Saturday, January 29, 2011

Frosty morning 5 - and then the sun came up...

... and in next to no time it had turned the ice to crystalline droplets, and then it was gone.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Frosty morning 4 - hellebores

I don't really give these the attention they deserve.  Not quite Christmas roses, but budding and flowering bravely when little else wants to know.

As well as the daintier purple and yellow ones above, we have quite a lot of the big light green ones, which tend to grow rather monstrous and sprawl about in a fleshy and ungainly manner,

 but since they are doing so in an otherwise somewhat lost space under the birch trees, we leave them to it.  lately, however, after many years, they underwent and explosion of self-seeding, and their engaging still small-leaved offspring are scattered all over the soil in their thousands.

Not quite sure what we'll do when they all grow into grotesque splayed-out triffids, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Frosty morning 3 - bark and black plastic

A garden is a lovesome thing God wot, but our garden has a fair few unlovely areas, it must be said.  Still, a degree of dishevelment  is good for the wildlife, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.  So the ceanothus which died in the cold winter we had last year mostly still lies where it fell, its bark peeling off, as the frost picks out..  I daresay something is using it for food or shelter, if only micro-organisms.

Black plastic has always played quite a significant role in garden management hereabouts, the heavy duty kind sold for making silage clamps.  Currently its holding the raised vegetable beds in stasis. I can't really claim that it's especially eco-friendly as its main purpose is to stop anything growing, but toad and newts and bugs and snails and such like do live under it, and it does do interesting things when it freezes, and the puddles  which collect in it trap dead leaves and other litter.

It's held down by pieces of old roof slate and rocks, which the thrushes use as anvils to break the snails they find in abundance in the many neglected corners of the garden.  

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Frosty morning 2 - Jack in the Green

Living in Gloucestershire, I worked with a local girl who used to say 'It's right Jack out there!' on frosty mornings.  I don't know if this was a regional expression or something of her own.

There is new green growth, (there always is) but I've been too lazy and recalcitrant to look at it, until the frost showed it.  

Foxgloves leaves unfurl again into their two year cycle, dreaming in the ice of towers of summer purple,

and buttercups never give up, stubborn, pernicious globes of sunshine that they are.

Someone gave us a bundle of these little palm plants, last year perhaps.  We were rather unimpressed, stuck them in the soil and  more or less forgot about them, now their splayed and folded fans of leaves are revealed more boldly,

and the evergreen ferns and mosses wait patiently on the granite.

More to come.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Frosty morning 1 - dead matter

Post after post and barely a new photograph to be had. Sorry times, but in truth this month of January does not inspire.  I look at the camera as I go out and mostly can't be bothered to pick it up, and rarely regret it.  Little is emerging in the natural world, and I lack the time or motivation to look further afield.  And most of all, the light is dismal just now, rendering the colours of the landscape the shades of brown and green drab which I associate with this time of year and which have little to recommend them.  Reason tells me I can't complain, I am thankful for safe roads on dark mornings, and the milder temperatures mean a saving on electricity and firewood. The evenings are perceptibly lighter already, if the mornings aren't, and in fact there are catkins and a few leafbuds here and there, and I have a tentative feeling that perhaps we've come through, and it could have been worse.

But I have so been missing taking pictures, and I was happy yesterday (Wednesday) when the daylight revealed a crisp white frost, and a bright sun just loitering below the horizon, and it wasn't a work morning.  So a walk around the garden was called for, in dressing gown with bare feet in plastic sabots, ending in wet hems to pyjama trousers, to catch the moment.

Ice often seems to me like nature making art.  Frost suspends everything alike; growth and decay, living and inanimate, are arrested at the same moment, their forms preserved, delineated and enhanced. What appeared to be brown dead matter and other garden  rubbish momentarily regained a new and bolder identity, and drew the eye afresh.

Stalks and seedheads,

dead leaves like kraft paper, and hollow spent pods,

all caught and commemorated before they turn to dust and earth again.

(I took a lot of pictures, so I'll put them up in several posts.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Aunts at Alton

Planning a short trip with some of my students later in the year to the UK, to Hampshire; they want to see Jane Austen's house and visit a typical English tea room.  The town of Alton was always handed down in family memory as the place where my father's aunts lived.  My father's father came from Somerset, as I think I've mentioned before, but there was another branch in Hampshire. These may well be confused and mixed up received memories from different sources, that's how it goes with these things.

The Aunts at Alton

1940, just married, our parents found
petrol enough out of the ration
to take Dad's Austin Seven down
from Hertfordshire to Hampshire,
to see the Aunts at Alton.

Their number and identities are blurred,
- and who's there left to ask now? -
I think though, there was Kate,
and Tilly, and a perhaps a third,
Lucy, my namesake sooner than a saint of light,
or Wordsworth's shrinking violet girl.

Kate, they said, eschewed a skirt,
wore trousers like a man, was quite a sight
to see out on the tractor, and smoked,
even, perhaps, a pipe, she'd light
from rolled-up paper spills out of a jar
up on the mantelpiece, something
to keep your fingers busy by the fire.

'Father', who'd mostly lost his teeth and wits,
sat in the background, fed on slops, which
fifty years on still made my mother shudder.
Indeed, there wasn't that much food around
for anyone to chew on, but she did recall
a good round cheese, and relish
made from grated beetroot and horseradish.

It was December - the photographs show Mum
in a coat we knew was blue, its collar velvet,
which Aunty Joan made from a remnant,
she was good at that - the farmhouse rooms were cold,
the water in the jug and basin on the chest of drawers
still colder, and Dad too shy to ask for any hot.

A wartime honeymoon, of sorts then: food,
and petrol, warmth and comfort, rationed
and in short supply.  And though the names and tales
were handed down like heirloom curios, I never could be sure
if it were quite a happy memory or not.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


The girl with long fair hair, a pulled down black hat with a narrow brim, a backpack with a yellow toy mascot hanging from it, and a broad and engaging smile, who I pulled over for just by the junction of the National Road outside Lamballe, turned out to be a man, of perhaps any age between thirty-five and fifty.

'So you still picked him up?' asks everyone I've told about it, incredulously.  Well I wasn't going to drive away again having stopped, that would have been discourteous and contemptuous, unless I had had a very strong sense that there was something amiss about him.  Rather like giving up too many of one's civil liberties in the War against Terror, there are some measures against risk which are more destructive to the soul than taking the risk.  The aura of engaged friendliness of the figure by the side of the road, the look of scruffy, anarchic, open, clownishness which put me in mind of some of my younger relatives, if not of my younger self, which triggered the impulse to stop for her/him, still stood, whatever the gender.  People like that are not threatening.

He quickly twigged to come round to the other side of the car to the passenger seat, and offered greetings and preliminary exchanges in English.  English people often picked him up, he said.  Yes he hitched a lot now.  Six years ago, he lost his marriage, lost everything he had, and it was like when he was young, he had nothing.  But he had begun to live again as he had as a young man, and he had found time again.  You don't understand what you have when you are young and you have nothing.  But surely, I said, there is a difference between having nothing when you never had anything, and having nothing when you have lost everything?  

The exchange proceded along these lines in a mixture of English and French, with occasional bits of Spanish thrown in.  He had just been to Spain for ten days, he said, to learn the language.  He worked with Roma and Romanian people, they often know Spanish better than French.  He wanted to know and understand them, to help them in society, he said.  We talked of the fear between settled people and the intinerant, which I suggested was to some extent visceral and inevitable, but which he maintained was taught and learned, a strategy of divide-and-rule on the part of the rulers.  I had come from studying a text with Maxime, an extract from Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris, the portrait of Paddy the tramp, abject, gentle. scrupulously honest, and beaten. We had, Maxime and I, talked briefly about Alexander Supertramp, the pseudonym of Christopher McCandless, and WH Davies, of those who choose vagrancy and those who have vagrancy thrust upon them, but of how the former may still genuinely suffer the hardships and consequences of their choice: Orwell dead at fifty of tuberculosis, McCandless starved, poisoned and alone in the wilderness.  I suppose these thoughts were still in my head somewhere below the threshold.

My passenger smelled pungent, but not offensive, a smell of travelling, the leathery smell of a body unwashed but well-aired, of clothes that had stood up to all weathers.  He carried an old-fashioned hook-topped polished walking stick.  The old, he said, should keep the spirit of youth, youth is only wasted when young people are alone and kept apart from the old. We are being governed and controlled more and more by fear, we relinquish too much for a false sense of security, we grow lonely and depressed and ill as a result.  He was nostalgic for a holistic and communitarian vision of mediaeval times.

As he became more impassioned, he slipped entirely into French, and I became rather lost in his analyses of the class system and such like, what with driving and all.  Also, and this is always a problem for me in having any kind of intelligent conversation in French, I am easily waylaid by my own reactions and responses; taking the time and energy to consider inwardly what I think about what is being said means I often miss the next bit and lose the thread.  But I gave hime the best hearing I could manage.  I left this dreamer and wandering philosopher, modern-day Lavengro and supertramp at the foot of the mediaeval ramparts at Moncontour, where he strode off, his yellow gonk mascot swinging behind him, having bid each other many good days, good weekends, good roads and good courage.

I have never been so convinced that the world needs to change, and never more persuaded that it probably can't and almost certainly won't.  I hang tenuously but tenaciously to the quietist haven I have constructed for myself, or been fortunate enough to find myself in, at this stage of my life; I am more concerned with preserving its boundaries than with breaking down barriers, these days.  Universal brother- or sisterhood is not something I hold a lot of faith in now, if I ever really did.  Those who are marginal and alien elicit my fear and incomrehension quite as much as my compassion or admiration. And I am no longer sure that there is an external  'them' who is keeping us in the bondage in which we find ourselves, and of whom we only have to deprive of power to free ourselves and all will be well.

Yet it still does me good to know there are those like my momentary acquaintance at large in the world, walking the walk, and hitching the ride, filled with dreams and visions of past and future and finding ways to talk to people about them, however mistaken and hopeless my mature and cynical current self tells me they are. My stock of good courage did indeed feel just a little higher for meeting him.    

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What he sees in the flames

I've been a little tardy in saying, Plutarch has been looking into the fire, and seeing 

elephantine shapes
In drifts of darkness

Go over to Compasses now, if you haven't already, and gaze awhile with him.

( I find it quite hard to refrain from looking into the fire myself,  and thence to photographing it, but, as I have observed elsewhere, it always comes out a strange mauvish colour, which is nothing like its reality.  This time I used the 'candlelight' special setting on the camera, and then the 'warmify'  effect on Picasa, which went some way to rendering it more lifelike...)

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Erquy, out of season.

These are from nearly a month ago now, from a visit we made to Erquy for Sunday lunch on my birthday. I've only just got around to sorting them out, but thought that they were worth putting up, better late than never.

Le Vivier is open, the sign proclaimed, and the terrace is heated.  The terrace, under the closed in awning, where we had spent pleasant evenings in balmy late sunshine or in the racket of summer rainstorms,  was not in fact heated or prepared for visitors; the tanks which give it its name were empty of water and crustaceans, the Alsace Tokay which was chalked up on the blackboard on the terrace was no longer in store.  But no matter, inside was warm and friendly, and we ate oysters and smoked salmon and red mullet and sea bass, and kouign amman and a heavenly chocolate tart with orange. I can't remember what we drank but it went down fine, perhaps it was just the house white which is always uncommonly good there for an inexpensive pichet.

It was all much too good and absorbing to think about photographing it, or not until the coffee anyway.

After, when we came out, the sun had come out on what had started off a foggy dull day, so we wandered off along the quay, to nod to some of the inhabitants, 

some of whom were feeling rather shy,

 and to look at shapes and colours,

and the tide going out, and the sun on the wet sand and water.

And then we went home.  It was smashing.