Sunday, August 29, 2010


Fine weather at last yesterday, and we were eager to be out, having been cooped up by the rain, and knowing that though the wind and wet would have brought down plenty of the mirabelle plums,  they would also be dirty and bruised and probably wouldn't last long, and there might not be many left now on the trees.

On the way we passed plenty of other usable hedgerow fruits,

such as these wild crab apples.  But we have a very prolific ornamental golden crab apple in the garden that yields more than I can possibly use. The jelly the fruit makes is excellent, deepening to a reddish amber.

Then there were the sloes, glowing blue and thick on the spiny blackthorn branches. These hard, intensely sour wild plum also make a good bright jelly, and best of all the steeped liqueur, sloe gin, which can cheer any winter day. But they can wait, they'll be better for it, and when we go to the Bay of Morlaix in September they will be there in abundance, judging by the amount of blossom we saw there in April, and the insects going to and fro in it.

There were blackberries a-plenty too,

and wilding apples to go with them.

However, I was heading for the mirabelle trees. 

These are not wild trees, or even really indigenous.  These little multicoloured plums were brought to Europe a long time ago from Asia, some legends attribute their introduction to Alexander the Great.  They are particularly favoured in Alsace, and the chillier more mountainous regions, and it certainly seems from this last year that a hard long winter and a late dry spring is to their liking.  Both their flowering and their fruiting seasons are quite short, and in years here when the spring comes earlier but then they are zapped by a late frost, or even when too much rain dampens the blossom and deters the insects, the yield of fruit is poor or non-existent.  This year they have both flowered and fruited late and abundantly.

This hedge of them was planted many years ago, long before we came to live here, by a local farmer or landowner who was said to be fond of the trees, there is another planting nearer the top of the hill.  It's one of my favourite places at all times of year, down a quiet lane, where the field openings offer changing views across the valley, and where, early and late in the year especially, the late afternoon sun falls with a good light.


In spring, the blossom on the trees makes a promising, gentle smoky streak across the green,

and closer to, are delicate and cheering.

Though the season is short, the man planted several varieties, which fruit in succession.

Some are quite a deep red,

some are a lighter, shaded red-gold, and are a larger fruit,

others are the small yellow traditional mirabelles which people tend to know best.

and one or two trees produce these dark purplish plums. I picked these a week or so ago, by climbing, hooking the camera and the dog to adjacant trees ( Mol tends to get bored and wander off among the maize rows, where she then gets lost).

At first I was afraid I was out of luck, much of the yellow and purple fruit was finished, and the windfalls were too rotten and far-gone to be worthwhile.  Other plums remained on the trees, but were out of reach.  But then I found a marvellous bejewelled hoard of red ones, strewn on the ground, a little muddy but very sound, and other corners yielded more of the other kinds.

I gathered several kilos in a plastic carrier bag, the best receptacle as they can be squashy and  messy, which I slung over the stick I'd taken to try to bash or hook them down (fruitlessly!), and carried home, Dick Whittington style, over my shoulder.

I spent a happy afternoon washing and picking them over, then pulling out the stones with my fingers.  By chance I found a good radio programme of Renaissance polyphony to listen to.  Every sense was catered for, and I felt there ought to be a poem in a polyphony of plums...

The larger, more orange-coloured ones were the least ripe, and had a taste a little like nectarines.  The dark purplish ones are sunset orange inside. 

It was most important to get them beyond perishing.  I boiled a kilo of them up quickly with a smidgin of sugar for making jam later,

 the rest being destined for chutney, were mixed in with the statutory pound to a pint (we are between two worlds when it comes to weights and measures, and probably more besides...) of sugar and vinegar, spices added - is there anything more blissful to stick your nose into than a mortar-full of toasted coriander as it is ground? -and left to stand overnight.

So that's the project for today.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Growing pototoes in bags seemed to be a popular thing this year.  Our sack of eaters we had from our farmer were already ready to sprout when he gave them to us -we could always palnt them, he suggested.

We haven't grown much veg the last couple of years, for one reason or another, and we never did grow spuds; all those blight susceptible things just seemed too problematical.  However, when there seemed to be a lot of talk about potato bags, I thought I'd try it.  We always overbuy on compost, so we had plenty of that about, and the aforesaid sprouty potatoes, and then there are these woven plastic sacks which the Royal Mail in the UK sometimes generously and unnecessarily supply us with, usually with an already perfectly adequately wrapped small parcel containing a book inside.  They've always looked like they ought to be reusable, but we hadn't yet thought what for.

So all the components were already in our possession. I put some straw in the bottom ( another thing we still have in abundance from our long-past days of keeping hens), a layer of compost, five or six of the most promising sprouty spuds, and then more compost. I watered them well and stood them on the terrace.

After a bit some green plants came up.  You let them grow and then earth them up with some more compost, unrolling the bag top as you go.  This bit always reminds me of a family anecdote about an old Norfolk man who saw someone somewhere whom my parents knew earthing up his potatoes and asked ' Are ye moulderin arn her up?'

Here they are at a fairly early stage of their growth. 

I repeated this maybe four times, then left them to grow. When the plant, it's called a haulm, goes manky yellow and dies back, after two or three months, you can harvest them. Which we did today.

Large quantities of compost were shaken out into the wheelbarrow, with nerry a sign of a tater, but then towards the bottom they started to show themselves.  In all there were just on two kilos, four and a bit pounds, which wasn't much for all the volume of compost, but they were clean and look good.

I brushed the loose compost off them with a clean paintbrush -  a very useful tool for all manner of purposes, including cleaning the computer keyboard, though you should make sure it's free of potato compost first - and stored them in a big paper bag.

Verdict - if you buy potato-growing bags, compost and seed potatoes specially, it probably isn't worth it, except for the fun of growing things - finding creamy new potatoes in among black soil is like finding presents in a bran tub.  As most of the crop was in the bottom part of the bag, it seems to me the last couple of additions of soil were wasted, you could probably do as well just using big pots and adding much less.  Most of the people I've spoken to who have tried it, or the famous Bob Flowerdew tyre stack method, tend to agree it's not a very economically sensible way of getting potatoes, they didn't have many.  On the other hand, for me using stuff I'd already got, it was quite fun.  The compost can be used again elsewhere, as it still looks and smells fine.  Also. you can have delicious new potatoes at almost any time of year, and it doesn't take up much room.

So that's supper sorted out.  We'll have them with just some chopped spring onions (scallions) , and maybe something garlicky, since we're not planning on seeing anyone else for a day or so.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Swallowtails and damselflies, among other things.

'Not the yellow Provencal August of the English imagination...'  

I picked up my copy of 'The sea, The sea' to check that quotation, which I'm ever fond of citing at this time of year, and was struck so much with the beauty of the language and whole passages I had no recollection of reading before that I thought I really should read this again.  Only the characters, and what they get up to, are so weirdly repulsive I'm not sure I want to spend the time with them.  On reflection most of Iris Murdoch's characters are weirdly repulsive really, I suppose. Then again there's the sea monster and cousin James who would certainly bear a second look. Somebody once told me they found her books fascinating because they reminded them of people and their interactions they knew in their own life, but I'm very happy to say they don't do that for me.  'The land of Iris Murdoch' a newspaper critic also said 'which is like no other but Prospero's'; which is rather more like it, I think, and heavy on the Caliban.

However, looking out on this chilly wet and blowy day through the the back lean-to, where the canvas and wood deckchairs are somewhat wistfully parked, opened and empty, in the dwindling hope of being pulled out onto the terrace at a moment's notice if the sun should shine, glad of a shawl over my bare feet and a hot cup of coffee, watching the swallows, in their urgent late season feeding, blown about the skies like rooks, it seem to me that the amalanchier tree, its soft round open foliage turning early towards shades of apricot and flame and olive, does have a quite Provencal look to it.  Even the birches have the odd fleck of gold in them.

My yoga buddies have cried off, pleading visits and visitors.  I like cancelled commitments sometimes, a small sum of time for oneself refunded.  I caught a window of dry weather to paint the door yesterday, and though  I'm minding less and less the idea of going through teaching stuff and ordering a new coursebook or two for next year, I'm not feeling like doing it yet.  We entertained the idea of a trip to Dinan to see the Doisneau exhibition, but we went to bed and got up too late, and didn't fancy driving there in the rain.  It's on till the end of September anyway.

What I do fancy doing is taking a walk to the mirabelle trees, since the windy weather should have dropped plenty of the little traffic-light-coloured plums on the floor for the gathering.  I'd make them into chutney, a new version using some chopped dried figs I found cheap somewhere.  They're good in jam, of course, but in fact we eat little jam, and the last batch from a couple of years back we're only just finishing.  Preserving is good, a happy balance between self-indulgence and a sense of industry, pulling out stones and sniffing up the smells of vinegar and sugar and spices while the radio or a talking book chatter away peaceably.  I'd take some photos and write a post and offer it up to the Festival of the Trees, that's the idea, anyway, but it's raining, so we can't get out. 

So, here I am, thumb-twiddling again, an activity to which I'm seldom averse, truth to tell.  So perhaps it's time to show you some bugs.  

Some years we get swallowtail butterflies.  One year we grew carrots and parsley, and we had swallowtail caterpillars on them.  We noticed they were disappearing overnight, something was eating them, so we rescued the last handful and kept them in a bottle garden, where we planted carrot tops for them to feed on.  Some of them pupated, winter froze them solid but a couple emerged the following year.  We watched and watched but still missed the actual moment they broke from the skin of the chrysalis.  We photographed them but it was in pre-digital days, and I've yet to find the prints and scan them.  I tell many people this story.

This year, though butterflies in general seem down in numbers, we've had quite a few flying visits.  I can tell a swallowtail from any other butterfly from some way off by its size and manner of flight, I saw this one from the kitchen window, grabbed the camera, ran outside, it posed for one shot and then was gone.  They're like that.

My brother and sister-i-l and my niece went down south in May, and reported extra-special swallowtails.  My niece took these and they e-mailed them to me, so the resolution's a bit low - because they are sensible people who shrink their photos before sending them (WHY DOESN'T EVERYONE DO THIS?! It's very simple, makes them easier to view and saves everyone's time...this is one of my personal bugbears).  

These two above, my niece's photos not mine, are in fact another species, another genus in fact, called scarce swallowtails.  Where they saw them, in south-west France, they are not unduly scarce, but they are called scarce in English because in England they are. 

Finally, a few of damselflies.  I don't know if I just happen to have been to rather a lot of places where damselflies hang out, but it seems to have been quite a year for these delightful creatures, which I think perhaps are my favourite insects. 

Something that is often noticeable when one photographs them, even at some distance with the zoom and haphazardly, is that when the photo appears they are quite evidently looking straight at the camera, clocking you clocking them, lens to lens. 

That is unless they're busy doing something else ( I know you've seen these two before, but that was from the other side).

Other particularly frequent and less welcome insects hereabouts this year have been hornets.  Not the malevolent, aggressive, invading Asian ones which murder bees, fortunately, but the standard ones, the big buggers, which we see occasionally most years.  The odd thing is we didn't see them at all earlier in the summer, and we don't see them during the day, but late at night, usually when we turn the outside light on to take Molly out for her last perambulation, suddenly there's a couple of them beating at the light and then at the glass door.  From my limited researches, they may be the young ones emerging from a nest somewhere on their mating flights.  The males do the business and die off, the females then hibernate and come out in the spring to found new dynasties.  I'm afraid to say they tend to get swatted, since we have no wish to share our living space with them, thank you.  Deep greens, pace.  I've no photos of them since I don't hang about to take their portraits, but there are plenty on Google Images of people with them crawling over their hands, just to show what cowardly anti-environmentalists we are not wanting to be their friends.


Well now, still raining, so I'll just have to find something useful to do indoors.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Rampant ego

All the webcam shots on record, and barely a smile between them. Should prompt me to post again fairly quickly anyway.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

G and the Gallé cat

A letter arrived in the post the other day, a real one.  It had my old friend's writing on it.  Funny how when this happens these days, one worries a little, like we used to over a telegram in the olden days.

But this envelope contained no bad news, only a very fine sheet of creamy writing paper, neatly written on in red with perfectly straight, perfectly spaced lines, enclosing the cut-out picture of the yellow cat.

A long time ago, G. and I sold books together, sometimes drank rather a lot of beer together, occasionally fancied the same men, sauntered around Athens and the Peloponnese one Easter holiday smoking too many Camels, eating sardines and elephant beans and drinking ouzo with the juice from bitter oranges we'd scrumped from the roadside in cheap hotel rooms, reading 'The Odyssey' aloud, avoiding snakes and man-eating pigs, and blowing our minds with antiquities.  We haven't seen each other for years but we've kept in touch and he sometimes looks in here.  These days, he's training to be a psychiatric nurse, having got as good as one can get at selling books, looked after fragile and vulnerable people in the community with steadfast compassion and typical black-humoured irony, trained to be a plumber (he boasts that he can change a pressure joint or a colostomy bag with equal sang froid though not necessarily at the same time), become a proper artist-painter with sales and exhibitions to his name, grown a truly amazing moustache and no doubt done much more besides that I don't even know about.  He's utterly my hero and I can say all this because he can't answer back with some mordant, deprecating and probably tasteless retort since he doesn't comment here.

A while ago, in this post, I recalled him showing me a photo he'd found in a Thames and Hudson book catalogue, of a yellow sculpted cat with bold black spots. I immediately wondered aloud how old it was, and he questioned why we always ask that, why we need to pin things down in place and time.  He e-mailed me after reading the post, saying that he had recently found the very same picture, in a drawer in an envelope along with a photo of Eartha Kitt and Nat King Cole having a cuddle.

Despite having covered as much ground as he has, G's not moved house much since those days, and he always did like to preserve his treasures to himself.  Now, he says, he's de-cluttering, and his first gesture towards this end is to pass on the picture of the yellow cat, since I remembered it fondly. As he doesn't have a scanner, perhaps I'd like to post it here, since it had languished in an envelope for 20 years.

It's always odd to see something like this again after it's faded and morphed with time in the memory.  As I remembered it, it was quite different and could have been quite ancient or very modern.  Looking at it again, I could be fairly sure it wasn't very old, but it's still a tricky thing to place, if you don't know it.  On the off-chance I put 'yellow pottery cat' into Google Images, and not very far down it appeared.  It turns out to be the famous Gallé cat.  Originally designed by the French art nouveau artist Emile Gallé , who mostly worked in glass, in the late 19th centuryit was taken up and popularised by the Scottish pottery  Wemyss (pronounced 'Weems') in the 1890s.  They later closed down but were reopened in the 1980s, with variations on the Gallé cat one of their most popular items.

So, curiosity as to its age and provenance is satisfied,  the vaporous stuff of memory and personal mythologising solidifies; something is lost, something is gained.  In fact even without the Google search, I'd have found out what it was, since lovely sister, who knows her way around the decorative arts from the last 200 years from all over the globe like most of us know our way around the local supermarket, knew all about Gallé and Wemyss (including putting me right on the pronunciation) and would have filled me in anyway, once she'd seen it here.  In fact G himself knew all about Wemyss too because there is a good exhibition of their wares at the museum in Newport which he frequents frequently, but there were no yellow cats and he'd not made the connection.

Well, I said to him, good luck with the de-cluttering, though if you have to re-home everything as carefully and lovingly as this it'll be slow going.  Not that I mind.  Just for fun, I found a little unvarnished photo frame I had around - about 50 eurocents from Ikea, I think, stained it with Inktense pencils, made a scrap paper mount and gave yellow puss a home in the blue room, where I shall enjoy it for a while to come.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Half a dozen somethings for the weekend

Accident spot

On the barrier where the road bends round
the edge of the hill, over the long sloping field,
someone has changed the artificial flowers.
Their polyester red and white and yellow
is loud once more, shouting, vulgar
with the intrusive bad taste of a fresh grief,
among the tired, turning season's speckled
weeds and seeds: the rusted spikes of dock,
hawksbit and knapweed, ragwort,  mallow,
ladies' bedstraw, Queen Anne's lace,
and here and there still the pale scarlet
bloodsplash of a poppy.


Anyone going into Tartapain bakery in Yffiniac, and possibly other bakers here, with a large baby or small toddler will be offered 'a piece of bread for the baby?'.  This comes from a prepared stock of handy-sized chunks of baguette behind the counter.  Tom says that the London bakers of his childhood also used to give away ' a bit of bread and buppy for the baby.'  Here though, the bread is unbuttered, and probably chewier than that was.  Presumably a child weaned and teethed on baguettes would never have to be cajoled or fibbed to about curling hair to be persuaded to eat its crusts.  Indeed, with much French bread, refusal to eat the crust could mean going rather hungry...


I allow myself momentarily to succumb to the lure of the Vitrine Magique catalogue.  Though almost tempted by the 36 tiny stick-on wooden ladybirds, the hand-weeding tool with the specially angled metal blade (both at a euro), and a rather sleek little olive stoner (2 euros, and I have one on the garlic crusher anyway), I do not give in, emerge triumphant and throw the catalogue in the recyclables bin.


A most excellent Archers omnibus.  I've not listened to 'The Archers' much of late, but it's a well-known truism that this doesn't matter a scrap, since like riding a bike, once one has ever learned to listen to it, it is possible to pick it up again after an interval of weeks, months, years or even decades with very little difficulty.  From Jim's sublime lachrymae rerum chat with  Kathy ( "it can be hard to be not quite in the inner circle of mourners...") which had me shedding tears into the breakfast things, to the deliciously ridiculous Aldridge/Carter clash of the snobberies - Jennifer's posh landed airs and graces against Susan's rural working class aspirations - over their children's wedding party, happily resolved in shared excitement at the prospect of a multi-coloured cupcake tower wedding cake, which had me giggling into my Sunday midday sherry, altogether a hugely satisfying listen.

Who knows this knows.


Rock, shadow, water, root.  From the old railtrack, found on the Cheapcam.


And finally a bit of Rilke:

Praise the world to the Angel, not what's unsayable.
You can't impress him with lofty emotions; in the cosmos
where he feels more feelingly, you're a mere novice.  Therefore show him
some simple thing, formed by generation after generation
until it's truly our own, living in our hands and in our eyes.
Tell him things.  He'll stand more amazed; as you stood
beside the ropemaker in Rome or the potter by the Nile.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent and ours,
how even lamenting grief decides finally on form,
serves as a thing or dies into a thing...

(9th Duino Elegy, trans. Snow)

He might well be right. 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Garbo talks...

This is a video I think I took without meaning to.  Some time ago I went to the launderette, or laverie as it is known, in Lamballe, exciting life I do lead.  This was probably to wash Molly's bedding, but also perhaps to use the tumble dryer, a thing we don't have at home, for other stuff, I forget.  I left Mol in the car, and progressively moved things from washing machine to dryer to basket to car, as you do.  I parked a basket of warm dried washing in the front seat, and when I got back, Madam had curled up in it.  I only had the compact Cheapcam with me, but whipped it out and took some pictures of her.  Unbeknownst to me, one of these was a moving one. 

Then as usual I forgot all about it as it was only on the Cheapcam, whose batteries usually run out well before I get around to downloading the photos from it.  Then last week I lost the memory card from the Lumix.  It's probably down the back of the sofa somewhere, where I have taken to plugging it straight into the mini computer and working with the pictures directly off it, then pulling it out again, and evidently mislaying it, when I've finished.  However, I groped about down there to no avail, so I raided poor little Cheapcam's memory card to use in the other one, and that turned out to have this on it.

This is the first time I've been able to upload a video directly through Blogger, since it's very basic quality and so not too big a file, even then it was not without some difficulty, in the end exporting it whole as a clip then blogging it directly from Picasa, but I got there. 

So, there you are: Garbo talks, Molly moves.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


' What happened ' Benj asked Tom, man to man over the remains of lunch 'between you and Grandma?'

' What happened? We divorced.'

'And a long time later' I chipped in, 'he met me.'  (Let's get that one straight while we're here.)

' Why?  Was it because she was this?' He made an odd little movement.

'Like what?'

Benj glanced at his mother, who gave him an the OK.  He got up and did an impression of a tight-lipped, huffing woman marching furiously about the room, elbows pumping.

'Your trouble is, lad' said his grandfather 'you see too much.'


St Michel

pink rocks     
deep pink flowers 
green fish flickering 
tiny crabs in spiral shells
brown boys splashing
fierce love

a boat comes to the shore.


Droplets on flowers, always a favourite.


On the new mini notebook, I'm using Google Chrome as a browser, which I'm enjoying.  It lacks the feeds and favourites functions of IE, but there are ways around this.  One is a toolbar thing called extensions, which gives little icons you can click on to tell you immediately when something updates and link you to it.  I don't fully understand it, but have managed to acquire a button for my feedreader (which I only use for two or three rarely updating and/or more private blogs), and one for my gmail, which I keep open anyway.  When the latter gets a new message, and then when I read it, the red envelope icon does a jaunty little spin.  Occasionally I send myself messages just to see it do this.


Aargh.  The webcam works. Haven't had one of these before.

 Happily not very well, so much of my face is in shadow.  Makes me look rather brooding, I hope, and my shirt looks an interesting colour.  In fact my shirt is many quite interesting colours, but nothing like this.  And I suppose I am a bit brooding sometimes, but not in a very interesting way.  I don't imagine I'll make it a regular feature, but it's a novelty. 


And so to bed. 

Monday, August 09, 2010


Now there are freesias by the window, blue-mauve and yellow
in an old white tea-pot we don't use. One flowerhead broke,
and then was poked into the spout, so that its arching spray
might make a joke of pouring. Out of lolling, thick-braided calyces
three-over-three, their petals open, lined with a little darkness of their own;
inside they're white with sunlight, just grey without, and  then below
another glow of yellow, a shadow there of green. And this is all to hold
what seem like embryos or emblems of themselves, elements,
self-coloured at their centres.

They are self-centred!  Such bright and mildly stubborn tones,
colour and textures wrong against the dull red wall, refusing to blend,
impose themselves with softness.  They'd never grow for us, they need
pampering under a gleaming moistened skin of glass or plastic;
they fray and droop, decay, but still demand to stay.  To be here
they pushed aside great rounds of blazing sunflowers in splendour, mounds
of tawny marigolds, Michaelmas daisies, purple asters, grinning broad and gay
in bucketfuls down in the market square, seasonable, eager to please and easy.
But lazy, sly and shameless, these freesias sold themselves with perfume, the kind,
you know, which smells of ripeness, heady, lush, excessive, conjuring scent on warm skin,
imagined boudoirs, oozing and juice and indolence, bruised peaches,
softening melons, liquefying plums...

Generous and demanding, effusive, greedy, given to say thank you,
when rather they'd extract it from us as their due.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Friday, August 06, 2010

There they were gone...

... and now we are visitorless again. Normal service will be resumed at some point after the requisite recovery of mental and physical resources, rounding up of the British-to-French electrical adaptors, and washing.

E and B saying goodbye to Molly this morning, who has by now become quite accustomed to this level of worship, which also involves squabbles as to who gets to sit in the back seat of the car with her and casually dropped snack foods.

Lovely to see them, withal.