Monday, December 29, 2008

" the blue smoke mounting at evening..."

" '... the whole sensible appearance of things (omnes rerum temporalium species) is the lotus flower,' said Paulinus of Nola ... it is at its greatest in Lucretius 'austerity of rapture', denying all that lies beyond the flaming ramparts of the world; at it loveliest in lines from the Georgics, the blue smoke mounting at evening from the little farms, and the shadow of the hills on the plain."

The frost, which deepens every morning, has caught the last of the roses,

and crushed the lemon scented geranium to sorbet. We have been sitting in a crystal sphere of high pressure, and thought the cold can be a struggle and a hardship, the days have grown into blues and golds more intense and yearning than those of summer can ever be.

It has taken me a long time to repossess my birth month as the one where I belong, the most precious of the year, to find the depth and dearness of these short days; for many years we were strangers. Now I know there is no peace like December's, no light like that of a clear day at the winter solstice, no shapes lovelier than those of leafless trees inked onto early evening sky. I feel sure I could never happily live in a place where December came in summer.

I light the fire early, spend much of the day at the table beside it, writing, eating, drawing, drinking - hot drinks as much as anything alcoholic - and reading. Helen Waddell leads me from the fall of Rome to the wondrous twelfth century, bringing to life the extraordinary pools and flashes, reservoirs and illuminations of grace and gentleness and beauty that held their own against the dark and brutal background of those times. History probably contains no parallels, but perhaps some echoes. She writes poetry of poetry, lyrical stories of loss and beginnings, of attainment and partings.

I have drenched myself in light and colour, pointing the camera at the gradually diminishing fruit bowls,

or Christmas cake,

or at the roses which came as a gift (churlish to grumble at being given roses, by a neighbour and her granddaughter whom I occasionally teach, but these sad, scentless, fondant-icing things, costly and wasteful to grow and buy, I would prefer not to have; I like the gallant, frost-perished mummified relics in the garden better).

The new coloured pencils are more vivid and luminous than should really be countenanced, nearly hallucinogenic, compelling. They still alarm me a little. I've found myself doodling cute cartoonish Georgic vignettes, or simply producing formless washes, just to swim in their colours, which don't really appear until the water touches them, rather like Japanese water flowers, or those magic painting books that I had as a child, grey dots until washed with a wet brush.

In the afternoons I walk up the hill. The only sounds the calls of birds: flocks of wintering larks and bramblings, a marsh harrier coming up out of a fallow field, jays and magpies staccato quarrelling, a majestic heron soaring. Tipped furthest from it as we are now, the sun seems paradoxically to be closer to us;

it bobs along at my shoulder height as I walk the ridge road, and as I stand among the lifeless and ghostly stalks and husks of the maize field,

it floods this quiet, dreaming, austerely rapturous land with rose and orange, and I think perhaps I am at the flaming ramparts of the world, and I need go no further.

The little farms of my village are stone and slate and rendered concrete now, not thatch and withies like Virgil's probably were, and indeed, are no longer even farms, though their inhabitants may be farmers, or the children or grandchildren of farmers, as I am. The comforting blue smoke is as likely from central heating boilers, though there is woodsmoke too. Yet they nestle in the shadow of the hills at evening, which stretches over the plain towards the sea, and they draw me back with so much that is held dear.

This peace, this joy are flawed, illusory; they are pampered, solipsistic and doomed, for me and for the world. Pain and despair drip in through the cracks, the intractability of our condition; the human race is living in end times, it always did. But for now, we are safe and curled in the 'whole sensible appearance of things', the lotus that can drug us into believing that the world is sweet. I can't say I mind.

The weather has changed, but not eased, the piercing clarity of the last several days has given way to a freezing fog, the lightless damp of which offsets any rise in temperature. Long since mercifully relieved of any sense of obligation to party in the New Year, or of failure that we don't, or requirement to drive home tired and dispirited (New Year clebrations usually left me feeling this way...) on dark and dangerous roads , we may or may not stay up. We'll meet friends for a lunch (or brunch, indeed, they being in part American) party tomorrow, which I'm happy about; preferring a baptism of the new to a wake for the old. The Twelfth Day, the Feast of the Kings, will be the last of my holidays. About right.

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve meli-melo

The blue tits, and others, wait for Christmas dinner. I put out sunflower seeds and millet, and some overcooked, soaked cantucci biscuits, but the latter provoke little interest, except from Molly, who spends much of her time today sneakily trying to find a way to steal them.
Flapjacks, ginger in syrup, bramble jelly. The crystallised ginger in the flapjacks was an inspirational thought, a couple of euros bought enough to boil some in syrup to put in jars also.
Sisal tree fairy, some years old now, the right size for the small artificial tree.
Physalis and lychees.
The windowsill geranium, stringy, pale and weak, turns yearningly to look out of the window, puts out a hopeful, light red flower.
Figs in red tissue, which made them irresistible. I imagine I'll bake them in Muscat filled with almond paste, but the surfeit of sweet and spice at this time may mean I don't, and we'll eat them as they are.
E's gate, with mistletoe. 'I take it from the chateau gardens,' she confessed with glee 'they have so much! I just throw Moos's lead up over the branch and pull it down.' We take flapjacks and banana, date and walnut cake, but she's not there, neither is Moos. We become the antithesis of burglars, gaining covert entry to her house to leave things there.
Molecular structures of rosehips.
A white rose, Winchester Cathedral, with just the smallest, anomalous flush of pink, blooms in spite of the frost. It often does at Christmas. 'There is no rose of swych vertu...'
The elderberries never ripened, but hang on the tree still, where no leaves do. In the evanescent morning mist, they trap the droplets.
The fog turned glitteringly to mist, then softened sunlight, but returned again to plunge us into cold greyness. Somewhere just beyond it, we knew, was a bright sunny day, its blue and gold suffused the atmosphere and yet eluded us. We found it later, as we drove beyond the watershed ridge, where everything was bathed in the day's last liquid copper sunlight.
The last obligation of visiting and exchanging has just been pleasantly discharged - except for the drive home in the once more dense fog, on roads we didn't know well, and even the ones we did know seemed unfamiliar and uncertain. We're just ourselves tomorrow, which will be just fine.
Happy Christmas, one and all.

Friday, December 19, 2008



Which seems largely also to describe my blogging activity. I'm sorry about my scarcity around the place.
But I am hatching, good things with wonderful people.

Monday, December 15, 2008

With thanks, and encore de sucre.

I just wrote this post in its entirety, having squirrelled away the time out of my day with care and good conscience, uploaded the photos, copied out a recipe, etc etc and bloody Blogger's autosave and publishing failed and I lost the lot. It's enough to make one defect to Wordpress.
So I'm not feeling as cheery as I was when I started, said lack of cheer being compounded by just having heard that the euro has reached .9 against the pound and we wonder if we will ever be able to afford to live anywhere ever again.
However, I will not be deflected from expressing my thanks for the wonderful birthday wishes I so shamelessly fished for. I am much blessed.
To our left may be seen my delicious new Derwent Inktense pencils, all 36 of them. Never in my life before have I possessed such a fine array of colouring sticks. As yet I have done nothing more with them than scribble on an envelope and wet them with lick, and in truth I am a little reluctant to broach their virgin unsharpened newness, but I shall.

Indeed, it seemed that almost everything I received was inciting me to wallow in a frenzy of delight in colour, or inviting the application of it.

Here is a gorgeous, warm, tweedy red Irish wool jacket ('cardigan' is not a word worthy of it). The photo doesn't do the colour justice, it's a redder red than that. Not only does it gratify the visual and tactile senses, but the olfactory also; it smells like a real,very clean, Irish sheep, all lanolin and peaty air!

And here are my cards, see those wonderful, luminous, transparent hues and bold, infillable (I made that word up!) linework? Begging to be used as inspiration...

... and a dear little book, in fact a concertina in form, and of delightful construction, filling me with creative urges which I will probably have to give up eating, sleeping, composting my vegetable waste, making chicken stock, and other such time-consuming activities in order to indulge.

Oh, and then there were these two pretty bookmarks from Princeling. Clever boy!
I love I love I love colour.*I know black and white is more subtle and sophisticated and redolent and suggestive of memory and emotion and everything, but. On Sunday morning there was a wonderful thick white frost, and I had a whale of a time with the camera. But despite all the crisp sharp exquisite solarised line and form just crying out to be rendered black and white, I just kept seeing flashes and sheens of sumptuous frosted, dusted colour I couldn't let go, so only a few of them got monochromed. Subtlety ever evaded me.
There, I've quite cheered myself up now, and since it looks like the expat party's over, and holidays, meals out and other such frivolities will soon be the stuff of memory, it's just as well I've got plenty to keep me occupied. Like writing my blog posts twice because Blogger eats them.
Also I'd like to thank Bee Drunken for hosting a small soiree for me over at her place, with English toffee too. As promised for her Christmas sugar exchange, here are flapjacks.
Basic recipe:
6 oz / 150g / 3/4 cup butter or margarine
1 tablespoon golden syrup or honey
4oz / 100g / 1/2 cup demerara sugar
8oz / 225g / 2 cups porridge oats
Put fat, sugar and syrup in a saucepan and melt. Stir in the porridge oats and press evenly into an appropriately sized baking tin, and bake at 180C / 350F / gas mark 4, for about 20 minutes.
Easy peasy. Big deal, I hear you say, everyone knows how to make flapjacks. However, it doesn't end there. When I became friends with Oscar, who has an egg allergy, and his family, I wanted to make something special they could all enjoy at Christmas, so started to experiment with substituting a proportion of the oats with all kinds of other things: walnuts, pecans, glace fruit (especially pretty...), dried apricots, dried cranberries, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, chocolate chips, and then, when cooled, icing them with melted chocolate, sometimes a marbled mix of white and dark. Thus they somewhat resemble hearty florentines. I vary them every year, and they have become the sweetmeat of choice of not only Oscar and his folks but many adults of our acquaintance too. You can cut them into bite-sized pieces and put them into pretty tins or boxes, and a big baking trayful goes a long way.

*And much more besides, like funny pungent smells, and dog kisses, and mud - in moderation and the right footwear - and milk chocolate better than dark...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thirty winter words, a bit of bragging, and what would I like for my birthday?

A small December face, patchy-pink
lips drawn back, cold-shocked, as children,
who trust till something bites, often are.

Opening chimney doors,
or momentary sun through eyelids,
orange gratitude for flames.

(Hyphenated words count as one in my thrity words rule. The log is from a windblown down photinia hedging shrub, red in death as in life.)
Quartsiluni have posted another photo, here. I like this one; it was taken at St Jaoua's chapel in Finisterre, I have an odd fondness for these cruder examples of polychrome wood sculpture, of uncertain age and provenance. Some of the poems preceding it are really excellent too, I'm proud have something appearing with them.
Also, lovely Gino has published another ghazal of mine at the Ghazal Page. The radif challenge was 'sugar', and it's on this page. Crafty Green Poet (Juliet Wilson) has one there too!
What would I like for my birthday tomorrow? Endless time to catch up with everyone on my feeds and blogroll, and generally to apply myself to all the exciting creative things that keep coming my way. It won't happen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Cards, and here we go round the mulberry bush.

Doing Christmas cards, and how difficult I find it. Lee at A Curate's Egg was explaining how, as an atheist, he holds with Christmas, and many other festivials, particularly because we need things to look forward to; depression thrives on looking back.

True, except it seems to me that Christmas is much about looking back, it is built on the accretions of Christmases past, the 'Christmassy' feeling I so often feel disappointed that I don't have, then when it creeps up and bites me when I least expect it I resent or feel embarrassed about or it nearly tears the heart out of me, is surely, at least after childhood, one of the most bittersweet, nostalgic, longing.

Also, how one looks back is very dependent on one's character. Depressives, surely, look back with pain, and persist in doing so, while positive people who tend to cheeriness look back rosily, remember mostly the good times, and this regardless of the apparent outward nature of their past experiences. I am, mercifully, not depressive in any real sense of the word, but I know I do tend towards negativity, melancholy, accidy, lack of self-belief and a host of other spiritual indigencies, and I'm afraid I often look back more with regret and a sense of failure than with joy and a satisfied glow, particularly with regard to my past relations with other people.

So that's why I don't like the ritual of writing Christmas cards, that strange Anglo-Saxon tradition so sensibly incomprehensible to the rest of the world. They are so often that last tenuous, sometimes reluctant contact with people that we have otherwise left behind - "Do you still hear from so-and-so?" "Oh, just Christmas cards...", and as such, for lugubrious types like me, tinged with guilt, regret, occasionally reproach, a sense of the ineluctably sad passing of life, and all kinds of other discomfort.

Or that's one reason. Another is that Tom, who seems not to find the matter oppressive in this way, and tends to propose a full-on attack and a rather factory-line approach to the task, often ends up addressing the envelopes. The matter of forms of address always becomes a point of contention. When so many people don't marry, and those that do keep their unmarried names, or sometimes one doesn't even know whether they are married or not, or when people remarry but their children keep their previous name, when people live with people whose family names I don't even necessarily know, when others hate the idea of a particular title or indeed any title at all, I find it altogether more tactful, simple and acceptable to write their names simply, without titles, or sometimes even just their first names, on the envelope. My mother had good friends who were Quakers, and I grew up understanding that it was an acceptable choice to leave out titles.

Unfortunately Tom was schooled in a set of inflexible formalities with regard to what you should and shouldn't put on an envelope, and finds it an effrontery to his amour propre and unacceptably rude to write simply 'Jane and Paul, 13 Newt Crescent...' or whatever. His idea of a compromise is to put inverted commas around the names - he doesn't go as far as to write sic in brackets but I suppose it's a similar denial of responsibility, ie, this is what she told me to write but I don't hold with it. To me, this looks totally bizarre, like we're calling into doubt that that is the person's real name.

Anyway, we haven't fallen out about it, as all is generally peace and goodwill in this household at the moment, and it isn't worth getting in a tiz about it, or much else really, but I suppose I'm partly writing about it here to let people know that if they get a card from us with their names in inverted commas, or if we've mistakenly assumed you're married when you aren't, or committed any other faux pas, we really aren't taking the piss...

However, the Christmas card ordeal is now all over bar the posting, I'll call a halt to the bah-humbugging, and I relax a little and do a bit more genuine looking-forward-to. Then of course there might be phone calls... oh well, sufficient unto the day.

Now, have you downloaded your Picasa 3 yet? If not do so. It's free and quick with lots of tasty new features, including more collage possibilities and a text button. Just google it and there it is.

The other morning was beautifully frosted. We'd had breakfast in bed, a part of the convalescent regime I can see going on a great deal longer than the necessity for it, and when we came down, the post had brought a wonderful non-Christmas parcel from my lovely sister involving textile goodies and other fun, and a couple of my Vistaprint calendars, which were not bad at all. So to round off the deliciousness of the morning, I hurried out to catch the light, and when I came home again the washing-up was all done!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Aubergine in a red bowl.

Near and far, the world is not a happy place. Nevertheless, we both sat down and painted for the whole afternoon, and we were happy. Tom did some watercolour cottages, and I did a painting of an aubergine with mushrooms and an onion, in gouache; the fresh produce supplies run a little low on Thursdays, so I was short of the full ratatouille. I'm fairly pleased with it, I've not done much in gouache for a while, but there's an art teacher on Flickr who badgers me to join various drawing and painting groups, and I'm glad she does, as it's a bit of a spur.

I was pleased with the enthusiastic response I received to aubergine a couple of posts back. They are certainly one of my favourite foods, in any form: ratatouille, heavy on the aubergine and light on tomato; grilled, including in sandwiches with salad and garlic mayonnaise; imam baldi (the imam fainted, either with delight or shock at the profligate use of olive oil ...), brinjal bhaji or any other use in curry, and any of the dippy kind of things from aubergine caviar to baba ganoush. A Japanese friend whose cooking, including her fish and chips, was the food of angels, used to cook them delectably in tempura. The etymology of the name is also delicious, coming as it does to French from Catalan from Arabic via Persian ultimately from Sanskrit, a distinguished and near-mystical pedigree, one might say. I thought I'd better supply a link and lo-and-behold the illustrious Language Hat has one of the best available. I should get there more often. Eggplant is also a good word, if more down-to-earth, and reminds one that they can also be as white as eggs. But when I say I love aubergine, I also mean the colour, which can only mean purple to black.

A fine memory of them was that of cycling the lanes around Muchelney in Somerset, near where my mother used to live, visiting the beautiful old Abbey and picking up a bottle or so of Burrow Hill cider, and calling in on a farm where a lady, the farmer's mother, used to sell the surplus from her vegetable garden, including delicious long thin aubergines, as well as peppers and spinach. I bought half a bottle of Burrow Hill's first ever cider brandy, and really should have kept it as it would probably be very valuable now, but it was just too good.

Monday, December 01, 2008