outside

Then I braved the hollering pack of dogs around the house next door to ask who might have the key, they sent me down to another, very substantial and slightly forbidding farmhouse further down the road.  There was no one there, so I took the opportunity to photograph their farmyard, where a wall-eyed cow and her calf, some bare-necked fowls and a line of washing were all abiding in harmony directly adjacent to the main house, giving a pleasing sense of porous boundaries and spaces giving onto spaces.

Another neighbour commiserated sympathetically with our disappointment, and told us that the key-holding lady's husband was in hospital, so she was much absent.

I went back to the chapel and looked at the locked doors, and noticed that the keyhole was beckoning (the figure has something of the air ofa maquette, with his riveted joints),

so I had a very small glimpse of the inside.

Rather strangely, as this is a documented small treasure of the region, in the guide books and on one of the smaller tributaries to the pilgrim way, I can't find any photos on-line of the interior of the chapel.  I did find this lovely blog post (in French) about it, with much better photos of the outside than mine, but the blogger who wrote it had the same experience at Bascassan: door locked and no one about with the key, so perhaps that's more often the case than not, hence the lack of photographs to be found.  However, she gives interesting information about the small building adjacent to the chapel, with the blue doors and windows I showed in the last post.  It is the former benoîterie.  This led me off to find out more about this Basque tradition, which I'd never heard of before, and which I feel merits a digression here.

The benoîte was a single woman, either a virgin or a widow of the parish, of thirty years or older, who was an appointed official of the church, given a very small stipend from the parish, something like a sacristan or churchwarden.  She held the keys of the building, cleaned it and washed the linen and polished up the ornaments, but also rang the bells for all the regular offices and hours and for funerals and weddings too (sometimes for the early morning angelus she had a string attached which she could ring from her bed without having to get up), distributed the host alongside the priest for the Eucharist, could  be requested to make intercessory prayers, saw in the wedding parties and officiated with the rings, saw in the funeral cortèges and sorted out the seating and carried out a few of the other rituals attendant on death which were particular to the region.  Additionally she had a few more unusual jobs, like ringing the bell very fast, or burning consecrated leaves with a consecrated candle to keep storms and hail away (they'd go on to the next village, it seems, but presumably only if the benoîte there wasn't quick enough off the mark...) I read in one place that she was often the confidante and counsellor of young girls, and helped women in childbirth.

In return for these services, she got a tiny house with a potager (a vegetable garden), a tithe of produce, mostly grain and bread, and a share of the collection taken at weddings and funerals.  Oh, and a designated burial space in or by the church.  She wore a hooded garment and a rosary at her waist, and was contracted for life, only ending the contract (and losing her stipend) if she got married.  Most of the records of these women are from the 16th to the 18th centuries, but there were quite a few later, and Bascassan is said to have been the home of the last one, who only died about 20 years ago.  A notorious witch-hunter of the 16th-17th century, Pierre de Lancre, who was himself of Basque origins but disowned these and hated all things Basque, convinced that they were mostly witches because they liked to dance, condemned the benoîtes as consorting with libertine priests, perhaps their wise-woman activities also smacked of witchcraft, or just of women, and Basques, having too much autonomy.

The little house with its blue doors and windows, which I like to think date from the time of the last benoîte, and were of a colour she loved, and its enclosed garden are now listed and preserved as historic monuments along with the chapel itself, but there was no one with a key to let us in.

My nieces T & B decided to make friends with some cows.

B the cow whisperer.

As we went out of the village, we saw some of the sheep with the black faces and the big curly horns.  After my last sheep post I found a leaflet I'd picked up in the tourist information office about la Route du Fromage, the long tour you can make through the region stopping at farmhouses and eating cheese as you go (it appears Ossau-Iraty was last year voted Best Cheese in the World in the World Cheese Awards, I kid you not).  From this I learned that these sheep are the manech tête noire breed, whereas the more delicate pale-headed ones in the post before are  manech tête rousse.  

That's a lamb under the sheep, having a feed.  I hope and assume they stop doing that before they start growing their horns, like the one in the background.

We fared no better at the chapel's twin in Alciette.  This time a rather pleasant farmer told me that normally monsieur le maire, who lived in that house over there, could furnish me with the key, but he was at a funeral and would be gone all day.  By that time the weather was closing in anyway, we took no pictures and headed home.  However, Rose-et-Grise had better luck, in the post linked to above, and there are some super photos of the interior there.

On the way back we stopped at a chapel of charcuterie in St Jean le Vieux, and bought some Bayonne ham,  and a sweet/hot preserve made from Espelette peppers, and the young woman kindly allowed me to take her photo with some of their renowned Basque beret-shaped sausages.

(Sorry about the rather close juxtaposition of livestock and meat products, that's rather how it goes. There's more information about the benoîtes, all in French and rather duplicating, here, here, and here.)