Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Demonstrating against seaweed.

Any tendencies I once had towards political activism have been dormant for quite a while; quietism is more my line now, and I have felt generally unqualified to involve myself in the politics of my adoptive country, not to say regrettably lackadaisical about it.

However, when it comes to the seaweed...

You may well have heard about this, as the Anglo-saxon media has covered the subject quite a bit (and possibly rather more frankly than the French), so that friends of friends with a holiday business on the coast found that their British visitors are hesitant to book, and some who did come said that when they told people they were visiting the Breton coast they replied 'You're not going swimming are you?'

Brittany is the most heavily intensively farmed area of France, which is one of the largest agricultural producers in the world. All the pretty pastoralism and littoral beauty I wax lyrical about here is threatened and blighted by this fact. The romantic notion of the sturdy and independant French peasant farmer living a simple life close to nature is more and more of a pernicious fiction, and the power that the big farming lobby is large, aggressive and ugly.

60% of France's substantial pig production and 40% of that of veal and of poultry - I don't have the figures for dairy but that is significant too, is concentrated in this corner of the country. It generates vast amounts of nitrates, which wash through the soil and pollute the water table, which in turn pollutes the sea in the wide warm shallow bays of the area.

This causes an explosion of a soft green seaweed, which gets washed up on the beaches. It gets thicker and thicker, then forms a crust and rots underneath it. On top it looks like used toilet paper, below the putrefying substance generates a highly toxic sulphurous gas. Last year, two dogs who wandered out into it died as a result of inhaling this, this year in August on the bay on the other side of the peninsular near Lannion, a horse died and its rider was hopitalised. Then recently a worker in a process where the seaweed is collected and recycled into more fertiliser (we've seen it in the garden centre, branded as organic and 100% natural from the coasts of Brittany) also died as a result of contact with it. Courageous doctors in both the latter cases insisted on autopsies to establish that the seaweed gas was indeed the cause of death.

The best article in English I've found is one from the Independent, which is here (there is unfortunately some kind of script running on the page which may cause problems, but it should be possible to disable it). The depressing is that the piece is from 2001, and the only thing that has changed is that the problem is, if anything, worse, and it has been established that the gas is fatally toxic.

After the horse died, the Prime Minister, Francois Fillon, graciously descended to the place where it happened for about five minutes, but the government's response so far has been to promise more help to clean up the beaches, even investigating the possibility of collecting the weed at sea before it comes to land. Needless to say, this does not address the root of the problem. Meanwhile, authorisation continues to be given for further pig and poultry and dairy farms to produce food which the farmers complain they cannot sell at any kind of price that makes sense.

(Trans: For a sustainable form of agriculture, reform the CAP)

Why? Subsidies. The Common Agricultural Policy ( CAP, or PAC in French, who turn all acronyms round!). Even if you can't sell it you make money just by producing it, X euros for every pig, or chicken or turkey, or veal-calf or whatever . The economist Jeffrey Sachs once said* "I have never mastered EU agricultural policy, because I figured if I did so it would drive me into such a surrealistic world that I might never climb out of that twilight zone again", so dense and intractible has the Policy become. But though the organisation of it may be diabolically complicated, the injustice of it isn't. Europe's not alone in this, all the developed world is at it.

(Trans: Holy cow, but it's complicated! Too much fertiliser = too much milk = crisis = pollution = poison seaweed. What are we going to do??? )

Then there's big agri-business, in whose interests it is to promote and maintain these ways of doing things.

(Trans: For the water, we need another kind of agriculture)

The raising of livestock for food emits as much carbon and other greenhouse gases as transport, and only looks set to continue. In a world which is growing in population, 10 kilos of vegetable protein are required to produce one of mammal protein. The industrial livestock units are cruel, unhealthy, polluting, horrible places which we as a species ought to be ashamed to be responsible for. Most of us know all this.

Something is badly wrong with this situation. I get on well with my farming neighbours; I have little choice, but it isn't just that. I'm only two generations from the land myself, when hardship and failure and too many mouths drove my Somerset grandfather off it. No sight was sweeter to my father than a ploughed field, though he was always wary of bucolic nostalgia about life on the land before the industrialisation and mechanisation of agriculture, he knew how brutal and bitter it could be. I enjoy talking about farming matters, seeing land used contructively, the rhythm of the seasons, the space and patterning of human cultivation, all that. Though I've never had to get used to the harsh realities of it, and killing things, I'm fairly realistic and unsentimental about these facts. I am not a vegetarian, for a number of reasons, not only apathy and carnivorous greed. We've tried growing some of our own food, and though there's much to be said for it, it's led me to recognise that there's also much to be said for leaving it to the professionals, or at least for having a class of professionals whose job it is to do it on a larger scale in a systematised way.

I know that even quite big business farmers work very hard, often still in family concerns, which gives them a strong sense of ownership, take few holidays, and despite - or perhaps because of, since the whole matter is so utterly inefficient and dysfunctional - the system of subsidies, many are struggling to make anything worthwhile out of it. As far as I can gather the youngsters are all sent off to agricultural college that teaches them to do things according to the status quo, and until it's worth their while to do it another way they're not likely to. It's a hard life and they aren't going to voluntarily make it harder for themselves, not without a change in the incentives and disincentives.

And they aren't the only ones. While the organic/biologique market continues as a sideline, the majority of people are more than happy to pork out on cheap, factory produced pork and similar. Food is cheaper in real terms than it's ever been, (and pork is quite literally dirt cheap) but here and elsewhere, people are still grumbling about the perceived reduction in their pouvoir d'achat, their spending power. Which is, of course, real for many, but we also need to get real about the other costs of cheap food.

I could go on and on, but I have done so enough. Depressed by the indifference we have encountered from people we thought might have more to say about the issue, E. and I decided we would get more involved, and went along to a demonstration organised by the various environmental groups, including 'Halte aux Marées Vertes' ('Stop the Green Tides' , a reference to the 'Marées Noires' the 'Black Tides' of earlier oil slick pollution), at Hillion, where some of the worst green weed pollution is evident.

Being northern European, we arrived more or less at the scheduled time (though E, who is Dutch is a notoriously unpunctual person, which probably has nothing to do with nationality at all). This meant that nothing had really got started at all, and people were a bit thin on the ground. Nothing here really starts to happen until quite late in the afternoon.

However, the above gives a general impression of the meeting place, with the beach behind and the little St Maurice chapel in the distance. The red tractor trailer was the speakers' platform, and to the right was a bar and coffee stand, and... surely not, yes, they are grilling...

pork sausages!
'I can't believe it!' exclaimed E

'They're maybe special biologique, non-polluting, sustainably farmed pork sausages...' I suggested.

'I'm going to go and ask!'

And she did, adopting a somewhat inquisitorial attitude.

On learning that they were indeed magical and innocent sausages, E, who at 63 has maintained that figure largely through disregarding such unnecessary details as lunch, decided that she rather fancied one, but ate it straight, with neither frîtes nor galette, which earned her some puzzled looks.

Tom stayed home with Molly. His general lack of hearing and comprehension would have made it difficult, and I wasn't sure Mol would enjoy the crowds and waiting around either. though there were quite a few dogs, who probably weren't giving the cause their full attention.

Also, we were a little afraid that the seaweed intself might pose a threat for a dog, though in fact the beach had been immaculately cleaned by the environmentalists themselves, to make sure it was safe and also to show how it should look there. I've never seen it looking so beautiful.

As the afternoon went on, the numbers increased, and plenty of banners began to flutter. The red ones here are for the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, Besancenot's new left alliance job. While the whole business certainly makes one feel decidedly anti-capitalist, if one didn't already, the old politics of left and right, with their focus on human society and endless economic growth often seem to miss the point, and the words 'bandwagon' and 'jumping', to say nothing of 'opportunistic' do rather come to mind... Still, apparently they've dropped their Trotskyite agenda, and consider themselves a feminist party, though they make no mention of patriarchy theory... oh go read the Wiki entry yourselves if you're interested!

Some of the press I read after described it as a demonstration by ecologists, which is fair enough, and yet many who were there didn't necessarily typically fit the profile, but were obviously just concerned ordinary members of the public. Indeed many were simply residents of Hillion, fed up with the blight on their beautiful beaches year after year and of having to pay for the clean-up.
I have to say though, I was heartened to see so many un-coiffed and untamed heads of natural grey hair, more than I think I've seen since I've lived here.

The T-shirt above was a puzzle; many banners, t-shirts etc were saying how unwanted pigs were, while this one says 'Welcome to the pig/pork'!

Above is André Ollivro, who began the campaign, and who is interviewed in the Independent article above. The campaign makes clear 'there is no question of stigmatising farmers, who, for the most part, are themselves the victims of the system'. However, some farmers haven't seen it that way, and took it on themsleves to dump large hay bales in his front garden so he couldn't leave his house. Petulant if not fatal.

His speaking was quite clear and interesting to us, but many of the speakers had a style of oratory which was quite monotonous and difficult to follow. E's French is better than mine (she is Dutch after all), but she found it hard too. So we hung around for an hour or two, signed all the petitions and paid up to join the campaign, then went on our way. Apparently later on they all went down to the beach and started to party, but, typical northern Europeans, we couldn't be doing with the long moment d'attente before the action, and missed it.

I gently chided the people from the Halte aux Marées Vertes campaign for their lack of internet presence; the newsletter isn't regularly updated and the website is fairly non-existent. They said they knew but they'd got someone who was going to bring it up to scratch. I'm thinking of
offering to translate for them so more English speakers can find out and get involved. It might be that a commitment to some very specific local green politics will be my way to growing out of my sense of apathy about and detachement from civic life here.

One banner of a pig's head and crossbones caught my eye.

Someone had put a lot of effort into it.
In the background of the picture is the house of the philosopher Georges Palante, who lived in Hillion, and in fact taught lycee in St Brieuc, as I did for a very short while. (I hope he had a better time than I did!).

Though he once stood as a socialist candidate, Palante was sceptical of the movement, and a staunch individualist. According to the Wiki page on him

"His thinking (was) also critical towards the mass "herd instinct", which he thought oppresses and prevents individuals from developing fully. He did not, however, oppose social networks, and insisted that his philosophy did not seek to destroy society for the benefit of the individual, but to help to build new networks of social interaction."

Which sounds OK to me.

On the way out, we spotted this small philosopher, absorbed in what looked like some more serious words.

* in the International Herald Tribune in 2002, quoted in '50 facts that should change the world' by Jessica Williams.

I have more pictures from the holiday, which I will continue to post, but wanted to get this one done while it was still topical. I am aware these are complex issues, about which I don't pretend to know everything, or claim any particular moral high ground on, but have felt moved to say and (try to) do something about. Thanks for sticking with such a long post; there won't be any as long as this again for a while, as I have a dozen other things I should really be doing!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Or otherwise...

... you can go at night. After 6 pm the car parking's free, and you can step right inside the floodlit illusion.

I'm not sure about many of these photos, and I'm not saying that to fish for compliments and reassurance. Many are just bad, the result of wanting to use neither the Canon's horribly unsubtle flash nor a tripod, and of being too ignorant of the camera's cleverer technology to be able to compensate. Some, by good luck and a steady hand - usually Tom's, he took quite a few though I'm not sure exactly which, are quite sharp. Nevertheless the upward persective and straight lines are all over the place. Straightening tools are just too lossy (I love that word!) where loss can't be sustained, and anyway, what does one use as a datum for straightness? Choose one vertical or horizontal and it seems to confound the others yet more.

There was a Flickr group I tried for a while to get in on, called 'The Aesthetics of Failure'. The idea appealed to me. I submitted all my most interestingly failed shots, as I deemed them, but evidently not one of them was a successful enough failure, and none was accepted. There were some very cerebral and post-modern discussions going on there about what should qualify, but I obviously just failed to get it. I was a failed failure. Reckoning that this was doing in my head and my self-esteem, I abandoned the attempt.

But it is true that that sometimes a failure or accident can be more effective than getting it right. I feel perhaps with these that the lack of clarity, the rather chimaeric blurriness, the somewhat giddy-making leaning nature of the floodlit shapes in the pictures, do in some manner represent the feeling that being at the Mont at night evokes. I said at one point that I rather wished I was on drugs the better to experience it (I've got to the age and stage now where saying something like that doesn't worry anyone any more, including myself); it would lend itself to the hallucenogenic. I thought about simply taking my glasses off and seeing what that was like for providing a sense of physical and visual disorientation, but was a little afraid of falling down an ill-lit stone stairway, and anyway, I didn't want to miss the detail.

This long view of the Mont was taken resting the camera - its ISO turned down to reduce the noise a bit, I do have half a clue about that - on top of the car. On 'filling with light' in Picasa, I realised that the blur in the foreground was in fact its reflection in the car roof. I liked this; it subverts the commonly represented image of the place reflected in the water and wet sands, and references the fact that if you take your car there at the wrong time of day at certain times it's likely to end up underwater.

(From now on I will stop these attempts at ironic cleverbuggery, there are plenty who can do it better and it doesn't really suit me).

The lighting enhances the theatricality of the place, the impression that on is in a film or stage set, its three-dimensionality, of being enveloped by it. You feel more involved and yet it is less familiar, each passage and stairway becomes mysterious, its ending unknown.

The stained glass of a tiny chapel ensconced somewhere in the walls, which probably in the the day you wouldn't even notice becomes a glowing lantern of gash-gold vermilion,

and you can peer voyeuristically onto the pastiche landing of a hotel, with just a little envy that you aren't staying there.

And always, as you climb, keep looking up at the looming, illuminated verticalities,

with the culminating figure of St Michel, a gilded comma, an archangelic Tinkerbell, winking in and out of view above the whole.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

But if you get up early...

... and climb to the abbey to be there as soon as you can after it opens (9.30 at this time of year), there are plenty of others, but not so many that you can't move or breathe, and there's that kind of relaxed, quietly joyous and self-satisfied fellow-feeling that you get among people who've beaten the rush.

And you're up there with the birds,

and the angels.

(There's a bird or birds in every picture there isn't an angel in...)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mt St Michel - gawping at Babel Tower

And though you say you won't be just another tourist; won't stop and click
each time you reach each little bright blue starburst belvedere
that Michelin sees fit to mark the map with; won't gawp and gaze
whenever you glimpse it over the market gardens and the rescued fields,
across the tranquil polders, peopled by Dutch-looking farms and poplars;
won't stand on every headland up to Granville on the Cotentin
to see its martial and angelic profile - known from a million postcards,
tablemats, key-rings and coffee table books and paperweights -
faint like a bugle's echo over the watered sands; won't fall over
a hundred other people speaking all the tongues of Babel Tower,
kneeling and gasping and pointing their lenses just like you
under the floodlights in the night-time car park...

You will.

And you'll marvel.
Because that's what it's there for.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Playing with light - Mont St Michel

Tom took some of these, the 3rd to the 6th I think. He used the camera sometimes because he grew fed up with the automatic flash on his, which we haven't discovered how to turn off. I did the playing about with them. 'Jouer avec la lumière' said Jean, so I did.

Nice to be back, plenty of material to work through. Be seeing you...

Friday, September 11, 2009


We leave tomorrow to visit The Marvel.

But it seems to me (and I am very lucky), that the world is full of marvels. Without going out of my door...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


I've blogged everyday for a week I think, and it's been good, but I think I'll ease up a bit now. Thanks for your regular attendance.

We're off for our September break at the end of the week. Only as far as the Bay of Mt St Michel, which isn't very far. Some people find it somewhat daft that we're happy to travel so short a distance for a holiday ('I could give you directions to there from here...' said Molly's vet rather derisively when I took her for a check-up yesterday), but we rather like doing so; you effectively get more time away, because you don't spend so much time travelling and recovering from travelling, and in fact being on holiday, for us anyway, is much less about how far you are from home and much more about a shift of perception.

But there's quite a bit to get straight before we go, the weather is glorious, and I'd like to spend a bit more time catching up with some of your blogs too, so while I may post again before we leave, I'll leave the daily blogging now for a while. There's always the November NabloPoMo fest for that...

So here's a bunch of roses to thank you for reading.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Tea mug

My last handmade one, which only really earned any affection in my eyes by virtue of its longevity, for it was an unlovely thing in chocolate brown with clumsy white slip designs and a pointless bulge which trapped the tannin, cracked and broke a few months ago. I went through too many mass-produced supermarket ones, all of which broke at the handle.

Then on a trip to Josselin at the weekend, we found this one in a craft potter's studio. It is my favourite colour, and I wash and dry it carefully. It drinks very well; I advise putting one's lip to the rim of any mug before buying it; with some, however nice they look, the profile is wrong and drinking from them will never be a pleasure.

Behind the mug in the above picture, is a bamboo chopping board, made from an offcut of a piece of shelving, oiled with olive oil. Holding the chopping boards in place - there are some less pleasing plastic ones behind - is a large granite pebble. It used to be used to hold open silly French windows (as opposed to French windows aka French doors), which always open inward because of the presupposition of shutters, and do not have any means to hook them open.

Woman cannot live by found objects alone, of course, lovely though they are - whoever found a perfect tea mug just lying around on a beach or cut off some larger object in her husband's workroom?

(On the other hand Tom's tea mug was a kind of found object, a freebie from the Folio Society, who inveigled us into joining years ago with the promise of something irresistible, like a brand new edition of Brewer's Phrase and Fable, and have pestered us ever since. It has horrid little maroon medallions on it with 'FS' in them. But Tom loves it because I made the mistake of telling him FS stood for Fantastic Superperson, and the vessel goes on and on, so it seems as of the glaze will actually wear off before it actually breaks.)

Enough, this was supposed to be a ten minute post...

Sunday, September 06, 2009

'Do you know the land where the lemon trees flower?'

'Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blühn…?'


That was one of the questions Joe put to me in the early stages of the 'Questions' dialogue, when we were still preparing it as a Qarrtsiluni submission. My answer to it was an anecdote. Finally, when we were reviewing the series to post at Compasses, we dropped it, mostly I think because, however I cut it, its straight narrative, prose memoir form simply sat ill with the poems that developed. Though there is a ghostly trace or two of it within them, at least at first.

I thought it would work better as a blog post here, anyway, but then it drifted off, and has been sitting all this year with some editorial notes on a Google document, largely forgotten.

Then in the last few weeks, I found a whole stack of photos and other memorabilia I didn't know I even had any more. Some of it was unwanted, unsettling or redundant, or just evoking of that sinking 'oh no, not more clutter to deal with...' feeling. But amongst it was an old Instamatic pic of R and her daughters, which inclined me to go back to the original piece, look it over and post it.
I realise the younger child is now probably older than R was when I knew her, and R herself is probably a grandmother several times over. But in the manner of people we knew for a short time at a particular stage, in my mind she remains the gracious, graceful young woman I remember.

Do you know the land where the lemon trees flower?

No, I don't, but I knew someone who did.

That winter, about 25 years ago, I was just out of university, lingering in the town and rather directionless. I would catch a bus to the station, and walk, over the sluggish wide river and past the brewery, the Chinese supermarkets and the stores selling saris, the corner shops smelling of spices and old lino, down a street of small terraced houses, to teach English to R.

I was often rather cold and hungry, but she greeted me with tea, not weak and sugarless as I usually drank it, but boiled in a saucepan with milk and sugar, an unexpected pleasure and comfort, and when she was cooking, she'd sit me down with a plate while she finished: a small piece of dry spiced lamb, or an oily cauliflower curry, with an egg broken and scrambled into it, rice, a chapatti. Food never tasted better, though eating it with fingers made me shy. I broke up the chapatti, made it into spoons.

" You eat like that?" she laughed, though kindly "I saw a Bengali lady in hospital eat like that!"

"She's in purdah," the community worker, a Pakistani woman like R, told me, with an inflection of pity "she can't go out, not without her husband."

He, the husband, was gentle and quiet, affectionate with their two little girls. I saw him rarely; he worked long and late at a dairy. The older girl was about five, sturdy and mischievous; sometimes I combed her hair, I loved its dark lustre, she loved the attention. The moment she went to school, her drawings of people leapt a whole developmental stage, going from cephalopods to properly proportioned figures with arms coming from their shoulders. Her three-year-old sister was asthmatic, soft and babyish still, sometimes when I arrived she was plugged into her nebulizer, her eyes, dreamy over the top of its perspex mask, smiled benignly at me. R had no vacuum cleaner, only a stiff brush for her carpets, but a very sophisticated sewing machine and she made beautiful clothes for herself and her daughters; salwaar kameez, I learned later, trousers and tunic, one I remember she wore in a velvety fabric in tigerish shades of gold and rust and cream, and an intricately knitted set for the little girl in fine red wool, traditional styles adapted for a colder climate. She seemed generally cheerful and stoical.

It was the first English teaching I ever did, and I hadn't a clue, received no guidance or materials. Yet those afternoons were companionable, cosy. Her English was good already, she had taught herself entirely from watching television. One might have thought this would cause her to use unusual idioms or quirky language, yet I don't remember that it did, she simply spoke careful, serviceable English. She was just a few years older than me.

"Do you drink alcohol?" she asked once.
I shrugged. "It makes me happy."
"But you are happy now!"

I was.

I was ignorant and overpolite, and asked her few questions about culture or religion, or about being far from home. But I tentatively asked about purdah, and keeping indoors.

"Oh, but in my village I could go out, with my friends, and family, it was easy. It's only here, where I know no one. My husband takes me whenever he can, to my friend or my cousin, but they live in other parts of the city, it's a long way on the bus."

She showed me their small, fenced back garden, empty and wintry.

"In my village," she said "there were lemon trees. I loved to see the flowers, and to look right inside the flowers, to see the little green new lemons just coming there."
She looked up at the damp, grey South Wales sky, and sighed, just a little.

I left that town shortly after, went to London. We didn't keep in touch, I don't quite know why; writing would have been difficult, I suppose. I was pursuing a freedom I didn't really know what to do with, insisting on choices I never, in the event, took up. I went here and there, this way and that, and I have taught quite a lot of English since, and I have come to know a few things, but, as yet, no, I don't know the land where the lemon trees flower.

R did, though.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Store cupboard 1: pictures

I really should sort out my picture folders, get the last couple of years' worth stored on DVD, or something. No, I don't have one of those nifty hard drive things. I started a whole load of different themed discs, you know, trees, flowers, landscapes. Don't bother trying is my advice, you'll never keep up. I sometimes get round to shunting them into folders labelled by month, but that's rather out of sight out of mind...

Anyway, for an undemanding Saturday night post, and by way of beginning to sort through, here's a baker's dozen of old pictures, most at least a couple of years old now. Captions below pictures, I never know what's correct like that. Above or below, what do you do?

A grapevine and bindweed in a sheltered corner.

Spring sun through a mullein leaf. Or maybe a foxglove.

This in the butterfly house in Honfleur, I think,

All of the above were taken on a winter day in the arboretum with the little camera; just ivy, moss, a phormium,not much else about.

Hydrangeas. Always hydrangeas. Funny to think Hortense was a popular name once...


Decay, of wood and metal. Nature opens the closed.

And lastly, a Picasa double exposure collage. I love making these, but haven't for a while. Another thing to get back to.
Have a good Sunday.