Monday, March 30, 2015

White wine by the fire

Pouring the remains of the Montagny from the night before, chilled from the fridge, letting its slight Chardonnay fizz rest on my tongue, I took my glass to sit by the just-lit fire. Spring fire, white wine. Two memories:

A trip to the Loire valley, early spring just before Easter,when I was perhaps twenty-one, to see a friend who is still a friend and was an old friend even then. Driving through the Touraine, stopping at a cave and sitting by a log fire, being brought glasses of chilled pale white wine, the flowery taste of the chenin blanc, cool next to warmth. I didn't grow up with wine, my only idea of wine in France then was that it could be had very cheaply. The girl who had initiated the trip, a friend of my friend, bought four bottles of the white Touraine - perhaps it was Vouvray but I don't think so - to take back to her parents, it was pointed out to me that for very little more than I paid for rough plonk I could have something really good... I couldn't now perhaps drink the plastic sealed stuff in the consigné litre bottles as I did then, but have never developed any real sophistication about wine and can happily drink from boxes and pichets; as an Iris Murdoch character once said, 'why wantonly destroy one's palate for cheap wine'? However, though I didn't rediscover Touraine chenin blanc until many years later, I knew it again, and it remains a great favourite. I've never liked the same variety from the new world or further south in France, though my experience is slight, it always seems dull and crude and characterless.

Before that, I was perhaps seventeen, a summer when I stayed with another friend of the same vintage, whom I still hear of now and then. Rackety summers when our parents dared leave us alone, occasionally involving graceless drunkenness, tinned meatballs and other irresponsibilities. But one evening her grandfather, a kind, unpatronising, urbane old Dutch chap who had been something big in Unilever I think, and who lived in one of those absurdly picturesque, high-priced home counties villages where they film Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie adaptations, collected us and brought us to his home for dinner. I can't remember what we ate, I think it was good, but I do recall another flowery white wine, I don't know what but again chilled and delicious, in fine glasses engraved with grapes and vine leaves. But it grieved me to note fine incrustations of something like spinach, which had clearly been further baked on rather than removed by his early model dishwasher, and unseen by his elderly eyes. At the end of the meal, I asked to be allowed to wash up to thank him for his hospitality. No need, he said, the dishwasher... Oh but please, I insisted, at least the glasses and cutlery. I can still feel the fragile glassware in my hands, the very hot water, and carefully, discreetly, scrubbing away until all unsightly vegetable matter was removed. I don't think I even mentioned the spinach to my friend.

Many people say happiness is only recognised in retrospect, I've never found that. Happy memories elude me,  though I think perhaps I often considered myself happy at the time, looking back I judge matters more harshly, qualifying them with the shame, regret, or incomprehension with which I seem to regard large swathes of my life, not least those involving the misuse of alcohol.  I know that sounds dismal and self-piteous, I don't mean to be. Other times any memory at all escapes me, lost time remains fruitlessly sought after, estranged from me altogether. Yet these two moments of glad grace, of elegance and delicacy, glimpsed elsewhere and even, exceptionally, in my earlier self, can still be evoked with a physical sharpness by the taste of chilled white wine.


Shortly we're off to south east England for a few days, for a big birthday of my sister, and a smaller one of my brother, and for one or two other appointments and rendezvous. It's the first time we've been out of the country together for more than eight years, and feels quite momentous, but probably isn't. Back in a while.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Lovely Lara

This beauty is our latest (canine) visitor. I imagine she was named for Lara Croft, since probably no one in her circles at the time would have thought of Dr Zhivago, but in fact she is much more beautiful than Angelina Jolie or even than Julie Christie.

Lara is eleven, though you wouldn't know it. She spent the first year of her life hungry and abused before being rescued by her former owner, the brother-in-law of Tom's brother-in-law P, ( hope that's not too complicated). She then spent some ten years loved and busy in their family, first with growing-up children and plenty of coming and going, and then later as a companion to P's sister during her final illness, with a short but terribly sad period of loneliness and anxiety at the end of this. The husband then being obliged to continue working abroad, and nobody else in a position to have her, P and D, Tom's sister, felt they had to step in and took her on just five months ago.

It is clearly a match made in heaven; D said they took her on initially out of love for the sister, but very quickly knew they were keeping her out of love for Lara herself. D in particular had been hankering for a dog for some time, but, having both been in the wars themselves with health problems and other worries of one kind and another, they're determined to make the most of their time for themselves, cutting loose for three months or so each winter and travelling around France and Spain in their camper van, not minding the out-of-season quiet, reading, knitting, moseying and resting, researching and finding the next simple but comfortable pitch, so they worried that a dog would be a tie and a responsibility. Lara being all chipped, vaccinated and passported, though, they bravely set out this year with her on board, calling in here on the way back as usual, and so we could sort out the final vet's appointment for their return.

They've done very well, I think. D said that this time away she hadn't missed her grandchildren at all now she'd got Lara, which as far as we're concerned is very much a step in the right direction. Lara herself hadn't been used to travelling much in her former life, and is rather excitable about it. She's enjoyed sniffing her way around Spain and France, but still suffers from a certain amount of separation anxiety,

Where is he? He shouldn't be out there without me...
so leaving her alone in the camper van while they go elsewhere isn't an option. Like all Alsatians (we still call them that, can't get used to saying German shepherd), she is rather protective of territory, and also a little uncertain how to behave with other dogs, she's amiably disposed but hasn't had much socialising with them, and other dogs, and their owners, do tend to be nervous of Alsatians. But she has come such a long way in a short time, is alert and curious and responsive yet discreet and gracious and very sweet. She greeted me with a gentle nose-to-nose as soon as we met, and agreed to join Tom on the sofa the first evening,

lying for a while with her head on his lap before hopping down to be closer to her folks. Yet this was only at his invitation, she's clearly a dog who prefers to have and understand boundaries and doesn't take liberties, who will lie calm but attentive under the table for hours, will sometimes take a tidbit courteously but isn't at all greedy, who pulls a bit on the lead but off it will rarely stray far, except when another dog comes into view.

Her sight and hearing are good, her hips only slightly arthritic; her vet is very positive about her condition for her age, (as was our Emmy), and her hopes for a good few years to come. With his encouragement - contrary to the proverb it's never too late for a fit and active old dog to be taught - they're going to take her to some training classes, so she can learn better how to walk nicely and be with other dogs and they can learn how they can best help her to adjust and get along. We wish them all many more happy years together.

Tom's sister, typically tender-hearted and worried about giving pain, was concerned that we might find it distressing having her around after losing Mol, but once they saw how much we enjoyed her company, there was the same kind of teasing as we had from G and A about how we were clearly yearning for another dog. However, as we pointed out on both occasions, it would be very difficult if we'd had our own dog, especially one like Mol, to welcome such lovely canine visitors so easily, so it's one of those things we will enjoy and take advantage of while our current dogless state lasts.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A meandering kind of post about colour, knitting, plants etc

Some attempts at artistic, still life kind of pictures of knitting. 

This one above is only partly of knitting, the Thai silk scarf and the bottle of Jameson are just as important, but I felt light was quite Vermeer-ish, and typical of the equinoctial sun into that part of the room of an evening, and that there is light in the evenings is cause for joy. 

The same light falling on red cashmere,

just forty grammes of it, laceweight, but knit double, and made into another example of the ever-popular Hitchhiker pattern.  

The name derives from the supposed fact that there are supposed to be forty-two of the little points or steps that run down the edge of it. However, it is modular in its construction and you can make it with as many or as few points as you want. This is the third one I have made now (the previous ones were a rainbow-coloured and a blue) and none of them has in fact had forty two points, the first had thirty-seven, the second, made of much finer wool so needed to be bigger, had sixty-something, this one has a scant thirty-one, owing to its being made of just forty grammes of very fine cashmere (discounted but even so). I was slightly disappointed when the yarn arrived that, despite being assured that it came only from Mongolian goats living at very high altitude, it wasn't as fluffy and soft as I expected. However, once I was knitting with it, and even more when I came to wear it, its inner beauty became apparent; it has a long, sleek staple, and is so light and soft you don't know you're wearing it, except you're warmer by an order of magnitude.

I'm afraid our friend Dutch E does not get such luxurious fibres for her birthday present. It occurred to me that though she has a spring birthday, she always gets a rather wintry present from us: a bottle of sloe gin and usually of recent times something knitted. She is extremely fond of sloe gin and provides good coffee every week all the year on yoga mornings, so I have to make sure I husband the supplies so that there's always some available in March. If it's the vintage of the winter just passed I try to caution her to keep it as long as possible before drinking, which maybe she can for a few weeks, rarely longer, but this time there's a good bottle left from the winter before (this winter's is still on the fruit, I have been sloe slow). She's also an enthusiastic recipient of hand knits - and she must genuinely like them because she's Dutch and so does not tell white lies. So I took up some scraps and leftovers and thrifted skeins from Emmaus,

and set about making her yoga socks. These are kind of like leg-warmers, kind of like socks, only there's a slit where your heel goes, so and ribbing at the bottom which surround the arch/instep, so the foot and lower leg is covered but the toes and heels are free to grip whilst one is endeavouring to hold the tree or archer pose, for example. You can wear them inside Wellington boots too it seems, but I've never got around to making myself any so I've no idea if they're any good in either capacity, and have a feeling E will just hitch them up over her ankles and wear them like leg-warmers. Knit-savvy people might notice that these are being constructed in the round on tiny, 9-inch circular needles, a technique I'm lately experimenting with. The little jar that once held Espelette pepper flakes now holds safety pins for use as stitch markers, the smaller pâté one tapestry needles, beads and rubber bands to stop the stitches falling off the needles; the cup contains tea and the book TS Eliot. Attention span deficit, moi?

When knitting things which come in pairs - which owing to the bilateral structure of the human body - is most things apart from hats and scarves, even jumpers having two sleeves therefore requiring a level of duplication - there is always the question: to match or not to match? I am something of an enthusiast for non-matching; as well as being a source of originality, creativity and interest, it goes some way to getting round the well known SSS - second sock syndrome, or indeed second mitten, second glove, second leg warmer, even second sleeve - whereby one makes an article with brisk enthusiasm, only to experience a sinking feeling on realising that you have to do it all over again. So I decided to vary the stripes on the yoga socks:

This, however, does induce some frowning among my knitariat - did I not want to make them match? I tried to explain that there is roughly the same weight of each colour on each... But I fear they transgress the pensée unique, they are not worthy to be citizens of the Republic of Knitting, One and Indivisible. In addition they do not follow the tricouleur rule, the aesthetic maximum of three colours which divides good taste from what the English do. Ah well, it was conceded, they'll keep her legs warm, that's the important thing. 

However, I think there is a case that my yoga socks are upholders of liberté, egalité and perhaps most of all, fraternité: they are an expression of a degree of creative freedom, they are equal in size (E's legs being likewise as far as I have observed) and contain equal amounts of the same colours, just in different distribution and placement, and though they may not be identical twins, they are brothers. So, marchons!

Anyway, E being Dutch and arty and not averse to all things, counter, original spare, and strange, and usually up for some wacky colour combinations, is very pleased with them, as well as with the sloe gin.

I'm not sure truly that these things aren't more about personality than nationality or culture, though I also remember German students I used to teach in the UK rather thought their British host families were over-fond of inappropriate amounts of colour. In spite of all temptations to belong to other nations (and no longer having the vote in his own) Tom remains an Englishman, pretty much through and through, but he is quite uncomfortable with too many gaudy mismatches, and really prefers things to come in properly matching sets and a fairly limited range of generally sober colours. He can just about cope with mirror opposites, such as these slipper socks, though I don't think he'd wear them himself:

They are experimental, first trying out the tiny circular needles and then the application of bathroom silicone to render them non-slip (effective but needing further work on the application). They are weirdly shaped and rather remind me of some of the examples of early knitting and proto-socks developed in places like Turkey and Persia in the middle ages. I rather like them though.


Someone who doesn't worry too much about too much colour is David Hockney, who was the subject of a documentary the other night (I put the link in to the i-player even though you can't get it outside of the UK). It was one of those rather irritating wandery documentaries where people who have very little to say are encouraged to say it at great length as if it carried great import. Nevertheless I stuck it out and there was more than enough to make it worthwhile. Mentioning it in an e-mail exchange with my brother, he said he was rather put off by the hyping up of figures like Hockney, 'a pseudo-blond with silly spectacles' and that there was more satisfaction to be gained from the work of less trumpeted outsider artists. I dare say he's right, but these things aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, and I do enjoy Hockney's continuing enthusiasm for life and readiness to try new things; even the silly glasses have gone now he's achieved grand-old-manhood. He's never been really difficult as an artist it's true, and his British based landscapes of more recent years are very accessible indeed, the best of them, such as these,

seem to me to bring back the very first sense of wonder and exaltation I can remember as a small child on the top of the Chiltern or the Malvern hills, looking out over 'the coloured counties'. 

And among the many somewhat banal things he was quoted as saying, I found some comfort in the unremarkable truism: 'Just because you stop doing something doesn't mean you've rejected it'. I know it's obvious, but one can expend quite a bit of energy in anguish and sadness by forgetting it.  (I also rather enjoyed the scene where the Hockney family were playing Scrabble, and they'd had to replace the 'X' tile with a cannibalised 'I' because the cocker spaniel had eaten the original).


Other cheerful things. A communication from the garden centre where we have a loyalty card of dubious worth stated they were offering a free plant and free 'rempotage' - potting on. Reading the small print I wasn't quite sure what this might consist of, but went to find out, and in the middle of the flowering plants area, a cheerful girl in rubber gloves stood surrounded by a vast amount of fluffy potting compost. One had to buy the plants and the pots, but they would pot them on for you using their own compost, up to ten. So I took the opportunity to spruce up the herb containers, with new plants of origano, Moroccan mint, lemon and dwarf thyme, in good sized pots, 

and some parsley for the window sill in a very traditional terracotta pot. 

Kitchen windowsill, with parsley and also pea shoots, cress, daffies, potted jasmine (a fragrant extravagance) and the free plant whose name I don't know.

I like terracotta but can only have it where I remember to keep it wetted enough. I have no green fingers, kill plants very easily (unless I'm trying to, in which case they thrive stubbornly), and am not honestly a talented gardener. I tend towards what I think Joan Bakewell said, that gardening is outdoor housework. To me now it has somewhat taken the place of paid work; a demand from outside (inasmuch as the seasons and the growth of plants dictates its necessities), a kind of rent I pay for my room in the world, good for my moral and bodily well-being but to some extent a kind of duty which I'm often reluctant to get on with, yet once I'm there doing it I usually realise how much I'm enjoying it, really much more than actual housework. I'm aware this is a kind of heresy, and sounds rather churlish and ungrateful. 

Anyway, having the potting-on job done, though a very small one which I could have done quite easily in a short time at home, gave me a boost and an incentive to get on with the job of clearing up and re-ordering the herbs, and I feel the better for it, and today the seeds came from Chase Organics, including, for the first time from their catalogue, some Roscoff pink onion sets, though presumably for appellation controlée reasons these are sold as Keravel pinks.


So, a meandering and rather long-winded post of mostly domestic detail and cogitation. We're expecting visitors at any moment so I'll most likely be gone again for a bit...

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

To do today

  • wash, dress
  • finish the blog spring clean
  • plant seeds, marigolds, nasturtiums (which, as capucines, sound so mauch nicer in French), sunflowers, the broad beans if the postie brings them
  • re-pot the jasmine and the tête-à-tête bulbs
  • e-mail a friend or two, leave a comment
  • turn that bargain cauliflower into soup
  • start listening to Kazuo Ishiguro's latest on the radio ("It's queer the way the world's forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that...")
  • make or mend or read a thing or two, hear some music, take a photograph
  • the right thing, even perhaps a beautiful thing
Not necessarily in that order.

Build no monuments, but let the rose 
unfold each year on his behalf

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Foot update, book in the post, February collage

Uncertain whether I shouldn't be doing more about The Foot, but disinclined to drag The Patient off to doctors or x-ray clinics, since clearly it was better when rested and kept on the horizontal or slightly above, I decided on the Monday to consult our lovely pharmacy, a thriving and lively place. The Patient himself hit on the rather intelligent idea of taking a photo of the extremity in question and showing it to them. I shall spare sharing the actual images here. The pretty dark haired assistant pharmacist, who was wearing a beautiful dark blue handknit cowl, listened carefully, winced and grimaced at appropriate moments of the narrative, responded enthusiastically to the photographic evidence, and told me we had done all the right things, that there was indeed little to be done about a broken toe, that an x-ray would only confirm what we already knew, and that it should be better in ten days to three weeks. The only additional recommendation was an ice pack three times a day regardless of The Patient's objections ('Pas de glaçons sur mon pied!' I mimicked, with the invisible translation switched on retrospectively), and free-and-for-nuffink they supplied us with a set of cannes anglaises for as long as needed.

After a few days of The Patient lugubriously insisting that it was never going to get well, he is now moving much better and getting about in the house without the aid of the cannes, so now we're back on track, though I had to bring in the wood and take out the rubbish myself for a while.


Another nice and flattering surprise in the post.

As I mentioned before, Charles Davis asked for the photo a few weeks ago, but he said it would only be for an e-book, so I was very pleased be given a proof copy of it in print, not only to gratify my vanity about the photo but because I was struggling to read it in the PDF format on my old-fashioned grey-faced Kindle.

Charles is dissatisfied with and rather cast down about the book, which I know he's been working on for quite a while, he says it's irretrievably flawed. Initially he didn't expect to have it in print at all, but it is now available, very reasonably, from an independent publishing source via Amazon. So far, his deprecation of it notwithstanding, I'm thoroughly enjoying it. It's set on the Mont St Michel in the early seventeenth century and described as ' a ludibrium or capricious game, a classic adventure story informed by riddles, myths and conspiracies', and though it is certainly something of a colourful and mischievous romp, and will, according to the rather spoilerish blurb on Amazon, get even more lurid, it's also typically full of fascinating, unexplored corners of history, with alchemy and threads of gnosticism and such like, undercurrents of ideas and counter-history flowing in and out like the partially hidden and deceptive currents and streams in the sands around the Mont (which was why he wanted the photo, though that wasn't taken there but some way further west into Brittany). I do like exploring these obscure backwaters of history and ideas and belief very much, but so often fiction that uses them is just unreadable, badly written, portentous rubbish. Charles' writing though is so classy, sharp and witty and ironic, his dialogue crisp and satisfying, his characters likeable and solid, his research and learning, though worn quite lightly, so meticulous and informed with an awful lot of legwork (literally, he's a world class walker and his bread-and-butter writing is walking guides), it seems a great shame he's not better appreciated. 

'You do not take literature seriously, Dom Robert.'
'On the contrary, I take it so seriously that I am persuaded that the highest literature is also the most lighthearted, floating in the ether while the weighty tomes of moralists slough aobut at their authors' feet before sinking without trace. Read Rabelais, read Cervantes. Wisdom weighs lighter than folly.'

[Pilgrim of Love, Charles Davis.]


Time for a belated collage for the month of February.

  1. Early daffodils up the road, always among the first I see.
  2. Mending.
  3. Some 'flowers' for the guest room, hebes and hellebores, whiteish and purple the only actual blooms, otherwise rosehips, bay and acanthus leaves, dogwood seed heads.
  4. Doggies on the beach.
  5. Beautiful Milly.
  6. Seashells collected and left on the windowsill, they're still there.
  7. Jantien's exhibition. Our friend Jantien Kahn is doing another residency at la Résidence in Moncontour, this time with her partner Jessie Ehlhart (website in Dutch), who is using the opportunity to develop her work as a musician and sound artist. They too, like our other visitors, have been brave birds of passage, appearing on out doorstep against the season and cheerfully bringing late winter/early spring cheer and doing our hearts good. I'll try to get a post done about their opening night, though it was a few weeks ago now...
  8. La Polyclinique where Tom had his eyes done. It really is a very pleasant building, full of light and giving out onto sweeping views, about a central well,
  9. which has this cheerful mural, featuring the rather unlikely scenario of seagoing fishing boats on the nearby lac de Guerledan.
  10. Still bare trees outside the windows, shining with rain, which I didn't quite capture, but the little yellow orb of flare charmed me somewhat.
  11. Grey hat.
  12. Wet muddy field.

Now March marches on, and we sat outside in the garden for an hour or two today, though it's good to come in to the fire too.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The perils of creative mending and rather too appropriately named slipper socks

With thanks for all the good wishes and concern extended to Tom regarding the eye surgery; he is seeing better than for many a long year and drove the car the other day. He has in fact detailed his experience at his place here, with a few sometimes eye-watering photos taken, at his request, by me, of which I shall only feature this one,

to illustrate how seriously the medical services take the matter of healthy eating. In fact quick and simple sucrose and fructose and plenty of caffeine are really just what you want after hours of fasting and minutes of minor anaesthetic, but I munched on my oatcakes and apple and felt virtuous.

Unfortunately the new lease of life afforded him by his new vision rather came a cropper and ended in tears, or at least groans of agony, and this was in part my fault, owing to my particular current preoccupation with creative mending. 

This has led me of late to the embellishment of an old blue lambswool sweater gone into holes (perhaps moth, but then it was 30% nylon so I doubt it, probably just a cheap sweater in the first place) with small flowers,

which remind me a little of tattoos, but without the commitment, and also, would you believe, to this rather kitsch patching which has rendered new tea towels for old:

Yes, I know, you're asking what kind of bored do you have to be to patch tea-towels? It's not like I don't have any new ones, I frequently come across and buy very tasteful ones in discount stores for next to nothing, grey ones with red embroidery, ochre coloured waffle ones, black gingham ones... trouble is they're all so pretty I can't quite bring myself to wipe up with them but instead use them as alternatives to wrapping paper at Christmas or just leave them in the cupboard. But I actually like these old towelling ones, they are efficient, and yes, I know my hygienically evolved transatlantic friends and anyone else with a dishwasher, ( ie mostly everyone) shudder at the thought of wiping up at all, but I'm very particular about rinsing and draining and changing the towels, and glasses are so much better wiped immediately very hot with a clean cloth.... and it's so annoying when your fingers go through them, and anyway I felt like doing something idle and whimsical one Sunday. I was somewhat inspired by Tom of Holland's visible mending programme, and the double thickness parts are actually rather good for purpose.

So, anyway, when the house socks which I made Tom for his last birthday from thick old short staple vintage wool

got sloppier and sloppier, and he asked me if I could perhaps shrink them a bit in the machine, and I did so rather too zealously so they turned into stiff little felt bootees which I can barely get on and he certainly can't,

I sought to make it up to him by converting the his Irish wool hiking socks which had already been darned more than once, and, New Testament style, gone into holes around the darns, into slipper socks, by sewing on soles cut from an old felted sweater, my go-to material for many creative projects. He liked them very much.

Thus slickly shod, full of enthusiastic, newly re-visioned zest for life, and taking it at a run, he misjudged something crucial and slithered down the last several stairs, whacking his foot on a wooden post so that a middle toe stuck out bizarrely and was clearly broken. 

Now Tom breaks toes about as often as I smash up cars, it's less expensive but more painful (maybe, though psychologically perhaps not...), we know what it looks like by now. No hope of medical attention on a Saturday evening and not much to be done anyway, so I slathered bruise gel everywhere possible, strapped the wonky toe to its neighbours, dosed him with tea, sugar, aspirin and whiskey, and there he is, still fairly cheerful but stopped in his newly refurbished tracks. I'm looking into bathroom silicone as a means of making non-slip soles.