Wednesday, November 30, 2016


So, I've downloaded and printed the paperwork to apply for French citizenship (dual, with British, which you can have), and put them all in their own little folder - you gotta have a dossier. The Livret du Citoyen has been on the Kindle for some time, and I've read it through once. Would this were all that were involved. Now I'm stalling.

It' s not only the language requirements, which are quite daunting: having to conscientiously study and practise, then getting to Rennes to take the test, but they're the least of it, and it could be quite a satisfying project. There are also the certificates, huge numbers of them, birth, marriage, divorce, death. Not only mine but Tom's and my parents' too, and they want originals, and copies, and accredited translations (which cost), as well as details of all my siblings, though not their paperwork.

By chance I do have quite a few of these papers, along with the photo albums they somehow ended up in my possession; I've looked after them carefully, not least because the envelope is one of the few things I've ever had bearing my father's handwriting. It's worrying though, to submit these ancient, fragile, precious and personal documents into unknown, and yes, foreign, hands; what if they are lost or damaged? It feels weird, as if my parents spirits are uneasily above my head at the very idea! Which is all rather foolish.

The other thing about the paperwork is that it requires going back over my own past more than I care to, having to apply I know not where for certain others, a first marriage certificate (I've got the divorce one, surely that ought to be enough?), evidence of a brief, stupid episode, never talked about because it long since stopped being important or even anything to do with me any more. ('You owe nothing to your past selves,' I read on a youngster's twitter stream the other day 'they are stupider than you and they don't exist.') 'Naturalisation' implies, in its etymology, a re-appropriation of one's life since birth, which I'm not altogether happy about.

The Livret du Citoyen is probably much like all such publications around the world: ridiculously condensed, over-simplified, anodyne, of necessity I suppose. I fear I will want to argue with it if I am placed before a departmental panel quizzing me, but won't have the words or arguments to hand, and anyway, you can't ask for a favour then rubbish what your asking for, so I must needs play along ('Cross your fingers behind your back?' suggested Tom).

Frankly, and don't tell them in Rennes, I'm not sure I much want to be French. I've lived here nearly twenty years, I've just about acquired half a clue about what's going on round me, I find much to admire and some things I don't, probably much like I would most places. I have read all (yes all, even the stuff about nuns) of Les Miserables, the book, not the screenplay, albeit in English, and several of the lesser novels of Flaubert in French, and can confidently say that, IMHO, Hugo was a fairly awful writer and Flaubert a loathsome one. Hugo gets a mention as a luminary in the Livret du Citoyen, as do several noteworthy personages who were born outside of France but became French citizens: Apollinaire, Marie Curie, Dalita... to encourage us others, you know. I would need to show that I was involved in French cultural life and society, I'm not sure whether my francophone knitting group (many of whom show a tendency to stroppy Gallo-Breton regionalism) and adopting a Breton spaniel (because some bastard heartless French hunter chucked her out) will be enough...

In the end though, I'm not sure I want it because it's not mine; I will never really be French. I ain't no child of the Republic, I'm afraid, and resist the idea of having to pledge myself to its values, though I find myself quite protective and bloody-minded about defending them when feeling they're under attack from ignorant or self-satisfied outsiders (while reserving the right to be an ignorant and self-satisfied outsider myself most of the time). Even Heather, who was here sixty years, married in and made seven more French people, more or less stopped speaking English, wrote in French, received the legion d'honneur, and chewed the fat with Jouve and Derrida, used sometimes to smile mischievously and say 'French. Don't mistake me, some of my best friends are French, but...'

Then of course, if France, whose politics I already frequently find at best impenetrable and at worst repellent, next year goes the way of Britain and the US and elects Marine le Pen, where will that leave us and will I want to be French at all?

The thing is, I liked being British in Europe. In fact, I like being European, it might be a dirty word for some, but not for me. For much of my life, whatever the shortcomings and failures of the political and economic reality known as the European Union, Europe has meant something bigger and better, cultures and cities and landscapes, languages, paintings, poets, music, ideas, discoveries, history (much of it, like much of all human history, vile and brutal and tragic and thank god it's over and done with) of which my Anglo heritage comprised a vital part but which could also offset its island parochialism. I have enjoyed, and indeed built the best third of my life upon, freedom of movement within Europe.

Harping on about national, cultural, ethnic identities is very largely erroneous and boring, I think, but then I wonder if I'm only able to see it that way because I've always felt relaxed and comfortable in mine because I'm one of the lucky ones. Of course I'm glad my heritage is English/British/European/Christendom, it feels comfortable, normal, happy to me, but like so much pride in one's identity, that's like the person who says 'I'm glad I hate garlic* because if I liked it, I'd have to eat it, and I hate it!', and being what I was born certainly wasn't any virtuous act (or indeed any evil one) on my part.

The (admittedly brighter and more educated) French kids I know, while happy to be French, don't seem to care much about being European, they are more drawn to other continents and hemispheres, a wider world, and good for them.

So why am I doing it? For practical reasons, of course, I need to know I will be able to get healthcare in my old age, if not sooner. Until now, when one reached UK state pension age, as Tom has, you would have some of the medical care I write about here in glowing terms paid for, about 70% on average, depending on what it is. The rest has to be topped up either by private complementary insurance or out of one's own pocket. (Whatever the outside perceptions about French statist socialism, there is no such thing as free healthcare on point of delivery, and no one assumes there ought to be; poorer people get their healthcare topped up by the state, but separately and means tested. French people's sense of entitlement is much more around their pensions. That's another thing that's been brought home to me here, that what one society sees as their inalienable right isn't necessarily what the one next door does.) Tom gets this now, I come into it as his dependent, and assumed I too would when I reached the requisite age. Before this we got healthcare through the work I did, or just crossed our fingers. It is one of the reciprocal benefits of EU membership, and we, and other genteel, nice retired British folk, could be seen just as much as benefits scroungers as Polish or Lithuanian or whatever people in the UK claiming child benefit, but we have never been criticised or resented for it, so far, to my knowledge (likewise, we could also be seen equally negatively as economic migrants; we didn't have to come here, we weren't driven out, we chose to because we could, we thought, have a better, or more interesting, quality of life on the money we had). We never really thought, with Brexit, that we would be cast out of our homes and packed off back to Blighty; UK citizens lived in France long before the EU, but on the whole they either married in, or worked here all their lives and paid in, or, if retired, they were simply the rich ones who could afford private healthcare - or they went back to the UK and used the free NHS; the 'healthcare tourists' whose access to NHS treatment is under review now comprise in large part, I understand, such returning or visiting expats. If I were to become a French citizen, I would have the right to apply for healthcare here.

In fact, I find too that I am fed up with being disenfranchised; I couldn't vote in the UK, in a referendum which directly affected me more than any other political event in my lifetime, and I can't vote here to keep Mme le Pen out either. I need to belong somewhere; going back to the UK isn't on the cards. It's also a kind of statement of commitment, and yes, to some extent shaking the dust of the UK, whose decision to leave Europe has alienated me in both practical and cultural terms. Being British in Europe may no longer be an option.

There is some talk, from sympathetic French politicians, of a fast track for long term British citizens resident in France, and also of some kind of 'associative citizenship' to Brits, not only expats, but any who voted to remain who would like still to belong to the European project. So what, asked Tom, would there be to stop people who voted for Brexit applying for that, how would they know? Why would they, I replied, if they voted Brexit and wanted out of Europe, then come over all Ode to Joy? But then again why wouldn't they? If only for shorter queues and access to duty free at the airport; have cake, will eat it, as the memo said. There was a forum anecdote, I think on Ravelry in fact so quite reputable, of someone's colleague who had been all up for Brexit on anti-immigration grounds, then when it happened was bragging about how she wouldn't be disadvantaged since she was entitled to an Irish passport. Such associative citizenship sounds like a hopeful thing, but in the meantime I'll go on with the dossier.

I know what you might say, with justification, welcome to a very small taste of the real world for many of the people in it, you know, that world which as a privileged, complacent middle-class white European you always just assumed you owned. I don't claim any particular victimhood for the fact that I've taken advantage of freedoms history has put my way, had a pretty interesting, fun time of it but now it looks like the party's over.** It was ever thus, when cities and thrones and powers change and end, and whatever happens, however disadvantaged I become, I'm not, I should imagine, going to be bombed, starved, have to live in a refugee camp or whatever.

I wouldn't want to lose my British citizenship, however long I stay here and under whatever terms, I'll still be English, British, Anglophone and all kinds of other things which there's no point in being either proud or ashamed of because they just are what I am, and I'll still be most happy to read English literature, watch English films and telly, and go back and visit as and when, to spend time with friends and family and the things and people I grew up with.

Which is what I'm going to do next week, for a short few days, leaving Elfie to look after Tom. This is the last of my daily posts, I've enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping by, and especially if you got to the end of this long whinge of a post. You've been troopers.

* substitute any foodstuff you wish, that's only an example.

** though, aside from personal considerations, I still believe Brexit to be a grave mistake, and am exasperated by the way, in order to keep the electorate sweet, those who voted for it must at all costs be protected from confronting either the consequences of their decision or their possible motives for it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

First frosts and fires

The first real frost we've had and quite a hard one, which doesn't leave the grass all day in places. The pastures look blue with it. Wrapped in Icelandic wool with leggings under jeans and fleece gloves under wool mittens, I'm happy now winter's properly here, and the late afternoon sun is glorious. It's the tipping time of autumn, I realise, that prompts seasonal malaise, that and lightless, cloudy and foggy days.

At the bio shop, along with spelt milk for Elfie (don't ask) we buy small, very purple, fresh figs, a few big Spanish chestnuts - in honour of first fires, I can't bring myself to buy many as to me they should simply be a seasonal free resource - and a big bunch of watercress, which will shortly mostly be soup.

There are fieldfares in larger and larger numbers in the countryside, and groups of noisy migrant blackbirds in the garden. I see a number of wrens flying low and urgently between hedges, and on the road outside Marcel's house a dead one, crushed but perfectly wren-shaped, its speckled markings and cocked tail clear and bright. No doubt it was fuddled with cold and hunger; we must start feeding the birds again now the cold weather's here, but there is little you can do for the ones that eat only insects.

Tom goes outside to break up some stuff, and snags the base of his thumb badly on a wayward screw, leaving a trail of blood spots into the house, where I find him at the sink and patch him up with my usual cartoon style, belt-and-braces first aid dressings. Nevertheless, when we come back from our evening walk, the fire is lit, Elfie's dinner is prepared and the windscreen of the car covered against ice so he can drive me into St Brieuc for a mammogram (just a regular screening check) tomorrow. He gets a glass of sloe gin for his pains.

Fire can be good.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Wool gathering

Little to report. I owe too many e-mails, stocks are running low, there are still piles of leaves to rake in the garden, and in general I have left undone those things I ought to have done etc and there is no health in me. But we have lit the second fire of the winter, a warm dog and warm sofa is beckoning, the world is filled with woe but home is good, though it seems less important where it is.

I was asked what I thought about when knitting. It's rather hard to say; sometimes about the other things I ought to be up and doing instead of knitting, sometimes what I'm watching or listening to at the time. Just lately it's been this serialisation of this book, about girls and women acquiring the power to electrocute people at will. It's a bit good but I get the impression reading the review that the serialisation misses out quite a bit.

In fact I rather like this passage from Rose Tremain's Music and Silence (probably more my scene that speculative post-feminist dystopias really) set in 17th century Denmark, about the act of knitting, which I have posted here before but I don't suppose anyone remembers:

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.

'Wool gathering' seems like a good description of not only what is going on in my head when knitting but in my life much of the time. Could be worse.

(Old photo, again, posted before.)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Socks, knitworthiness, and Gorgon the Destroyer

Well, it's the 27th already, and I'm only just ready to say that posting every day is becoming any kind of strain. I did think I might show you some knitting (if in doubt...) but then much of it is either for people's Christmas presents so I don't want to risk their seeing, or else I've forgotten to photograph it before giving it away, and most of it this year has been socks, for example, these pink and green ones:

I gave these to my yoga buddy A, for whom I had never knitted anything before and whom I understood to have a fondness for a good sock, they are fine sock wool and were carefully sized, you know about people's feet are when you do yoga with them regularly, and they are her sort of colours, I'm quite good on that too. She was only very moderately enthusiastic, but she's not an excitable person. They have my fraternally matching/contrasting toes heels and tops, a device I often employ, mostly to make the knitting more varied and interesting. Other yoga buddy, Dutch E, remarked on the fraternal thing as one of my trademarks, and openly said she was jealous of these socks.

This led me to ponder on the matter of knitworthiness. I have made quite a few things for Dutch E, and thought perhaps it would be only fair to give A something. I do not, do not, do NOT make or give things to people in the expectation of gratitude, and yet... A's tepidity on receiving the socks didn't exactly irk me, but made me disinclined to think of making her anything else, though it might simply be that she is, as I've observed, rather phlegmatic and undemonstrative. But she has knitted herself, I gather, and knows what goes into a pair of socks (about 35000 stitches, I think I once heard). Dutch E, who isn't a knitter, is rather greedy, it seems to me, saying she was jealous when she has already had lots, but I do appreciate her appreciation, and that she is observant about the way I make things, and I know whatever I give her I will see her wearing and she will make positive but honest (she's Dutch) and useful comments on it, and I am much more inclined to knit for her again.

But it's silly to take it on yourself to know what people might like, as well as to expect certain forms of appreciation. We had the Quiet American and German Doctor round for a meal a couple of nights ago. Last Christmas I had made the former a pair of fine plain black socks with a touch of colour on the tops - dark red or something masculine and discreet anyway, I forget - they were boring to make but I thought surely unexceptionable; I've heard people complain that the problem with hand-knit socks is they are usually too thick and awkward to get shoes on over.  I didn't hear anything back about them, and finally decided to ask the other night if he ever wore them. Yes, he said, but they're a bit thin, he liked to wear them in the house in the evening, when reading or watching telly... So I'd patiently knitted boring fine black socks when he would have preferred some chunky wool sofa socks. Serves me right for assuming anything.

Talking of thick warm house socks, here are the ones I made for myself inspired by the lighthouses off Roscoff (in this post a couple of years ago).

It must be said that almost all my family and friends, including all of the blogging ones on whom I have bestowed my knitted favours, are extremely appreciative and highly knitworthy.

G and A are also very knitworthy, particularly of socks. I forgot to photograph the red patterned ones I sent to A, but he expressed his appreciation by sending me a personalised Face in Hole creation. We got rather into exchanging these; the first, and still one of the best, he sent was one of Peggy the Boxer as Henry VIII:

I returned one of Elfie as Rita Hayworth in Gilda, but in fact it turned out a little too disturbing to post here. He has since progressed to videos, and in his thank you e-mail for the socks was this one of my being eaten by Gorgon the Destroyer (I wouldn't really have recognised myself and am not quite sure where he got the photo from):

I assume this means he liked the socks, so 35000 stitches was time and wool well spent.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Funny fungi

I've done this a lot before, photos of fungi, it's that time of year. I've even got a tag for them. That's rather the problem with this kind of blogging, and of life in the countryside, I suppose. The seasons have a habit of coming round again and again with much the same features. Or perhaps it's not a problem. 

Anyway, fungi continue to be weird and wonderful, these were all found in the garden, a more appealing thing to be doing there than sweeping up leaves.

The above growths appear in the holes left in eucalyptus trunks, when branches split and break, as they often do. I wonder why a non-native species should so readily host passing fungi, but I don't really know anything about it.

The frilly orangey ones below, at different stages of their fruition (for mushrooms and toadstools are all fruiting bodies) are all over the ground among the leaf litter:

I've only tended to edit them a bit by deepening the shadows to accentuate the form, but with the two below, as I'd got a bit carried away with the digital zoom on the camera and they looked rather odd and fuzzy, I put a 'lomo' filter on them in Picasa, for fun: 

Change, death and decay, that's fungi for you.

Weirdest and most alien and macabre of all are these earth balls, puffballs' dark doppelgangers:

It's their planet really, theirs and the insects'. We're just passing through.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Elfin Friday - through a bone, hopefully

She does love a bone. This one brought back from the supermarket, one of two in a pack, a couple of weeks ago at least. The meat attaching and the marrow within were made to disappear within an hour at most, but the bone really has gone on and on, we still often hear gnawing sounds coming from her corner, though there's nothing left on it at all. The other one is in the freezer still, for a rainy day.

You can take it off her though, no argument. Such a good dog.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Throwback Thursday - Loot and Pip

That's my brother and I,

just to show I wasn't always scowling. This is a studio photograph taken by my Uncle Jack, the family photographer, and I would guess that the 69 in the serial number he has given it refers to 1969, when I would have been in my eighth year, and Pip, my brother Philip, now usually just Phil, would have been about ten. He wasn't called Pip much after a very young age, except by my dad, it embarrassed him. Once Mrs Grange, a large, jolly, generous and cultivated friend of our family, saw Phil on Berkhamsted High Street with a couple of his mates when he was about seventeen and called out 'Hello Pippy!', much to his shame and chagrin, of course. Mrs Grange had wanted to be my godmother when I was born, but my mother in a fit of integrity for which I never quite forgave her, said no, I was not going to be christened, she didn't believe in it any more and wasn't going to go through the motions. Mrs Grange delighted me when I was sixteen by seating me on her chaise longue and offering me a cigarette in front of my parents. It would have been worth being hailed in the street as Looty to have been on the receiving end of Mrs Grange's indulgence and patronage, but it was not to be.

There are a whole series of these photos of us and our parents (one of which is in the post about my mum a couple of years ago), for which we were all obviously scrubbed and brushed and dressed in our best (that dress was finely patterned velveteen in rich blues, greens and purples, still my favourite colours, though I was disinclined towards pretty dresses by then), with a range of expressions from the serious to the hilarious. They are really very nice photos; I often think that Jack was a rather bad photographer of people because his heart wasn't in it, but these are mostly warm and attractive. I don't know what he was saying or doing to amuse us, typically Phil has given way to pure mirth first, but my smile is genuine, if a bit vague. In the next one I am open-mouthed with laughter too.

Mum once said to me when I was in a particularly lugubrious and miserable phase, probably a bit older than I am in this photo: 'You know you can be a depressing person. Philip can drive you mad sometimes but at least he's not depressing'. I know this sounds harsh, I probably was driving her to distraction and I'm really not fishing for sympathy about it! Nevertheless, despite this and the frowning photographs, my abiding memory of childhood, at least where my interactions with Philip were concerned, were largely of this pure merriment that you can see in his face here. Laughter was one of his principal driving forces, along with learning and cleverness; he ruled our television watching like a dictator, (I was scarcely allowed to know of the existence of ITV, only BBC passed muster) but more even than the geeky (the word didn't exist then), improving tenor of Blue Peter and Tomorrow's World, it was the funny stuff that had him yelling up the stairs or down the garden ' Loot! Tom and Jerry/Dad's Army/ Morecambe and Wise...' or whatever. He would get so excited watching something he found particularly uproarious that he would bounce up and down, higher and higher, in his seat, and my dad would say with exasperation 'Pip, can you not do that to the furniture!'

We went through the motions of scrapping, big brother, little sister; physical fights when we were small, in which in fact he was as inhibited as a well brought up puppy, I was rarely hurt and indeed rather relished it if I could claim to be, since as smaller, younger and female I would inevitably get sympathy from everyone else in the family and he would get told off. I never felt unsafe. My sister still laughs and does an imitation of a six-year-old Philip protesting 'Favouwitithm!' when she hauled us apart. (Her other favourite quote from him at this age was when she brought some particularly gifted older design students home from college and they found themselves interviewed by him with intense scrutiny. After they had left he remarked to her 'I didn't know you had such intelligent friends!'). I also remember a time when we were perhaps in our teens, on a caravan holiday, when we decided to have an insult joust; we sat face to face and came up with the most imaginative names we could for each other. I finally called him an amoeba, and he graciously conceded the match to me. And another holiday moment, when we were very little, a warm summer evening when we were out and about, and he said 'Loot, I wish you weren't my sister.' 'Why?' 'Because you're nice.'

Despite my dolorous and tragedy-queen moments, when I was in disgrace with fortune and my classmates' eyes, which led to my mother's comment about our respective characters, I think in many ways I found childhood and school easier than he did. His particular cleverness, his unmoderated excitement which caused him to bounce on the furniture when Jerry got Tom caught in the mousehole and which still distinguishes his speech and manner now, his curly hair, all made him different in a time when I think perhaps it was harder to be different than it is now. But he didn't whinge, he found things to make him laugh, he got cleverer, he went to Cambridge and he married Angela, a mathematician at least as clever as he is. They live, as far as I can tell, happily ever after.

We see each other only now and then, but I think we hold each other in real affection. When I'm around him, I try a bit too hard to be clever and funny.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Ten good things today

I fulfil my pledge to clear three barrow loads of hedge cuttings before lunch, and get rid of a handful of nasty brambles into the bargain, with only minimal scratching for my pains.

Last night's baroque concert turned out not to be really a concert at all, but an excruciating, facetious kind of 'educational' programme about the court of Louis XIV, with about ten minutes of talk to every two of music, though the musicians, clavichord, viola de gamba player and singer, were good. Dutch E, her friend S and I slip away early. It was disappointing not to have enjoyed good music, and I do so enjoy the viola de gamba, but so nice to be home having listened to our inclinations rather than timidity and need to be polite. The relief is still with me today.

I don't get to Quessquitricote because my car is in the garage, having expensively failed its controle technique (two-yearly roadworthiness test). Neither of these thing is good news, but with the aforesaid virtuous garden chores, I feel I am justified in spending time this afternoon knitting.

It rains more and more on our afternoon walk. Elfie is the same colour as the autumn leaves and bracken - or her russet-orange bits are anyway - and snuffs the wind and rain with gusto and runs off-leash for much of the way without buggering off once.

Started some mittens with the leftovers of the Icelandic wool (out of which I made this sweater). It's more purple and red than the picture shows. Adding Latvian braids to them. I love Latvian braids. I love Icelandic wool.

Smell of wet dog.

Glass of rosé.

Japanese rice crackers. With one in one hand and the SD card in the other, I narrowly avoid putting the latter in my mouth instead of the former.

The rain and wind is coming from the north, for a change. This makes it cold, and noisy on the bedroom skylight, but means it will not blow in under the doors and windows.

Pork chops and pink onions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Letter from America

That was a radio programme I grew up with, a weekly fifteen minute broadcast by British born, naturalised American Alastair Cooke, on BBC Radio 4. It began in 1946 (it's roots were even earlier, in the 1930s) and the last one was broadcast in 2004, just a month before Cooke's death at the age of 95, and was the longest running speech radio programme in history. I remember sitting up as a kid on Friday nights, often not really understanding the subject matter, or even really listening for information anyway, but just wondering at and wallowing in Cooke's rich, mellifluous voice, and the crafting of his language, his beautiful, embedded sentences, a perfect balance of discursive and precise.

In the wake of the US election, this week in the Book of the Week slot in the mornings, Radio 4 has commissioned a series of new Letters from America from individual US based writers, today's was by Thomas Chatterton Williams.  He began with this quote from H.L.Mencken, which I imagine is getting quite a bit of airing at the moment:

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

and which caught my attention, but the whole was far more than a petulant or despairing rant against the American electorate and their elected, it was impressive, eloquent, brave and honest, and as beautifully crafted and delivered as anything Cooke did. At fifteen minutes, well worth following the link. The others will doubtless but of high quality too ( can be found from the same R4 page); I've not listened to the Zoe Heller one which they kicked off with, but will do.

There is talk they may revive the regular Letter from America in this format, which would be good. All Cooke's original letters are archived and still available to listen to here.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Autumn groundscapes

The kind of thing I used to do a lot, it's still good to do it.

The winds and rains blowing in, the edges of the storms which are wreaking havoc across the Channel are finally stripping the trees of their foliage, but it's been a very fine autumn.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Garlic chicken

While the garlic chicken is cooking.

Here is the recipe for garlic chicken.

Take one oven ready chicken, large or small.

Make a kind of garlic butter paste, with a lot of crushed garlic, maybe a whole bulb,  not too much butter... OK, quite a bit of butter, and some olive oil, and a chicken stock cube. Some fresh herbs if you wish. Smush it all up with a fork; if it's hard to break down the cube, you can add a little hot water.

Keep some of the garlic cloves back and whole.

Chop up an onion, some shallots too if you like, or little onions you can keep whole. Fry the onion in some olive oil and/or bacon drippings. I always use up bacon drippings, we have bacon sandwiches at lunchtime on Sundays. Sue me or send the food police round, I don't care. You can start with some lardons (chopped streaky bacon) if you like. Oh yes, you have to do this in a big stove-top to oven iron pan, Dutch oven, le Creuset casserole thing, call it what you will. If you don't have one you'll have to adapt, but then it's no longer a one pot meal. You could even make it in a crockpot I suppose.

This recipe is very flexible, the main thing is the crushed garlic butter paste, which you then smear inside the cavity of the chicken, under its skin, anywhere really though perhaps not into you hangnails or any mucus membranes if you can help it. I always get it in my hangnails anyway, it's a winter recipe so the chances are I've got hangnails, I soon find out. And that you keep the chicken whole so the stuff oozes out through the flesh and skin.

When you've sautéd or if possible caramelised the onions quite a bit, put the thoroughly garlicated chicken into the pan and brown all sides.

While these things are happening, peel and chop some carrots and potatoes. Add these, and the whole peeled garlic cloves you've kept back, to the pan round the edges of the chicken which has now finished up breast up. Stir them around a bit, if some get inside the chicken - I have usually removed the string so the bird is very décontracté - so much the better.

When everything's nicely coated top it up with liquid, enough to cover the veg and most of the chicken. What liquid is up to you; the original recipe, for there was one, from a French country cookbook I borrowed from the library back in England, was a very basic affair and just called for water (and no stock cube either), but I use whatever comes to hand, chicken stock from the freezer, wine or cider (best to reduce these a bit), this time I poured in the remainder of some very louche looking home-made pommeau Paul at Kerbiriou sent us home with a couple of visits ago. Smells good anyway.*

Put the lid on the pan and let it really get bubbling hot through.

Transfer it to the oven, with the lid on, or if your lid isn't oven proof you could put foil over it. Leave it to cook, in which time you can wash up all the stuff, watch some telly, do a blog post, whatever. You can have the oven quite hot. It's a very forgiving dish and the longer you cook it the better, though if the chicken's falling apart too much it's a bit tricky to get it out to cut it up, or pull it apart rather.

Take the lid off for the last 15 minutes or so to brown it off a bit.

If you only have a stove top, this can be done entirely on that, though it really is better for an hour or so in the oven.

We eat it from great big soup bowls, quite deep ones; I ladle out the broth first, then the veg, and put the pieces of chicken on top. Tom likes breast and I like leg and so between the two of us we do the Jack Spratt thing.

You can use all kind of other veg in it too, root veg of any kind, and celery is very good. Potatoes are essential because they soak up all the flavours and become very voluptuous. I have done summer versions with tomatoes and peppers and stuff, but really that's a different dish, and I'd say avoid the temptation to put tomato in it; there is altogether too much tomato used in much everyday cookery, or there was. These days I don't buy a tin of tomatoes from one year's end to the next. As I say, it's a winter dish, and needs winter things in it.

If you don't like garlic... well, God bless you, as the song goes.

The oven has just pinged, and Tom is asking how much longer?

* and it was very good, I'm just finishing this after dinner.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A can of worms, and something fluffy to cover it up again

With daily blogging, I've taken occasionally to having a look at my stats information, something I've not done for a very long time. I don't place any importance on or faith in them at all, of course. I'm sometimes a bit curious about referring sites and URLs though; many of them seems to be weird kind of feed, aggregation sites whatever, things I've never understood. A really odd one though, that in the last week, I've had thirty-three referrals from the Spectator, specifically, it seems, their blogs page. This led me to follow the link back to try to find out how this might have happened, how on earth Box Elder could have been linked to from anyone involved with the publication in any way shape or form. This in turn led me to spending rather too much time reading there, which has left my soul abraded*, and I am none the wiser as to how the link came about. I won't put in a link to the Spectator as I feel that would only make things worse. Fortunately they have just told me I need to subscribe to read any more, which will put a stop to my masochism. Though of course there's always the incognito window option, which is a useful way of getting round subscription-free limits (though don't tell anyone I told you and please spare me the moralising about paying for content, mea culpa, etc) and also those times when you can't quite resist reading something somewhere like the Daily Mail or Breitbart but you don't want anyone, not even an algorithm, to know. But be warned, you will still feel dirty. Also, you can't get Adblock.

So, I think I will just raid my Pinterest miscellaneous board to cheer myself up:

Foot Stones. So cute! Now I'll be on the look out for rocks:

always mean to make some of these when I go to the beach, but never remember. We don't have many pebbles like this on our local beaches mind. These are set up and taken by Scottish photographer Iain Blake.

Sagrada Família, Barcelona, Spain. The most incredible artwork in every bit of the construction. Don't skip this if you go to Spain!:

Sagrada Familia. Never been there, may do one day but I don't have much yen to go south any more. (Came via tumblr, but watermarked by the photographer).

Samuel Salcedo:

Samuel Salcedo, apparently.

Street Art:

Street art, can't seem to track this one's origins down. There's some wonderful street art on Pinterest. I wish I had the kind of mind that could see the potential in things like this.

And finally something really cuddly and heartwarming. Hope they've both had their flea drops.

* liberal cry-baby, and proud.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Elfin Friday: keep them doggies rolling

Pick it up

chew it up

Chew it up

Spit it out

Pick it up

Chew it up,



Such a joy to have a dog who takes anything good to chew or eat without fuss, but with glee and appreciation, who doesn't guard or control or toy with but concentrates on and finishes things. One of the benefits of a harder life before perhaps. Yet I could take it out of her mouth without any argument if need be, even though that mouth is full of carpet knives, and she totally looks like a wild beast while she's chewing it.

Our friendly, big-guy gardener who comes to cut the hedges, about whom she gave a rare, deep, warning bark when he loomed up at the French doors, came in and made a great fuss of her, let her jump up, cuddled her and slapped her ribs and told her how beautiful she was, all much to her delight, though she didn't get silly and came over to us for affirmation straight away. Then he started teasing a bit by saying ' où sont les lapins, où est le chat?', and at the word 'chat' she immediately became agitated, looking up at the window and tensing her body. So someone has clearly encouraged anxiety, chasing and predatory behaviour towards cats, which makes it more of a problem to overcome. Similarly when Susie, her trainer, got out a long thin stick to show how she might learn 'touch it' training, such as assistance dogs learn, Elfie perceptibly flinched and ducked. Which makes it all the more remarkable and touching that she is, in general, such a brave, cheerful, adaptable and affectionate dog.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Throwback Thursday - Chapman's Dam

When I was four, in 1966, I went with my parents to stay with my Auntie Joan's family in Pennsylvania. We went there again when I was thirteen, the second time my nearest brother came too, but this first time, my being just a foal at foot and not yet at school, it was just me. I had a lovely time; I was considered cute and a honey, made much of by everyone from the pilot of the Aer Lingus plane that took us there who sat me on his knee in the cockpit (that was possible then), to New York hotel maids and men working on the streets to my teenage American cousins and their buddies. 

The picture was taken at a place we called Chapman's Dam. I just googled it and in fact it's actually Chapman Dam, and is still there, of course. I remember it as a sunny place with little beaches and barbecue and picnic tables. I appear to be being fed marshmallows, probably by my cousin Honey, who was really called Marjy after my mum. I don't know who the little girl behind me was, I vaguely remember another child I was friendly with.

Joan was my mother's only sister, she had gone to live in America at the end of the Second World War, because she was a GI bride. Uncle Lloyd, her husband, who for some reason we often knew as Uncle Kit, had been stationed in Northamptonshire where the Cutmores (my mum's family) then lived, he also went to France, maybe for the Normandy landings, I should probably know more about where, when and how as one of my American cousins has been researching it and even made it over here very briefly in the last year or so but I didn't get to see him, but I forget the details. I think Lloyd finished up in Brest so he must have been through Brittany, and thus the cross-hatching of historical coincidence shows itself again there in a small way.

This was the first time the two sisters had seen each other in that time, twenty years almost exactly. It was certainly an exciting thing for them. As always there was, well, history: little bits of grit of bitterness, rivalry, jealousy, diverging accounts of How Things Happened, hurt and soreness around my Gran, their mother, and how she saw and treated each of them. It was wartime and a hard time for all of them, and everyone too sad and reproachful to easily see the other's point of view.  Yet the two sisters supported each other too, made clothes and food and were company for each other and their children, they named their daughters after each other. Joan was altogether a sweeter, easier person than my mum, less sharp (in both senses), more rounded at the corners; once when we talked about her, after the second visit, Mum said she saw her besetting sin as a kind of laziness. She didn't mean idleness, Joan was hardworking, creative, resourceful, handy and outgoing, as Mum would have been the first to acknowledge, but I think she saw in her a kind of complacency, a deeper rooted shiftlessness which didn't try to analyse or criticise or change things much. More kindly it might be seen as acceptance, patience, a sanguine temperament. But Mum not being like that herself, didn't see it like that. 

I loved being in America, both times. My impression of life there was of abundance, though Joan and Lloyd were always quite poor, I think, financially and lived rather hand to mouth. Yet there was a pile of toys for me when I got there, looked out from the attic or donated by friends of the family, which were wonderfully different from anything I'd seen at home, someone bought me some guppies which swam around in a glass vase on the windowsill much to my fascination, there were chickens and dogs, and somewhere else, some friends' farm I think, maybe the family which my eldest cousin finally married into, where there were piles of young puppies and kittens I was allowed to stroke, and an old blind man who asked to be allowed to touch my face to see me with his hands, which I also liked. There was open house at weekends (I think that was more the second time) with huge amounts of food cooked and served, most of it home grown, and when my mum queried whether it was quite reasonable that so many people should descend on the place expecting to be fed, Joan was quite affronted. 

They visited us a couple of times afterwards, including to come for Az's wedding when I was fifteen. Joan died about ten years ago. We had kept in touch on and off; I rang her when my Mum died, perhaps ten years before, and she told me I was a brave girl to make that call. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Return of the stuff monster

This is what our beautifully cleared, cleaned, repainted and re-staired hallway looked like a few days ago, and a short time after I took the photos of it in a previous post. The man from le pressing, the dry cleaners, dropped off all the clothes, bedding, soft furnishings, carpets that he had taken away two days after the fire, cramming it all astonishingly into a small van, and then doing so again to bring it back again.

There were things I had quite forgotten about, clothes which were lying around the bedroom or else on the clothes airer on the landing, a car seat cover I must have washed, humongous amounts of spare bedding stored in the spare rooms that bore the brunt of the smoke damage. There were many things, such as our winter jackets that were hanging in the hall, and the light, sleeveless many-pocketed walking waistcoats, which we had rather missed, especially as the chillier weather drew on. 

Yet I haven't been able to rejoice in the return of this stuff as much as I expected. It wasn't just the work of sorting it out, that is more or less done now. It was the sense of the weight and clutter of stuff descending on us again; I'd got used to managing with less. The new parquet looks rather nice without rugs on it. Do we really need all that spare bedding for the luxury of changing our own coverings as we fancy with the seasons, and the maybe once yearly visits of friends and family? Should I decide once and for all I am never going to wear that shade of red again and get rid of that jacket or not? How many old fleecy blankets does Elfie really need? Even wrapping up for colder walks in our comparatively mild Brittany climate seems to be adequately served by fleeces and sweaters covered with waterproofs and topped with scarves, gloves and other knitwear accessories, rather than such a selection of padded and weatherproof overcoats.

The purging energy that enabled us to cull our belongings so ruthlessly through our itinerant summer seems to have rather deserted us, indecision is taking hold, perhaps too with the recognition that what with the inevitable costs the insurance didn't cover, exchange rate fluctuations (' and fluc you Europeans too!*') financial uncertainty on both micro and macro levels, we won't be able afford to ditch everything and start again, even if that were a good thing to do. The Bonfire of the Vanities is rather guttering out, I fear.

The main cause of inhibition, though, is the absolutely beautiful job they've made of it. According to their claims, without noxious solvents and in an ecologically friendly way, they have returned our textiles to us in such immaculate, crisp, pristine condition, it nigh breaks my heart to get any of it out of the wrappers and get it all dirty and crumpled and hairy again. Even an old waterproof, bought at Milletts in the UK at least twenty-five years ago, which we have both worn for every kind of rough work - exterior painting, cement mixing, compost shifting, tree surgery...  has come back sleek and folded and, gosh yes, it was blue wasn't it?! (It is also the only waterproof with a zip that never stuck, broke or split up from the bottom in that annoying way, so it deserves to be kept).

I feel somehow unworthy of all this newly emerged freshness, and that I should perhaps save it for another stage of life. So while it has been sorted and stored, and a certain amount successfully culled, much of it is staying in its plastic for now.

*  the Japanese lady and the bank teller, if you must know. I heard it in New Zealand as 'Europeans' rather than 'white people', and prefer it thus. Pace anyone who might be offended.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A cheating post

I'm going to cheat today, and not post anything new, but suggest instead you go over and read Robbie's original post that inspired my last one, and Polish Chick's beautiful take on it, if you've not done so already.

Otherwise here's an edited seascape of the Bay of Douarnenez from 2011.

Monday, November 14, 2016

A memory meme

In the face of the persistent despair of the world we are labouring with, it's no bad thing to find somewhere else to go; in a post called 'Bolt Holes', Robbie has done just that, and conjured up seven warm, bright, sharply observed and remembered scenes, like seven toning but unique beads on a string, well-lived moments, reasons to be cheerful, grateful, evidence of the dearness of people, books, music, loved long or briefly encountered, and the potential sweetness of life, and most of all, of a wonderful and well appreciated marriage. Treasurable stuff.

It seems to me this ought to be a meme, remember those? That it would be a helpful and heartening thing for others to pick up and think on, and share their own similar recollections.

Yet when I set myself to try to do it, it was difficult. Because, as I've noted before, I am not good at remembering the good. I don't know why this should be, I have, and indeed have had, so much so good in my life; I experience intense, blessed moments every day, even on bad days, which I am always aware of and glad of at the time, yet memories so often end up qualified, coloured, clouded by hindsight and doubt, to be set in a 'yes, but...' context, with an inner, destructive critical voice telling me they weren't really good times at all, I was kidding myself. Arguments about the evils or otherwise of nostalgia seem irrelevant or ironic, I often wish I could connect more positively and rosily with the past. When I want somewhere to bolt, it tends to be into the future, if anywhere, albeit in ways that are either trivial or fantasy, like thinking up knitting projects or dreaming of a small, bright, problem-free home by the river, or into fiction.

Or else the good memories are simply fugitive; I find it hard to connect, to recognise myself as the person years ago who had those experiences. And the continuing moments of joy, satisfaction and gratitude I know I have, which I often dearly wish I could retain in my mind, fly forgotten as a dream. Perhaps that's just the nature of those moments. It's one reason why blogging has been helpful, writing things down solidifies them, helps one remember, or if not, the written record is there for the reading.

All of which is a good reason, along with lighting a candle as darkness presses in from the wider world, to try to find and hold the good moments that have happened, to see them again and cherish them. Life is too precious, too uncertain to dismiss it so wantonly. Here goes:

~ I am sitting cross-legged in the sun on the dark brown, shiny parquet floor in of my glass-walled Hertfordshire Modern primary school, and it occurs to me with surprise and satisfaction, that I am me and everyone else is everyone else. I suppose I am about five.

~ We stop on the way back from Wales, I think, to climb the Malvern hills; I have never known such a thing as the view from their slopes. Perhaps ten years later, when I am nineteen, I climb them regularly, and with surprising ease, on a heavy bike without gears, and the view still thrills me. It doubtless still would now.

~ I have arrived in Paris by coach in the very early morning, late spring, to catch a train to visit my old friend who is doing her student year abroad in Blois. I hitch up with an awkward and shy, plump and bespectacled boy of my own age, who has come on his own for a weekend in Paris. His lodgings aren't open yet, and my train leaves from the other side of town much later, and we walk the breadth of Paris, over Montmartre and across the river, take coffee in a café as the city is coming to life, then go our ways. I know little about the city, have no preconceptions, there is no romance or even potential friendship between the boy and me, just passing companionship, and young legs.

~ I am lying on the warm hearthrug in a bed and breakfast on the island of Iona, dozing after an overnight journey by bus and boat, with eider ducks bobbing on the sea outside the windows. Later I sit for hours in the evening on a low seat in a side chapel of the Abbey, a space bright and warm with textiles and candles, engaged in something - meditation, prayer, talking to my (higher?) self - which is profoundly calm, effortless and real to me. It is a purposely solitary trip I have made here,  but love is waiting behind.

~ We, Tom and I, are driving through the Loire Valley to the Perigord, we are just married. We stop in Montreuil-Bellay. The shower in the hotel (not a very friendly place) is a blue plastic tube, but very pleasant, and later we walk down to the river, where I eat a salad of duck gizzards and we drink Loire rosé for the first time. 'Strawberries!' I exclaim at the first mouthful with unsophisticated delight.

~ Molly, six weeks old, comes wriggling towards us across the tiled floor, piddling as she goes. 'She's heavenly,'  says Tom, with certainty.

~ Emily, his granddaughter, at a pretty fourteen, has an oyster from Tom's plate. 'Keep going' he tells her as she hesitates. She swallows it and grins. 'I like them!' A smart middle-aged French couple at the next table beam at her approvingly. 'Her first?' they ask.

~ The Rijksmuseum tires us rather easily, but at Jessie's and Jantien's flat a couple of blocks away, there is wine and lentil curry and eager conversation, and they walk us back across to the Concertgebouw, where the massed double basses promise, and deliver, a riproaring Schostakovitch symphony.


So, it wasn't so hard at all, and there's even one more for good measure. When it came to it, I could think of many more, from many phases of my life, but these are the ones I chose. Try it yourselves.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

'I would not give you false hope, on this strange and mournful day...'

Walking back through the November twilight, waved at my 95 year old friend at his window, it's a little cold these days for him to lean on the gate to chat. I pulled a sprig of bay leaves from his tree to add one to tonight's dinner; we have them in our garden but I wanted them there and then. I feel reluctant to take our late walk these dwindling afternoons, and yet when I do I'm always glad of it, the evening gentle, redolent, somewhat melancholy, full of low light and good smells for a dog, and we always walk further than I think we will.

I remembered a bit in 'Diana of the Crossways', a book I read a couple of chapters of for Librivox, and which I found a trial. I must get back to recording for Librivox, and walking dogs for the SPA, and other socially useful activities. Diana and Redworth return from the Crossways, she unwillingly having had her flight from disgrace forestalled, through a November evening, and she says that now she understands now why he always takes his holidays in November, which pleases him because she has not only remembered but also understood a detail of his life. A nice detail of a tedious book remembered vividly. That sometimes happens.

This has been going through my head lately.

(Worth hanging around on Youtube afterwards to hear other selected Paul Simon stuff: 'Slip sliding away', 'Loves me like a rock', 'Me and Julio' etc, I remembered Az singing that one to me, and other things.)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Bonfire of the vanities: losing my marbles

The marbles I bought for the blue room. Because they were pretty, cheap, fun, whimsical, throwaway trinkets and knickknacks.  From time to time I would slosh them about in soapy water, dry them and rearrange them in different glass and ceramic receptacles.  

When the time came to sort through stuff, it seemed to me that to treasure and hoard them and feel obliged to carry them through life would be a mistake and somehow against the spirit of marbles. I needed to part with them. I asked Iso if the Princeling, now nine years old, cared for marbles. I knew French kids still often played and treasured les billes.

Indeed he did, she said, and they were the only toys they were allowed to take into school.

I took a plain piece of the cotton fabric pieces that HHB had sent me, knitted a length of i-cord, and made a drawstring bag for them, and passed them on.

'He could lose them, you know,'  Tom warned 'playing marbles is basically gambling.'

'They're beautiful, like jewels!' Iso, Princeling's mum exclaimed, when I gave them to her to give to him, 'I might have to keep them, not let him have them...'

That was a couple of months ago. Today we received a hand made card, with rainbows and kisses painted on it, and a careful message in English, in French cursive script, thanking me for the marbles and also for the jumper I knitted for his birthday - It's all hot. I love it* - a kind of gansey type thing which I didn't photograph before giving it to him, but it's this pattern, in a rather sober, grown-up, grey-green wool/alpaca blend which I hope isn't too drab, he's a chap who likes colour. I don't know if Iso had kept the marbles until his birthday, and I don't know if he will take them to school and be prepared to risk them all at one turn of pitch and toss. I rather hope so, if he wants to, and that they won't be too much of a treasure and a source of gratitude, obligation and anxiety, and that he'll romp and play in the jumper, dirty it, hole it and scuff it up until he grows out of it.

*chaud being both hot and warm, he has always tended to think in French and translate, so 'is it yours?' was expressed as ' is it at you?' a literal translation of 'est-ce que c'est à toi?'

Friday, November 11, 2016

Elfin Friday - socks

She likes our feet, she seems to regard them as puppies in need of cuddling, washing if bare (right in between the toes, an ordeal for the ticklish) and generally grooming. The socks Tom is wearing in the picutre above have seen better days, but they're quite a popular pair so I darned them with some blueish print sock yarn, as you may just see, part of my personal visible mending project. However, as you can also see, they continue to pill, and yesterday Elfie was assiduously nibbling at and pulling off the pills, spitting them out rather as she does goose grass and other seeds in her own fur.

Funny dog.