Friday, October 31, 2008

Celebrating Samhain, Jack o'Lanterns

I planted this cucurbitum
down in the veggie bed,
I harvested and cured him
and hollowed out his head.

We'll call him Jack o'Lanterns
(though he's really rouge d'Etampes),
and now his brains to soup are turned,
his skull into a lamp.

Now veils between the worlds are thin
and ghosts and demons seen,
and Jack leers out with glowing grin,
says 'Happy Halloween!'

Thursday, October 30, 2008

As it turned out...

As it turned out
the backyard was a forest.

Within its shuttered space
the trees towered tall,
neck-craningly, taller than tall.
They arched with saddened grace,
sacred and measured as cathedral ribs,
dark red against opaque blue night.
Then, through their vaulted canopy,
a fragment of a flake white moon.

We stood in brokenness
for me to understand
they grew from your earth,
not mine.

I seem to think
you took my hand.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

While the tea's brewing...

I think I've just got time for a quick meme that both Spiralskies and Lesley at Peregrinations tagged me with. In fact it's very similar to one I did a bit over a year ago, but some of the questions have evolved and changed, and it's quite a satisfyingly quickfire one, so I'm up for doing it again.

(There was a little picture award thingy that went with it, but I must say I don't usually bother much with those. I heard somewhere recently they sometimes have nasties in them, is this so?)

Hair colour - grey getting greyer, we've talked about this.
Mother - the same age when I was born as I am next birthday. I suppose I was a miracle child, though I've never had that impression...
Father - brought me tea in the mornings. Advised me to look up at the sky through the leaves of the trees.
Favourite thing - just one? Looking at the sky throught the leaves of the trees. (There are many more...)
Dream last night - mm, no very nice ones, mostly involving hopitals and unpleasantness. The night before I had a good one about how Zhoen was actually a pilot, and all the difficult painful exercises she's had to do lately were really training for that, and she was very happy and very competent and flying us somewhere nice.
Dream goal - don't follow football.
Room you're in - intermediate space between kitchen/eating space and sitting room space, location of bookshelves, computer desk. We don't really do discrete rooms here.
Hobby - small fast-flying falcon, the only thing that can catch a swallow, French faucon hobereau. Occasionally one swings by here in late summer early autumn, bringing intense wonder in its wake.
Fear - violent death. Well, you did ask.
Where you want to be in 6 years - why 6? Roughly where I am now would be fine.
Where you were last night - roughly where I am now, give or take a few metres.
What you're not - oh, many things, probably more than what I am...
Wish list item - Don't have a wish list. A rug for the sitting room space would be nice, but we haven't seen one we both like.
Where you grew up - small town, Home Counties, down in a valley between a woodyard and a pet-murdering main road. Not quite as bleak as it sounds.
Last thing you did - read those words.
What you're wearing - grey jeans, nurdy brown fleece top, Jim Thompson silk scarf Lovely Sister brought back from Thailand in every subtle kind of blue/green/purple/grey. I love it I love it I love it.
What you're not wearing - a boxer's gumshield, hair lacquer.
TV - mostly crap.
Pets - Molly rejects that job description.
Computer - necessary to do this. Touchwood no blue screens lately
Mood - sometimes enhanced by wine.
Missing someone? - My youthful self? No, that's bollocks, I was a pain. No, no one specially at the moment.
Car - rusting red thing with four wheels out on the drive. But since the arrival of the Xsara, mine all mine!
Favourite shop - oh lord I don't know. The one that's got what I'm looking for at the time. Oh, I know, Tartapain bakery, but it's a den of iniquitous temptation, what with lemon tarts and bacon and onion baguettes and kouignn aman...
Summer - not the easiest I ever had. Still, mustn't grumble.
Love someone? - What me? Nah, can't be doing with that sort of thing.
Favourite colour - that which is appropriate to the object whereon it is. Yellow is lovely on daffodils but awful on me, for example.
Last time you laughed - probably at something daft.
Last time you cried - probably at something daft.
I shan't tag anyone, but pick it up if you fancy.

Monday, October 27, 2008


How long would I need
to steep in sleep,
foetal curved, clinging
to you and to its shelter,
etched by dreams,
to be well-tempered, hardened
to the world I wake to,
the one I left behind?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Health matters.

Tom saw the surgeon yesterday, who's given us dates for the hospital stay. He'll go in on the 13th November and come out on the 19th. So it's still quite a way off, though he's got a preliminary visit next week.

I'll end up fitting it around work, and have minched off and offloaded onto poor overworked Rosie largely unnecessarily, but will do so no more. Sod's Law being what it is, if I hadn't taken the time off everything would have collided and clashed, as I did, then it didn't. I should have known no health service anywhere could really have moved that fast. That saintly woman will receive Brownie points in heaven chocolate and chestnut pudding on earth, and my gratitude and fealty for ever and ever. My students will probably be utterly disgusted to have me back after half-term after enjoying her company for a couple of weeks. In the meantime I have offset my guilt and inaction by doing as many sewing, cooking, floor-cleaning, grass-cutting, wall-pointing, leaf-sweeping jobs as I could, and shall continue to do so. My neighbour has just approached me to give her granddaughter some English coaching over half-term, so that'll keep me somewhat usefully employed too.

Tom's fine, digging and mulching and suchlike and only a bit fractious with the situation.

Molly had a vet's check-up today. Her open ear is quite clean and healthy, even though I haven't done much to keep it that way lately, and the one which was operated where she had the abscess shows no sign of swelling or discomfort, so fingers crossed she's OK for the moment and the new diet has worked. She's quickly lost the extra weight she put on when adjusting to it, and was pronounced to be in generally good form. We concluded the horrendously expensive eye ointment wasn't worthwhile, and she no has 'artificial tears' at a quarter of the price which are simply soothing and just as good. Emy the vet was generally pleased with her, though in general she's not a fan of cocker spaniels. She also told us a story about a cat that's allergic to everything in its food except pure fish and soya. One day it went out and licked the barbecue, and had a bad allergic reaction. Now it's owner is terrified it will catch a mouse and be allergic to that. Emy reassured her that was fairly unlikely, as animals mostly develop allergies to things contained in commercial petfood, and as far as she knew the manufacturers didn't include mousemeat. It has to be the next thing though doesn't it? Whiskas with vole and mouse...

So, tentatively, things seem quite manageable, especially now we have dates and a reasonable level of clarity. It behoves us to remember that we'd be waiting a great deal longer and with more uncertainty for a hospital bed elsewhere in the world. Thanks to all here for kind and loving words, about this and all else.

(Note: I tried to post this yesterday evening, Thursday, but Blogger was mucking about and lost a big chunk of text for me. So today/yesterday etc refer to that...)

Saturday, October 18, 2008

'Fresh fire coal chestnut falls...'

October, and the chestnuts are on the ground. With more time and less money on my hands, like the reduced and self-sacrificing country family in Balzac's 'Père Goriot', who are said to have more chestnut soup than meat upon their table, it's time to avail myself of these most satisfying but time-consuming examples of food for free.

Sweet chestnut trees, chataigniers, are, with oaks, perhaps the most abundant trees here, which is one of the most noticeable differences between this landscape and that of Britain, where they are comparitively infrequent. Horse chestnuts, marronniers, by contrast, are relatively uncommon, even in town plantings, and the game of conkers is unknown, except to those familiar with or instructed in the eccentricities of British culture. The rationale behind this preference is perhaps a typically French one: why cultivate an inedible version of something for its beauty when there's one that yields something you can eat?

They are generally serviceable trees, as well as handsome; they grow fast, live long, and coppice well. The nuts are an optional bonus now, but in past centuries many a French rural dweller was saved from death by famine by eating chestnuts. The timber is good, and has been much used for building. It is said that spiders dislike it and won't make webs on chestnut wood, so it was practical for chateaux and other high-ceilinged buildings where dusting off cobwebs might pose a problem. It's reasonable wood for burning, if a little smoky.

The nuts here are variable; in a good year they are large and plentiful and worthwhile. This year they are rather small, after last year's atrocious summer they were, for the first time in living memory I think, non-existent, the previous year they were somwhat bug-ridden, I don't know why. But then we are rather too north-westerly, the climate too cool and damp. Further south grow the varieties which yield beautiful, plump, sweet nuts, easy to shell and peel, often two to a husk, the kind favoured for marrons glacés.

So why are they marrons glacés, when they are habitually called chataignes, and a marron is a conker? Good question, and one for which, like why you can't find non-cultured, non-UHT, fresh cream as opposed to crème fraiche, I have never received a satisfactory explanation. It simply elicits the the non-plussed response which is not really especially a Gallic shrug but more perhaps the reaction of people everywhere when their own linguistic or cultural inconsistencies and unanswerables are raised.

(The Gallic shrug also is something for which there is no real translation, as far as I know, and of which the French seem unaware as a national habit. My attempts to explain or convey what is meant by the term have resorted to imitation, and resulted in a puzzled and slightly hurt response, along the lines of "Do we do that? Oh dear...". I regretted trying, as if I had unkindly mocked a person for a tic or mannerism, and made them feel unhappy and self-conscious, criticised.)

Howsoever, the coda is always that of course that one should never eat a marron. Unless it is glacé, when it isn't really a marron. I have never understood how anyone above the age of four could possibly be so stupid as to make the mistake of eating a conker, but in case anyone is googling this to find 'difference between horse and sweet chestnut', I've kindly gone through my old drives and folders to find a picture of a horse chestnut, below,

and one of its leaves, below (which was a pretty one I used for a 'Handbook for Explorers' illustration, I am eternally proud to boast).

As you can see, they are very different, especially the husks, but somehow just the whole feel, weight, grain of them. I don't think they're even related.

Picking up chestnuts is in truth rather like picking up seashells on the beach; I always vow I won't get sidetracked into doing it, but then find I can't help myself. The spiny husks are called bogues (which according to Hannah Green in Little Saint,is a word of Breton or pre-Latin Gallic origin), and can be quite painful on and in fingers and paws. So it's advisable to wear gloves to collect them. I never do, because, as I say, I never mean to go collecting them. Sturdy shoes are a good idea for the preliminary shelling, as kicking them out of grass and leaf litter and splitting them open with a foot each side of the husk is an irresistible pleasure. Having said that, husking chestnuts in sandals is one of the surprising, inconsistent delights of an Indian summer.

So, having gathered your chestnuts, what to do with them? As I said, they are very time consuming. Generally I find it's better to gather them in small and manageable quantities, else they can defeat you. Then you can always just grill, peel and eat them hot as a treat on their own. Sadly, the best moment for chestnuts is usually before we light our first fires, but there are appealing special pans, like heavy, plain frying pans with holes in the bottom, specially conceived for the grilling of chestnuts, which you could use on the gas. I don't own one, but always mean to treat myself.

If you want to use them for cooking, then you have to get peeling. Recipes will say 'x amount of prepared chestnuts', but in this preparation lies the rub. The real problem is the inner skin, between the nut and the shell. I've tried many different ways, none of them is quick and easy, to remove it. I would always remove the outer shell first. Some recipes say boil them in the shells, but these are dirty and bitter, and the nuts will not be the better for it. Then I tend to plunge them a few at a time into boiling water, and pick off the membranous inner skin with a small pointed knife, rather like skinning tomatoes, but more fiddly. Boiling them too long, as with roasting them, makes them crumbly and the job difficult. Handling them hot is tricky, but leave them to cool and the skins contract back and don't come away. It's a delicate operation.

Then you can simmer them skinned, in stock if it's for a savoury dish, afterward. Recipes will often call for them as purée, obtained by passing them through a sieve. I think perhaps even my life might just be a bit too short for that, but a food processor will do it, and I might yet try the potato ricer, which for some unaccountable reason is one of my very favourite pieces of kitchen equipment. The purée soaks up a huge amount of liquid - water, milk or stock - to make it workable.

And what can you cook with them? They are very versatile, lend themselves to sweet and savoury alike. They are indeed good in soup, usually smooth ones, where they blend very well with all kinds of other autumnal things: potato of course, carrot, apple, parsnip (though the parsnip taste can overwhelm the more delicate chestnut flavour), and a particular favourite, which you can even buy in cartons here, is with pumpkin, where they smooth out and give substance, offsetting the somewhat swedey, thin, vegetable-ness of the pumpkin, which I find otherwise needs rather a lot of cream, butter, spice etc to give it interest. They're good in stuffings, of course, and with cranberries, though my attempts to make a nut-roast type loaf have never been very successful, it always comes out rather stodgy and cloying. Typically, they go with Brussels sprouts, especially with the addition of garlic and toasted breadcrumbs, and with red cabbage and apple and sour cream. As to sweet dishes, the most delectable,rich and utterly sinful chocolate dessert ever comes from Mireille Johnston's Complete French Cookery course, and consists of equal parts chestnut puree, sugar, butter and dark chocolate, melted together in a bain-marie and chilled overnight. (Only when researching the above link did I learn that Mireille died suddenly in 2000, aged just 65; the link is to an obituary, on John Whiting's website, which I'd also recommend. I feel quite distressed; her books and television were among the factors instrumental in bringing us to France, and reading the piece I was reminded of what a richly cultivated, brilliant person she was. I can still dream myself off to another place just browsing in her books. It is a little tempting to wonder if the amount of butter, cream, cheese, chocolate and duck fat in her cooking might have left her predisposed to sudden death, but I prefer not to. She always looked wonderful on it...). There is a slightly healthier version in Mary Norwak's fantastically originally named 'The Good Cook', which is a pound of chestnut puree, 8 oz of chocolate, 4 oz of sugar and 6 oz of butter, with a dash of brandy. But Mary lacks Mireille's glamour.

Though they are good sources of carbohydrate and some protein, the thrifty food-for-free appeal is largely illusory, especially if you end up combining them with butter, dark chocolate, brandy and cream. But collecting them is fun, and they are jewel-bright and beautiful. If you don't fancy it, or haven't got a few hours to spare to prepare them, or if you can't find any in a country lane, or greengrocer, near you, go and buy a jar or a packet of vacuum-packed ones, or a tin of purée. They're delicious anyway.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Everything's fine. We're just waiting. Things don't quite happen as and when you'd expect. Scared by loss of control before, I reckoned I'd got it all sorted. Now even being a bit less in control than I thought and I'm out of sorts. But really, everything is fine...

Can't quite settle to blogging; I haven't even had the dashboard open today until now (it's usually open all day), and I've just looked and almost all my feeds have gone into bold again, sorry not to be round.

Messing about on Sunday with Picasa double exposures. Here's some results. Just by way of passing the time...

Barley Pool

Butterfly shore

Pink egret wading dahlia...

And thanks for all the good wishes and kind words.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Yves Le Foll Hospital, October 10th.

After 23 hours fasting and purging, and twenty minutes anesthetic, there is warm chocolate out of a large white Duralex bowl, three tartines I spread with melting butter and a plastic packet of apricot jam, a small, round, cellophane-wrapped madeleine. And encore de sucre, s'il vous plait.

The colour has returned to his lips.

(Addendum: This wasn't the final op, just a day hospital examination under a general anaesthetic to ascertain whether to go ahead with it. Tom says he doesn't want anyone to think he hasn't got further suffering to come... still it's good to have it over! The patient is remarkably chipper and dying to get out on the garden.)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The twilight world of Cheapcam, who is,as always, upstaged.

Cheapcam has a somewhat morose character, I've decided. Perhaps it's because she spends most of her life stuffed in the bottom of my bag, under a foldaway shopper and a pile of discarded till receipts, getting poked by the car keys and squashed by the dog lead, rarely taken out and only downloaded every couple of months. Or perhaps it's because she only cost 50 euros from Amazon France when I googled 'cheapest camera' in a moment of desperation when the Powershot was indisposed, and although she may rather pathetically flaunt having as many megapixels as the latter, she and I both know that no one buys into the megapixel myth any more. When it comes down to it, her anti-shake is shakey, her macro-setting only really works when shooting on a level plane, otherwise it stubbornly focuses on the background not the near object, she gets all finicky about not enough light, her zoom is puny and her autofocussing lumberingly slow. Her date setting has a peculiar habit of sliding back a year or two, so the folders disappear when I'm looking for them on Picasa, which logs things in chronological order, because Cheapcam has decided she wants to go back to 2006 (perhaps that was when she was happy, back in the factory with the other cheapcams...). And more often than not her pictures have a murky grey-blue cast that seems to confirm her generally lugubrious outlook on life.

And yet, as the above shows, I have attributed a deal more personality and feeling to her than to the better camera; she appears to have moods and capriciousness, leading often to frustration but occasionally delight. She turned on the charm for these hydrangeas, which I think are quite enhanced by the smudgy blue aura (no editing used at all).

and in fact I quite like it that so many of the pictures are so bad that much of what to discard is decided immediately, and with what's left I'm often forced to be creative with cropping and editing to make something out of them.

She came out to play with Molly and me in the carpark of the old barracks in St Brieuc the other day, a somewhat grubby and gloomy spot on an overcast day where she was presumably quite in her element.

I hesitated about picking up the Canon as I left the house, but figured that probably by the time I'd slaved over a hot photocopier for as long as it took to provide the heroic Rosie/Gillian with enough work for my classes to occupy them well into next year, never mind the five lessons she's actually taking them for, I wouldn't have much time or energy for a photo-stroll. However, when I got back to the car, Molly informed me in no uncertain terms that she hadn't come all this way to sit in the car and go home again, and that a town car park full of plane tree leaves and offered sniffs and smells beyond all the perfumes of Arabia.

The old barracks is a somewhat forbidding and sombre place, as you might expect, but one section of it seems to have been commandeered to house a music school and other arts educational resources. We watched a harpist unloading her instrument from her car, then wandered around the back of the building, where emaciated buddleia and other weeds colonise neglected angles and rough surfaces,

a modern fire escape, a peremptory afterthought, hangs off the wall like a giant piece of peeling swarf,

yet on further looking offers further interesting patterns and shapes,

and barred windows reveal strange sights.

I sometimes feel I have exhausted the possibilities of the rural corner where I live, in all its budding, leafing, cropping, fruiting, shedding, decaying predictability, its quaintness, bucolic fuzzy livestock, macro-shot vegetation, wide cropped landscapes; I fear I've done it all to death, can't squeeze any more out of it, in spite of myself, boredom threatens, a creeping, contemptuous familiarity. It isn't so, always again something catches, draws the eye and the thought, 'there lives the dearest freshness'... But at those times, I hanker for urban variety, not bright lights or night life or shopping, you understand, just a different visual idiom and stimulus, or even just another context.

So, there I was, relishing urban dereliction, nature imposing on the structures and creeping into the cracks, the accretion of a history not fully understood, the pleasant shock of my own ignorance of exactly what I was seeing, poking the little camera into odd corners, when I heard young laughter and cat calls. I assumed I'd been spied, caught out, and someone was mocking my eccentricity, and looked up to see that, in fact, someone else was playing another version of the same game. Two pretty young women were hanging out of a window a couple of floors up, oblivious to me, Molly or Cheapcam grubbing about below, and pointing a very handsome SLR at the roof of another building opposite where a solitary painter and decorator was clambering on a roofing ladder, his white-overalled bottom in the air. He ignored their attempts to attract his attention and make him look over his shoulder in surprise or amusement into the telephoto eye of the camera. When he finally did turn around and sit securely down, and saw not only his watchers in the window with the sleek black SLR but also me on the ground with the small silver point-and-shoot, laughing at them giggling at him, he fixed us with such a stony, unimpressed, baleful glare, that we all quite quickly withdrew in embarrassment. As I drove off, he was still sitting on the slates, gravely lighting up a cigarette, looking as though such frivolities were altogether a tiresome thing for a man with a real job to do.

(In view of my feelings about photographing unwilling subjects, I probably shouldn't really be posting this one, but I daresay there's a much better one somewhere on some St Brieuc art student's Myspace blog, so what the hell... )

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Exchange at Lancieux-sur-Mer, 26th September.

Meaning matters, I said (although I think perhaps I'm wrong...).

We come here, perhaps, to make a memory, or simply perhaps to look at blue,

and sails,

and sun-umbrellas,

and hand our sister over.

There's meaning there, my brother said. (I think perhaps he needs a camera...)

What then? A path to take, the inner structure broken and revealed, the curl of nature set against a human-made geometry? Perhaps...

The strata of the stone, we note, resembles that of wood, but with the laying down much slower.

Fractals, I said (although I think perhaps I'm facile...).

Our understanding, said my brother, is bound to time. If we could live as long as trees or stones, we might be wise.

I feel, I said, as though I work now only with impressions, ideas defeat me (although I think perhaps this doesn't matter...).

We are deterred, my brother said, by others' excellence.

To see ourselves as second-rate, we hesitantly posed, may be as much delusion and more dangerous, as to assume we're something special.

Sixth child and second son (although I think perhaps that's not germane...) we struggle to believe it.