Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hot cross buns

We have just, or rather Tom has, as it's his thing and lives in its own corner of the kitchen where he occupies himself with it, acquired a breadmaking machine. I know, it's desperately passé, but then so are we.  It's also not a very logical or sensible thing to acquire for people who are trying to keep a handle on their weight by steering clear of the heftier kinds of carbohydrate, but it is only a small one, which makes a small 500 g cuboid loaf, and we've calmed down since the first couple of times when we wolfed most of it down as soon as it came out and felt considerably the worse for it.  Now we stick to only eating it at lunch, not in the evening, and Sunday's white loaf makes bacon sandwiches that day and egg and cress the next, and Wednesday's brown one is bread and cheese that day and bread and honey the next. It remains to be seen if it remains a regular part of our lives, or ends up at the back of the cupboard like other people's.

At the moment he's sticking to the mixes that we ordered with it.  They're not bad, still experimenting with the settings, the wholewheat's a bit coarse so he mixes it with the white, but any bread that's made with simple and good ingredients and which you can smell while it's cooking and eat still warm is going to be delicious really.  We've never made bread here much in the traditional way, largely because the place isn't consistently warm enough, especially not in winter when you most fancy doing it, and of course the quantities needed to be worth the making have always seemed too much for two of us, and you can buy good bread anyway.  Having got the machine now, we are much more bread-minded, so when Tom came across the hot-cross bun recipe in the Radio Times he immediately wanted to make some, but quickly realised he wasn't confident  of being able to convert it, and anyway, it would have to be half-quantities, and would that be enough when it came to hot cross buns?

So it was back to the kneading board, and out to buy bread flour and yeast.  Flour here is given a number according to its strength and wholeness, basic white pastry flour is type 55, then you can get 60 and 80, wholewheat is usually 110, and in Brittany you can always get buckwheat flour, but that doesn't have a number it's just called sarrasine, and it doesn't have any gluten in it so you mustn't try baking with it.  It's a little confusing; in the supermarket they had a lot of bread mixes and yeast but only type 60 flour, which the girl stacking the shelves didn't seem to think was any good for bread.  So we went the extra couple of kilometres to the biologique shop, where they told us that in fact type 60 is OK for bread, but we were able to procure a big, 5kg brown paper sack of locally grown, stoneground type 80 organic flour for not great deal of money, which turned out to have that lovely wholesome unbleached pale buff colour, and we picked up a pack of Japanese incense at the till on the way out.

So Tom spent today mixing, kneading, proving, knocking back, etc etc.  It took a long time and we ended up lighting the fire by lunchtime to get the temperature up enough to get things moving.  But finally the cinnamonny dough was shaped into twelve balls, we'd freeze at least half of them, we said,

left to puff up one more time,  

then the white crosses were made on them with flour and water paste, and about half an hour later, this was the result:

They were unbelievably, lusciously, sensuously good.  I'm not sure how many the freezer's going to get.

If I don't speak to you again before, happy Easter.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sprucing up my blogging

When blogs were first invented and still weblogs, as I understand, they were very simple shared collections of links to other sites one had visited.  The man who invented them, I believe, rather deplored what they subsequently became: people's personal on-line journals, reflections, opinionising etc, and the introduction of comments that led to posts becoming springboards and forums for discussions. He more or less said, as I remember, that there was no reason to introduce any personal element or affect at all, that one had no reason to think one had anything important to say of any originality, since whatever one thought needed saying had surely already been said and better elsewhere, and need only be found and linked to, and going on about it served no function.  Such stringent reductionism and humility has a certain appeal, but there is surely a logical flaw to it: if no one ever seeks to post any original content on-line, beyond the starkest and most impersonal information, in the end, there will be no more content to link to? 

Now, as many of my blogging mentors who are still around are reaching the ten year mark, the lament is that blogging has reached something of a dead end; that the discussions have moved elsewhere, blog posts are more set pieces than exchanges, etc.  Among the contributions to the well-deserved paean of praise and congratulation for Beth's decade at Cassandra Pages, a piece from Blork, another Montreal blogger, who remarks:

'Where once the platform was largely about personal writing and exploration, blogging is now is a vehicle for competitive foodieism, personal branding, and all forms of marketing'

which was news to me, hanging out mostly as I do on people's personal blogs, though I had noticed a proliferation in somewhat scarily high-faluting foodie blogs, come to think.  

Happily, most of these soul-searchings seem to end in a fairly cheerful if slightly sadder-and-wiser optimism: even if a certain amount of momentum, of starry-eyed energy and earnestness and sense of importance about this astonishing new thing and what might be achieved by it, has been lost, there's a consensus that the whole enterprise has been satisfying, life-changing if not world-changing, and will continue to be so for a while yet.

Coming in a few years later, this being my seventh year in this place, I don't think I had many illusions that I was doing anything very important, except, I suppose, for myself.  From that point of view it became very important indeed and that people came and looked and read was a very nice surprise.  The activity and its place in my life has changed, and indeed grown less intense; I carry and use the camera far less, I have fewer ideas that I think are worth noting, and when I do either lack the motivation to sit down and write about them, or they don't seem so remarkable and worth sharing after all, or, and perhaps this is a function of ageing too, they elude me and I forget them before I get to the computer, or even to pen and paper.  Nevertheless, tiresome moments of blog angst and questioning of why I do it and whether and how I might carry on notwithstanding, blogging has become a habit, and I think a good one, and as the persistence of good habits is rarer than that of bad ones, that's something to be celebrated.  Fellow bloggers come and go, but new friends still appear and many of the old ones are still around, which is a source of great pleasure and wonder. 

However, I do feel I need need to find ways to keep the activity fresh and interesting, for myself as well as for my gentle readers. And as original words and photos of any substance or newness sometimes desert me, why not take a leaf from the book of the original weblog concept and collect things which interest and appeal from elsewhere?  Not in the form of links but as snippets, a kind of scrapbook blogging?  Now I know this is also being busily done elsewhere, in the shape of Tumblr blogs and Pinterest, but those things rather bewilder me, as with Facebook and Twitter, I can't quite be bothered to get my head round making them work for me, and why scatter one's eggs in too many baskets anyway?  I've established my corner of the web here, why set up more flimsy new outposts? And the beauty of blogging, it seems to me, is that, contrary to the puritanical aims of its weblogging founders, one is free to enrich, inform and weave in one's own personal. subjective comment and experience, with observations and gatherings from the outer world, in any way one chooses.

And it doesn't only need to be things from the web. Blork, quoted above in the post from Beth's, also keeps, very quietly, a blog of snippets from books he's been reading.  This rather appeals to me.  In the first heady days of keeping a blog (sound a bit like keeping a pig, doesn't it?!) book reading suffered.  With the undeniable waning of the former, I have been returning to the latter, but of late I've felt the need to make it rather more constructive.  I've taken to listing what I read, but have no wish to try to write reviews or even brief reader responses; it's not something I enjoy doing very much, always perceiving an onus to be a clever bugger, and use lots of smart-alec critical theory terms, or at the very least justify myself as to why I do or don't like something! And anyway, I often don't really know whether I've found a book good or not until months after I've read it.  Goodreads does not appeal, thank you, another on-line outpost I have no wish to maintain.  However, there are times when I come across a passage that really pleases me or which I want to hold on to, so I may take to transcribing them here sometimes.

So those are some thoughts.  This blogging thing is still an amazing, largely free, resource with great creative potential, and I intend to keep doing it for the foreseeable, howsoever.  So here are some pickings.


The last post about early music prompted a question about old instruments; browsing in images on the subject yielded these, which I liked:

stringed instruments from different times and places;

some more strings, from a mediaeval enthusiast's Tumblr collection (I'm not going to put links in everywhere, it will be too time consuming)

Attributes of Music - still life by Anne Valleyer Coster.  More of her in another post perhaps.


My sock-knitting is progressing, slowly.  It will be a while before I can proudly present a complete pair, and then I fear they may be so riddled with mistakes and bizarrely shaped they may only be good for bedsocks.  I'm enjoying the making anyway. Then I had to stop for a while as I was completely in thrall to Rose Tremain's novel Music and Silence, which contained this delightful passage:

Queen Sophie, when she was young ... loved to be rowed in a little boat to this island and there sit in the sunshine and indulge in her secret passion for knitting.  This activity had been proscribed throughout the land as tending to induce in women an idle trance of mind, in which their proper thoughts would fly away and be replaced by fancy.  Men called this state 'wool gathering'.  That the wool itself could be fashioned into useful articles of haberdashery such as stockings or night bonnets made them no less superstitiously afraid of the knitting craze.  They believed that any knitted night bonnet might contain among its millions of stitches the longings of their wives that they could never satisfy and which in consequence would give them nightmares of the darkest kind.  The knitted stockings they feared yet more completely as the probable instruments of their own enfeeblement.  They imagined their feet becoming swollen and all the muscles of their legs beginning to grow weak.

Wonderful book, and I think I will still think so in a few months.


Keeping one's anti-scurvy rations up in winter.  A new foraging find: hairy bittercress.  That naughty weed that throws out those little white flowers that rapidly and very early become tiny pods which, when touched, explode seeds in every direction.  We love egg and cress sandwiches, but watercress is not always easy to find in the shops here; I grow cress in punnets on the kitchen window sill, and American land cress in the garden over winter, but though the latter makes a good purée for soups and sauces, neither seems to quite provide the taste of cress as one remembers it.  Then Crafty Green Poet mentioned foraging for bittercress.  Many of the foraging ideas that are trendily put about at the moment are a dead loss - sow thistles, no thank you ('your friend appears to have bitten a bee...'), wall pennywort tastes like what it is, a spongey plant that came out of a grubby wall, but bittercress is a hit.  Yes, of course it's bitter, that's why it's called that, but chopped up it really does give that peppery, cressy bite in the egg sarnies we are looking for.

Here with some newly emerging chives and Welsh onion.

What I now grow on the windowsill, pea shoots.  A cheap pack of mangetout seeds from Lidl, and these crunchy little things contain, it seems, something like five time the vitamin C by weight of blueberries.  Tasty too, scattered on a stir-fry, for instance.  Here they are performing for the webcam.


The weather is perishing cold still, with a raw north-easterly, though we are spared the extremes many parts of the UK are getting.  But the pussy willow is out.


Friday, March 22, 2013

Rich hours, castles of welcome, music and memory...

One of my discoveries on internet radio is Ancient FM.  It wasn't the first early music station I found, that was Early Music FM, but they have now sadly gone off air for a bit.  But AFM are very similar, commercial free, run by volunteers and a very diverse mixture of mediaeval to Renaissance, but no Baroque, there are plenty of other stations catering for that (Baroque around the Clock, for example, from Hilversum, a name redolent of old bakerlite radios and the mysterious ether...). Entering internet radio portals is fascinating; following sidebar links can lead you from the Middle Ages to Venice, up into the Baroque or across to folk and Celtic, and, on account of the fantasy element, there seems to be quite a strong cultural connection between mediaeval music and Gothic so I sometimes find myself in places called things like 'Tormented Radio', and 'Radio Dark Dimensions', and  in the company of people like this,

though I don't tend to linger.

I've learned of quite a few early music ensembles over time, but there are even more that come up on Ancient FM that I never knew about: the Dufay Collective, the Baltimore, Waverly and Toronto Consorts, Sequentia and more. But one of the best things was a reminder of Gothic Voices' album 'The Castle of Fair Welcome'.  The station's playlists seem to change at intervals, but to be repeated and shuffled for a period, so for a time a couple of weeks ago the Dufay piece 'Ne je ne dors', one of my favourite tracks from the album, came up several times, and it took me back nearly twenty years, so I found myself stopped in my tracks, heart lifted, giddy with nostalgia.  I bought the 'The Castle of Fair Welcome' on a cassette, so it had no notes, words or translations with it, around the time we were first married, and we played it endlessly, especially on the car stereo in the old BX; in more ribald moments we referred to it as 'The Castle of Easy Access'.  For me it brings back early morning roads through Normandy off the ferry, and winding down through France in early May a week or two after we were married, the walls and turrets of Montreuil-Bellay where we stayed in a dour and ancient hotel with a spiral stone staircase and where the rosé tasted of strawberries, the first sight of silvery stretches of the Loire, and the yellow stones of the Charente and the Perigord where there were nightingales in the trees and wild marjoram in the hedgerows, and we stayed in a tiny house with deep-set windows and lizards on the sills.

We can't seem to find many photos from that time; we argue as to whether there really were more and if so what happened to them. But there are some and I've scanned a few:

produce on a market, the kind of thing I like taking pictures of now, and am somewhat better equipped for;

one of those bastide or hillside towns in the Dordogne - Domme, perhaps, or Sarlat?  I never labelled or wrote on photos then, always assumed I'd remember...

again, I'm not sure where, but I seem to recall this was a one-woman art gallery somewhere;

me in the garden of the gîte;

Tom doing the Boyhood of Raleigh at Montreuil-Bellay.

That was before we had a digital camera, and before we had a dog, or a house of our own, or a garden, before we had all the years we have now, of marriage and life in France, of life altogether.  I don't know how real all these memories are, they are of course light-filled and rosy, like the wine in Montreuil-Bellay, and selective - the house over the road from our honeymoon gîte was the second home of some snooty rich Eurocrats from Brussels, there was a small aerodrome nearby and the planes droned and whined overhead annoyingly for too much of the time, but I can't remember much else that was wrong...  I'm not even sure we had the cassette with us, or whether it's all become blurred through an association of experiences and feelings so I just think we did. But I think we did.  I'm not given to remembering the past over-romantically; I tend in fact to pick out the flaws with hindsight and remember the things which make me wince; I am given to regret and remorse, and not someone who finds it easy to connect with my past selves with much pleasure, and yet to be taken back to that particular time is sweet indeed.

I'm happy now too, of course.

The songs on 'The Castle of Fair Welcome' are mostly polished pieces of courtly convention from the late middle ages, the words formulaic and unimportant, the an exaggerated pose of abasement and adoration,  'Ne je ne dors' included:

I neither sleep nor wake
such is my agitation
all I can do is sigh...
anguish with open eyes urges me
to die with weeping

The exception is Christine de Pisan's 'Deuil angoisseux', though you wouldn't necessarily know it.  For the outpourings of her 'anguished grief... a doleful heart living in darkness... bitter distress endured in secret' are not, as might appear, further striking of attitudes from a man melodramatically relishing the role of courtly lover, but the grief of a widow for the death of her husband.

The cassette of 'The Castle of Fair Welcome' was chewed up by the player in the BX at some point not long after - that car always did have a mean streak - and we stopped playing much music as we drove after that, and didn't replace it with a CD recording, perhaps there wasn't one readily available.  It wasn't till it came up on the radio that it occurred to me to do so, and the internet made it easy.  It's reassuringly as beautiful as ever, though Tom can't hear the subtleties of the harmonies as well as he could.  'Ne je ne dors' is still one of my favourites; it's quite a sedate piece, I suppose, repetitive perhaps, but as each cycle comes to an end I long for it to start over again, which, happily, it does, many times.  And with a piece of music one loves, unlike many things, it's possible to go back to the beginning and play it all over again.  There seems to be only one other version of it on-line, or on You-tube anyway, which is by the Medieval Ensemble of London.  It's probably more authentic, and lovely too in its own way when you get used to the relatively harsh and slightly dissonant sound of it, but not as rich and pleasing as the Gothic Voices version. So I've made a video of that, as I haven't done one of those for a bit. The images are from the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn and Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, which are roughly contemporary with the song in both time and place.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Snow (gone now), more birds, busier blogging

Never did see such a thing in March, in my recollection anyway. Started last Monday night,

driving straight into the back windows, and continued all through Tuesday,

so the back garden and terrace looked like this. Note paw prints.

Mol likes the idea of snow, and continually asks to go out in it,

though the reality of cold wet paws and snow between the pads is less appealing.

There was a powerful wind through the night it came down, so in places it drifted very deeply.

The birds were very hungry, and we still hadn't any birdseed, so they ate a lot of bread, porridge oats and hulled sunflower seeds.  Their need was greater than ours.

The robin, two of them in fact, Mr and Mrs presumably, since they are aggressively territorial amongst themselves, was very much in evidence,

These aren't great bird photos, but it's always fun to watch them at these times (and I've noticed American readers are always curious about European robins and how different they are from American ones).  The blue and great tits (that's a blue tit in the pic above, the great tits, which my Dutch friend E has been known to call in English 'big tits', have black heads and a black chest stripes) took advantage of the fat balls in the feeder,

queuing for their place on it on the pillar and looped extension lead hung on it.  The blue tits, despite their smaller size, are feisty little buggers and weren't averse to dropping onto the great tits from above and driving them off when they reckoned it was their turn, as the one in the photo above might have been thinking of doing.

the finches looked up enviously from the ground below.

and after a time one or two greenfinches, in spite of their bulk and lack of agility compared with the tits, had a go at eating from the feeder.

The snow stayed with us here in the hills for longer than anywhere.  An afternoon's teaching was cancelled on the Wednesday - I didn't fancy the roads still and the student had barely been back at school anyway and had little to work on - and postponed a visit to H in St Brieuc until the Friday.  I read a lot, mostly Victor Hugo's The Laughing Man (thanks Joe).  I think I quite like Victor Hugo, as French classic novelists go, for, try as I might to get on with them, they mostly seem to me a bitter and twisted lot.  I've heard it said their are writers who love and writers who hate, and an elderly student of mine, an enthusiast for Balzac himself, after we had been reading some Dickens, (in fact the passage in Great Expectations when Pip first meets Miss Haversham, and you don't really get much more bitter and twisted than that) said that 'Dickens was a writer who loved, Balzac was a writer who hated'.  I think perhaps it's a very fine line, and the resulting love or hatred very often comes from the same impulse to compassion.  Hugo was perhaps more a writer who loved; I just wish it didn't always end up so morbid and melancholy with him.  I'm not sure all writers either love or hate, some are just quite dispassionately interested, and some just have an eye to what will sell.

I also decided this was the moment to teach myself to knit socks, which I have been meaning to do for a long time.  It's very difficult and very slow for me, but deeply compulsive.  I have not finished my first sock yet (it's very thin wool and 2mm needles) and I am trying not to think about the fact that I will necessarily have to repeat the whole procedure. As I am not someone who can knit and read, I have listened to quite a lot of radio, notably Roger McGough's fun and funny translation/version of Moliere's The Misanthrope performed at Powys Castle on Radio 3, (the link is to the ETT's site for the performance, since the Listen Again is about to expire and there doesn't seem to be a podcast, which is a shame), and a lovely programme about RS Thomas and birdwatching. I shall perhaps feature the socks if and when they are completed.

And now there is scarcely a sliver of snow left in the ditches; I saw stitchwort and even a few forget-me-knots coming into flower, and the robins have resumed singing like mad.


I've set myself a modest blogging challenge this year: the beginning of November will see Box Elder's seventh birthday, and I am some fifty-five posts short of a thousand posts. If I can average a steady couple of posts a week, I should be able to effect a simultaneous seven years and thousand posts by the required date, and at the same time perhaps encourage a bit limbering and strengthening of the blogging muscles for me, which can't be bad...

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A soft touch to the furred and feathered

While I was cat-sitting for J, one of my other responsibilities was feeding the sparrows.  They do say that one of the  possible reasons for the decline in sparrow numbers in the UK at least is that people keep the fabric of their domestic buildings too neat and tidy, there aren't enough crumbling walls with the nooks and crannies for them to nest in; as may be seen from the pictures of Hénon, there are no shortage there.  Another cause might be that people no longer throw out their old bits of bread for them to eat (apparently they just throw these, along with hundreds of pounds a year's worth of other perfectly useful food, straight into the dustbin).  This also is not the case in Hénon, as J buys bread especially to feed to her sparrows, as well as mixed bags of special birdseed and fat balls.  Consequently the sparrow flock around her house has reached quite alarming proportions, and if they aren't fed, they line up on the trellis opposite her window and glare into the house, cheeping menacingly.

We also feed the birds; I would put out bread crusts, but Molly would scavenge them, and I'm always little nervous about attracting rats and mice. So we stick with sunflower seeds and fat balls which we hang up.  This means we have a higher proportion of tits and finches, as well as robins and dunnocks, though the sparrows, who are adaptable enough, seem to do all right.  We'll stop feeding them altogether quite soon, as they need to forage for insect food once they have young, but we'll go on fuelling them for a bit longer, it can't be easy eating enough for all that singing and flying about and nest building they have to do.

However, I forgot to buy any sunflower seeds on Friday when I went to the supermarket which sells them, so decided to go on a hunt for them more locally, giving Mol a walk at the plan d'eau and taking in the recycling point on the way. The farm supply shop,which sells all kinds of animal and bird food, turns out to be closed on Saturdays (this is France, shops close for two hours at lunch time, small towns often still have early or all day closing one day a week, and many commerces only open in the morning on Saturday or not at all, though Sunday morning a few smaller local food shops do open these days, as well as the pâtisseries which always have so that one might take a cake when carrying out the statutory family visit for that day), but that was next to the plan d'eau, so we stopped for a walk.  Some other birds were to be seen there.

This is a meadow pipit.  They're nothing rare or fancy, LBJs (while seeking a link for that, I discovered there is a botanical equivalent, DYCs, which I'm happy to know), but not something you see in the garden, and a couple of them obligingly came and sat on rocks in front of the car so I thought I'd check their id with the camera (knew they were pipits, wasn't certain which) and actually remembered to put in into action mode which is better for birds.  They were in a big flock mixed with white wagtails (what we get in continental Europe instead of pied wagtails), to which they are fairly closely related, feeding on the grass there, so were clearly on migration.

The pond was crowded with fishermen, so we had to pick our way, but enjoyed a bit of sunshine, a commodity we have not been overwhelmed with for some time.

The hardware shop unusually stays open all day, presumably since it is owner-run, but had no bird food, so I proceeded to the recycling point, thinking there was still the small supermarket at the top of town to try.  As I was sorting my plastics from my glass, there was the kind of soft nudge on the back of my legs that I'm used to  feeling in the kitchen from Mol.  I turned round and there was a short-legged, sandy coloured, curly-coated mutt, part-poodle, part-terrier, with whatever elements of dachshund, shih-tzu, bichon, fauve basset or whatever canine fashions dictated at any given point in its ancestry thrown in for good measure, of the kind which is fairly ubiquitous hereabouts.  I said hello, and that was it, I was glued to.  Then I remembered I'd seen the dog looking somewhat lost by the side of the main road as I drove through earlier. His front paws were deformed as though they had been badly damaged at some time in the past, but they seemed to give him no trouble or pain now.

He had a collar, but no tag, only a broken swivel which indicated he'd once been tied up.  He gave me to understand he'd be quite happy to get in the car.  The local vet, who I've known for years though he's not Mol's vet, has his surgery just nearby, so I encouraged Small Yellow Dog to accompany me there, but there was no reply.  I moved the car to a shadier and safer place - SYD was there at the door as soon as I stopped and got out - left Mol in it, borrowed her lead and took my new companion up to the Mairie (like the town hall). He walked on the lead like a lamb. I asked one or two people on the way if they knew this dog; they looked at me as though I was demented (but in a benign way), since I was the one walking him on a lead round the town, but no one admitted to knowing him.

The only people at the Mairie were in the small children's library, making puppets from potatoes (with some small children, be assured). They were sympathetic to my plight, made a call to the adjoint du maire for me, who was also sympathetic but couldn't find the number of the impounding service, which I wasn't too sure I wanted to get involved with anyway, so I thought I'd try the vet again.  He was there by the time I returned.

'Yes, I've seen this dog, he's turned up here before,' said K, the vet
'So what happened then?'
'Don't really know, we fed him for a bit then he ran away again.'

K, who like many of the vets here is Belgian/Dutch, is a kind, good man, who will think nothing of getting up at any hour to wrestle with a sick or birthing cow with cheerful stoicism, and has shown real sadness over a sick and elderly cat he's taken in overnight, tried to feed and ply with vitamin K, but been unable to save.  However, he is possibly one of the most infuriatingly vague people I have ever known. He checked the dog for a microchip or tattoo ID, supposedly a legal requirement, but found neither.  After a certain amount of shrugging and umming, he gave me the number of the nearest SPA refuge, where I think his daughters volunteered for years, and suggested that.  I arranged to take SYD there that afternoon, and K agreed to let me leave him with him till then.

I agonised over lunchtime: that perhaps I was being officious; that perhaps he had a home but just liked to be a free spirit - he was a bit thin and scruffy but didn't look totally starved and neglected; that perhaps imprisoning him would be wrong, and would he be in danger of euthanasia?  A look at the refuge's website reassured me this last probably wouldn't be the case, but I was still uncertain.  When I got back to the vet's I asked him directly, was I doing the right thing, did he think?  Perhaps he'd had more time to think, but this time K was more positive.  Yes, he thought I probably was.  If the dog had a home then clearly nobody there cared about him, since he was always on the road where he wouldn't last long, and he would be safe and fed at the refuge, where they would very easily find a home for him, since he was small and friendly.  Nevertheless, he looked very miserable gazing out of the back door of K's consulting room, and very eager to leave.

I took him for a quick walk before putting him in the car, and we were approached by a young setter-ish dog from a house nearby.  At the sight of a possible playmate, he was overcome with joy, though the other dog was more circumspect.  Despite his earlier apparent willingness to get in, he wasn't too sure about the car, partly because it smelled of Molly I imagine (like one's own feet, one can't smell one's own dog, or only when she badly needs a bath anyway), but also he seemed quite perplexed about the movement of it when we were travelling, and about the world going by so fast.  Yet he never at any time barked, growled or whined, and submitted to everything with heartbreaking trust.

The refuge wasn't too far, happily, and though it consists of very shabby buildings and quite a lot of potential heart-ache, I was impressed with what I found there.  There was a big hangar entrance hall, furnished with sofas and chairs and coffee tables and curios like an old barrel organ, and a neat office tucked in one corner; outside there were bits of garden statuary - a goddess or two and a buddha.  Most importantly, the people were kind, attentive and upbeat, and clearly had much love and sense of responsibility for the animals in their charge.  A group of lively school-age girls, presumably giving their Saturday afternoons to volunteer, breezed through talking enthusiastically about the dogs by name.  A quiet, plump, doe-eyed young woman, also working there in some capacity, had a small black dog on a lead.  I asked if this was a dog from the shelter, and she said yes, but mine now, I've had her two weeks.  It was working out well, she said, she was very devoted and getting on fine with the Yorkie she had already, for two years, from another shelter.  Her eyes narrowed when she told me that the Yorkie had been abandoned on the dual carriageway at the beginning of the summer holidays.

The other staff listened to me carefully and with kindness, and pronounced that SYD was 'un petit amour', that though it was difficult I was doing the right thing, for him to be run over on the road would be terrible, not only for him but for the driver involved, and when I left they thanked me for rescuing him.  They didn't think he'd be difficult to re-home, in fact, there had been that monsieur last week who had been looking for a smallish dog that wouldn't need too much exercise...

SYD himself, though a little nervous, again became joyful and focussed at the sight of another dog, far more so than at the food available, though he drank a little water, so I wasn't worried that being surrounded by other dogs would be stressful to him.  He trotted off without a backward glance, and I came away feeling reassured, and knowing that if I'd driven away from where he'd found me, leaving him to take his chances, I would have slept considerably worse than I did that night.  I don't know how the creatures know a soft touch, but they do.

And after all that, I never did get any bird seeds; we ended up giving them hulled organic sunflower seeds from the kitchen cupboard.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Unnecessary but appreciated thanks received.

In the last couple of months I've had some rather nice treats sent me, quite unlooked for, of the 'you really shouldn't have' kind.

Two of them were as thank yous for curating the Alphabet Soup exhibition over at Clive's Artlog.  Frankly, this is rather like thanking a cow for rolling around in a patch of particularly luxuriant clover; it was the exhibitors that made that as good as it was.  However, I'm not complaining. The first came from Shellie, who helped me with said curating anyway, so I don't quite see why she's thanking me at all.  It is Christopher Brown' s Alphabet of London.

This is a gorgeous book, small but heavy and substantial in the hand, sumptuously bound and printed, of lino cuts, each letter gets a double page, with one full page in colour and a number of separate black and white images.  It isn't an 'A is for...' type of alphabet though, there's no text or explanations with the pictures, but therein lies the fun, as you can spend ages puzzling out what they might be.  Needless to say they are all of things to be found in London, now or in the past, some are evident and some very obscure.  Some letters we drew complete blanks on,

'I' for example.

On 'J' we got, or guessed a couple,

I've included 'Y' because of the odd sea nymph personage in the right corner, which I remembered from walks with my old friend Fire Bird years ago when she was a Londoner, but why she was under 'Y' I didn't remember.

It was excellent entertainment, and there is a key at the end.  There's also a lovely section in the first part where the artist describes growing up in the city, which was very nostalgic for Tom who recognised much  of his own London childhood, and a chapter at the end about the making of the book, how he researched and walked and sketched, and the process of lino cutting.

It's a book I'd thoroughly recommend for anyone who knows and loves London even a little, or would like to do so more, or who simply loves very well made books and pictures.


The other gift, sent by Clive, were these knitted finger puppets by Francesca Kay (that's a link to the page for the puppets, but Francesca also has a very fine blog),

of Dracula and Jonathan Harker.  I had seen something of these gems of humour,wit and erudition at the Artlog, but it was a lovely surprise. Francesca says on the packaging - 

The inspiration for Literary and Knitted finger puppets came to me in a dream during a recent visit to the Opera. I awoke towards the end of Act II of Parsifal with images of beady woollen eyes and cylindrical knitted bodies swirling through my mind, encouraged by the gorgeous chocolate fountain of music...

She even learned how to knit in order to produce them.  The collage background is inspired, I particularly like the use of an old imperial typewriter for parts of it.  I love artists.

However, it then occurred to me that I had never in fact read Dracula. So Tom looked me out his old copy, which is over fifty years old.  He said when he first read it, he used to be a bit uneasy about how he held it, as he didn't really like having his fingers touching the artist's impression of the exsanguinating count on the cover.

Despite its being a fairly long and not very easy narrative to read aloud, it didn't take too much persuading to get him to read it to me, so that was how we spent several evenings last week (and quite a few odd after-lunch hours to boot) so thanks in turn to Clive and Francesca for providing not only the fun of the puppets and collage but also many subsequent hours of old-fashioned fireside entertainment too.


The final nice thing which which I really did very little to earn was an ACEO painting from Chloë at Slightly Triangle (ACEOs are very small artworks, of precisely 2½ by 3½ inches, in fact, the size of a playing card). It arrived with her characteristic careful and beautiful packaging, 

(the front of the envelope has blue-green paisley motifs stamped all round the edge too).

Chloë had contacted me a few weeks ago, wondering if I could track down a copy of French Cosmopolitan magazine from December, because they had featured one of her fabric and painted birds in a section on Christmas gifts, but had omitted to tell her so until a month later, when it was too late to order the magazine.  The website seemed to offer no possibility of ordering back numbers, so she wondered if I could help.  Eventually I was able to order one from the publishing group and send it on, and the page in question is up at Chloë's blog here.

So this is what she sent me for the favour.  In exchange for a copy of Cosmo in French and a couple of e-mails and phone calls, I get an exquisite and unique artwork by a talented young artist with a great future.  The exchange seems so out of balance that I ought to be squirming with guilt about it, but I'm really just too pleased.

I really am a jammy so-and-so.