Thursday, February 23, 2012


Well, here I am into the third whole day of nine days of solitude - excepting Mol of course.  Tom has finally given in to the pressures, or rather incentives, of the rapprochement * with his eldest daughter and the need to replace his glasses and hearing aids (which are significantly cheaper in Britain than here, and eye tests to be had more promptly) to submit himself to the tender offices of Ʀγᶏἠªוᴚ (that was fun with the character map, one has to do such things or get spammed by rival airlines, that is if they can get past Blogger's diabolical new captchas...)  and head to the UK for a visit, leaving me in sole possession of hearth home and dog.

It needs perhaps to be explained that we no longer travel anywhere together without Mol.  We used to, and left her with G&W who we got her from, and where her mother, aunt and other extended dog family lived. Five years ago we took a five week trip to New Zealand and Australia, and though she was OK, brave and good and well-enough looked-after, it was tough going, for all of us, and we vowed after that we wouldn't leave her again.  The first time after that when we went away for a short trip within Brittany and took her with us, when she saw the suitcases being readied she grew sullen and depressed and only cheered up some time after we arrived and it was clear we were all staying together.  Since then, her mother and aunt have died, and  with her chronic ear problems and general ageing, we certainly wouldn't leave her again.  So we take our holidays in dog-friendly places in France and travel back to the UK for short trips individually.  I do this from time to time, Tom's only done so once before, so I'm glad he's been persuaded now.

He has to stay nine full days to await the making of his hearing pieces, which he was terribly loathe to do, but I have the impression now he's there he is enjoying himself rather a lot, strolling along the Thames Embankment and reacquainting himself with his old London stomping grounds on a huge sightseeing trip with my lovely sister (who has charge of him for part of the time), eating in pubs, fish and chip shops and curry houses, but most of all functioning as an independent adult without need of my facilitating/translating/interpreting services.

I have no real commitments this week at all, no coaching, yoga, nothing much, so I am enjoying a kind of home-based retreat, mostly bound only by the daily structure maintained and observed by Mol, who likes to get up, go to bed and have her meals within normally established parameters.  She's rather quiet, occasionally goes out and looks at the drive, when we get back from walks she runs in rather hopefully, and when she jumps up on the bed in the mornings she rushes to his pillow and barks, but she doesn't mope.

I've found playing with her a bit rumbustiously cheers her up.  We chucked out most of her old toys as she was never a great one for games of fetching and tugging, and it as she got older she lost interest more and more, but then K, Tom's daughter, brought her over a knotted rope toy last time she came, which Mol played with politely for a few minutes then carried off to her beanbag, but she likes K very much and the toy seems to be a happy thing for her, so we've been playing with it a bit.

So we've been doing all right.  Time is doing that funny thing it does when one is unaccustomedly alone of stretching and morphing, for better or worse, largely I'm ensuring it's for better.  I am using the opportunity to eat things I like such as as grilled cheese and French sausages and boudin noir, which not only does Tom not like but finds the smell and sight of fairly repellent - and mostly I thank him for that as they aren't of the healthiest so he's saving me from myself - and I'm getting through  Anna Karenina at an alarming rate - for some inexplicable reason I have reached 50 without ever having read Anna Karenina, which regrettable fact brings with it the delightful corollary that at 50 I am discovering Anna Karenina for the first time - I have the Bergman and Charlie Kaufman DVDs lined up for later, and I am working my way through the CDs of Beethoven string quartets which I dear friend sent me, since I said I had been putting off getting to know them until I was grown-up, which quite rightly it was obliquely pointed out to me, was as no time so much as the present.  And of course, as with Anna Karenina, I'm asking myself what took me so long.

Of course, there's no reason why I can't do any of these things with Tom around, but temporary solitude does tend to be a spur to worthy endeavour. Last time I was away, Tom dismantled and unblocked the kitchen sinks, I can't promise to do anything that worthy...

What I have been doing though, as well as snuggling down with Molly and AK and Beethoven and a lot of smelly and grisly cheese and charcuterie, is a lot of gardening.  It is early spring here now, and no mistake, and I only have to put my nose out of the door to get a dose of oomph to get me out and digging.  I've been resurrecting the raised beds.

Working on them afresh has brought home to me just how much these constructions represent a colossal initial outlay of labour on Tom's part some years ago: building them, double digging, digging in compost and carting more topsoil from other parts of the garden, which probably explains, among other reasons, why he has a ruptured tendon in his shoulder now.  For some years we grew a lot of vegetables in them of all kinds, but in the last couple of years we've rather abandoned them.  Not quite sure why; the structures began to deteriorate, it was considered that perhaps the whole garden needed a rethink, perhaps we just lost interest in home grown produce for a bit.  I sowed them with phacelia, which I then dug in, covered them with heavy black plastic and they were put on hold.

In the last year or two though, growing our own has undergone something of a revival, with fresh herbs, then people gave us spare artichoke plants and potatoes that could be sown if they sprouted before we ate them all, and we've slowly started to uncover and patch up the raised beds.  This year, with more time to myself and new enthusiasm, I'm buying plants and seeds - peas and beans, pink and tree onions, pumpkins and mesclun and rhubarb and red and white currant bushes, and reclaiming yet more growing space.

It's a case of make-do-and-mend; no major demolitions or grand new carpentry projects, just some whittled stakes from last year's hedge cutting, a bit of lashing, 

and some of the old, endlessly useful, fibre roof tiles banged in to hold up the sides and keep the soil from falling out between the gaps, and hopefully the beds will be good for a few years yet.

And of course, quite a lot more digging, and hefting of compost, but with the initial work having been done so thoroughly, that's not onerous.

And then there's the matter of the compost, and I've got others working on that.

I'm in love with annelida... OK, they aren't everyone's idea of gorgeous but if you are a composting gardener, or an angler, or a garden robin, you'll get excited by these: brandlings, tiger worms.  Not your ordinary sluggish big fat mauve earthworms, but the really top-of-the-range, humus-is-us, sporting model worm.  And our compost bin is full of them, the wiggly, wriggly little darlings.  We once bought a wormery, a big plastic compost bin with a tap on from a specialist supplier in England, with a batch of these.  It never worked, conditions weren't right; batch after batch of the worms just died and left an oozing festering mess.  Now they've arrived and are working away quite of their own accord.  I try to make sure I don't chop them with the spade and put as many as I can back into the bin, as they don't really care for working in ordinary soil, but prefer converting neat vegetable matter into compost.

Anyway, I suppose you might want to see something more conventionally pretty in the garden, and there are a few things,

like crocuses.  Not too many, and only the mauve ones seem to do well.  Fortunately there are the hellebores.  I'm aware I photograph and post these every year, but they are such a joy, and we have acquired one or two new ones this last year or so, the pink and white ones, and the more wine red one is the best it's been.


 *relatively speaking, there was never any falling out, she is too gentle and loving and good-mannered for that, and no reason for any anyway, but a bit of drifting and unintended distance.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Explorers, life, mushrooms, yellow

Some years ago now, when I was young and green in blogging, and very first made the acquaintance of Plutarch, I discovered the first ten or so of his Handbook for Explorers sonnets, which he had begun posting on a blog of their own.  I asked if I could take one for submission with some photos for an edition of Qarrtsiluni's Ekphrasis edition - strictly speaking this was not ekphrasis at all as it's mostly understood, since that's usually words in response to image rather than the other way around, but the editors at the time were prepared to be easy about it - so that was how it started.  Then I asked if I could have the whole sequence of fifty poems to illustrate in the same way, and Plutarch kindly agreed.  The results were posted in groups of five at the shared blog which bears the name Compasses.  

It was a wonder-filled time and thoroughly enjoyable project.  I received the sequence to read in groups of about ten, I think, and was entirely free to respond with pictures in any way I fancied, the only condition Joe made being that I read them all in sequence before starting to post.  It was not only my very heady early years of blogging and of the pleasure in the contacts that it brings, but also of taking digital photographs, and having a sustained prompt and purpose to the activity seemed to sharpen the vision and strengthen my drive.  Sometimes the poems drew me to photos already taken at another time and place - some of the early ones on our trip to New Zealand before I blogged at all; other times I had an idea of where I might find the right pictures to match those in the text - the images for the about hostile horses 'savage flesh made air' I knew exactly could be found in the small, ramshackle old children's carousel in St Brieuc pedestrian precinct which I'd always found rather sinister.  At other times I simply walked around with the poems in my head and recorded what came along.

It had a small but loyal and appreciative audience, often sent to read from both our own blogs, and some of you are still around now.  The strength of it lay of course in the remarkable, consistently meditated and sustained themes and visions of the sonnet sequence, my role was happily opportunistic and secondary, but we all know we rather like pictures with our words sometimes, like we like cream with our puddings!  The problem with it was the 'upside-down' blog format for a longer piece of work, which was not so bad when people were reading it as it appeared but made it difficult to go back over it satisfactorily.  Then we started using the blog for the occasional 'Questions' call and response poems, so the original series has disappeared from view altogether.

A short time after we finished, I signed up with Blurb and began to try to rework it into book form, but made little headway.  Blurb's software at the time was jumpy and frustrating, and perhaps it was a bit too recent a project to go back over straight away.  Then last year when I visited Joe in England, he had another Blurb book that his brother had made up of words and photos, and he very un-pushily (of course) said he wondered if such a thing might be done with the Handbook for Explorers...?

I let it drift again a bit longer than I meant to, but when I signed up again with Blurb (the original one I began had disappeared) the whole thing went so smoothly: the software worked easily, and coming to it afresh after such a long gap was a real joy.  There was so much I'd forgotten about it, but the feelings came rushing back: the new and exciting vision which taking photographs brought, and the sense of pride that I was handling a unique piece of work that no one except its author had probably had much to do with before, and the associations with times and places which both words and pictures evoked - especially poignant were the photos, including the one I used for the cover, which I had taken in New Zealand at moments I remember very clearly spent with my sister, sometime uncertain quite why I was taking photos of bits of grass and sand and stone on beaches, but which are now vividly and intensely bound up with those moments, and which their use in this project somehow served to strengthen.

Happily (or else he's just being polite...), Joe seems to have forgotten that he made the suggestion which spurred me to take up the project again, as he was very gratifyingly surprised when the book arrived! 

Inevitably, though I proof-read it both on-line and in a first print that I ordered, I now see there are a few errors of spacing which will forever annoy me, though I think the text is sound otherwise.  I didn't change much at all from the original, except that the pictures no longer break up the lines of the poems.  This is partly of necessity in that the page formats don't easily allow for it, but it's also something I don't care to do any more anyway; I prefer poems intact and images accompanying to one side, above or below them, on the whole. But I didn't want to change it too much otherwise because I felt that it needed to be reprised as it was, and the sense of association and recall that it created for me was also something I didn't want to interfere with, even if the product was a flawed one. 

Which I think it is - not the poems, those are Joe's and I don't find any fault with them.  But the photographic responses are a mixed bag.  The freedom I enjoyed so much led, I think to a fairly patchy experience.  The pictures lack the consistency that they really should have to match that of the poems, they are not all of a piece and are often distracting and intrusive.  That's what I think now, of course, but it doesn't matter, in keeping with the medium used, it was a dynamic, spontaneous and ultimately largely ephemeral thing.  Some of them worked very well, some less so, but I had no objection to recreating the more static and archival form of a book from them.  Having done so, however, I'm now thinking what I could do with it instead.

The quality of the printing is really excellent, I am very pleased and impressed with it indeed.  There is a hover fly on the yellow flowering twig in one of the pictures shown in the collage above which I never knew was there before, even though I took the photo, edited and used it here and elsewhere on Box Elder. Even the very small reproductions are very fine.  The binding also seems good (Blurb had a lot of complaints about binding before, which was another thing which put me off doing it earlier).  But print-on-demand, quite large format, with colour pics of this quality is fairly expensive. However, Blurb also make much less expensive black and white, smaller format paperbacks, which can contain black and white illustrations including photos, but the reproduction will be much simpler and more minimal ('an edgy look and feel' is I think how they describe it, never quite sure what 'edgy' is supposed to mean...).  Severely reducing the selection of photos to those which would more properly (in my view) complement the text (I would still use the original photos, but edit them appropriately) and which could be successfully rendered  in a much simpler, starker, more abstract form would give the poems the pre-eminence they deserve and hopefully make for a much tighter, more coherent piece of work, and a more affordable book for anyone who was interested.  I'd enjoy doing it.

(The current book is to be found at Blurb, here )


More stuff.  Life drawing, best of.  Not really much to show for five two hour sessions.  This is because I don't practise.  I go home all fired up and determined to do so, usually after spending two-thirds of the time frustratingly producing duds, but feeling more excitedly happy and engaged than at almost any other time anyway, and then I don't.  I might not be able to get anyone round here to take their clothes off for me (while discussing the pros and cons of female rounds and curves against male flat planes and straight lines Tom did venture to say that he could probably offer more curves than flat bits... TMI really), I could very easily practice from photos and work on hands, feet, portraits etc.  Tom dug me out some books on techniques and figure drawing, and I am resolved to apply myself. The tutor is trying to get enough people together to do a whole Sunday studio of longer poses, which will be great, so if you're in the Lamballe area on March 12 and fancy a day of life drawing, let me know.

The young pregnant woman, L., was superb, and just a lovely person, very serene and steady.  The male model, O, (a rare and sought-after thing, it seems), was slender and stringy and very wobbly,struggled to hold a pose, more so, if anything, in the apparently relaxed positions than in the more twisted up or dynamic ones - he struck a number of slightly unsettling Raft-of-the-Medusa-ish and other rather anguished romantic attitudes, but he had fabulous brows and hair, would have been a good portrait or photo model, as would the tall, dark woman we had last, J, who was also very strong and steady, but changed poses very rapidly.  I love life-drawing.


And some pretty little oyster mushrooms from the organic supermarket, not quite sure what to do with them apart from photographing them.


It seems to suit me to do one big post about once a week at the moment.  Rather a lot to prevail on people to read but them again you can always come back later if you want, as I'm not posting so often.


Lemon zest grated into a blend of cold-pressed olive and rapeseed oil and lemon juice, with a spoonful of honey, marinade for chicken piccata  (thanks Catalyst), must surely be the yellowest thing in the world. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Lacewing sonnet*, biennial, passport

On the window, etched against winter grey
light, a single lacewing lingers still,
a mark of calligraphic symmetry. Until
death or spring comes to it, we let it stay.

An exercise in curves, it makes its way
quite imperceptibly across the glass.  Is the chill
outside the thing it really wants?  Do we kill
or save by sheltering its frailty night and day?

Further enquiry, however, makes it clear
this chrysopid green fairy with its netted wings,
if harboured, might yet ride out frost and see
the time when, lion-like, its children will appear
to be a bane to aphids and to other noxious things.
So while it shares the kitchen's warmth, we'll let it be. 

(*Petrarchan, straight up. The poetic muse having apparently gone off to powder her nose, time to slog out something that at least adheres to a proper form.  No kind reassurances, please, I am not fishing.  The lacewing is still there so no cleaning the windows till spring now. What a shame.)


Clin d'oeil, bienniale de la photogrpahie, Salle de Robien, St Brieuc.

I visited this fairly large photographic exhibition the Friday before last.  Friday afternoon, as it turned out, was the time for school parties.  The group of seven year olds lined up in crocodile at the door, and observed the ritual of shhh, fingers to lips, stand still and go in quietly and in good order.  Once inside the very large hangar space, with its shiny floors and display screens just a bit below seven-year old head height, their orderly conduct lasted perhaps five minutes.  Far more interesting, when you're seven, to discover the possibilities of space, texture, humour and the ambiguities of the seen and unseen by racing around, ducking in and out of the partitions, sliding on the floor and playing peek-a-boo with your mates on the other side of the screens, than to crane your neck looking up at the work of Daniel Challe, Roland Laboye, René Maltête and the members of local photo clubs, the point of which escapes you - though a picture which explored texture, colour, repeat pattern and reflection, and possibly the nature of mass consumption in a  secular world, of rows of foil-wrapped Father Christmases in a supermarket did raise momentary interest of a 'miam-miam! ' kind, and one rather more sophisticated mademoiselle was getting something out of striking affected poses in front of an  composition in black and white of a dog running past a children's playground and exclaiming in tones heavy with irony  'Oh that is very interesting, a dog, in a park!'

Their teachers' and helpers' Friday afternoon patience ran out just as quickly; and the French equivalent of 'George, don't do that, no, it isn't funny, it's very silly' was heard more and more.  One small boy, engaged in sliding across the floor, stopped mid-skid on finding a small plate set into the floor in front of him, perhaps giving access to some kind of ducting. It was worn brass, about six inches square, polished to satin either by people's feet or perhaps by assiduous municipal workers, but with a darkened patina in it recessed parts, it had lettering round the outside, big, chunky brass screws holding it on place, and a heavy hinged handle that folded down flush to the floor.

The child was momentarily transfixed, he peered at it, running his fingers round and over its shapes and surfaces, suddenly serious.  But his teacher pulled him up.  'Kilian, stop that.  You look at the photographs, and nothing else!'.

It really was a very interesting brass plate though, and I wouldn't have noticed it if he hadn't.  If I'd had the camera with me, I might even have photographed it.


I got my new passport today.  Nothing remarkable about that in itself, of course, except there's always something rather exciting, I think, about a new passport, even when you travel as little as I do.  I suppose it's the sense of ten years of possibility.  I was quite disgruntled at the cost of it, and also at the rather peremptory, exacting conditions and yet further expense with which the matter of obtaining a UK passport while living outside the UK is hedged about, but there you go, that's what you get for being a feckless air-headed ship-jumping expat, serves you right, with your cheap wine and houses and nuclear-fuelled electricity, put that in your Ryanair cabin bag and smoke it...

However, I must say I am charmed to bits with my new document for its unexpected beauty.  It was all crisp and shiny of course,

but the inside is verging on exquisite - no, naturally I don't mean my horrible bio-metric mugshot, although in fact that is marginally more agreeable than the original, as the new way of transferring it to the passport seems to flatten and lighten out some of the shadows, creases and extra-chins of my half-antique face.  In fact the photo is reproduced twice, the one more visible here is a kind of shadowy, crackle-glazed second copy.

But the main photo has an intriguing shimmery prismatic compass rose embedded in it, and a small flock of elegant birds just coming into view at one edge, and the whole double page background shows a view-from-the-stratosphere map of Britain, overflown by a fulmar and a Sandwich (?) tern.  The frontispiece (the bit with 'Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State...blah blah') shows a row of Cotswold Cottages, and oak leaves with an accurate looking rendition of some kind of  a blue butterfly, and every page thereafter shows a delicate image of some example of British scenery, with an inset image of a relevant specimen of flora or fauna or an artefact, the whole overlaid with stylised weather map symbols and isobars.

There's a village green and a formal park with fountains and a sundial, there's a fishing village with boats and derricks and nets and a coil of rope, there are coastal scenes and mountain and moorland with a lovely snowy owl, a river and a lake with their fish, a canal with a bridge and a narrowboat and a lock gate, and one of my favourites is probably this one, page 7,

which shows a reedbed, with a Suffolk type windmill and an inset of a meticulously etched dragonfly. (Apologies that the photo isn't clearer, it is a very pale image, that's a table mat holding down the corner.  I didn't quite like to scan it, and I've touched out the passport number in the other photo, as perhaps showing all one's passport information publicly on-line might be asking for trouble.) 

Really, an unexpected pleasure.  I won't make any quips about being proud to be British, though.