Wednesday, January 31, 2007

After lunch

Outside, the sun is shining.
The light is slanting low across the landscape,
Glancing off ivy leaves,
Lancing long sharp shadows
Across bright green fields of winter wheat.
Black snaggled trees stand out against a veiled blue sky.
There are photos to be taken, errands to be run,
Words to be spoken, fat to be burned.

Inside, the sun is shining,
Through the window and the cutout leaves and vermilion petals of the windowsill geraniums,
Filling the room.
I lay my head down on a pile of books and magazines,
Feel the weight of my stomach
And the affectionate, indulgent warmth of the sun
Soak through the pores of my cheek and temple.
My thoughts fragment and glitter into a doze...

(I suppose it's OK everyone seeing how dirty our windows are... they aren't quite as bad as they look, trick of the light...)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Set me free!

' Le nain est ne libre, mais partout il est dans les fers!'

Monday, January 22, 2007

A wet weekend with stonechats and Bergman

It rained all morning on Saturday and much of the afternoon. I had got up even earlier than usual and the morning seemed to go on amorphously long. I had a nagging feeling I needed to ring my sister-in-law, which I did eventually after lunch and the Early Music Show on the radio. She'd had news about her health yesterday, which was mixed, which of course must be seen as good, in that it could be worse. Chemotherapy looms, but she is brave and positive, while shakey and tearful.

My spirits were likewise mixed; I want to support her courage and be positive for her, but wish I could alleviate the inevitable fear and loneliness and the hurt of the blow. And when you've received a shock, and have something frightening and unpleasant hanging over you, you don't necessarily want people being all bright and breezy and making out it's nothing much when what the hell do they know.

I took a risk on the weather. The sun was breaking out below bruise-dark banks of cloud, there was a chill wind, and a great aeriel perspective wedge of the rain-bearing stuff funnelling up out of the west chucking a few cold spots at us. But we pressed on, Molly and I, to the top of the hill, along the upper road and down the lane leading to La Tantouille, where once Chouans, brigands and other outlaws (- then as later, the distinction between Resistance and criminality was not always clear) lay in wait, attacked, were apprehended and executed, the village was razed to the ground and only rebuilt on prescribed lines not favourable to ambush.
The high banks of the lane are dotted with trees twisted and swept and stunted by wind and weather: small oaks, blackthorn, crab and wilding apples. Each break in the hedge, each field gateway opens onto a slightly changed aspect inland, gently sloping strata of woods and fields and tree-lines.

I love these views into the interior, but I have little wish to go there, though I know some of it is pretty: old granite towns with castles, lakes and rivers, stepping-stoned streams in woods where you might see deer. I am happier to be on the coastward slope, looking toward the bays and headlands. In there feels landlocked, closed, stagnant, even hostile. How quickly one acquires these impressions, and how quickly impressions become prejudices.


Two trees dance a strange tarantella at a field edge, and we strike left and back toward home. A male and a female stonechat accompany us some of the way, flitting and bobbing off the fence and gorse bushes just a head of us, remarkably confiding, these cousins of robins. Many birds are busy and singing now, and these two have evidently paired already. Too early

The sun broke through a lowering sky of amber and alabaster, and illuminated the remainder of the walk.

So back home without a wetting, to a casserole in the oven and Harry Hill on the telly, followed by my new DVD of Bergman's "Winter Light", a veritable move from the ridiculous to the sublime. I don't watch any of the TV that Harry Hill makes fun of, but that doesn't stop me being rendered helpless with laughter by him. Unfortunately, goaded by my continually telling him he really wouldn't enjoy Bergman, Tom insisted on watching the film too, and consequently we ended up laughing nearly as much at that as at Harry Hill. So now he's banned from watching any more, if he's going to make me laugh at them.

I'm a beginner at Bergman; my collection comprises four: The 7th Seal, Wild Strawberries, Winter Light and Smiles of a Summer Night, and I've watched the first three, oh, and I've seen his delightful film of The Magic Flute. My elder sister has warned me off The Virgin Spring, blaming her long-standing phobia of frogs and toads on the toad sandwich scene in that film, which she saw as a young and impressionable art student in London in the 60s. I'm not quite sure what the fascination is, and whether I'm just being pretentious. It does all so easily topple into the laughable; it's all the subsequent parodies, of course, the stereotype of the terminally existentially gloomy Swede, the long drawn-out shots of hardly anything happening, the sombre black-and-white, the close-ups of dour, anguished or solemn faces in long, ponderous monologues, and the infuriating, unkind, narcissistic, self-absorbtion of the despairing and the suicidal, which makes one shout impatient and facetious remarks at the screen ( "Hold them cheap/May who ne'er hung there...").

And yet and yet... there's the sheer beauty of it, the elegance of the monochrome (yes, yes, I know I just said it was sombre) in the glacial northern light, the action of "Winter Light" seems to take place more or less in real time in that short hour or so of daylight of the north Scandinavian winter. This shot of the chalice and host looks like an exquisite still life, that one with the crucifixion at his left shoulder looks like a haunting symbolist painting, and is echoed a little later by the death's head in the same position, and that motif appears again when the cynical organist speaks into her ear over her shoulder (-is he Satan, tempting her to abandon her mission of love and self-sacrifice, or is he the voice of sense and self-preservation, telling her necessary truths?) And the slowness, the spareness and simplicity, forcing you to wait and look, the sense that everything must have weight and importance is a welcome antidote to so much about modern entertainment, modern life.

And, laughter notwithstanding, we were both stopped short by the final insights of the stoical, enduring, crippled churchwarden:
" The Passion of Christ, his suffering. Wouldn't you say the focus of his suffering is all wrong? The emphasis on physical pain...I feel he was tormented far worse on another level.
Maybe I've got it all wrong, but just think about Gethsemane... Christ's disciples fell asleep, they hadn't understood the meaning of the Last Supper or anything, and when the servant so the law appeared, they ran away. And Peter denied him. Christ had known his disciple for three years, they'd lived together day in, day out, but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, to the last man, and he was left alone. That must have been painful, realising that no one understands. To be abandoned, when you need someone to rely on, that must be excruciatingly painful.
But the worst was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross and hung there in torment, he cried out 'God, my God! Why hast thou forsaken me?', he cried out, as loud as he could. He thought his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he had ever preached was a lie. The moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship, God's silence?"

Sunday morning was bright and sunny. We walked much further, and came back hungry.

Counterblast at the snooker

In the wake of the inescapable and depressing stories of racist bullying on Celebrity Big Brother (I have never watched any version of Big Brother and do not intend to, but, as I say, the story is inescapable), and the consequent rise in the ratings for that programme, last night's snooker witnessed a refreshing example of conduct otherwise.

I don't really watch snooker, but for a very long time now many of the men in my life (and a very few of the women) have. As with cricket, I have succeeded in remaining blissfully ignorant of any of the workings of the game, much to the exasperation of said men, Tom in particular. But I do, by some kind of feminine osmosis akin to noticing the colour of cars but nothing of their make, engine size etc etc, manage to pick up a fair amount about the names, personalities and interpersonal dynamics, family situations and historical associations of the players of these sports.

Ronnie O'Sullivan (that's the gloomy dark-Irish-type one with the bouts of depression and the father in prison who sometimes suffers crises of faith about what's-the-point-of-playing-snooker-anyway), was beating his opponent hollow. When Ronnie plays, as with Jimmy White ( he's the big old veteran with the salt-of-the earth missus and the kids who never quite wins and used to play at the same snooker club in London as an old boyfriend of mine), the place is, as Tom puts it, like a bear garden, with loyal, you might say, but rough, rowdy and belligerent supporters making their presence felt.

His opponent was a gauche but gifted 19 year old Chinese boy called Ding (-I can't tell you much about him, but he seems shy, is pudgy and spotty and doesn't speak much English) who had made a promising start and won the first couple of frames. However, under the onslaught of Ronnie's virtuoso play and the abuse and hassle of the crowd, he totally crumpled into a tearful heap, and effectively threw in the towel.

Ronnie took the lad, with his interpreter, into his own dressing room for some considerable time. When they emerged, it was announced that play would continue. When the barracking started again, Ronnie faced the crowd and said something along the lines of "If you don't like what you're seeing, then get out and go home". He continued to play unprecedentedly magnificent and dazzling snooker, and to beat poor Ding hollow.

When the game concluded, there was more booing and heckling at the presentation. O'Sullivan angrily requested that the offenders be removed, and put his arms around the defeated youngster and kissed him on the forehead. He went on to pay him a warm and highly complimentary tribute as a player.

There is decency in the world.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Watery heavens

Thanks to rr - who can make more from a puddle in a London street than I can from miles of pearl-white sand and Pacific blue - for provoking an interest in John Clare's poems. The puddle photo, "heaven in water" moved me to look out some reflective pictures.

The colour settings for thepicture below are a little lurid (a prescribed setting for floweres and foliage on the camera, I've not get round to doing my own colour settings), but I thought it gave a somewhat surreal , feverish-dreamlike air to the image. The pampas grasshead clouds were really floating in the water from some that were growing nearby, I didn't cheat and throw them in myself!

... and this rather sinister being appeared on a day of pea-green polluted water in the lake at Lamballe.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Fine words butter none...

Taken up with parsnips, no time to blog. (But trying to get creative anyway!)
Does anyone but the Brits eat these things?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Gear and tackle and trim 2

I had a notion for a while, even before I started blogging, of doing a version of Hopkins' "Pied Beauty", illustrated with photographs. This turns out not to be an overly original idea (not that I can afford to let that stop me doing anything...). I also thought to call the blog "Brinded Cow", but found an Episcopalian (I think) minister somewhere in the States had already bagged that one.

I did stalk quite a few Normandy cows around the countryside trying to find one that had particularly cloudlike patterns on it. Normandy cows are adorable, and one of the things that makes you feel you're really in France once you cross the Channel. I noted that Polanski's "Tess" would never fool anyone who knew their European agricultural animals that it was really taking place in Hardy's Wessex, because the eponymous tragic milkmaid was working with Normandy cattle. Here they are more and more giving place to the ubiquitous black and white Holsten/Friesian dairy breed, but I think they're holding their own elsewhere.

I think now this project might finish up laboured and tedious, (and anyway, photographing a flock of finches in flight so as to show their wings to best effect proved difficult) I do keep folders of photos named for lines in the poem. "Fresh firecoal chestnut falls" was an enjoyable one to assemble and might become a post; I decided that horse chestnuts - conkers - are more photogenic, and are perhaps what GMH was referring to, but sweet chestnuts have the added connection with fire, as they suggest their own roastability, the image of them glowing freshly on the coals, and he did like to suggest more than one thing. But that one is now out of season, and will have to wait for next year.

The other line that interests me is " All trades, their gear and tackle and trim ". This is a striking departure from the Romantic/Victorian revulsion from the Industrial Revolution and its consequences, the melancholy nostalgia for a mediaeval idyll that never really was: everything from Tennyson's Arthurian wanderings, through William Morris's kindly primitive socialism and pretty curtains, to Pugin's luridness and ultimate insanity. Hopkins himself gave "trade" a bad press in "God's Grandeur" - "... all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;", but here he sees everything to do with human activity as part of the wonderful "counter, original, spare, strange" variety of the world, and the stress, literally, is on "all trades", not just the acceptably picturesque ones. Trade is the buying and selling of goods and labour, but also particular skills, the specialised work of the hands, manufacturing.

This honouring of human industry seems to echo George Herbert's elixir, that special grace that saw the workings of God in everything, and made even "drudgerie divine", which I always thought expressed the Protestant Work Ethic in its noble beginnings, before it was exploited and debased by the emergent capitalism. Hopkins also prefigures the modernist aesthetic which rejected the Victorian view that things could only really be made beautiful by decorating and disguising them, and celebrated the essential beauty in the functionality of things, which was, of course, debased too.

So, where do we stand on trade, in all its senses, now? We still retain much of the Romantics' aversion to it, and more so, and with good reason - it despoils the planet, enslaves the poor, feeds and fosters greed, envy, misery. Our increased awareness of the ecological price of of commerce and technology, and our sense of powerlessness in the face of globalisation, have intensified our gloom about it. Yet, for better or worse, it is trade, our fashioning of tools to make, adapt,repair and enhance things, and our exchanging of these things, which makes us human, and different from all other species. To travel in a great trading city, like Hongkong, where several of the photos in the first part of this piece were taken, to consider the technological changes that have taken place in just a quarter of my lifetime, even to look at our car mechanic's beautifully arranged wallboard of spanners and wrenches and keys and other widgets, fills me with wonder at the works of man. Not an unmixed feeling, and not without dread and foreboding at the possible consequences, but wonder nevertheless.

Friday, January 12, 2007

January morning, prevailing wind

Wet winter wind
Bothers and badgers us,
Coming through knotted, off-black chestnut twigs
Musty dark ivy, round stone pennywort,
Slaps at slate and glass and granite,
Pushes water through cracks we didn't know were there,
Picks at and peels the varnish, soaking the wood
And drawing out the awkward crusty resin crystals,
Lays a lime green film of algae
And makes the morning birds lie low,
Except the young cockerel over the way
Who yells and heckles for his short-lived day.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Gear and tackle and trim 1

"All trades,

their gear

and tackle

and trim...





Monday, January 08, 2007

My father's forehead

I have a quite amicable relationship with my lines and grey hairs, we take each other as we find us, though I have the feeling it's mostly on their terms. (It's the fat and saggy bits I'm less fond of.)
Like many women, I am at once resistant and resigned to becoming more and more like my mother with the passing of the years, though ending up with the build, the double chin ,the myopia and the tetchy, judgemental attitudes and being spared the white blonde hair and the dark blue eyes seems a little unfair. The balance of family resemblance being as it is, I welcome and treasure any physical reminder of my father that I observe in myself, much as I keep an old envelope containing a Premium Bond bought for me as a child which he wrote my name on, not because I hold out much hope of my number coming up ( I haven't thought to change the address on it in 30 odd years), but because it is, I think, the only thing I have with his handwriting on it.
So the other day, when I looked in the mirror upstairs, and, in a certain light , with my hair pushed up off my face, chanced to observe three parallel, lateral lines, curving in a slightly simian fashion up over my eyebrows and down between them, such as I had, I realised, often seen on the faces of my elder brothers and sisters, it was with a pleased sense of recognition, like seeing an old friend coming towards me, that I said to myself "Ah! My father's forehead."

Friday, January 05, 2007

Twelfth Night

Feast of the Kings, Epiphany, time to take the decos and cards down. End of misrule.

Misrule here takes a very mild form: eating our way through the Christmas cake, having the fire in all day and lounging around in front of it in the bean-bag with book and/or headphones and Molly in full-on lapdog mode, sometimes drinking wine at lunchtime, not caring if I get mud around the bottoms of my trousers when I'm out walking or if Mol slobbers on them in case I was thinking of wearing them for work the next day - the dress code isn't strict but cowmuck and dog saliva might be frowned upon - and generally letting things slide a bit. I always enjoy it and it always makes me uneasy. There's the sense that the end of it, the return to order and normal routine, is hanging over me, that I may not be able to square up to it, something of dread. Tom very cheerfully set to on New Year's Day with the timber and foamed concrete building a partition wall upstairs, and I did in fact pick up my textbooks and start preparing, at least mentally, for next term's teaching, which involves an extra class and change of premises, so a little apprehension, but I stayed in the bean-bag to do it.

The above Adoration of the Magi is by Phillipino Lippi. Generally regarded as good and full of incident, but a little over-busy (apparently they wanted Leonardo for the job, but he got distracted and never finished it, probably too many admin. duties with that long-running Mary Magdelaine fan club he was involved with or something). But one particular incident caught my eye.

As the great and the probably not so good of Renaissance Florentine society, the effete and the curmudgeonly, the precious and the powerful and the ruthless receive their expensively bought honours and recognition from the Virgin and Child, in the top-left hand section, a group of travellers are alighting. Mostly their attention is taken up with awe and astonishment at the star, unseen by us, in the sky above, but one man is oblivious, absorbed in being greeted by his dog. It is a moment of natural, timeless warmth and spontaneity.
In the poem "Musee de beaux arts", the one that begins "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters", Auden saw something cold and bitter in this indifference to the momentous, the ominous, the tragic and terrible. With the sense of impending doom with the rise of fascism and the coming of war, of suffering on a massive scale, he found little comfort in the knowledge of life going on. Thomas Hardy did though, for all his lugubriousness, " This will go onward the same / Though Dynasties pass ".

So, as the nations are broken, as Icarus falls from the skies, before the massacre of the innocents ( and after, and during), I'm off to walk the dog.

( For links to the poems, , for the Auden, a lovely page with the Breugel picture also, for the Hardy. I attempted to put links in the text, without success. Think I need some http lessons.)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What, mememe ?

There I was, happily languishing in obscurity, certain that this thing wouldn't happen to me, when rr went and memed me. This, it seems, is a kind of game of tag, where the person tagged (that is I, in this case) has to perform the forfeit of telling 5 things that people don't know about them. Like anyone else, I naturally have things few people if any know about me. There is usually a good reason for their not knowing, that is the things in question are/were sordid, painful, embarrassing, stupid or just plain boring. And I certainly can't compete with sexual cavorting with spies in embassies and the like! However, in the interests of being a good sport, and in acknowledgement of notice kindly taken, here goes.

1) When I was 5, I won a postal order for 5 shillings in a painting competition. My picture was exhibited in Berkhamsted Town Hall, and was titled "London". It consisted of a wide arc (London Bridge) being traversed by many little men sporting bowler hats and umbrellas. I doubt that it was an accurate depiction of the capital at that epoque: if the denizens of the city did still wear bowler hats, I don't suppose their arms were growing from the middle of their torsos.
The work is now lost.

2) When I was old enough to know better, I used to want to be Biggles.

3) On a birdwatching expedition to the Norfolk Broads when we were about 15, rr and I were fortunate in seeing all three species of British swan - Bewick's, whooper and mute, on one stretch of water.

4) While working in a shoe shop on the King's Road in the mid-eighties, I sold a pair of lemon yellow pixie boots to Grace Jones.

5) The first autumn we were here, Tom and I completely re-roofed the house, completely on our own, slates and batons, using a death-trap lash-up of borrowed scaffolding - rusting poles and pegs, rotten planks and bits of string - and a rather novel and acrobatic way of balancing on the timbers to avoid walking on the slates. In fact, everybody knows about this as we haven't stopped talking about it since. I can't think why, it wasn't courageux , it was just foolhardy. Tom fell off a ladder shortly afterwards, then went down with a fever and nervous exhaustion, and spent much of the subsequent winter laid out on the sofa - our only seating at the time - so I read "Vanity Fair", and many other classic English novels by firelight sitting in a laundry basket.

-Well, there we are. Unfortunately I can't participate in the next part of the game, which is to tag 5 other people who must also carry out the forfeit, because I don't know anybody. Or, more to the point, they don't know me. The other bloggers I read have either recently been tagged anyway, or are far too enigmatic or stratospheric to be importuned in this way by an upstart parvenu such as yours truly, so, alas, I must break the chain.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Spell of Creation

This is for my dear belle-soeur, Andy, who first walked into our lives and our hearts as a luminously lovely 18 year old, and is as beautiful and as well loved now as then. Wishing you a safe return, and get well soon. (Sorry the poem's not home-made, I didn't have anything good enough, but the pictures are...)

Spell of Creation by Kathleen Raine
Within the flower there lies a seed,
Within the seed there springs a tree,
Within the tree there spreads a wood.
In the wood there burns a fire,
And in the fire there melts a stone,
Within the stone a ring of iron.
Within the ring there lies an O,
Within the O there looks an eye,
In the eye there swims a sea.

And in that sea reflected sky,
And in the sky there shines the sun,
Within the sun a bird of gold.

Within the bird there beats a heart,
And from the heart there flows a song,
And in that song there sings a word.
In the word there speaks a world,
A word of joy, a world of grief,
From joy and grief there springs my love.

Oh love, my love, there springs a world,
And on the world there shines a sun,
And in the sun there burns a fire,
Within the fire consumes my heart
And in my heart there beats a bird,
And in the bird there wakes an eye,

Within the eye, earth, sea and sky,
Earth, sky and sea within an O
Lie like the seed within the flower.

( Apologies if any copyright infringed. For more on Kathleen Raine and her legacy, go to . Also credit due to Tom, who took the 5th and 6th of the above pictures.)

Monday, January 01, 2007


Is this all fiddling while Rome burns? It's a tired old image, a tired old question. Yes, of course it is. Here I am in my quietist seclusion on top of a hill in Brittany - a bit windy, we often say, but it'll be handy when global warming really kicks in - writing pretty and sensitive prose, snipping pleasant quotes and pasting on nice pictures, to who knows what end, ruminating on the spiritual but unwilling to commit myself to any active body of religion ( "I would prefer not to..."), of course this is effete, pointless nonsense while the world crumbles in fire, violence, fear and pain. Nero, it might be said, was in a position of rather more practical influence than I am, but he also lacked the goodwill.

Cutivate your garden, said Voltaire, somewhat disingenuously I gather, (and also my mother, who put it more literally into practice; my horticultural contribution here is mostly cutting the grass, which I do with a more or less good grace...) On the other hand, for evil to triumph... etc. When does cultivating one's garden become good people doing nothing?

I don't do politics here. That doesn't mean I haven't any political views, or that I don't feel strongly about world events, or try to educate myself about them, or even sometimes try to do something useful. But if I tried writing on the subject, it would read as lame, naive, probably ill-informed, hand-wringing. Also, in typical codependent fashion, I don't want to risk pissing anybody off too much. We half fell out, by e-mail, with my American first cousin, the eldest, British-born son of my much-loved aunt, my mum's GI bride sister, not so much I think because we couldn't accommodate differing political views, but because we couldn't stomach each other's modes of expressing them, something to do with attitude rather than opinion. We resolved to stick with what he calls the "warm and fuzzy", ( I suppose what my frizzy friend would file under 'little fluffy white clouds'!) but somehow when you've ventured onto cold and thorny ground, the warm and fuzzy doesn't feel so safe any more. Perhaps I'm just being too British, perhaps that's the problem.

There are intelligent, brave, nobly-motivated people in this and every other sphere of the media who address political issues far better than I can. I am deeply admiring of and grateful to them. What they can't do and only I can, is attempt to relate my experience, to make something from the melding of my inner life with my perceptions of the outer world. Naturally, this will not bring about world peace, or accomplish any single practical thing of any significance, but it still seems to have been an important human thing to do, in one form or another, for a very long time.

Who was the most important writer to emerge from the American Civil War? Emily Dickinson. (Where did that come from, was it Salinger?). OK, I'll say it before someone else does: I knew Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson was a friend of mine, Senator, you are no Emily Dickinson!