Sunday, February 27, 2011

Heather Dohollau at Qarrtsiluni

Please go and read my friend Heather Dohollau's three poems in French and English, translated by the author, at Qarrtsiluni.

Heather, who lives in St Brieuc, where I work, is an extraordinary woman who has led a remarkable life and who writes very beautiful poems in French and English.  I could say a great deal more about her. but it's really much better to go and read  for yourselves.  And also, please, listen to the recording of her reading them, which is wonderful (thanks Dave, who made my efforts with a tiny laptop and supermarket-bought microphone sound so good), and which also contains extra biographical information.

If you have any comments could you leave them there rather than here? You don't need to be signed in or anything.  I'm very pleased and proud to have been involved with this, but credit where it is due.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I'll keep the rock of anger that you threw at me, although
it's in the way and ugly now, and I'm still stubbing my toe
and grazing my skin on its hard weight and rough edges.

I'll put it on the shore here and let these waves
wash over it, rubbing in salt and grit, until it turns
to a smooth and lovely pebble of bitterness, just
the size of a thumbstone perhaps, to carry about
in my pocket and touch now and then,
or put aside on the shelf and look at rarely.

Or maybe it will hollow down to form
a neat polished bowl, which I can hold
in my cupped hands, small and irregular,
but still quite suitable to contain
things best served cold.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bees and hellebores again

Because you can't have too much of a good thing.

Three good things I am full of:

The King's Speech  - of course, isn't everyone? First time ever in 18 years acquaintance Tom and I have ever been to the pictures together, had to drag him protesting but he came away as smitten as I was, even though he couldn't hear all of it;

Salley Vickers book of short stories Aphrodite's Hat - came in a parcel from lovely sister, whom I introduced to SV and who now always makes sure I have the latest:

Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances - the first one anyway, ever a sucker for plangent melodies and the slow movement, why didn't I know these before? I look forward to getting up in the morning so I can play it again.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bees and hellebores, round childhood reading, and back to bees again.

I fear the photos I took of the now flowering hellebores one bright morning last week could end up being like the frosty morning ones and taking a month to get through.  So, first of all, I selected only the ones which had bees in.  I can't get enough of photographing bees, of course, and people seem to quite like seeing them.  Even so, there are a lot of photos.  So I've put the 'bees in the green hellebores' in a grid collage to save time and space, but it's at quite a large resolution, so can be looked at in greater detail should you so wish. 

 I especially like the picture in the middle row, on the left, where the insect seems to be angling its head to give me a baleful (subjective and anthropomorphic interpretation...) glance as it passes, rather as the damselflies seemed to. 

I was intrigued by the yellowish masses on the bees legs.  I always assumed these were pollen sacs, but on zooming in they look rather waxy, and I wondered if they were perhaps composed of propolis, the protective plant secretion which make sticky buds sticky and shiny spring leaves shiny, and which bees use in the making of beeswax.  Researches on-line were inconclusive but interesting; sites, blogs and forums run by beekeepers are marvels of single-minded passion and expertise. One exposition on the wonder of bees' legs led me to conclude that the expression 'the bees' knees', rather than being the humorous deformation of the word 'business' I had always taken it to be, was quite literal, for these really are the most extraordinary and multi-purpose of appendages.  Another explained that among the many uses to which bees put propolis, which has strong antiseptic and preservative qualities, is to encase and mummify the corpses of mice who have made the mistake of trying to enter the hive, and been stung to death.  More charmingly, I found this little video of a honey bee collecting propolis.

Thinking about propolis, and sticky buds, led me to remembering the joys of horse chestnuts in childhood, how these trees, not really native to this part of Europe, seem in so many ways larger than life, from the amazing stickiness of the aforesaid buds in spring, to their magnificent blazing white candle flowers in early summer, and their great splayed opposing pinnate leaves with their boldly lined parallel veins, which I never tired of drawing, to the glossy glory of the fruit, 'conkers', in their sponge-lined, spiny husks in autumn.   

Which in turn (I am feeling digressive in the extreme today) led a memory of an Enid Blyton story I remembered reading when I was very young, perhaps six, something about a wooden toy soldier and a fairy, and how the latter stuck some part of the former's anatomy (I think it was his nose...) which had come off, back on with 'sticky bud glue'. It is probably my first memory of throwing a book down in disgust.  I  probably couldn't have articulated why; but it was to do with the romantic soppiness of fairies and toy soldiers falling in love (I was completely incurious of such matters at that age, they simply made me squirm, whether among make-believe characters or realistic human ones), and partly because of an incapacity to suspend disbelief about the physical properties of plant secretions as adhesives; I knew sticky bud glue, it was remarkable and interesting stuff, but it would not work to stick wooden articles back together, even supposing one could collect enough of it to do so - it may be seen I was a rather tiresomely literal-minded child, a characteristic I still have difficulty in shaking off. Also though, I think I just hated the simpering and patronising style of the writing.

Later, at perhaps 8 or 9 years old, our teacher read to us from an Enid Blyton adventure story - something from the [Mountain, Ship, Valley, Island...] of Adventure' series, I think.  We enjoyed it as a whole class thing, and I sought out others in the series from the school library to read.  I may have made it through another, but couldn't read any more of them.  This recollection heartens me, when I doubt my powers of discernment as to whether things I read are good or not.  Neither my family nor my teachers were prescriptive  about reading matter, if we were reading and enjoying it that was all that mattered. I was not always a particularly discerning and certainly not a precocious reader - at about 14  I went through a phase of compulsively devouring Biggles books, I knew they were not good, laughed at the repetitive and clichéd writing and paper-thin characters, but they provided something I craved, I'm still not sure what.  My parents wouldn't actively have encouraged Enid Blyton, and I don't think there were many of her books in the house, but they never sneered or snorted at anything we liked.  Evidently my primary teacher was not opposed or she wouldn't have been reading from them to the class.  So nobody had told me they weren't very good, and in fact I probably felt disappointed with myself at being unable to finish a book, but something in me simply found them irritating and unsatisfying.  

For my secondary schooling I moved on to a smallish girls' private school, which was very definitely an Enid Blyton-free zone (though in the Junior Library I did find a rare old copy of one of the adventures of 'Worralls the WAAF', Capt WE Johns' attempt to become a reconstructed male and cater for tomboyish gels by providing a female counterpart to Biggles, quite a curiosity).  I still appreciate their attempts to inform and guide and provide for our reading habits, though sometimes it seems to me that the works by classic writers which are, by virtue of their length or subject matter, deemed suitable for younger readers, are often poor and unappetising examples of those writers' work.  

Jane Eyre was fine at 13 or so, but Persuasion the following year was hopeless, it's a grown-ups' book, I don't know what they were thinking of, but at least it wasn't Northanger Abbey, which has, I gather put many people right off by being presented as Jane-Austen-lite .  A Christmas Carol and The Childhood of David Copperfield (the first part of the whole) are not good places to start with Dickens, even if they are short and deal with apparently kiddy subjects (and yes, I know there are some who will say there is no good place to start with Dickens...).  And The Nun's Priest's Tale as Chaucer for beginners (that was O level) was pretty stupid too - we're 15 now, too big for fables and talking animals, right?  One of the problems is that the small, bagatelle works by big writers, such as Northanger Abbey and a Christmas Carol and the Nun's Priest's, which at first look to be lightweight and easy, is that they are often satirical, self-referential, or otherwise bits of quite sophisticated whimsy which in the context of their work overall (sorry, can't bring myself to write 'oeuvre' with a straight face), and the milieu in which they were writing, fall into place and can be appreciated as such, but taken apart, as an introduction, seem fairly pointless and unappealing and give a misleading impression.  

I'm inclined to think it might be better to let youngsters roam a bit, and just give them the wherewithal to do so; if they're ready for grown-ups' books early they'll find them, otherwise wait until they get to a point where they can get stuck into the proper canon.  By 16 I was ready for more or less anything the A level syllabus and its related reading could throw at me, and relished Sense and Sensibility, Middlemarch, The Franklin's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, and even Bleak House.  I can't say I enjoyed Paradise Lost all that much, and Hopkins was a struggle, but I'm glad I was bent to studying them, as I've come to love them as life has gone on.  So I'm not against a degree of pushing into more difficult things, but it's just what and when, I suppose.

The other thing my posh school weaned me on to of course, was Shakespeare, starting with A Midsummer Night's Dream, and this is the exception I'd make to not prescribing the fairy story bagatelle for the kids.  We were about 11 or 12, and it was a delight, most people seemed to enjoy it.  There's something about the charm of it which just works, even if it does all seem a bit bonkers.  I never had to study it again, not at school or university, and it stands alone.  There was even a junior school production of it, which thinking about it, was quite a feat, getting 11 and 12 year-olds to act a full Shakespeare.  I auditioned but didn't get anything.  This was a disappointment, but another worthwhile lesson; projecting myself, becoming someone else, a voice that could carry to the back of the school hall and a prodigious memory for lines were not something I could or should aspire to.

But I still love those crazy fairies.  One of the things which it strikes me now about it, which was never drawn attention to when we studied it or made much of generally, is the confounding of scale.  It's the kind of elephant in the room of the overlay and bleed of the fairy world into the mortal one, but an elephant which might be only as big as a mouse, or else equipped with seven-league boots.  Enid Blyton's fairies exist in teensy-weensy fairyland, where they might mix with toy soldiers, but like sticky bud glue, they've got no strength or substance.  Just how big are Shakespeare's fairies? They fall in love with mortals and steal their children, on the stage they appear alongside them.  They can apparently get 'around the earth in forty minutes' at a time when the size of the earth was still problematic and difficult to grasp, so they can clearly encompass huge areas and distances.  Then Bottom gets magicked and translated and grows a donkey's head, frightens his mates, but then cavorts with Titania, and everything's tiny, on a scale of cobwebs and mustardseeds and moths. What's going on? 

Which brings me back to the bees.  Those little sacs of propolis, or pollen or nectar, or whatever they are, and the bees' knees,

'Monsieur Cobweb; good monsieur, get your weapons in your hand and kill me a red-hipped humble-bee on the top of a thistle; and, good monsieur, have a care the honey-bag break not; I would be loath to have you overflown with a honey-bag, signior...'

they always make me think of that.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writing on, and in, books.

Odd how the casual and conventionally polite showing of interest in my reading matter a couple of posts ago, along the lines of 'let us know what you think of it', rather engendered a sense of anxiety.  I always feel myself very ill-equipped to comment on books in any capacity of review or criticism.

Then I saw this, over at Dave's, which made me smile plenty, and in turn led me to this, at  John's blog Open Reading, where I'd not been before, and between the two of them, with irony and thoughtful common sense they made me feel much better, John's defence of the value of a reader response was heartening. 

My lack of confidence in the value of my own particular readerly response has many causes, most of them  to do with a tedious and inverted narcissism: fear of being exposed as stupid and undiscerning I suppose, or not having anything new to say, so what's the point? - running out of time, space and others' tolerance; that I won't be able to marshal my thoughts intelligently and succinctly; indecision and uncertainty about what I really do think  (and here reading about Montaigne has been very helpful; perhaps it really is acceptable sometimes to shrug and say, 'but I don't know', or to change one's mind, or contradict oneself, though indeed it got him into trouble ...)  

Then there is the danger that a reader response might degenerate into a defensively philistine 'Well I like it anyway, and I know what I like!', which for some reason is more contemptible than an equally unjustified 'What a load of rubbish!' or similar, which automatically seems to presuppose a strong-minded and incisive intelligence ... Not for nothing has the word 'criticism' come to be synonymous with negativity and disparagement. 

Yet it is good to explore why we like what we like, or not, and doesn't preclude allowing for different tastes; discrimination, applauding excellence and being honest about its opposite, is desirable and necessary.  It's a joy to be led in the direction of something new and perhaps better than what we already know, to read or listen to a good critic illuminating or explaining something previously unclear and incomprehensible, and occasionally, indeed, it's satisfying to hear something being carefully demolished, if not cruelly ripped apart.

On reflection, in fact, I'm not actually too averse to giving my own reader responses.  I love chatting about books in e-mails, where I suppose I feel less that I'm setting myself up, or that I'm just conversing one-to-one with a interested and often like-minded friend, with whom impressions are not necessarily taken to be opinions.  Even here though, I observe there are some 30 posts tagged with the label 'books', and some of them do contain  quite detailed responses to things I've been reading.

So I think perhaps I'll try to get over myself and write the odd review, or reader response anyway, but I'll take a leaf out of John's book on the matter of  'précis and pith'; the danger of going on at too much inconsequential length and exhausting my own time and your patience is as much of a problem as not having enough to say. 

Says she.  And proceeds to head off at another tangent.  Probably at length. Ah me.

I've nearly finished the Sarah Bakewell Montaigne biography, and I realise that one of the problems I have about opining on books is that I need to let a certain time lapse before my impressions of them settle.  Often a book seems quite great and I've been quite carried along with it but then a short while later I realise I have very little impression of it at all, or quite a negative one.  Sometimes, I've been initially enthusiastic but ended by feeling perplexed, nonplussed, and assumed a failure of understanding or appreciation in myself, but after time have come to the conclusion that no, it wasn't me, the book just fell apart ('Miss Smilla' comes to mind).  At other times, the positive impression remains, but it still seems to require an interval for the shape and the prominent features of the text to become clear.  However, by this time the event of reading it is passed, and the important details have slipped away.

Probably this can't really be helped.  I am simply a bear of rather slow and ponderous brain who just doesn't process stuff very quickly.  What would help though would be to take notes, which I could review later.  This came up at Open Reading, and elsewhere, people saying that they have to read with a pencil in hand, and make notes in margins as they go along.  It's caused me to think about this aspect of the culture of reading.  Quite simply, I find marking in books a very difficult thing to bring myself to do.

I don't remember having it too forcibly instilled into me, but I think that I must come from a background where, while book use, the presence of books, was of the greatest importance, book ownership wasn't.  I come from a large family, we had books, they occupied our rooms, but then we often swapped rooms, the books often stayed where they were, and they occupied halls and landings and attics and living rooms too.  They were passed on, handed round, lent and borrowed, we weren't really too particular whose they were, and we weren't ever so precious about them, but to scribble in them spoiled them for the next user.  Then we went to the library every week too, a good, bright, clean small town library, lovely hardback books with clear plastic covers, and you certainly didn't write in library books. I went to a small private girls' secondary school; it may have been paying but economy was paramount, some of our text books were ancient, we did scribble in them, but we knew it was a crime.  When I went on to university, and before when I studied foreign languages, the usefulness of marginal notes became clear, but it was never a habit I took to easily, and I never learned the necessary conciseness to do it very effectively .  

I wish I could break out of this constraint; there is no good reason why carefully made personal notes and observations, underlinings and other markings, constitute any form of vandalism.  I sometimes buy very old used copies from Amazon which have other people's writing in them and I don't mind; the heavily annotated copy of Rilke's Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge that I read recently rather pleased me, since the anonymous American who was presumably studying it formally seemed to be struggling with it worse than I was, I felt I had a companion and wasn't so alone! I'm sure that personalising and pouring oneself into the fabric of a book in this way must make the relationship you have with it much closer and more intense, which I suppose comes back to ownership again.  I don't know, is it better to have a looser, more hands-off bond with your reading matter, or to get up-close and personal?  I'd be interested to know how others see this.

Perhaps I should just try to keep a notebook and pencil to hand, and perhaps try to learn to mark in the book sparingly.  I'll give it a try.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Please come back later.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Things of early spring and late winter, and other oddments.

I have decided that if I don't make one of those patchwork posts, of bits and pieces taken from camera and notebooks and envelope backs, I won't post at all, and waste not want not.

I go to Le Grand Pré to pick up tickets for a performance of flamenco dancing at the end of the month.  It is a vast place, in an enormous space, with glorious views across the bay, and, it seems, about two scheduled performances of anything a month, from September to May.  I suppose the schools must use it, and conferences.  Nearby, though, I spied a mimosa, just about to flower, and a very fine donkey in a paddock behind it.

Yellow globes of early spring, but then also these tenacious holders-on from autumn too, a yellow crab apple tree, its fruit as big as eggs, and miraculously still intact and glowing through all the frost and wind and snow we've had, like the golden apples of the sun.

I bit into a dropped one.  It was quite sweet, but the tannin was mouth-scouring.  The birds don't mind. 


On the matter of birds, lately it seems that the jays have taken over the niche that the magpies used to occupy in the garden.  The magpies are still about, but they keep more to the fields and hedges and roadways, while the jays come more boldly near to the house, which is an odd reversal.  Sometimes there are several of them, dancing about on the tops of the hedges and perching in the trees.  It occurred to me, watching a pair of magpies hopping about on the road, that the jays still seem rarely to come down to the ground like that, but then I looked out of the window the other day and saw one foraging on the grass.


The white van's windscreen, convex like the mirror in van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding, holds the entirety of the plane tree and the morning's blue and rose-cream sky behind it within its scoping, passive eye.  It stands in the car park, square, banal, rude, mechanical, discreetly offering this perfect vision to the the world.


 Blue hyacinths.  They loll about shamelessly, as if drunk on their own perfume.


As I tip the glass into the big déchetterie skip for recycling, I feel a momentary pang of remorse, to see the empty  Croft Original bottle and squat brown Marmite jar, abandoned and forlorn among the Bordeaux and beer bottles, and jars that once held green French beans and apricot jam.



'I'd say that metaphysical acrostics,
Rightly taken are as good as joss sticks.'

( Geoffrey Hill, from Oracles)


On a day of cold wind and sunbursts, the emerging grass and winter wheat take on that wildly hopeful sheen of green, glowing back at last at the sky and the stripes of winter trees, like a smile, a refusal to stay sullen any longer.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Hatches and dispatches,

 In January, there's a round-up for the year in the bulletin of our local commune, the catchily named Plémy Informations (since that is a countable noun in French, as is advice), where you get what my mother used to call the hatches-matches-and-dispatches.  The births this year outnumber the deaths by 19 to 16, which doubtless is considered a minor triumph on behalf of the Republic by the citizens of Plémy , though there were only three marriages.  I always take a quick glance at the naissances column (rather simperingly subtitled bienvenue - welcome, while the deaths are even more cloyingly watermarked with 'ils nous ont quittés - they have left us') every month, to see what the folk of the neighbourhood of child-bearing age are naming their offspring.  Gone are the days when you were obliged to name your child from a register of accepted names, presumably so that its fête might be celebrated on the statutory day as laid down by the almanach du facteur and other such worthy documents.  Now, though I have heard that mayors of communes have the right to turn down a name which they consider in some way inappropriate, it pretty much seems to be carte blanche for trendy names.  Here's this year's haul:

Yuna (two of these, our neighbours' grand-daughter, who must by now be well into her twenties, was Yuna, but her mum was a bit of a hippy trailblazer)
Erell (I assumed at first this was a boy and equated it with 'Errol'; now I know it's a girl it sounds nicer)
Chloé  (not as ubiquitous here as in the UK but popular)
Gwendoline  ('Gwen' names have been popular hereabouts for a while I think)
Cindy (mmm...)
Océane (I think this is quite trendy but has been around a few years; our friends' daughter, who must be 12 now, was tormented through primary school by an Océane)
Anaïs (quite a classic now, I think, apparently it's southern, Provencale/Catalan. I like it because it's the name of a dear young friend, and it sounds sunshiny)
Margaux (another well-established variant of Margot, thence from Marguerite.  Perhaps she had her head wetted with something classy...)
Clara (my favourite I think, lovely and old fashioned, to my ears, and redolent of Schumann and Rilke)

Melvin (we winced at first but thinking of it pronounced in French it sounds better)
Maël (this is our neighbours' baby.  I was confused at first because I thought it was Maëlle which I'd only heard as a girl's name)
Arthur (a cartoon character but popular for a while here as in English now I think, as the legends undergo a resurgence of interest.  Again, nice pronounced French style)
Nolann .

It's one of those odd things about being still very largely an outsider, the nuances of fashion, social standing, education and special interest with regard to what people call their kids are mostly  lost on me, despite my perusing of the lists over the years.  A large number of the names (Yuna, Erell, Gwendoline, Maël, Kyliann, Ethan and Nolann) are considered to be 'celtique', which seems an odd cultural construct neither Breton nor Irish not Scottish nor Welsh but an amalgam of all those (notwithstanding the very ancient linguistic divisions that actually exist between them), and as such much in vogue, though I've noticed that the Celtic style names of the first wave, such as Erwann, Tanguy, Gildas, Kevin ( the first three more authentically Breton, the last a bit later I think, and now become a cause of middle-class wincing), seem to have fallen away rather in favour of more novel and (perhaps) hybrid ones.  Old-fashioned very classic French names seem rare as hen's teeth; I seem to remember reading when we first came here that Marie and Pierre were still among the most popular but I can't imagine that's now the case.

Quite a different story with those who have quit.


Jean x 2
Pierre x 2
Francis (this apparent Anglicisation seems to have been the more popular form for at least fifty years; François is very unusual)
Jack (again sounds Anglicised but is quite frequent, eg Jack Lang)
Claude (could be a woman but probably not)

I'm afraid that most of these sound really rather better than the Celtic soul brothers and sisters, but probably only to me and outsiders like me.  When Charmless next door called his wee boy Marcel,  he got  nods and smiles of approval from the elders of the village but the equivalent of  ''Oh no the poor little chap!'' from anyone any younger.  I must say it doesn't sound too good when screeched in a Thai accent by his mother, but then I don't know what would.  'Nolann' would probably sound even worse.

Anyway, this was meant to be a quick pot-boiler of a post, but owing to having to use the character map a lot has taken me rather longer than expected.  I hope I haven't trodden on anyone's toes or given any offence!  As I say, I miss the nuances, so any observations or corrections are welcome.