Sunday, December 31, 2006


... from box-elder, of course. Collected in France in 1995, just after we were married. I recently found them in a box file of memorabilia from that trip.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Winchester Cathedral...

... very far from bringing me down, you continue to cheer me up, viewed from the kitchen window, with flowers the colour and scent of Nivea cold cream, which simply haven't stopped blooming, come rain, wind,frost, drought...

... and very jaunty red hips.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Spem in alium, Westron wynde

There is no image in my collection that I can match with the sublime, vertiginous richness and depth of Tallis's "Spem in alium". The polyphony contains forty parts; no-one knows how he even achieved the notation of it with the materials of the time, or indeed how he was able to conceive of it at all.
John Taverner's (the original, with an 'r') "Western wind mass" is of a more attenuated beauty. It is based on the melody of the anonymous "Westron wynde" lyric from the 16th century.

"Westron wynde, when wilt thou blow,
The small raine down can raine.
Chryste, that my love were in my armes
And I in my bedde againe."
Spare, enigmatic, timeless. A world of longing and loneliness in that. Perhaps. I always read it that way, anyway.
These sounds and words can move me deeply, bypassing the intellect, accessing feeling. But, when I started writing this, I was considering how hard I have to work sometimes to feel a seemingly normal level of compassion toward other people. Anger, or pride, or perhaps fear (but of what? fear that I might one day require compassion extended toward me?), or a kind of lethargy of spirit, a sense of unreality about others, when only my ego seems reliably real, seem to get in the way. I thought of Kenneth Branagh's depiction of the Nazi Heydrich in the film "Conspiracy", who, having designed, organised, and sealed the fate of those who were to be murdered in the Final Solution, puts on a record of a Schubert quintet, weeping at its beauty, beauty, he says, that "will tear your heart out!"
But because we can't always feel things we should at the moments when we should, doesn't mean we needn't hunger and thirst after them as good things. There's a bit in "The Screwtape Letters" (and I can't quote it accurately because the book's upstairs in a box somewhere...), where the devil Screwtape urges his nephew to take advantage of the human creatures' failing in prayer, because when they pray for something, compassion for example, they expect instantly to feel compassionate, and when they don't assume that the prayer hasn't worked.
Yet compassion will come, did come. Only wait, corral the tigers of wrath, stroke them with care, placate them with titbits but don't let them loose, cut through the wadding of lethargic fearfulness with simple action. It comes unbidden, dropping slow, at times of cooled serenity and reflection, or like a whizzing wind in moments of warmth and sudden openness and fellow-feeling.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


"The most beautiful and deepest experience a man (sic) can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science... He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. The sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that is."

Albert Einstein, 1932.

(OK, so you've probably heard it before but I only came across it recently...)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Boxing Day

" Mangos, papaya,
Chestnuts from the fire,
The food is so good
You will want to stay!"

( Rosemary Clooney - George's aunt, don't you know!- "Mangos")

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Small instances of grace

Not much time this morning, as my early start has mostly been used up in cutting up and portioning out chocolate covered flapjacks, which were initially developed for the family of Oscar, who has to be egg-free, but have become the product of choice from my kitchen at this time of year for most of my adult acquaintance also. I shall later distribute them around the countryside, Little Grey Rabbit style (- except I don't think LGR drove a beaten-up old CitroenBX...).
After a crummy couple of days with many checks and reverses and small abrasions, many self-inflicted - to my self-esteem, and a failure, despite liberal doses of aspirin, vitamin C and L52, to resist this season's current viral infection, I came home yesterday to find lovely comments peppering my blog. This cheered me beyond measure. So thanks Rachel, thanks Pol.
Furthermore, on coming down this morning, the fire was still glowing embers. While nothing impressive in terms of the laws of physics, to me this is always a small grace which needs must be honoured with the application of paper screws, tinder, but strictly no matches or fire lighters, and now I have flames for company too.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Perfect conceit

" What's wrong with being arrogant when I know I'm right? "

( Prof. Peter Atkins, Channel 4, defending his atheism.)

Winter light

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Little saints

I don't much like French churches, at least not the big ones. I'll make some exception for Quimper cathedral, and they tell me the reconstruction at Nantes is impressive. I've never been to Chartres, and Notre Dame can't fail to impress if you can see anything beyond the crowds of Da Vinci Code believers whose coaches outside pump out corrosive gases which eat up the facade and turn the sky of Paris mucky brown by mid-morning. We once found a small, very old, Roman church in the middle of Lyon which was beautiful as a goldfinch's nest inside, but so many are, well, just soulless. I miss an English parish church, though I've never been a churchgoer.

Moncontour church, near us, was built by Spanish settlers who came here following the Wars of Religion, about 400 years ago. People here have names like Helio, Caro, Carlo, Phillipo. It has an interesting Hispanic-style bell tower which adds much to the distinctive skyline of the town.

But within it's mostly tawdry, shabby, mawkish old baroque tat, of the kind that it seems the Catholic church has felt it ought to foist on the people in a desperate Counter-Reformation attempt to titillate an overwrought response to revive their faith. Mostly in France it seems there was neither the will nor the means to maintain the stuff, and the result is a sorry sight.

What I do like though, are the earthy, heartfelt little country chapels and small churches hereabouts, and my favourite is the chapel of Notre Dame du Hault, at Tredaniel. It's not the oldest or the most rare and beautiful, but it's the one that has most endeared itself to me. It's chief raison d'être is, or perhaps rather was, the Seven Healing Saints. The history of both chapel and saints is obscure; it was part of a priory with a hospital, la Madeleine, before the Revolution, but it has an allée couverte next to it...

... and there is sacred healing well in the woods close by. I haven't a picture of that as I am uneasy about venturing there, since encountering a very small but very feisty adder in the middle of the path leading to it, where my dog had just passed in her usual large-pawed, nose down, oblivious, lollopping manner. My wariness is irrational, the snakes will be sleeping now. Adders, it seems, have strong druidical significance for healing and transformation; they can slide deep down through cracks and crevices into the dark places, rubbing off their skins on the way, their venom is salutary. Many non-Judaeo-Christian cultures venerate snakes. But I'm nervous of them nevertheless, if only on Molly's behalf.

There is a suggestion that the cult of these Saints is strongly Celtic, if not pre-Christian then stemming from the hermit evangelists who paddled across the Channel in their coracles from Cornwall and Wales, and whose identities became merged with local folk spirits, legends and sacred places.

The little saints as they are represented are of polychrome wood, I think from perhaps the 17th or 18th century. They are unarguably quaint, in danger of appearing like folk-religious garden gnomes. This primitive quality led to an uneasy attitude to them on the part of both the established church, and of the secular authorities on what constituted good art and worthy cultural treasures. But religious officialdom's discomfort about them stemmed also from the fact that they were more popular, more prayed to and venerated, than the officially sanctioned icons: the Virgin whose name the chapel bears, and of course Jesus. The votive plaques thanking the saints for their healing intervention include some quite recent ones, even a couple in English. The picture below for some reason features only six of the seven, the seventh, the only female, St Eugenie, is not shown.

The ills that they healed were the commonplace ones of simple country people living hard lives without much access to medical care: stomach pains, headaches, eye problems, but with a strong emphasis on mental, psychological and emotional problems too, ' fear and folly '. St Eugenie, I've been told, was often appealed to by women who were sexually unhappy. The dog accompanying one (not shown) may be a guide dog for a blind man, or may be a wolf, symbolising rage subdued, or may be a wolf who killed and ate the guide dog and was, by the grace of God, rendered subdued and contrite by the saint and obliged to take the dog's place. It looks like a fairly innocuous pooch to me, but is almost certainly not the original.

Everything about the chapel and the saints, their origins, history and identity, even their names, is uncertain, fluid, susceptible to morphing and contradiction, full of story and hearsay. The story of its foundation goes that a Breton was travelling the roads in the area, which long had the reputation of being the haunt of brigands, outlaws, robbers, Chouans, and those generally outside of the law and society. He was set upon, beaten, robbed, hanged and left for dead, even his fine red coat taken. On the point of death an angel cut him down, and the Virgin appeared to him with instructions to found a chapel at the site, which he did with the help of the local people. The fairly modern stained glass window tells the tale.

Aesthetically the window is nothing special, but I have found it a rewarding focus of meditation. It speaks to me of re-integration of the self, of last-ditch hope of rescue, salvation, renewal, grace. The Little Breton is lost and vulnerable, alone and alienated The murderous brigands can be a perception of a hostile world, the ill-will and cruelty of others, or they can be inner demons seeking to destroy you. Yet in the final resolution, others, outsiders to the self, are shown as a source of support, solidarity, devotion. The red coat is pride, joy, self-esteem, self-protection, a sense of warmth; it is stripped and taken, but then finally restored.

The other characters who people the place are also polychrome wood, again, I believe, 17th or 18th century, of the extended Holy Family at different points in their lives: Virgin and child, in foremost position, with a small figure of the Little Breton kneeling before them, St Anne with the child Mary, and Joseph with the child Jesus.

The Virgin has a rather stolid face, but lovely wavy brown carved hair down below her waist. She has a fine blue cloak with gold stars. The baby Jesus has a dear little white flannel nightgown.

St Anne, whose name graces many a French Catholic primary school, has something of Baroque womanhood about her, large, long thighs, a bland oval face, but she is solid, kind and dignified. The child Mary is a delight; a fierce, skinny, hyperactive little tomboy, challenging and eager with her scroll, hungry for literacy. This model, seen frequently, of the woman teaching the girl, not housewifely duties but reading and writing, is one I like. It was perhaps a reflection of the grass-roots movement of orders of sisters, such as La Retraite of Breton origin (who run Emmaus House in Bristol, in the UK ) who made it their mission to educate and improve the lot of the girls and women of the countryside.

Joseph and the boy Jesus are less interesting, except perhaps for the showy rendering of Joseph's draperies. The child has something of the ruddy-cheeked, square-set, laughing Jesus of the early church, but to me he looks spoiled, chubby and petulant. I like his little basket of woodworking tools, mind.

The obligatory grisly, pallid, standard issue crucified Christ is leaning against a wall at the back of the church, looking rather redundant.

There is also a curious rugged relief carving in granite of an indistinct and somewhat infantile looking angel carrying an enormous book, which feels very old and very mysterious. It didn't photograph successfully.

I found a post on Brother Bartleby's blog which seems to me to describe the role of the chapel and its genii loci. He says: "... theologians come up with tidy religions, yet the everyday folk are simply trying to survive in their constantly changing material and spiritual environment, and more often than not this includes a theology that is in flux."( All is flux, nothing stays still.)

Despite the popularity of the little saints, and their inclusion in many guides and other books on the region, little effort was made to safeguard them. The originals were stolen some twenty years ago, but fortunately a local antiquarian and woodcarver had made faithful copies, which were installed in their place. These too were stolen two or three years ago ( with the exeption of St Eugenie, who must have been better secured). Only recently has the local commune seen fit to even explain their absence with a notice to the numbers of visitors in cars and camper vans from all over Europe who stop at the chapel. The powers that be, sacred or secular, may not have valued them; they were too pagan, too maverick for the theological correctness of the established church, too crude and odd for the artistic arbiters, and too irrational and superstitious for the secular, intellectual spirit of modern France. But obviously someone somewhere did. Their absence poses interesting questions on the nature of objects and focus of prayer, meditation, worship and spirit. Can they still be petitioned and prayed to if their images are not there? Will they still heal? Will they work willingly for the person who obtained them dishonestly?

As well as St Eugenie, the Holy Family, the Little Breton, and St Houarniaule 's dog, remain. For the moment.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Thank you

Thank you all for a wonderful birthday. For a truly magnificent curry, for Rossini's Petite Messe Solonelle ( now playing ), for Venetian and Czech wedding beads, for cards and e-mails, for phone calls and hoots and laughter in the background as I tried to listen to them. For the joy of human love.

For the light and darkness of St Lucy's Day, and a moment of humbling.

God bless.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Water and rock, Dives and Lazarus.

' I heard the voice of Jesus say

" Behold I freely give

the living water, thirsty one;

stoop down and drink, and live."

I came to Jesus and I drank

of that life giving stream;

my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,

and now I live in him.'

Regrettably, I can't make it real, quite. But there's times I wish I could. As much for others as for myself.

' Dives and Lazarus ' is one of the most beautiful melodies. In riches of spirit, I am Dives, complacently gorging myself, ignorant and uncomprehending of the sufferings of Lazarus. How does one redistibute such wealth?
Thinking of you, rr. And others. ' I had not thought death had undone so many.'

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Now it looks like a photo again, which of course it is, a macro of a nasturtium, cropped and photoshopped into looking like a watercolour, which, when enlarged, it really does. For reasons I won't go into my Photo Shop is in French, which further confounds its, to my mind, already Byzantine complexity, but while twiddling my thumbs waiting for our garagiste to return battered BX to our door, his 10 minutes having typically elongated itself, I twiddled about with this.

I was at once childishly pleased with the trick, and also rather depressed. Why do watercolour painting, I challenged my spouse, when Photo Shop can do it for you? But of course, as we concluded, there is no process worth speaking of - barring my passing satisfaction at getting anywhere at all with my francophone version of the programme. And the result, however clever you and Adobe may be, is always dictated by Photo Shop. And, of course, you'll never make a mistake, which just ain't right.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Last week's walk

This week the weather has closed in, high winds, as I've said, and copious rain. But last week we took a walk hereabouts in beautiful late afternoon sunshine, the ground just soft enough to imprint.

In the orchard on the corner, a rather histrionic flock of guinea fowl berated us...

... and we went on to greet our dear friends, two beautiful, gentle, pregnant Breton ladies, who always come to the fence for me to blow up their noses and kiss their soft pink muzzles.

Molly doesn't mind them, she was brought up with horses, but was happy when we went on into a field with soft, clean, new grass, where she ran and rolled and barked like a mad dog!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

No one does Tallis like the Tallis Scholars

I just tried the cheapy Naxos disc of Mass in 4 voices and motets and found it grated horribly, was too rapid and harsh. Normally I am not overly discerning of different renditions of music, but at his moment my faculties must be more sensitive. The second disc of the Essential Tallis Scholars is all Tallis and other Early English. I must order a recording of 'Spem in Alium' which I've been meaning to treat myself to for ages. Hope in All Things.

The whole house is rattling - no small thing when the walls are granite a metre thick - with gales off the bonny bay of Biscay-o, as is much of north west Europe I think. Since our first winter here, when we had taken the roof off and barely got it back on properly, and the whole fabric of the place was altogether ropey, I haven't cared for windy weather, so I'd rather be up and doing and masking the sound with music and activity. Tom's deafness is a blessing at times like this and he sleeps the sleep of the just upstairs. I am putting it out of my mind that if one of Victor's trees does finally take the plunge and come crashing down on our roof bringing the intervening electricity cables with it, it will be on our bedroom roof, where he is and I am not.

'Cowards die many times before their deaths'. I die few deaths myself, but I have to say this often to myself to stop Tom and Molly dying over and over in my imagination. Yesterday's parting with Betsy was not so bad as long as I didn't let my thoughts go down the route of seeing my darling girl curled up in that basket. Tim was an angel and Emilie was brave. Tom made himself go and measure how big we needed to make the hole and came back with the familiar clenched expression of outrage - ' Death is a fucking insult ! '.

But the rant was momentary, and we set to with the digging while Emilie took the other dogs for a walk, and we chatted and laughed as we worked, which Emilie said heartened her as she heard it coming back. She and Tom gently picked Betsy up out of the basket and wrapped her up, which I think took a bit of courage but then wasn't so bad, and I took Emilie off to put the kettle on. Apparently the others spontaneously observed a few moments stillness and silence, then Tim said 'Goodbye darling.' and they filled it in.

In fact if I could relax, there is something quite magical about being here with the wind and the rain and the Tallis Scholars and my solitude. I'm quite sure that chestnuts seldom fall but only split.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Later, or rather earlier...

Starting a new regime, I get up earlier when Mol first stirs and come down for some time to myself, then take tea up, after which Tom comes down and does his meditations and I catch up with a snooze. I like the kind of dozing state that comes then, just skimming the surface of sleep.
I've got some Russian liturgical music playing, which is just right, and M. seems quite happy to curl up peacefully beside my chair having beaten the bounds of the garden and eaten a spot of breakfast.
We're a little more settled to our grim task today having visited Emilie last night. She rang Tim also, our own particularly faithful gardener, who unhesitatingly agreed to come and help wield a spade, which lifted our spirits in the matter. Tim is a young father of a family, a dear, gentle and incredibly hard-working soul, who has made himself indispensible to a lot of people.
What's more,I found a lovely comment on the blog this morning from someone unknown to me, a guy in Maryland. When I saw there was a comment I was pleased but assumed it would be from my brother who I'd told about the blog, but finding a new friend who found me on their own is rather nice! So, thanks Moe, I'll get back to you soon.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Betsy no more

Betsy has just died. Our friend Emilie has just called to tell us this, and ask if Tom can help bury her. Betsy is/was a retired greyhound. I knew her back legs were going but this is a shock. Emilie is overbright and her voice cracking. Tom doesn't hesitate, and we are heading round there now with a good bottle of red, but the burying must wait till morning. He has put his back out, but we have two spades. He starts talking as though he'll be on his own about the bleak task, though I thought we'd already been talking about a co-operative effort. He always assumes he'll be on his own when the chips are down. Death always makes him angry. I stop myself thinking ' what if it were Molly?'.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Box Elder

The box elder grew near the bottom and to the side of the garden, how it came to be there I don't know, I think our garden had once been a part of a large house's estate and parkland, so perhaps it had been planted as a specimen then. As I have said, we didn't know it was a box elder, but called it the maple tree. My mother said it was a field maple, but field maple I know, and they do not look like this. They are delightful, I think, chiefly for their quality of going almost utterly unnoticed in the hedgerows all year, then bursting into yellow flame in autumn which shows off the perfectly balanced shape and size of their palmate leaves. Our maple tree's leaves, however, were not palmate but pinnate, which long troubled me. Was it really a maple at all? I never did like to be guilty of misnomer.
I have now learned that pinnate leaves are indeed exceptional in the tribe of maples, along with the box elder's property of being dioecious, that is the tree is either male or female, not both at once, and therefore cannot self-fertilise. Our tree, sometimes called, facetiously, Mabel, and therefore 'she', was genuinely female, but her rarity in the small town in the home counties where we lived was such that her winged fruit were always hollow and empty, evidently there was no male box elder close enough to do the business. Though I have seen many since, mostly in France, and usually in street plantings, often interspersed with red-leaved malus or prunus for contrast, I have never seen one as tall as this one, which must have been at least ten metres. A very small boy once delighted my mother by running down the drive round to the back of our house with his apologetic mother in panting pursuit, who explained that he had caught a glimpse of the tree from the road and had to come and see it because he was besotted with trees.
It seemed to me an original, but not self-consciously clever name for the blog. When I subsequently googled the name however, as is wont to happen, it was not so unusual as I thought. Not only did I find the picture above, from a French volume of botanical prints of native North American trees of 1813, but also discovered that Box Elder is a county in Utah, with some quite impressive public buildings, a track on at least two indie albums, and that the box elder bug is a troublesome pest on all maple trees. The timber is of little worth, though the tree can be tapped for sugar syrup, and although it is native, its tendency to colonise waste ground at the expense of more vulnerable species in America has led to box elder being seen as a weed. Although attempts have been made to breed ornamental varieties from the variegated and pale pink sports which I remember sometimes appearing in the offshoots, the tree has a disappointing propensity to revert to ordinairy, unremarkable type, something I can recognise.
But I remembered the tree with great affection; I felt that she had an admirable nature, a gently sheltering character of modest beauty, interest and elusive rarity without appearing showily exotic. Seeing them often planted in town streets, I assumed that they must be amenable and resilient without invasive or destructive habits such as undermining sewage pipes.

She was adequately obliging in childhood games; the bright green, flexible shoots which sprouted abundantly around the bole made climbing the tree difficult - as did a habit of growth where the first fork was high off the ground and the branches sprang too vertically from it - but the shoots were quite fun break off and play with, as pretend riding crops to gee up pretend horses around jumps made from garden canes and clothes pegs. The empty keys spun prettily as helicopters.

Let me say now that I had a happy childhood. I had my share of disappointments and difficult times, and the things I'm often now grateful for were also the things which were sometimes a source of feeling different, excluded, insecure. I was, and still am, though I hope I have tried to swim against the current of my nature, introvert, sometimes odd, and inclined to a lazy timidity and know-it-allness. I was, quite frequently, a fairly horrible child and young person. I am sometimes curious, how much remorse one is required to feel over childhood actions. I do feel some. The composer John Tavener, when asked if he had any regrets, said something along the lines that naturally he regretted the sins of youth, but that is in the nature of youth, and as he grows older he finds he looks at his youthful self with increasing gentleness and compassion. This desirable combination of detachment and compassion seems easier to achieve towards one's past self than towards others, alas.

My parents were old when they had me, and I was the last of six. They were kind and indulgent, had less energy to shape my upbringing positively as they had with my elder siblings, but my mother spent much time talking and sharing experience and knowledge with me - not an unmixed blessing, but which ones are? My father suffered a mature onset of epilepsy when I was very small, and was on phenabarbitone for the rest of his life, which was one factor in what seemed his general effacement of himself, another were to do with my mother and her sense of disappointment, I think. Until I was six though, the vigour and optimism which I feel should play a part in good childrearing were made up for by my three oldest siblings, war and just post-war babies who had known just enough privation to give them drive and appreciation of their opportunities, and ample talent to secure those opportunities when they became enthusiastic young 1960s adults. In addition to themselves and their interests they brought home adorable and doting boyfriends and girlfriends, husband and wives, all of which ensured I was thoroughly spoiled.

Then the lure of the wider world drew them on, and they departed variously to Australia, South Africa and Bermuda. Second sister, always caught painfully between those three and we two smaller ones, suffered badly at the loss of them, her adolescence seemed thenceforward hedged about with storm clouds and eggshells, and though she was never unkind to me, often very lovely and loving, and later a fine friend indeed, she was frequently unapproachable, and a source of puzzling chagrin to our parents. To this day, she and I find airport farewells difficult. I heard an echo of this particular sense of loss at the diaspora of young people from Britain at this time from Ray Davies of 'The Kinks', who said that the song 'Waterloo Sunset' was written in a spirit of sadness at the parting from of a sibling's family, including a beloved nephew, the Terry of the song, who had emigrated to Australia ( I think...), and its wistful, elegiac quality is a reflection of that. I'm not a big Kinks fan, but I do like 'Waterloo Sunset'.
Third brother, nearest in age to me, was and is, a dear, but a sport, in the botanical sense; tall and large boned among the stocky or wiry, medium-statured rest of us, with tightly curled hair and bad handwriting ( we mostly write a fair italic, remarkably alike at times ) and a daunting, irrepressible, eccentric intelligence which isn't always easy, and a secret, quiet, resilient pride which made it impossible for him to share the problems this brought. He was a mentally stimulating, if sometimes infuriating, companion.This brother claimed, at a very young age, to have an imaginary friend who lived 'in the parish room, behind the maple tree '. His/her name is lost in the mists of time.
However, three years later, a blink of an eye in an adult life, second brother and my sister-in-law came back from Bermuda, and bought one house then built another in Herefordshire. I was going throught the pre-adolescent tomboy stage, which I understand at Steiner Schools is written into the curriculum, of wishing explore the wilds, to build camps and tree-houses and sail away in small boats and generally pretend to be living 'Swallows and Amazons'. I loved Herefordshire and the Welsh Marches in general, walks in the Brecons and on Hergest Ridge, watching the boats on Llangorse Lake. I never made much of a sailor, but for Christmas I had a rope ladder, which second brother scrambled up and secured in the fork of the box elder tree, and, wearing a pair of rope-soled shoes found, before espadrilles became common or fashionable, in a yacht chandlers in Falmouth, I would climb up into the branches. There wasn't much in particular to see or do up there, but it gave a sense of satisfaction to be there.
Then, some further three years later, first sister lost her young husband tragically in a sailing accident in the Indian Ocean, and returned with three very small children, my nephew and twin nieces. Now in full surly adolescent mode, and accustomed to the distance of my extended family, I was often disgruntled and graceless about suddenly having four extra people about the place. The little ones were fairy-slight, Midwich-cuckoo blonde, ravishingly beautiful, South African raised and bathed in a glamour of tragedy. Our mother fed them enormous portions of chocolate cake then wondered why we endured battles and petulance and an hour or so later when they wouldn't eat their dinner. Now, despite difficult adjustments and step-family arrangements, they are the kindest, gentlest, most forgiving and even tempered people I know, and amongst those I love most in the world.
The first winter of their return, my sister and I spent the Christmas holidays watching old films, and when more family members arrived for the festivities, third brother was packed off to sleep in the caravan under the maple tree. This was towed around the country for holidays and served as summer house and spare room the rest of the time. Sleeping out there, even in winter, was no hardship, and indeed a privilege I envied him. New Year brought gales, and a call came one evening, some time before my brother, who always kept late hours, went off to bed. A tree was down in the garden, and we rushed out in the windy dark to see. The maple tree had very gently and carefully, it seemed, laid herself down athwart the end of the garden, the light, flexible outer twigs and branches overlaying but not damaging the caravan, the rest of the body of the tree positioned between the bramley apple tree and the raspberry canes. No injury was done in the fall to human, animal or plant life.
My newly returned nephew ( now a well-set up fellow who roves the wildernesses of the world, managing national parks and being a UN volunteer, and also a fair hand at woodturning I think) and I had fun the rest of the winter trying to break and saw up what we could of the tree, using anything that came to hand: old bow and tenon saws, woodshed hatchets, whatever, before some responsible adult presumably moved in with a chain saw. I remember him sitting astride the trunk after the point where I was sawing in order to put enough weight on it to open and ease the saw cut, and cheerfully falling on his backside when the bough broke.
The box elder provided firewood for the remaining time we lived in the house, for we had no central heating but still an open fire in one room at least ( gas, North Sea of course, in the others). I don't remember particularly grieving the tree, things passed. But the maple tree is a fond memory, and many of her qualities, and the way she lived her life, I wouldn't be ashamed to emulate.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

Pippa, Marcel Pagnol, and the lavoirs of Lamballe

Back in August, when the camera was new and the weather warm, I went for a walk around around Lamballe with Pippa (right, I like the way I got her amber earring) and Molly, of course. Pippa had very good-humouredly put up with my getting us lost in the woods and valleys outside the town on a previous occasion, but I thought remaining within the bounds of the burgh might be a better idea. So we ascended to the collegiale, the sort-of cathedral, made our way down to the market square where we stopped for refreshment and she refrained, this time, from getting into a fight with the cafe owner about the true nature of a cappucino, in the land where coffee is coffee and comes two ways, large or small.
Then we walked back along the river bank and took in the lavoirs of Lamballe, a not particularly well-trumpeted local attraction, but one which always charms me. On the street which runs under the escarpment on which the collegiale stands is a terrace of irregular small stone houses, brown granite with red brick dressings. Behind these are long strips of garden which lead down to the river Gouessant, and at the end of each garden the remains of an old lavoir, stepped and paved and sometimes still with it's old sheltering structure. The washing was done in the river, using, I gather, wood ash in place of soap. It was important that the ash was kept clean, and no fat or metal or other impurities carelessly thrown in the fire.
'Like something from Marcel Pagnol...' mused Pippa. We pondered this, that somehow wherever you were in France, even up here in the, formerly uncouth, north-west, you found things that reminded you of Marcel Pagnol, at least in the provinces.Or it could be Daudet, (or even, heaven forbid, Peter Mayall, whose writing I consider meretricious and which I loathe with fervour). Whether this is only an Anglo-Saxon outsider's perception, (hence the succes of Peter Mayall perhaps) and French regional sensibilities would refute it, I don't know. But it seems rather as if all of France aspires to be Provence, the old Province of Rome, the Second Daughter, the land of romance and the troubadours, la douce, a beakerful of the warm south...
What I took some trouble not to capture in these pictures, but which is visible anyway, is a vile thick peasoup quality to the water of a green I imagine to be something like that of the arsenic coloured wallpaper that finished off Napoleon on St Helena. This is the result of excessive levels of agricultural pollutants resulting from the intensive farming of poultry, cattle and pigs in the area, and it persisted throughout the summer. I made enquiries as to what it was, where it came from and if anybody had been prosecuted for it, but though the people I asked agreed, in a Gallicly shrugging kind of way, with my outrage, it seemed little had been done to stop, investigate or even draw attention to the matter.
The local fishing association were said to be on the case, but the fishermen are affiliated to the hunters, the hunters with the farmers, and as elsewhere, the so-called countryside lobby close ranks in such a way as is frequently not, in my opinion, in the interests of the countryside.
It is over-simple to attribute the power of the agricultural and hunting lobby in France to a generalised, romanticised, nostalgia for the country's rural, provincial roots, but it is a factor. Pagnol was a great one for hunting.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Festival of the Trees


Returning from a visit to England, with a familiar feeling. At once delighted, charmed, deeply happy to have spent the time with my family, but also with a sense that somehow their gifts, experiences, relationship, characters are inescapably bigger and better than mine, and I haven't the largeness of personality not to feel discouraged by this. Rather as with reading other people's blogs. What can I possibly come up with of any relative worth?
This inferiority, little me, unaccustomed as I am, stuff is tedious. If I'm ever to get this blog off the ground, I can't waste any more of the short and precious time I have to do it in airing it but simply have to bypass it altogether and get on with it. Same goes for a lot else.
Great to see family ( a distaff gathering this time ) , good to see English land- and townscapes, not least trees allowed to grow into their natural full shapes and not hacked back into distressed vertical fuzzy caterpillars for the sake of firewood. It was good to dive into a supermarket and buy naan bread and brazil nuts and Marmite, of course, and to be able to function at all times in my first language. But after a few days I wasn't sorry to leave a growing perception of a society riven with greed for money and status, and the seething feeling in myself that I'm reluctant to identify as envy but is certainly resentment. I've no illusions about France being any better in many regards, but living here as an outsider I can succeed in maintaining ignorance.
And very quickly I start feeling soothed by my sense of rootedness here, which has taken a while to take, and wasn't always there. Now it is, and I'm glad of it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Lapwings are true pied beauty. Wonderful though it is to see the first hirundines, which are often sand martins over water, the first lapwings have a deeper magic. Their departure too has a haunting quality, beginning as it does that Lenten period when the last of deep winter is over, but the first of real spring has not begun.
Some years ago, a former neighbour died in somewhat shocking circumstances in midwinter. The lapwings seemed to offer some strange comfort, speaking of a kind of transmigration of soul that I couldn't quite explain. Rather later, an old friend sent me a postcard with an Edward Thomas poem, "Two Pewits", which echoed this feeling I had about them.

Two Pewits
Under the after-sunset sky
Two pewits sport and cry
More white than is the moon on high
Riding the dark surge silently;
More black than earth. Their cry
Is the one sound under the sky.
They alone move, now low, now high
And merrily they cry
To the mischievous spring sky
Plunging earthward, tossing high,
Over the ghost who wonders why
So merrily they cry and fly
Nor choose twixt earth and sky,
While the moon's quarter silently
Rides, and earth rests as silently.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Why am I here?

"Perhaps you could start your own blog" my old friend suggested, when I was drawn by the lure of The Festival of the Trees, "even if only to post about trees once a month." I was and am still not certain that my life or writing skills stand up to even this very modest form of self-publicisation - unaccustomed as I am to public speaking - but, here I am, and immediately I find myself overcome with shyness and self-consciousness. Just who am I doing this for? For myself or others, for people who know me or people who don't? Why am I exposing myself like this, what if someone should read it? Or worse still, what if no one does?
On reflection I've decided I shall embark on this on the assumption that no one is actually reading it - after all, it seems to me that soon everyone will be writing blogs and no one will actually have the time to read them. I'm going cheerfully to sing my own song, out loud, for all the world to hear, safe in the likelihood that nobody's listening.
My initial trepidation comes in part from ineptitude and unfamiliarity. Less than a couple of years ago, our household was a self-styled oasis of digital-free quietism, sans computer, sans mobile phone, sans digital camera, sans everything. The DVD player was the first that ever burst, then my husband fretted once too often that I might have absconded with the dog ( my absence would possibly be supportable, but not Molly's ), and we succumbed to the mobile 'phones. Less than a year ago we were still without the computer, the camera was acquired this summer, and precipitated something of a turning point in my relationship with the digital world, because I rapidly fell in love with it and its possibilities.
I have only started to look at blogs in the last month or so, and in doing so I've discovered some real treasures, staggeringly talented people with deeply interesting inner and outer lives, and one or two who are, unfortunately, not as interesting as they think they are, tiresome and narcissistic wastes of cyberspace even. I can't hope to join the former group, and can only hope not to join the latter! But here I am anyway, at a good enough place to start.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Box Elder

So, why box elder? A box elder was the tree I grew up under.
We didn't know it was a box elder, we called it the maple tree, which is indeed what it was also, a kind of, not an elder at all. For much of my life I was not aware of seeing another like it, but on coming to France I've seen many, and much more recently, having acquired a good tree reference book, I've finally established its proper identity.
I shall write more on this tree, but for now, I am very tentatively finding my way around this blog, so let that be all for now.