Sunday, May 30, 2010

If in doubt...

... send flowers.

Despite my best resolutions to the contrary, I'm dithering about, with stuff I could post but not getting around to doing it. So just to get myself out of that rut, I'll show you my window boxes.

This is my blue room,

tidied up after Tom and Mol and I had all slept in it for a week.  A rumpled dog-bed in the corner seldom does anything for the style of a place.  The dark blob in the foreground is a brown bean-bag with Molly in it.  She isn't meant to be.  There is a turquoise-blue one she can go in when it's got a blanket in it, but she has developed a bit of a thing about the room and in particular that beanbag.  She is frequently sneaking off and to be found there, convinced, I'm sure, that with enough effort, the thing can be made squashy and dog-smelling enough to be ideal.

I decided it needed some window boxes, so off we went to the garden centre, which is looking its best at this time of year.  Then came the agonising decision-making process, mostly centred around geraniums or not geraniums?  Tom hates browsing and indecision.  My sister and I both love it.

I like geraniums, particularly quite traditional scarlet ones, trailing or upright, I don't mind.  But in the end some miniature, multi-headed sunflowers proved irresistible.

While I'm often up for combinations of flowers and colours others might describe as tasteless, even I could see that sunflowers precluded geraniums.  We've got a book somewhere about growing your own cut flowers, in which the author says that any combo of flowers should contain the bride, the big main bloom in the smallest numbers, the bridesmaids which should be a lesser flower which tones with the bride,and the gatecrasher which should be a striking clashing or complementary colour.  I hasten to add that this is the only thing I have ever read or ever intend to read abut flower arranging theory ( apart from hearing somewhere that you should always have odd numbers of flowers in a bunch, especially in Eastern Europe where it's considered unlucky to give anyone even numbers of them), and generally I rather reject all such prissy prescriptions and proscriptions, particularly when couched in such simpering terms.  But it often does work quite well.

The sunflowers being the bride, the bridesmaid presented herself as orange marigolds - the proper calendula kind not the French or African tagetes,

and blue lobelia also provided the traily, frothy traditional window-box element, as well as being blue for the blue room - quite a well-behaved gatecrasher.

A couple of little patterned ivies finished it off.  So there you are, my kind of gardening really.

A sad loss

Sad news in my blogging world, of a kind which hasn't happened before. The redoubtable GrannyJ ( Julie) of Walking Prescott, one of the bloggers I've been following for the longest time, died last week. She was a real inspiration. She walked and walked and took photos of and wrote about all the weird and wonderful things in her beloved Prescott in Arizona, where she was a well-known figure. When she fell ill earlier in the year, she thought she might have to stop blogging, but she picked up, and next thing she was photographing interesting things in the hospital and getting her daughter Kate, a blogger of note herself, to post them on her blog for her. She moved into sheltered housing, and though she couldn't walk as much, she rejoiced in, and of course photographed and blogged about, the views from the windows and the bright colours of the upholstery in the sitting areas there, and anything else that came her way. Always so positive. She was a professional journalist, and her blog was full of spirit and character but quite devoid of ego, much less self-pity. So, though it was very sad to read, I appreciated Kate's tribute to her  on her own blog, which filled in some of the gaps about her life which her own blogging left out. She was truly amazing, resourceful and generous. She was a loyal and appreciative commenter, had an impressive blogroll, and was a great finder of fascinating, entertaining and original links.

Kate tells it how it is: she says that while GrannyJ's blogging contacts will miss her, it will be nothing like the way her real life family will. They're in my thoughts.

Kate also suggested that if anyone wanted to do something as a tribute to her, to find a way of doing something to do with wild flowers, which she loved. So I'm looking for a local society or similar which encourages the conservation and knowledge of them, as acting local is very much in the spirit of what she was about. At least round here, the javelinas don't eat them!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tulips, not quite from Amsterdam

But from Dutch bulb growing neighbour, who occasionally comes up with the goods, so I have momentarily dropped the 'charmless' from his epithet.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Hollow Land

I rather like William Morris's poetry.  I've mentioned here before that I read part of 'Love is Enough' at our wedding, though I must say that I took some liberties and trimmed off some of the '-eth' suffixes and and changed 'ye' to 'you' a couple of times.  A dear friend once asked something along the lines of what was my desert island poem, the one I'd recite to myself alone at sunset on said island, and I had to admit that, although I have a headful of snippets and allusions, I don't have that many poems confidently held entire in the memory.  That was my mother's forte.  Indeed, I think I know three, (four with Keats' 'There was a naughty boy', but I don't really count that).  One is the archetypal desert island poem, in effect about sunset on a desert island,  'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', which I can remember my mother reciting, and really  for the first time being stopped in my tracks by the power of a poem.  When my sister was here last week she said something about going home to plant nine bean rows, but no hive for the honey bee, so I finished it off for her.  You can do that kind of self-indulgent show-off thing with those who love you, though I wasn't always that good about humouring my mum, I'm sorry to say. 

The other two are by William Morris.  One is the Bed at Kelmscott poem, which poor old May Morris embroidered around the valance of her parents four-poster at Kelmscott, impressing Bernard Shaw but not in the way May would have liked. It's presumably the only poem in English where the narrator is a piece of furniture.

The wind's on the wold
And the night is a-cold,
And Thames runs chill
'Twixt mead and hill.
But kind and dear
Is the old house here
And my heart is warm
'Midst winter's harm.
Rest then and rest,
And think of the best
'Twixt summer and spring,
When all birds sing
In the town of the tree,
And ye lie in me
And scarce dare move,

Lest earth and its love
Should fade away
Ere the full of the day.
I am old and have seen
Many things that have been;
Both grief and peace
And wane and increase
No tale I tell
Of ill or well,
But this I say:
Night treadeth on day,
And for worst or best
Right good is rest. 

I love that.  It's my insomnia poem, both to reassure and steady on the cold winter nights it describes, when the wind batters the trees and the rain rattles on slates and skylights, and for those precious early mornings we are having now, when the birds really do sing in 'the town of the tree', and awakening to the fleeting beauty of it all is indeed almost too much to bear.

The other is the song from  The Hollow Land, a prose romance which I haven't read.  (The only prose of Morris's that I've read is 'News from Nowhere', a copy of which was passed on to me from Az - my sister Alison -  and which I read when I was into Utopias, from Thomas More to Marge Piercy.  Utopia engaged me for a while, now I see the idea as at best blind and preposterous and at worst dangerous and pernicious.) This little song, however, which apparently intersperses the narrative one verse at a time,  haunts me.  It sounds like a prayer, with its opening of 'Christ keep...' which is odd, I think.  For although Morris loved and longed for his vision of the Middle Ages with intensity, it did not generally seem to include their Christian faith, which I suppose conflicted with his humanist socialism.  Also, it lacks the emblazoned Victorian mock-Mediaeval frills and furbelows of language that characterise much of his work and others of his time.  It is as limpid, remote and elusive as the waters it contains, mysterious and mystical in its simplicity.

Christ keep the Hollow Land
Through the sweet spring tide,
When the apple blossoms bless
The lowly bent hillside.

Christ keep the Hollow Land
All the summer tide,
Though we may not understand
Where the waters glide

Only dimly seeing them
Coldly slipping through
Many green-lipped cavern mouths
Where the hills are blue.

I don't want to read the book; it is apparently fussy, rather aimless in plot, and difficult for a modern reader, and in any case, I don't want to have the poem placed in any other context.

I found both poems in a 'Viking Portable Poets - Tennyson to Yeats', edited and with an intro by Auden, a treasure of an anthology which I love and have always kept with me.  I think my mother bought it somewhere, and I claimed it.  Books were like that, they drifted in and out, became the possessions of whoever fancied them, occasionally being misappropriated or regrettably lost.  At one of Az's particularly prolific periods of learning new things to make and do, when she and my brother-in-law lived in Bath and I was at university in Cardiff, she studied calligraphy.  Both of my sisters and one of my brothers always had very attractive italic handwriting, my elder sister's twin daughters too, almost indistinguishable  from their mother's.  My writing is a passable italic, but less fine, deteriorating into a mongrel scribble of round schoolgirl cursive if I'm not careful.  ( Interestingly, one of Morris's less preposterous notions in 'News from Nowhere' was that in that future children would learn to write using portable printing machines, since there was no point in teaching them to write by hand badly, and later calligraphy could be taught as an art.)

For calligraphy practice, I think at her request, I asked Az to write the two William Morris poems out for me.  The Bed at Kelmscott she wrote in Indian ink on cream paper, in a fair imitation of Morris's own pseudo-Mediaeval uncials.  The Song from the Hollow Land she looked at a while, then said she could see colours running through it, from the pink of the apple blossoms, through the gold of summer to the greens and blues of the waters disappearing into the caverns of the hills.  She wrote it in an elegantly wild version of her own italic hand, but must somehow have puddled or blended the ink so that it changed colour in a rainbow through the lines of the poem. 

I no longer have either of them.  The Bed  I know where I left and why, The Hollow Land song I kept for a long time, but lost at some point I don't remember.  There have been a few floods it could have gone down in, mostly I don't mind about such lightening of the load of clutter one goes through life accumulating, but I rather wish I still had that.

The night after I learned she had died, I dreaded sleeping.  I feared that waking in the night that comes innocent and then remembers.  Yet it wasn't like that.  I woke many times, but the knowledge was there already, deeply sad but not crushing, and flowing through my head, pretty much unbidden, I think, was the Song from the Hollow Land, and the colours she put it into.  It was a comfort, an admonition, a promise, though who or what was making it I don't know, and I have the feeling I'm not supposed to.

So, I thought I'd write it out again myself.  I don't have any dip pens, and I don't really know anything about calligraphy, or indeed have the necessary skills or precision to make much of a job of it. I used the Inktense pencils for their clear bright colours, but made numerous attempts which frustrated me as either crude or prissy.  In the end I settled for a spiky kind of primitive italic rather than trying to imitate the way I remember the original.  It's OK; it served its purpose.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Stuck inside of Morbihan...

... with those boatyard blues again.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Dear Hearts...

... just to say I'll continue to be a bit scarce.  Lovely elder UK sister is coming over for a week, heroically really, having only just returned from New Zealand.  She was unable to make it for the funeral because of volcanic ash, but has been spending time with Az's family, so we'll have a lot to catch up on.

I'm not being so self-important as to apologise for not blogging myself; I'm well aware that even in the worst of times I do so with more than adequate frequency, and I may well post a few words and pictures anyway, but I am bothered that I am making a poor job of keeping up with all of yours, and I know that many of you have troubles a-plenty of your own.  Please be assured you are in my thoughts and much loved and appreciated.

See you soon.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Unfortunately named flowers, and Molly steps in.

'Early purple orchid' always sounds a little salacious, it seems to me, even without a nodding acquaintance with Proust.  This one on was overlooking the sea at St Gildas de Rhuys.  In fact we have better ones in more profusion round here (still not sure the old Canon wasn't better for these kind of things...).  But it was a good excuse to lie down on the soft greensward of the clifftop, and look more closely at it, as well as the thrift and buttercups and sorrel and plantains and bladder campion, which grew alongside it.

I've always liked bladder campion, despite its rather unprepossessing name, partly because if you find a flower at the right stage of openness, hold it by the stem just about the bladder part, and bring it down sharply on the back of your hand, it makes a satisfying pop.  My mum showed me that.

So there I was trying to get it in focus,

when other people thought they ought to muscle in.

  "Mmm.  Which one shall I go for?"

"That one!"

(Tom's shot was still even more blurry than mine).

Thursday, May 06, 2010


Dourduff-en-Mer, ramshackle, workaday, sea-girt and estuarine, limewashed and salty, where a living is made from oysters and scallops, and quiet tourists in white villas.  These Brittany fishing villages lack the picture postcard prettiness of their Cornish cousins, but are none the worse for that.

In the Cafe du Port, somewhat art deco, wooden chairs with curved backs like old kitchen chairs, darkened wood tables with only paper menus for mats, nylon deckchair fabric between us and the noisy stairway, we shared a plate of winkles - open their little doors, spiral them out with a pin, don't look at them too hard - of brown shrimps, a pickled sardine, a mound of mackeral rillettes.  I took the two oysters, swopping them with Tom for extra shrimps and rillettes, and in my haste to get them over with, forget the shallot sauce.  I never know if I really like them, or if it's morbid fascination and bravado that drives me to eat them.

The oystercatcher birds have no such doubts, I'm sure.


Off to Morbihan for the weekend, a trip booked some while ago for our wedding anniversary.  Looks like books and fleecies will be in order this time.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Fête de Travail

I usually get a few sprigs in a bunch, which alone is enough to fill the room with scent, but this muguet is planted up in a pretty chased metal oval pot, with pink blossoms scattered over the soil.

'I left the roots on,' she said 'so you can plant it afterwards in the garden.'

I'd not said anything, but this, and the hug and the smile I got with it, indicated that M's friend and fellow student, M-H, who reads here, had passed on the word, and she'd wanted to do me a kindness.  That's fine.  It has been good to be among them again, and working.

There are numerous ideas about why people give each other muguet, lily-of-the-valley, on the 1st of May, Fête de Travail, the Labour Day holiday.  Somewhere along the line the two festivals, one ancient and celebrating spring and nature, the other modern and marking historical events, became conflated; one old king, I forget which, gave his courtiers muguet, the emblem of the Ile de France; the red rose was the emblem of the workers' struggle but was replaced here by the lily-of-the-valley for the Labour Day festival, perhaps partly because there aren't yet many roses out yet.  May, full spring, is indeed the time of gloriously perfumed flowers, but also of agitation and change. 

No matter, I've always rather liked festivals which focus on and celebrate relatively simple elements, and resist excessive commercialisation.  Work can be worth honouring, though I have little to do with the workers' struggle these days, and fragrant flowers certainly are. 

Despite the length of time we've been here, and despite growing quickly aware that we had to take the holiday into account when making any plans, because, by and large, la Fête de Travail, personne ne travaille, (no one labours on Labour Day), I must have never, in fact, been out into a town on the day.  Driving into Lamballe on Saturday morning, there were various, mostly elderly, people, setting up with small tables, chairs and buckets, making ready to sell their crop of muguet, which everyone and anyone has the right to do without let or hindrance, tax or paperwork, just for the day.  I also saw, separately, a couple of older ladies looking like they were going visiting, carrying armfuls of lilac, so obviously the celebration has been extended to other fragrant flowers, and with the late spring, not everyone's muguet is flowering yet.

I got to Maxime's and found him home alone, his parents having decamped to visit his sister in Mexico.  I was quietly quite glad of this.   The family are dear friends, who have freely shared their losses, shocks and griefs, along with their joys and celebrations, with me, and if his father or mother had been there, I'd have felt bound to tell them of mine.  As it was, faced with just cheerful Maxime, merry and motivated (although, he categorically assured me, having read the last thing I said about him here, he is not 'a boy in love'...), with his life ahead beckoning, and a much loved sister away in a far country, I had no desire and saw no need to burden him.

He worked hard with me, carefully cracking the grammar exercises from the book, then unscrambling my well-thumbed cards to set out the Rinvolucri story of 'The Woman, the Hypnotist, the Egg and the Baby' ("I want you to relax... I want you to become a hen and lay an egg."), which was pitched just right, so that I could sit back and let him do the work, and the prompts that I gave were only enough to make him think for himself. -"If 'the doctors' is the object of this clause, can it also be the subject of that one?", or " Well, the logic of the grammar is fine, but..." so he would finish my sentence "... but the logic of the story isn't."

After I left him,  I met Iso and Princeling for a walk.  Having taken the holiday into account, I'd got up early and made sandwiches.  Princeling, now two and a half, is also working very hard at processing two languages, and is not inclined to commit himself to coming out with either until he's quite certain about them.  But he understands just fine, and was much kinder to Molly than the last time they met.  She on the other hand rather disgraced herself by snarling at him when he came round to her side and took a sandwich from the pile in front of her.  But we all rubbed along fine in the end, and the rain held off. 

Feeding the sweet little ducklings on the lake with the leftover crusts turned out to be somewhat fraught, however, since the mother ducks became very aggressive towards the ducklings not belonging to their own numerous broods, then finished up by fighting one another nearly to the death, as it appeared, and abandoning their young to fly off and continue the conflict on  another part of the lake.  Molly had to be held down to prevent her from joining the fray, and Princeling nearly threw Ooh-Aah the monkey in the lake along with a crust of bread he was holding in the same hand.  So that wasn't quite as idyllic as it had promised to be.

We continued nevertheless, and made our way into town to find somwhere that might be open to serve us coffee.  The terrace of a pizza restaurant finally came up with the goods, and even offered us a choice of desserts including chocolate mousse, so Princeling got to go home with a chocolaty face, which seems to be de rigueur whenever I go out with them. I forgot to bring the camera.

A somewhat merry man, possibly having enjoyed his festive lunch, was capering and calling from the pavement, proffering small bunches of muguet at a euro apiece. Iso had earlier observed that she had never actually given or received the flowers, so I took his last one with the change I had in my pocket and gave it to her.  I think one of the things I also like about the custom is it isn't related to any particular family or romantic relationship, has no religious significance, it is simple, light gesture between friends, perhaps between workmates, as light and pleasant and sweet as the fragrance and appearance of the flowers themselves.  Iso was one of my earliest real friends here, she kept me sane when we were doing a horrendous job at a technical lycée together years ago; she was very young and very brave and very lovely, (she still is,  'une muguette', one might say!), she made me laugh and left things , like a copy of 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring, in my locker.  The friendship has lasted through not a few changes, and I've always been glad that I took on the job because of it.

So, here's to muguet,  in celebration of work and courage and solidarity and friendship, and simply for the love of its fragrance and beauty.  M's gorgeous pot of it is beside me on the bookshelves now, and will continue to fill the room with its perfume in the days to come.