Saturday, August 30, 2008

In your absence...

... or was it mine?

The computer whiz arrived and whisked off the computer, so I was unable to read or reply to the comments on the last post. Tom told me off for being rude about bulls' bits, and I notice some of you are still insisting on NOT squeezing the jelly bag, such effete culinary purism, or even puritanism. You know who you are, Joe. I concede there may be a point with paler apple jelly...

He has done nothing with the computer, because he couldn't get it to misbehave to order, he uttered unintelligible things about possible RAM chip failures and how a new laptop wasn't all that expensive anyway, and that really reformatting it 'back to factory settings' seemed rather drastic under the circumstances. Oddly, I was kind of looking forward to having a tabula rasa; the idea of an empty My Pictures, feeds and favourites all blank and needing to be resubscribed, new shortcuts made, was somehow appealing, a born-again computer. I know I could do it anyway, but I won't. So we must simply observe a few precautions and wait and see.

In the meantime, I have finished three novels, cut the grass, pointed quite a large section of wall, done some drawing, sprayed the tomatoes with Bordeaux mixture (yes, I know it's late, but so are the tomatoes, and the pumpkin leaves were looking a bit mildewed too so I included them), taken Tom for a check-up and met some really lovely people in Lamballe (see below). Oh, and the new car's battery also died, but the garagist replaced that under guarantee.

The angelic bowel doctor is very pleased with progress, and booked us in for all the preliminary stages for the op. Unfortunately, rather than getting it all neatly done and dusted by the beginning of October, it will be a rather more strung out sequence of events than that, which left us worried and unsettled as to how it will all pan out and fall into place with other events.

My anxiety was somewhat allayed when Rosie-Gillian rang to see how we were, and I asked on impulse if she might be able to stand in and teach my classes for a week or two and she said 'yeah, all right' just as if I wasn't asking a huge favour at all ... Just knowing someone is willing to help out is reassuring, and this confirms for me that bloggers, at least the ones I know, are the very best of people.

Which was further reaffirmed by meeting up with Julia of Kolokolo and her gorgeous family in Lamballe. They live in Prague, but have been staying at Val Andre, up the coast a way. I lured them down to Lamballe with the hope of a second hand bookshop for Julia's husband, which turned out to have closed down who knows when, since I last looked anyway, but they were so gracious and sweet and serene they didn't seem at all fed up, and anyone would have thought that having coffee and trailing round Lamballe market on a wet Thursday in late August that felt more like October was a worthwhile thing in itself. They said if we came to Prague they'd be tour guides there for us, which seemed to me we'd rather get the better end of the bargain.

Flame-headed James is obviously a very cool traveller at just three and a half months, and looks quite bit like his dad, less the professorial beard and glasses,

and pretty, self-possessed C. ( "... and I'm from Prague!" she asserted proudly, when her parents had told me where in America they came from originally), wears red ribbons on her plaits to school, is conversant in three languages, and reached for all the printed matter in sight as soon as we sat down.

and Julia's even more like she is on her blog than she is on her blog!

Just lovely people, they felt like my friends straight away. Which I think they are.


Now, on the eve of September, it's finally decided to be summer, I don't know for how long. I'll try to catch up with blogs ASAP, but it feels a little sinful not to be outside when it's sunny at last. Thanks again for being here when I got back!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"Jellies soother than the creamy curd..."

The blackberries this year seemed early and plentiful, beginning to ripen at the end of July.
I felt an urge to a bit of country-wifery, and, as pips are not allowed in the current dietary regime, this meant bramble jelly. Indeed, blackberry pips are really a little too pippy in any quantity, though I have never forgiven the rudeness of one of our elderly neighbours, to whom I had given a jar of blackberry and apple jam, who brought the empty jar back the next day, evidently emptied and rinsed out, saying she hadn't liked it because of the pips.

The pips in raspberry jam, however, contribute indispensibly to its raspberry-jamminess, and I would consider raspberry jelly to be an emasculated kind of a thing. But raspberries are never in sufficient quantities these days to do anything with other than eat with cream. In my childhood we had a forest of raspberry canes which the birds never seemed to raid, and an unlimited supply of the fruit which we could mess about with, inventing recipes and gorging ourselves all summer, culminating in an evening of fragrant jam making with the doors open to the evening air. There was never any problem with setting, and I don't remember adding any apple for pectin, though we also had a good old double-trunked Bramley apple tree in the same corner of the garden. Bramley apples are one of the things I sometimes think about wistfully here, though 'miss' may be too strong a word. Granny Smiths are a dismal apology for cooking apples, though Tom likes to eat them raw, I can't abide their plasticcy skins and watery acidity.

So, bramble jelly. I'm sure you all know how to make it, or else live in parts of the world where blackberries don't grow, but in my usual spirit of teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, I'll tell you how I did it. I picked somewhat under a kilo of berries, about two pounds, they don't have to be the most perfect specimens for jelly, then raided one of Victor's roadside cider wildings for a handful of the underripe apples, for the pectin, to make it set. I heaped them up in nonchalant still-life attitudes for the photo call, then soaked the blackberries for a few hours in cold water with some bicarbonate of soda. Not many bugs came out, and I rinsed them off.

Then I roughly chopped up the li'l green apples, and just covered the whole with water. and stewed and stewed them all up.

When it's all turned into a lovely dark purple mush, you get a big bowl and a jelly bag, and scoop the mush into the latter, and suspend it over the former. This is not a very photogenic part of the proceedings, because, at the risk of giving the more delicate among you an attack of the vapours, the distended jelly bag looks like nothing so much as a set of bull's testicles. I think I've lived in the country too long.

Anyway, it drips away happily, overnight if possible. Now this is my most important instruction: don't listen to any of those Women's Institute types who tell you not to squeeze the jelly bag. You must squeeze the jelly bag at the end, for several reasons: 1) You will obtain more juice that way, and more juice means more jam. 2) Who wants crystal clear jelly? It has much more flavour with a bit of pulp in it. 3) You will experience the delicious sensation of pectinous, purple, fragrant juice running all over your hands 4) You won't be able to help yourself. So, go on, squeeze that jelly bag, you know you want to, and furthermore, unless you work in a very specific sector of agricultural science, it's the nearest you'll get to squeezing a set of bull's testicles!
The next bit is where metric weights and meausures, about which I'm not normally at all Luddite, let you down, because there is no satisfactory metric rule of thumb corresponding to a pint to a pound. Measure your juice, and mix it in the preserving pan with sugar, a pint to a pound. I am continentally assimilated to the point where I only have metric scales, but I do still have a pint measuring jug. A foot in both camps.
Bring it all to a good roiling, or rolling, boil, then turn it down a bit and leave it for twenty minutes or so. You can skim the frothy stuff off if you like, which is good because then you get to eat it.
Setting. I still make mistakes and put jam in jars before it's reached setting point, even apparently idiot proof things chock-full of pectin like aple jelly and marmalade, and there's nothing worse than having to pour it all back in the pan and reboil it. (Actually, there's probably many things worse, but not in the area of jam-making. No, in fact, burning the whole lot to the bottom of the pan while you go back to bed of a Sunday morning, that's worse. I've done that too...)
The spoon test never seems quite reliable, I put a blob on a glass plate and put it in the freezer, then wander off while it goes on bubbling. In a few minutes it should be chilled and wrinkle when you push it across the plate. I reckon if it does, with the extra few minutes it's had while you've waited, it should be set. This method is also good because you get to lick the rest of the blob off the cold plate.
I never do any of the recommended waiting till it cools then putting it in sterilised jars. Cooled jam seems to me a recipe for mouldy jam in next to no time. I rinse the jars, lids on, with boiling water, then pour the hot jam straight in and screw the lids on. They go ping ping as they contract later. It generally seals well.
So now you have pretty purple jars of sweet stuff, to put on your toast and rice pudding, with no pips!


I'm writing this while I can, since the computer is complaining mightily, refusing to co-operate in unpredictable ways and throwing up blue-screen error messages. I've de-fragged it, done a hard disk check and fix, tried a system restore but it refuses to do that either, so I think I might call our friendly local anglophone computer whiz for advice, and perhaps visit the nice young Erwanns at Gigahertz. I don't like the idea of allowing Dell to come and take it away, but that might be necessary. It's no age to be breaking down like this really. I scribbled down all the impenetrable codes on the blue-screen message, and saved everything of value on DVD and USB key. Last night it wouldn't connect to the internet at all though the ballon was coming up telling me it had.

Another thing going wrong this summer, but a computer doesn't bleed or feel pain. If I have to do without it for a bit, I'll hold you all in my heart until we meet again, and dream of the day when we have advanced so as a species we can do all this telepathically without the need for cumbersome intermediary machines. See you soon.

Friday, August 22, 2008

St Laurent fête

Well, touchwood, everything seems to be ticking along as it should here. We've reached the quite pleasant point of convalescence, where recovery seems to be assured, the worst discomfort is passed, the next lot should be some way off, some things are beginning to be enjoyed again, but weakness and exceptional circumstances mean you don't have to try to do anything onerous. I'm quite happy to participate in this general atmosphere of relaxed contingency...

Perhaps now, it's time for a change of subject, and some pictures.

I did say I was going to post about the fête I went to at St Laurent, an outlying village of our local commune. Though there is not much there, it is more a true village than our hamlet: it has a centre with a chapel, though no pub, school or shops. There used to be a bar, and I think there is a lady who will do 'restauration' on request in her home - one of my neighbours once told me enthusiastically that she was preparing a 'tête de veau' for a group of the elders of 'le club' who were convening there.

The chapel is old, simple, whitewashed, light, its structure visible, which appeals to the protestant with a small 'p' in me, the protestant-to-the-core which I think perhaps many English people are, whether or not they are observantly religious or believing. (I typed British there at first, to be correct, and not offend Scottish readers, or any Welsh ones I may have, but then changed it, I think perhaps I am talking about the middle-class English...). Then it is embellished with the kind of polychrome, glittery imagery and counter-reformation decorative bits which appeal less; try as I might, they so often seem tawdry.

Although the term 'fête champêtre' is often used by the organisers of British garden parties and such like to give their events some kind of extra charm and cachet, the reality of these events here often seems to me a little, dare I say, dull. The competitive busybody busy-ness, the colour and engagement, the charitable commerciality and general plethora of outgoing activity you get at an English village fête, the raffles and tombolas and coconut shies, the produce and homemade jam, etc etc, are absent. But I've come to see these events have their own charm, and I quite like it that people here seem to be happy with less overall stimulus and action. Anyway, you can't say people here don't know how to enjoy themselves, when there's the Ploeuc-sur-Lie potato festival, as advertised by the banner, to look forward to.

So, what was going on at St Laurent?

Well, there were some tractors.

And there was a man making crêpes. (There was a buvette, a bar tent, but they didn't seem to have any cider to go with the crêpes, rather an oversight).

There was a wood-carver, who was carrying on the proud tradition of tawdry, polychrome graven images with this larger than human-size replica of the Statue of Liberty,

and there was what has become a regular feature of the St Laurent fête, the rope-making machine. This stretches the length of the field, and several strands of twine are strung along it,

a person winds a handle, and as the strands twist together, the platform he is standing on moves along in its runners, with him on it. I think this 'having a ride' aspect of the activity is what draws people to participate in it. Who needs the Corkscrew at Alton Towers when you can have a go on the rope-making machine at St Laurent?

it twists and twists again, like it did last summer, and the one before that, until it's made this pretty, strong length of rope,

and by the end of the day, they must have many fine coils of it.

There were some characterful dogs for Molly to bark at;

the border collie was a ball addict, who kept stealing the kickabout football the local children were entertaining themselves with and running off with it. He was finally fobbed off with a tennis ball, which he dropped at the feet of anyone who looked like they might be good for a throw.

Finally, the stars of the show this year, the special event, and why I turned out again, were the horses.

They came with a group of Breton horse enthusiasts from Guingamp, who hire them out for special occasions. When I arrived, they were having their hair done.

The end results were very smart.

Then they gave rides in a caleche around the village, and on their very large backs too, to some quite small people.

If you can;t reach the stirrups, put your feet in the leathers. I remember that.

One of the most delightful groups was the elderly chap with his three horses, probably a mare, foal and yearling. He seemed to have a very loving, communicative relationship with them.

When the camera caught his eye,

he gently pushed the people he was talking to out of the way, parted and prettified the mare's forelock, and posed happily.

'She likes me, doesn't she?' he said of his horse, beaming.
He obviously loved having his picture taken. I don't often take scenes with unknown people in them, and feel a little uneasy with it. I figured the horse troop expected and liked to be photographed, but many of those I took with other people around the horses, especially the children, I didn't keep. Partly because I think people in a photograph get in the way and spoil things rather, and partly because I'm aware of privacy issues. And horrible as it is, taking pictures of children without consent has become particularly uncomfortable. The face, or much at all, of the little girl above, trying on the hard hat, is not visible, so that seemd OK, and I loved this vignette of the small boy by his father's feet, absorbed in his game with the woodcarver's sawdust.

A moment later, though, he looked up, and I snapped again. It was a simply beautiful picture; his eyes were blue-green and his regard candid, limpid, direct. But it was a look that said, you are invading my privacy, and he did not return my smile. It hurt me a little to do it but I deleted the picture altogether, I had no right to it, I felt, though the one above, with his face turned away, seems acceptable, I don't know if it is.

The odd thing is, similar pictures of children looking warily into the camera in exotic locations and costumes can be seen all over the web, in books, in National Geographic and other magazines, and their difference, the anthropological interest, seems to legitimise it. Perhaps their parents sign release forms, but the essence of a good capture shot is of course a dynamic of surprise, spontaneity. I know cleverer analyses than this have been made over and over about the relationship between camera and subject.

Perhaps I'll stick with plants and animals.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

He's home!

" How could you tell them about my toenails!"
" Would you rather I told them all about your bowels then?"
"Yes, probably. I hate my feet."
In fact he's not looking quite as cheerful as in this picture, which Pascal took a while back. But he's better than he was, and calm and positive, and fortified with a barrage of extra medicaments, schedules for further blood tests, another appointment next week, and the final unappetising prospect of surgery in a few to take out the offending bits of his insides once the infection has cleared. The surgeon was presented to us yesterday and is about seven foot tall and wears alarmingly pointy shoes.
The gastro-enterology specialist, on the other hand, looks like he should have auditioned for the part of the angel in 'The Vintner's Luck'. How such a beautiful being should want to spend his time poking about the nastier parts of people's insides is a puzzle.
Fortunately the surgery can be done by laparoscopy - 'keyhole' surgery, so shouldn't be too invasively horrid. And he's been told to avoid green vegetable and too much fruit, so he's happy about that, not being one who's desperately eager to eat his five a day.
We are very fortunate overall to have such good treatment and such a good hospital. Everyone was marvellous, kind and patient, and it shines like a new pin.
So far so good, and thanks again to everyone here. This place, you people, matter, really, a lot.

Monday, August 18, 2008

And again...

The results of the blood test, taken at home by the nurse, were through very quickly, as the doctor at the hospital rang at 4 o'clock, and said that he'd just been faxed them, and clearly there was still a lot of inflammation somewhere, on which the antibiotics were not working, so would Tom accept being hospitalised again? I more or less said he'd have no choice if I had anything to do with it. He had less fever and pain but was simply very unwell, and I was getting a bit desperate.

So this was not a mad and terrified dash this time, we even had time to pack properly, only omitting toe-nail clippers, which he'd forgotten he needed until he took his socks off in the hospital. It's mostly a relief, and now he's in the right department, with a scanner scheduled for tomorrow, we hope he'll get a proper diagnosis and treatment.

I feel considerably less wobbly now than before. I ran into 85 year old Victor clambering about on ladders pruning hedges, as I was coming in, and told him something of the story. He mentioned that he'd just had something resembling a minor stroke and was due to go in for a scan too, in the meantime he'd just carry on clambering around on ladders, it takes more than a brain haemorrhage to keep a Le Faucheur from his bricolage. I chatted over it with a couple of other neighbours who were out inspecting the potato and carrot crop, and it was pointed out that we haven't really had a serious illness since we've been here, so have done quite well - not to mention saving on the complementary insurance. I rang J who invited me round to eat, which I turned down, pleading the need to walk the dog, a glass of wine and Richard Dawkins, but took a raincheck to go round there for a drink after visiting tomorrow, even though she's having her last session of chemo during the day.

Withal, I feel very bien entourée, not least because of the concern and support shown here. Let's hope we get it sorted out this time. And thanks again for the loving kindness.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Update on Tom

Thanks all once more for your concern and kind comments, phone calls, prayers, good thoughts, light, crossed fingers and all other forms of well-wishing and intercession, it really does all help. You really are the best set of readers I could wish for.

Sorry to have been slow to update, mostly that's because of uncertainty. We've alternated between optimism and a sense of improvement and lapses into unhappy despondency and worry. Things are manageable and more comfortable now, but it's not really clear whether the antibiotics are working or not. The fever and spells of pain have continued longer than they should, and we resorted on Friday to paracetamol, supplied by a duty pharmacist who was the only person available on the public holiday - the one celebrating the going up into heaven of the Virgin Mary, clearly very important in this fiercely secular nation (I kind of wish I lived in a German speaking country at Ascension and Assumption: Christi and Maria Himmelfahrt always sound like a female comedy duo...).

I was able to ring the specialist at the hospital on Saturday morning, who seemed a little concerned at the apparent relative ineffectiveness of the antibiotics, and offered to see him there that day, but we were really not too keen on the prospect of trailing up there, waiting around, more painful probings, his possibly being admitted and having to sit in hospital over the weekend, and beyond, waiting to be seen by non-committal people, when he could just as well be kept comfortable at home. So the doctor sanctioned the paracetamol and said give it a couple more days.

So there we are, and there is an improvement: last night was the first without fever, and the pain is still hanging around but comes and goes quite quickly, and doesn't seem to be in any places that are too ominous, though internal pain's a funny thing and doesn't always clearly reflect its source. He allowed himself to be utterly transported by Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra playing Brahms 4th on the Proms last night (both orchestra and symphony are capable of moving to tears independently so the combination is a cert), and he carried the tea tray down and made coffee and sent an e-mail to D. taking him to task for a lack of enthusiasm for Brahms, having tried to explain to me the power of intervals, inverse intervals and sums of intervals in said work, and how you don't need a melody with all that going on. Then he ate some breakfast and flaked out. I don't think he'd have been capable of any of that a day or two ago, so clearly he is somewhat better. It's just so hard to know what to expect. He'll have a blood test done tomorrow by the district nurse, so that will presumably make things a little clearer.

I've distracted myself with Flickr, yet another dilettantish iron in the fire. In fact I discovered browsing around on Flickr before even knowing anything much about blogs, and before having a camera, but put it to one side once I started blogging as requiring yet more computer-based time which might be better spent otherwise. Then in order to see the pictures of Tall Girl's wedding do that were set aside as private I was urged to open an account there, so I took the plunge. It's spurred me into some reviewing and tidying of older photos, and I have enjoyed the unfamiliarity of the landscape, a different way of connecting and presenting information, finding my way around tags, sets and groups, the relatively impersonal nature of it, simply floating around in the mostly visual. The groups are fascinating, you name it there's probably a group for it; there's a group about Dogs named Molly, another for Picasa Collages, beautiful collections of waterlilies and lotus, and many quite small but friendly and active ones based around this locality.

These last are of particular interest, following conversations with Rosie-Gillian,(Bitch about Brittany), as to whether it might be good to make more contact with French language Bloggers. In principal I can see the virtue of this, but in truth, the pleasure I get from writing here is from expressing myself in English, writing in French would not be very interesting for me or any French readers, and from my attempts to read blogs in French, I am painfully aware what slow and laborious work it is. I'm a little ashamed to admit this after eleven years here, but there it is. Getting round all the blogs I want to read in English and doing them justice takes up enough time, and the register of language in French ones, the references and expressions used, are not easily accessible to me - reading Flaubert is comparitively straightforward, really. However, when the main focus of attention is the image, familiar experiences and places shared visually, with no obligation to be too verbal, it's much easier and more fun to make contacts, so I'm enjoying that.

So that is the story so far. Apologies for not getting around so much, and for the lack of entertainment here. Mol seems to be OK, though she's been very fidgetty with all the untoward goings on, a dog likes her routine.

Much love, and thanks again.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So, there I was worrying about the dog...

... who has, after all, been shaking her head about and seems sensitive around the other ear now.

And I rather neglected my husband, who had been a bit the worse since eating moules frites a week before in hot sun (about the only bit of that we've had of late). His insides are always ticklish to say the least, but it seemed to get better, then it seemed to get worse again, so I rang our doctor, who was on holiday without a locum, the recorded message advised we visit another doctor in the area or in case of emergency call 15. Tom said never mind he'd wait till after the weekend if it wasn't better by then...

I even went out for an hour or two on Sunday to live it up at the local village fete, where there were Breton horses on show, and took some photos, which I will post later, the intervening drama notwithstanding.

Sunday night he was took very much worse, in a lot of quite alarming pain, and I caved in and called 15, hoping for a médecin de garde, but no such thing existed, it seemed, on a Sunday night in August, and I was told to drive him to various not very local hospitals ( where the f. is Chateaulaudren anyway?). As he was at that point incapable of walking from the en suite bathroom to our bed other than on all fours, and I didn't really fancy driving through the night with him doubled up in agony beside me, I said no, impossible, and they ordered an ambulance.

Two very nice, hunky ambulance men duly arrived, and clumped up the stairs. Molly, who I'd sort of forgotten about under the bed, flew at the large boots of the larger ambulance man with a volley of barking, then ran downstairs and out of the front door to investigate the wheels of the ambulance, a dog has her priorites after all, and the wheels of strange vehicles are some kind of equivalent of the internet for dogs. They wrapped Tom up in blankets and absorbant paper, and said they were taking him to St Brieuc, which might have been feasible for me to drive to after all, but frankly I was happy to have the help, though having looked at the charges for an ambulance journey for those without complementary insurance I wonder if I shouldn't have been braver. Hindsight.

I packed up dog and a few personal effects for Tom - in the absence of his having a James Patterson or Harry Potter on the go his current reading was 'Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals' and a book on watercolour, his Nordic style fleecy slippers, I forgot his toothbrush - and set off to follow the van and not dilly-dally.

When I found him on a trolley in urgences the pain had abated somewhat, though he was very feverish. That was about 11 pm. There seemed to be an abundance of young and personable medical staff, who took as much time, discussion, blood and urine as if we had been having a midweek consultation with BUPA. By this time we were both thinking it would be quite nice to be home with a generous supply of pain killers and an appointment for the following day, and by about 2.30 am had almost got the less certain of the young doctors round to this point of view, but then a very sharp young woman doctor appeared, pummelled him some more and asked more questions, then announced she was keeping him there.

By the time I left they had taken out more bodily fluids and replaced them with a commensurate volume of painkillers, and I finally put my head on the pillow at exactly 4 am. Then lifted it up again when I heard a mosquito whining in my ear because the plug-in hadn't been refilled because that's the kind of thing I rely on him to do. Despite having given Mol breakfast when we got in in the hopes that it might forestall her waking me up for it at 6, she still discharged her duty and did so anyway. I dozed a bit after that.

Arriving back on Monday afternoon I fairly quickly gave up hope of bringing him back that day. One doctor had shown up and told him he didn't have appendicitis, another, a gastro-enterology specialist was predicted, as was, rather vaguely, someone to administer an endoscopy but neither appeared. He slipped in and out of sleep while I tried to read 'Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals', having forgotten to bring my own book ('The Tenderness of Wolves', highly recommended). I had remembered his toothbrush and shaver.

I went home, cried a bit, drank a couple of glasses of wine and ate some pasta, and fell asleep in front of Dick Dawkins explaining the evolutionary causes of altruism. So I'm still in the dark about that.

The next day, today, that is, though time seems to have warped peculiarly and it seems to me as if I am writing about a period of many years rather than a mere 48 hours or less, I remembered to bring my book. However, like Epamynandos, I seem fated to do the thing I should have done the last time which turns out to be irrelevant or inappropriate for this. Tom was tearing up the place with impatience, feeling considerably better, wanting to go home and very cross that no doctor had appeared to give him a diagnosis or any instructions. I had wailed out loud to no one on the way home the day before that I wanted my Angry Old Git back, and now he seemed to be well on the way.

So my efforts were required to keep him nailed down and badger the very lovely, very efficient nurses, to find a doctor, any doctor, to sign his release papers, and we'd get onto our GP to refer him to a specialist later, since I wasn't quite sure how long I could hold him down for. The gastro-enterologist finally showed up in the final countdown to unauthorised breakout, made him an appointment for tomorrow for an endoscopy, which we're glad of, since there clearly is a problem which needs looking at and we've put it off for too long, and said he could go home. This crisis was a painful and expensive way of precipitating us into it.

He's very wobbly, but no longer in pain. I wouldn't say Thomas is Himself Again, but he's something more recognisable. He ate some soup tonight and took himself off to bed. He just came down again with the empty mosquito plug-in, and asked where the spare one was.

And the dog? Very pleased to have her Adoring Old Git back, she's been quite subdued. Still shaking her head a bit, but that'll have to wait.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

People come and people grow...

My niece made this small ceramic pendant, I find I'm wearing it quite a lot of late. Visiting Princeling and his family, I decided against earrings as he has a baby's fascination with shiny pendulous jewellery and the results can be painful, but wore the pendant anyway. He has always had very expressive and intelligent fingers, many photos of him show funny, emphatic gestures he forms with them, like a small philosopher, making his point with precision.

I'm not sure if this poem's finished or ready; I whittled away at it for a few days then put it to one side, and wasn't sure if I wanted to keep it. Then I read this post, which caught my eye in excerpt at Dave's Smorgasblog (oh happy day when that came back!), at Watermark, where I hadn't been before, and it affirmed the thoughts behind it, and made me more inclined to post it.

People come and people grow...

Ilan's starfish hand turns
the seagreen pebble pendant over,
- a splat, said Kate, who played
with stones and mud pies,
and made it, a scrap
of clay thrown on the kiln floor,
only the upside glazed -
he pulls the cord out taut
from my neck, slides it
like an abacus's bead, learns
with fingers how it's smooth
and round one surface, rough
and flat the other, finds out
first hand about, and studies,
this two-sidedness of things.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


I'm pointing again. I've quite missed it, I realise, as I haven't done any for at least two years now, though it used to be one of my main spring to autumn activities. Completing the front of the house probably took me most of five years, which tells you something of the efficiency of my method. Now I'm working on the south-west facing gable end - pignon in French and pine-end in some dialects of English, I understand.

Professional pointers have big messy machines containing large quantities of quite liquid lime-based mortar which they extrude out like toothpaste through tubes into the cracks, and they do it in gangs, often with power chisels too. I took the job on having watched our uncle-and-nephew team of macons (can't seem to find a c-cedilla on the character map...) doing it round our doorways.

I have a couple of cold chisels, and a small club hammer which belonged to my mother, who used it on firewood. A curious distaff heirloom, you may think; but one that I'm most fond of, it's size and weight are perfect and comfortable for me. When I commented that it had been my mother's to our former neighbour, Jean, the idea rather tickled him, and he dubbed it le marteau de la mère. He used to watch and give me the odd tip, and sometimes asked 'how are your chisels?', and would whisk them off and sharpen them for me on a griding wheel. Now he's moved away, they mostly stay blunt, though Tom sometimes does them on the angle grinder, but I don't press for this since I'm terrified he'll amputate some vital part of himself in the action.

I use standard bricking cement based mortar, which I mix in small quantities in a bucket with some polyurethane-based stuff which plasticises it and makes it more waterproof. I mix it quite stiff, and, wearing diposable gloves, roll it into long thin sausages which I work in between the wetted stones like clay, then press in and smooth with a very thin trowel and an old paintbrush. On the front of the house I went over the lot with a very expensive, silken smooth, very workable repair mortar and a wet brush, but the end wall will not receive this cosmetic treatment.

We have little idea how old our house is, it pre-dates living memory at which point things get a bit vague (they're fairly vague where living memory's concerned too...). Someone told us that the peg-holes in the principle beams for thatch indicate it was built pre-Revolution, since they stopped using thatch then, because the Chouans, counter-revolutionary royalist and Catholic insurgents, many of whom, as is ever the way with insurgents, were as like as not opportunist brigands, were apt to set fire to thatched buildings. But I doubt this; the wood looks too well-planed to be that old, and I think thatch was used much longer for low-grade buildings that didn't merit proper roofs. At a guess, it's perhaps 150 years old.

It probably grew up as a fairly organic structure - which is to romanticise it. It was originally a longère, which also sounds too romantic, not one of the imposing, noble, substantial ones, but a two room hovel, one for people, one for the beasts, which at some point was lengthened, with the minimum of window openings and an unlined hayloft above,. Over eleven years, we have slowly, with much re-invention of the wheel and a certain amount of personal physical damage, brought it into a state closer to that normally expected of human habitation in the 20th century ( yes, I know it's now the 21st but you can't have everything...).

It was built mostly with materials readily to hand.The stone is micro-granite, not the very old, beautiful flecky blue stuff, of which there is a little, probably a couple of cartloads, used as dressing stone around the doors just to ensure the place didn't fall down,

but a geologically younger substance, the kind of amorphous lumps of rock which were turned up in the fields, probably put aside in stone heaps and dumps when land was cleared, found, not quarried, stone. It is mostly friable, dusty stuff, with spots of mica and veins of rustiness in it, which is what keeps the hydrangeas blue.

(That and ericaceous compost.)

All was held together with what seems to be little more than mud, though it must presumably have had some lime in it. In some places this has stood up quite well, in others it had all but disappeared and the wall was held together mostly with friction and its own weight.

The preparatory work involves digging out the old mortar, with an old file, then chipping round the stones to make larger gaps between them and to align their edges so they at least give the impression of having been laid in courses. In some parts, as here near the front door,

their placing was so random and higgledy-piggledy that much of my time was spent eying them up and marking them, trying to find a logical way to shape and replace them. I feel I only partially succeeded.

It rather feels as if I'm doing dental work. That part done, I brush out as much dust as I can, and put all the chips of stone back again!

This is to economise on mortar and to give it more strength and a better key, the stone chips are embedded in mortar matrix.

One of the reasons I've been a little disinclined to get out and continue the job is that it exposes me to the village and thus to conversation and comment. Especially as the gable end job means getting up on the corrugated iron roof of the lean-to.

Marie (two years ago): 'Ah, ma grande, I am afraid for you up there on your roof!'

Victor (who finds a pretext to work this end of his patch if anything whatsoever visible is happening at ours): ' You aren't afraid to fall, then?'

Claude (looking for his truant cat again): 'Oh lala, look at you up there!'

Dutch bulb-growing neighbour's Dutch mother (just visiting): 'Be careful you don't fall!'

Tom (appearing from the house to tell me the news about the England cricket captain, which obviously is of immediate importance): 'Are you OK? You look a bit frightened...'

In case anyone should be passing through our village and see me on the perfectly safe, gently sloping, very well supported (old Marcel fixed it about 30 years ago, he told me, and he never does anything sloppily) garage roof, NO, I AM NOT FRIGHTENED! At the point where I would fall, were I to fall, which I'm not going to, it's about seven feet off the ground, with a gutter I could grab hold of.

What I am frightened of is swallows. The ones nesting in the garage. The other day one was coming in the door as I was going out of it and I felt its wingtip brush my cheek. I love them dearly but this degree of proximity alarms me. They seem to have amazing realtime collision avoidance systems, but that was close. Fortunately, they don't seem to have caught on that when I'm on the roof I'm just inches and a thin layer of corrugated above their little ones, and they haven't taken to dive-bombing me. The babies are at that grotesque little monster stage (the one some human infants spend quite a lot of time at, you know?). They nested late, were rather disturbed by our earlier concrete mixing activities in the area, and perhaps struggled to find enough mud too, so the nest looks a bit shallow and half-finished, and I am afraid for them also, that the nestlings will tumble out before they're ready.

(Apologies for poor picture quality, it was taken with flash from some distance, so as not to disturb them too much)

The end of the house where I'm working used to be pitted with sparrows' nests too, which worried me, that they would be nesting while I tried to work. But they seem to have mostly deserted, though they still nest in chinks and odd angles in other parts of the building. In the first year we were here, a family of starlings were living in a hole in the back wall, I could hear their chatter from inside, just above the fridge. Mason bees and the occasional hornet still make explorations. I was in the loo one day when a swallow flew in, fluttered over my head, and left again. It felt as though the house was becoming porous, losing its grip on human life, sliding sleepily into slow ruination, being reclaimed by the earth from which it had been made. Rousing it from this state, pushing back the lethargy of nature that was overcoming it, has been a sometimes difficult and painful process, and the house has on occasion seemed surly and recalcitrant to the point of hostility, but we understand each other better now, and I hope we have offset the loss of the place to the wild by creating more variety and natural diversity around it, rather than the monocultured empty field that came up to the back wall before.

And, of course there were mice. Rats too, in the old hayloft which is now the room where we sleep, though none living in our time here, only their corpses. But the rapid skittering of mice overhead was commonplace, though never welcome. The walls, at least half a meter thick at their base, were honeycombed with the runs and homes of mice, who must have lived well on the grain that was stored in the loft. I often found these as I was working on them. I wrote this at the time, and just looked it out and revised it a bit.

Pointing the wall

Mice are archivists.

In the name of preservation, I dig out and destroy
their store rooms and chambers, break and replace
the friable stone and lichenous mud of mortar.
The curators themselves are long gone;
rarely their skeletons remain, flesh- and furless,
brittle and dried with time and warfarin.
Rarely too, their distant offspring now appear,
bringing a disproportionate anxiety into our lives,
so we commit new acts of souricide.
Yet, excavating their vacated rooms and tombs,
I've found small scraps of muslin, used perhaps
to wrap the butter from the cow or two that lived
in the end room of our house - butter was worth more
as money than as children's food; the children grew
quite strong on buttermilk, sawed wood, scythed grass,
rode gearless bikes to visit distant seaside cousins,
and sometimes live still to a good age -
and, in other cavities, hard pyramidal grains of buckwheat,
saracen grain, blé noir, now literally black with age.
This hasn't, I've been told, been grown round here for fifty years or more,
galettes are mostly made with flour from Canada.
Once, though, the scent of its white flowers hung heavy in the air,
bringing the bees and beekeepers from far afield,
to the farms and fields of inland Côtes du Nord.

Our hedges and trees have grown up and surround us cosily, our interior living space has become comfortable, pleasant, quite warm and well-equipped. We have wrapped ourselves in comfort and an indolent independence, become interior people. It does me no harm to scramble around on the outside again, expose myself to the birds and my neighbours, to take care of the outer surfaces for a while.

So if you don't see me round here, I'm probably out on the garage roof. And no, I'm not frightened.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Return of the gatekeepers

August is the month of the gatekeepers, small, unremarkable but, to me, delightful butterflies, which appear in large numbers and live just a few weeks. It seems a little uncertain why they are called gatekeepers, except they are creatures of hedgerows, where there used to be many more gates than there are now, feeding on ragwort and brambleflowers, which would have grown around the gates. I find the name is part of their charm, giving them a benign and slightly totemic character, which 'wall brown', their other common name, does not.

The ballet of the gatekeepers on the marjoram has always been one of the events of late summer I look forward to, an acutely seasonal and ephemeral thing. Their appearance coincides with the flowering of the herb, which they love to luxuriate in.

This year, however, they seem to be as drawn to the flowers of a new perennial wallflower in the bed opposite, and for some reason, they are more inclined to open their wings when feeding here than on the marjoram.

In a short time they will be gone, already as with the one below, their wings are beginning to fray and fade. It seems odd that one never sees a dead one, it is as though they simply crumble and dissolve into the August dust, to be resurrected out of it again next year.

Last year the summer was so awful that for the first time there were no gatekeepers, perhaps because the grasses the caterpillars feed on were just too waterlogged, and this year I would say their numbers are down, and those I see seem smaller than usual. But it's good to see them back.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Three haiku

Code orange rain warning.

It's a black and white matter,

why would we lie?

[Click to see orange!]

Through prismatic rain

Richard of York gave battle...

found gold at the end

Molly on the shore,

a salty sea dog, really

feeling much better!