Tuesday, April 15, 2014

If you go down in the woods...


A letter came a week or so ago from ASPAS, an association we belong to because we (mostly) hate hunters, saying they were setting up a new wildlife refuge in our department, and would we like to go along on at the weekend and help put up signs and such like.

We have, I'm afraid to say, become somewhat wary of most initiatives involving la vie associative in this land where we are very happy to live, since frequently they are disorganised, unpunctual and involve lengthy bouts of tangential discussion before anything can begin. This doesn't bother me quite so much as it does Tom who dislikes disorganisation and likes to get on with things once embarked; I don't mind that impatience is so markedly absent from provincial life here, and we've developed strategies, taking books, cushions, refreshments etc, but it can be a little trying. However, I fancied getting involved, but it was a long way on big roads - most of the way to Lannion - so I wasn't very keen to go on my own, and asking anyone else if they wanted to join me meant being dependent on and/or responsible for them, their transport, boredom levels and general comfort, which is another difficult area. So Tom girded up his loins, sat a while with his anticipated impatience and agreed to come along.

There was a list of equipment which we would or might need; I concentrated on small items we would be likely to need ourselves - gloves, boots, hammers - rather than anything that might either end up being an encumbrance or be lent to anyone else so we'd have to get it back before we could leave - saws, chainsaws (we don't have one anyway), ladders etc. I was teaching in the morning so we were a little late, twenty minutes or so, many people were already gathered at the rendez-vous point but no one seemed to be forming a nexus.  After a little a woman took a text message and said that the organisers would be later still, they'd lost their way.  Tom grumbled mildly, but we perceived during this time that there was another English couple, who had brought their chainsaw and were looking a little more fractious.

Finally the organisers turned up, laughing, blamed GPS failure, although they'd sent us maps by e-mail which were perfectly easy to follow. They were bright and pleasant, distributed no hunting and no fishing signs and nails, and there were discussions and digressions about how best to put nails into trees, why galvanised nails were best, and, a couple of times, to establish the exact local pronunciation of the name of the river that ran through the reserve. We wandered off through the woods a way, gathered in front of an ASPAS chap who nailed up the first sign symbolically and posed for photos. We then expected to be divided up into relays so as to cover the whole of the area effectively and avoid duplication, but this didn't happen, no one seemed to have much idea of the extent of the reserve (part of the estate of a local château whose owner had requested ASPAS take it under their jurisdiction) so we all just set off at once with no particular plan except that we should put up the signs roughly every forty metres.  Since we were all covering the same stretch of ground we ended up duplicating anyway, often putting up a sign then noticing someone had already put one up a few yards away, and since we didn't know how far we were going, and there seemed to be fewer nails than signs, we all ran out long before the end of the reserve which we never came to, then everybody simply dispersed and disappeared, so we made our own way back to the car park, had the orange juice and Mars bar I'd brought, and went home.

The funny thing was though, I think we must be becoming quasi-assimilated, perish the thought, because neither of us gave a monkey's, we had a lovely afternoon.  It was a beautiful spot, a wide river edged with sand and scattered with big romantic rocks, banked by sloping mixed woodland, and plantations of broody dark fir trees and coppery, sweet smelling poplars. Tom bounded ahead, hammer in hand, scrambling over undergrowth, halfway up tree trunks and hanging over the water to find the most prominent and inaccessible places to nail signs, finished up at one point over his ankles in river mud and grinning like a truanting schoolboy, all most out of character. I handed him signs and nails and stood dreaming into the twinkling river light snuffing up great lungfuls of fresh air redolent with wild garlic, poplar balsam, pine bark and general oozy earthy damp springiness, exchanging odd words with whoever passed by or we passed: a cheerful ASPAS official who was chasing off a trio of refractory fishermen with philosophical arguments, a bossy woman who didn't have any more idea what was going on than anyone but was pretending she did, a pretty young couple who looked like a faun and a dryad who quickly used up their signs and spent the rest of the walk skipping and jumping and lounging around on fallen trees, and a much pierced hippy couple (not of the party) and their dogs who were foraging the wild garlic to make pesto. I haven't felt so light-hearted for quite a while.

As we were preparing to leave, the other English couple also returned, still lugging their unused chainsaw and looking fairly tired and grumpy.  Quite a long walk, I remarked.

''Tis when you're carrying a bloody chainsaw,' he grumbled 'bloody ridiculous!'
'Not very well organised,' she said.

They were right, of course, only we'd forgotten. We quickly pulled our faces straight and agreed with them. Don't know what came over us.

I omitted to take the camera, but in fact we rather had our hands full and it might have been a distraction from the pleasure of the outing. I brought back a big bunch of wild garlic leaves and flowers, though, which I put on the kitchen window sill and have had the time and leisure to get more intimate with.  This was the first time I've seen, and of course smelled, this most delightful of edible wild plants since we've lived here, though I've a small patch of it, from a bought specimen, coming on in the garden. An elegant and vivid plant, its wide, lustrous leaves and little star flowers carpet and spangle moist woodlands before the bluebells come, and its allium pungency fills the air.  As far as I'm concerned, you can keep your lily-of-the-valley, give me a bouquet of wild garlic any time.


As a child I always wanted to know how one could prepare and eat it, but no one seemed to have any idea about doing so, neither wild food nor the taste of garlic were very widely accepted in England at that time. Since then it has become a highly fashionable and sought after ingredient, posh chefs and restaurants use it all the time, bunches of it sell well at farmers' markets. This recognition is deserved, there really aren't many savoury dishes you can't add it too; so far we've had it with sauté courgettes and chicken fricassee, but it can go into salads, pasta (as pesto or straight), risotto, soups, sauces... It has a milder garlic flavour than the bulb.







It's also known as ramsons, and other things besides, including, it seems, bear's garlic, which corresponds to the French ail des ours, its Latin name allium ursinam, and I think its name in most European languages.  I rather like the idea of bears eating it, but we didn't see any while we were out, though the hippy couple's elderly dogs, who were lying around in it very contentedly, looked a little like small black bears.


















We said we'd try to get back to the reserve sometimes to walk and observe, so I'll try to take the camera another time.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gare du Nord, language and Üsküdara


At the Gare du Nord


The piano, a classic upright, was in the middle of the concourse, free to anyone to play.  The two little girls weren't playing anything properly, just tinkling around, but the acoustics were good and the sound floated out and all around the arches and ironwork and up the escalators, it was rather lovely.

~


  • Words that exist but I'm not sure I want to use them, and words that I'm not sure exist but I want them to:

A couple that have gained currency in this, the Age of Counselling:

Affirm, affirming, affirmation.

John: You have a girlfriend! ... care to elaborate?
Sherlock: Well, we're in a good place. It's um... very affirming.
John: You got that from a book!
Sherlock: Everyone got that from a book.

Maybe I quite like feeling affirmed.  Maybe I'm not sure I should.

Conflicted.  Conflict, as a verb, as in - this conflicts with that -  has been around forever and is fine; I'm quite easy with verbing nouns, on the whole, though 'impacts on' always grates a bit. It's the use of 'conflicted' as an adjective to describe a feeling that seems rather buzzy and uncomfortable. Yet it is a state of mind it's quite difficult to convey in other words, although 'torn' is perhaps as good as anything. I think I am somewhat conflicted about the word 'conflicted'.

But I'm difficult like that.  I try quite hard to avoid 'empathy', though I have sympathy with the sense of it.

I lived through too much of my life before knowing of the term 'straw man fallacy', so was more easily made a victim of it, or indeed more likely to practise it. What, though, is the expression, for when a person injures another, then makes such a show of their remorse and humiliation at having done so as to make themselves appear the injured party and have the tables of sympathy turned in their favour?  Heaven knows, we've all done it or had it done to us, there really ought to be a term for it.


  • Other reflections on language:

The perfect tense. I have spent much time trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to explain its nuances to French speakers who use it too much and wrongly, and often I have ended up advising them to avoid it and stay with the simple past, which isn't easy for them.  But lately I have noticed how helpful its graceful, two-part tying of the past to the present can be.

Grant me chastity and continence from the wilfully profligate over-use of adjectives and adverbs, but not yet.

~

Some of you might enjoy this, it's only ten minutes or so.  The song, Üsküdara, is Turkish in origin, from the days of the Ottomans, but has spread over all the Mediterranean and beyond, so there are Sephardic, Balkan, Greek and perhaps even Hungarian versions, it seems Eartha Kitt even sang it, though I've not heard that, and yes, there was a line of the melody in Boney M's Ra-ra-Rasputin.  This version, by beloved Hesperion XXI, is performed in a very fine Lutheran church in Copenhagen.  


About four minutes in, the singing moves to a recording of the late Montserrat Figueras, which the live musicians continue to accompany.  Hesperion do this quite a bit, I gather, I don't know how long they will continue to do so.  It's perhaps a little manipulative the way the camera closes on Jordi Savall as he listens to then joins his playing to his dead wife's voice, and of course he doesn't weep, he's heard and rehearsed it a thousand times and he's a professional, but the sorrow and love on his beautiful and expressive face is moving to see, nevertheless, and Montserrat's voice is sublime as ever. 

There's a very good article and interview about Savall here.

(I spent ages trying to work out how to embed the video, since Youtube no longer seem to show the HTML code to do so under the 'share' tab, in fact I don't really know why they still have a 'share' tab, as nothing comes up when you click it.  In fact you can embed any Youtube video by using the icon on the blogger toolbar thing. They really do make everything so easy, as long as you do everything on a Google subsidiary of course.) 

Monday, April 07, 2014

Sulky, or not.


For our hearts' sake, and that of our spirits and minds and legs and lungs too, we try, of late, to get to the beach on Sundays. Molly still gets quite excited about going out in the car, but when we get there she doesn't want to walk much, so she has five minutes potter round the edge of the car park and takes in a few smells, then happily hops back in the car and settles down to sleep, while we walk.  It works quite well; she has the pleasure of a ride in the car, we get the exercise, and also we hope, perhaps vainly, that we are rather practising and preparing for a time without her. 

We could of course go pretty much any day, but we've fallen into a somewhat old-fashioned pattern of the Sunday drive, and I rather like it. If you get out before about three there aren't too many people, but in fact, not being short of peace and quiet in general, I don't mind being among other people busy about their leisure activities. Although yesterday it was kite surfers.  I quite like the shape of the coloured kites against the sea and sky, but as with other surfers and many other sporty people I'm afraid, I don't much care for the practitioners' braying gregariousness and crowding physicality, and it seems to me most of them spend more time hanging around on the beach fiddling with their equipment and talking a lot than they do executing interesting moves on the water. Never mind, room enough for everyone, we were quickly able to put space between them and us.

The week before, though, we were out in the morning and the tide was still a way out, and the surfers hadn't surfaced yet, but the pêcheurs à pied had,


and so had the sulky drivers.



 I always imagined 'sulky' here must be some borrowing from the Hindi from the days of the Raj or something, but now I learn that it is, literally, about being sulky; since the traps are single seaters and fast moving, they are suited to sulky people who prefer to be alone, an etymology I find quite appealing.  These two equipages however, who made several circuits around us over the length of the beach, seemed to give the lie to that idea.


The drivers were very proficient in the way they handled their vehicles and horses, and though they went at a fair clip, they kept close together throughout and maintained a steady flow of relaxed conversation.




 It was hard not to have the impression that the horses were doing likewise, they seemed very attuned,


Made me think of Black Beauty and Ginger. Poor Ginger.  Do little girls still read Black Beauty?


This fellow is much more withdrawn, maintaining a stony silence.  You have to catch him at the right moment to notice him at all. I feel he is quite benign though.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Back


Truthfully I feel a bit of a fraud, and very humbled.  There I was as if I was doing something arduous making the trip, and really all I had to do was roll out of bed a bit early, into the shower, and thenceforward put myself into the hands of competent and caring people, many of whom had got up nearly as early as I had and been a great deal more active in making sure I was ferried about, met, ferried about some more, fed, watered, welcomed, hugged, swept up and mopped up and generally allowed to bask in the warmth of human goodness.

My awareness of this was made even more acute when I met Clare and Tristan, sitting in a shy aura of sweetness on a bench away from the throng at the crematorium, where I was easily able to catch their eyes and knew instantly who they were.  They too made much of me for getting there, then nonchalantly mentioned that they had both been up earlier than I had, at about 2.30: Clare to spoon Calpol into her sick children in the hopes of some kind of night's rest so she might get away that afternoon, and Tristan to start his round in his big truck, which was parked out the back, even earlier than usual in order to be able to make it on time. This un-boasted and un-fêted heroism without doubt put my efforts in the shade.

In fact the three o'clock rising, four o'clock leaving was a far larger time allowance than necessary, but St Brieuc being the terminus in this case, the train was there and open, nearly empty but with one or two other passengers and the guard not too deserted.  It filled up at Rennes; a graceful young woman in a Breton striped t-shirt sat next to me, folded her hands in her lap, closed her eyes and remained that way, not sleeping but straight-backed and completely still for the remaining two hours of the journey.  A peaceful quiet prevailed, no mobile phones (their use banned in all French trains at all times except at the doorway ends of the carriages), no crackling food wrappers, scarcely even any laptops in use. I dismissed the thought of the cereal bars and fruit juice in my bag overhead, read a little, closed my eyes a little, and otherwise watched the light gradually strengthen over Normandy, the upper Loire country and the vast flatlands before Paris.

I had leftover Metro tickets given to me by Dutch E which hastened my progress across the city, time to loiter a little at the Gare du Nord and take some pictures, was swept up into the Eurostar by pleasant staff and given bread rolls and pains chocolats and orange juice and fromage frais and plenty of coffee. Alighting in next to no time into the (at that time) sepulchrally deserted platforms and passageways of Ashford International station, RR and VR, who must also have got up considerably earlier than they would otherwise have had to in order to be there then, met me with hugs and smiles and installed me in the front seat of their extremely comfortable vehicle, and we drove through pretty Kent lanes lined with pretty clapboard cottages and four-wheel drive cars half the size of the cottages, sprinkled with oast houses and ancient churches and pubs restaurants painted in Farrow and Ball colours, a couple of which we stopped at for coffee and food and officially designated Rustic Beer, before proceeding to Tunbridge Wells.

And, despite the sinking feeling that came on arriving at the crematorium, when the knowledge of why I was really there which had never actually been absent but which I had been able to put to one side for a time presented itself afresh, everything continued as I had dared to hope it might, only many times more so. For the service there was Satie's Gymnopédie and The Lark Ascending, Joe's children Toby and Pippa read Roy Campbell's translation of Baudelaire's Voyage  (it is there in the link, you need to scroll down about a third of the way) and one of Joe's Explorers sonnets, (the one his brother Ken/Lucas posted here immediately after his death) and seeing the book with the familiar photo of a misty bleak New Zealand beachscape on the cover made me feel all proud and wobbly. The kindly celebrant, who had also conducted Heidi's funeral so little time ago, quoted Proust's lovely 'people do not die for us immediately...' words and we all enjoyed a collective wince when she pronounced him Prowst. As well as a recent photo of Joe on the front of the booklet, there was a black and white one from much longer ago which Pippa had lately found in a box where he's holding his pipe and looking gorgeous and impossibly glamorous and it looks like it really should have been on an old burnt orange Penguin book cover or similar; Clare and I exchanged a smile when the elderly neighbour behind us exclaimed aloud 'Wasn't he a good-looking man!'

The same neighbour broke into spontaneous applause when Robbie finished his address; conventional notions of appropriateness prevailed and it wasn't taken up, which was a damn shame because it should have been. I won't try too hard to represent his words here, but he as well as sharing some of the stories he himself posted here and here, as well as quoting from Ellena's comment on the second of them:

I can feel how sorely Mr. Hyam is missed by many of us - the blessed ones who knew him personally and all of us who read his daily posts. 
Humility, passion, humour, compassion & empathy, decency - are some of the parts of this man that spoke to me when reading his posts ... His passing has provoked a deep reflection on what traces I myself will leave behind.
May our traces be as worthy as Mr.Hyam's and the memories as precious.

and from Joe's own final post:

Cheerfulness is my chief object in life even when it seems to be a fleeting virtue. I find myself hoping that people will make allowances for its present frailty.

Tristan lingered in the chapel a few moments discreetly to take the photo for a post as eloquent as anything I can say here; we filed out into a kind of water garden, I looked behind once and he was there, again and he wasn't. I was sorry to miss him, but being a seasoned practitioner myself of the art of filer à l'anglaise, I understand sometimes it's what you have to do. Clare said she'd take the opportunity for a walk and some air and make her own way through Tunbridge Wells back to the house, and I quickly hooked up with her.  We walked and walked, and spoke of how grief is seldom one grief only but contains many others within it, of the warm red brick pavements of the town and their many patterns and how they splash your legs on wet days, of how The Grove had become like a character in Joe's writing, and more besides. We saw Tristan's big truck disappearing into the distance and waved wildly. Clare is a brisk walker, a thing I appreciate, and we still arrived at the house before things were ready for the gathering, so we walked a bit more and looked in on Nick and Alec and Bettany to make sure they were all right. By the time we reached the house again the party was in full swing, and the house very packed. Such occasions, I've observed, are often quite jolly, this one was particularly lively, which somehow didn't surprise me.

We checked in to the hotel just out of town before meeting again for dinner, the pleasant managing girl at the desk asked with formulaic cheeriness 'Have you had an enjoyable day today?'. Mmm. After a moment of adjustment Robbie explained our reason for being there.  'Oh dear,' she said 'foot-in-mouth time'. Well yes, I said, but having said that...

We went to dinner in the centre of town with Pippa and Toby and Joe's cousin Nigel, sadly Ken and Joyce weren't there, but happily I'd been able to talk to Ken earlier.  The second choice of pub restaurant, it seems, as, according to an apocryphal rumour that was circulating, Joe and Heidi had had themselves barred from the first choice for being 'difficult'. Finding this hard to believe, we came to the consensus that in fact they'd probably barred themselves, though I did recall Joe grumbling mildly about somewhere which had gone downhill badly in his eyes, which had 'all been taken over by accountants and become the kind of place they count the whitebait'.

I can't really express how touched and grateful and, in an odd, poignant but very deep way, happy I felt and still feel at the grace, gentleness, understanding, generosity and loving kindness that surrounded me that day; I hope and believe I will be able to call up the memory of it until the end of my days and wrap it round me. Much, more than I could ever have imagined, was directed at me personally, but it was palpable everywhere. It wasn't only the assured, articulate, fine, impressive people  (and there were some awesomely fine ones there, both Hyams and Bushes - Heidi and her daughters - are singularly, strikingly good-looking families) who moved and affected me, but also the gentle, more fragile and vulnerable souls - who might, at times, have been the same people. I think I can say that I have rarely if ever, been more straightforwardly sad to lose anyone than Joe, nor that I have ever felt better about being at anyone's funeral.

After more hugs and thanks and well-wishing on the pavement, an Albanian taxi driver, initially guarded but later warming to Robbie's questioning about his homeland, took us back to the Hotel Mercure. The Robinsons proposed a nightcap, but on turning to me to do so, beheld a sorry, lachrymose and sodden sight; which they wrapped in yet further hugs and kindness and packed off to bed.  Robbie was initially concerned that my state somehow signified a failure in his responsibility of care to me, which he seemed to think, bless him, entailed a necessity to protect me from any affective consequence of being there.  However, I think between us VR and I have convinced him that this is so far from being the point as to be its opposite.

The snowy tub in the Mercure bathroom contained just about enough space and hot water to hold and wash away all the tears I had to shed, and the snowy bed was soft and downy and cosy enough to ensure five hours good sleep, which was more than enough to ensure I rose bright and refreshed enough for the return trip.

Ashford station was considerably busier with passengers heading out to France at a weekend, and the train was more crowded and less luxurious, but the journey passed quickly enough, all connections were made, and I had a double seat to myself most of the way back to Brittany.  The sight of the familiar, solid pretty villas round the station at Lamballe, and the little town gardens on the approach to St Brieuc, made me feel grounded and secure and home again, the French provincial disregard for haste and space reasserted itself as everyone got in everyone else's way kissing and chatting and fumbling about with their luggage and no one getting impatient, Tom was on the platform and Molly gave me a slurp from the back seat.  Nothing disastrous or even messy had happened. There were wonderful Indian lamb and potato dishes for dinner, and we propped the service sheet with its picture of Joe on the table, and toasted him in curry.

~

Please read:

Robbie's account of the day is here,
Tristan's post is here,
Clare's tribute to Joe is here, and her post for the day is here,



Thursday, March 27, 2014

Eve of departure, and the Moncontour magnolia.


Little more I can do now: the alarm is set for 3 am tomorrow morning; I have cereal bars and fruit juice and Kendal Mint Cake and books on the Kindle; I have packed everything I can, unpacked most of it at least once because I still needed it and packed it again, written extensive notes to myself about things I have done perfectly easily before or could very easily have kept in even my increasingly sieve-like head anyway, emptied everything that needs emptying and charged everything that needs charging, written my will... 

Molly has extra meat for tomorrow's dinner and Tom has been given special dispensation to have a Mars bar for breakfast on the way back from the station at 5 am.

On the way back from further last minute provisioning (done at least in part to give Mol a ride in the car to distract her from rolling furiously and indignantly on the carpet having had her ears cleaned, another job that couldn't possibly wait till I got back, after all, that moment, just 36 hours after my departure, will be a world away), I decided to do something I have been meaning to do every spring for the last seven years, that is, photograph the magnolia tree in flower on the ramparts of Moncontour. 

This isn't such a difficult thing to do, but difficult enough, since a clear view to it can only be obtained from a point on a fairly narrow winding road up the hill away from the town where stopping the car is very dangerous - not that this prevents smitten tourists, sometimes in camping cars, from doing so anyway.  Since the only place you can safely stop and park is several hundred meters further back up the hill, and there's no easy turning, I hardly ever think to do so in time, at least not when I have the camera with me. Anyone who knows a magnolia tree knows that their moment of early spring glory is a brief one, and year after year I've failed to get around to taking the photos.  This time, though, I thought to do so in advance, 

 And since to look at things in bloom,
Fifty Springs is little room...

Sadly, it was not a very bright spring day and rather too late in the morning, so the contrast of lights and shadows which show the picturesquely irregular shapes and planes of the ancient town's walls and roofs to best advantage, and which seem to make the magnolia stand out all grand and emblazoned and Tree-of-Gondor-like, was absent, but you can't have everything. And perhaps that perception of the tree is enhanced by the way it rather flashes upon the eye, surprising every time.  


In the long view it's scarcely noticeable, in fact.


The yellow specks on the walls below it are primroses.



The one above caught the great flocks of jackdaws and pigeons which swirl around the old bell tower, built by the Spanish in the Wars of Religion in the 16th century. These birds are a perpetual headache in terms of their destructiveness, since all they want to do is roost and poo all over said tower, which was lately restored at great expense of time and money by a special firm of scaffolders and builders from Provence who specialise in such lofty edifices, but they are very much a part of the atmosphere of the place.


By approaching on foot, and by climbing up on a wall and focussing the camera between trees, I found there was another spot with a view onto it.  The higher eye-level shows more interest in the roof shapes, but also the rather dour modern extension to the old religious hospital building on the hill behind.

Unlike Houseman's narrator, I've had my fifty springs, rather than anticipating them. It seems important to try to get round to at a few of the things one hasn't got round to yet, at least some of the smaller ones even if the bigger ones remain out of reach, and even if they don't quite stand out as brightly in reality as they are in the mind.  As a dear friend said, now's the time.





Thursday, March 20, 2014

Joe, and a harebrained scheme if ever there was one


At first the possibility of attending Joe's funeral seemed a remote one; since Mol's last health crisis, I had resigned myself to no more trips away anywhere for the foreseeable.  She is considerably better, though still not too steady on her legs, has a slightly bunched look about her, and rather lacks energy, but there haven't been of late, touch wood, any of the frightening, pain filled collapses.  The problem particularly however, is that she tends to need supervision most of the time, if she needs to go out it can't always wait (old age and steroids), and in the early morning she wakes up disoriented and shaky and has to be scooped up, carried downstairs - she's coming up on her own again sometimes but we fear her sliding down and injuring herself - and taken out sharpish.  Tom, sleeping without hearing aids, doesn't hear her at these times, and anyway the risk of his falling himself while carrying her, in the house on their own, isn't one I'm prepared to take.

That was the practical objection to my going, but also there was the fear that I would be an unplaceable oddity on such an occasion, an embarrassment even; who I was and how I knew Joe would not be readily explicable, in the same way that I can't easily explain to most of my 'real world' acquaintance (so I haven't much tried) the peculiar, and extraordinarily intense, nature of the grief his loss has brought. Come to that it's been fairly hard to account for it to myself.

I only met Joe twice the time we knew each other, meetings which were quite delightful, perhaps above all hilarious, filled with those kind of stories and anecdotes that had me helpless with laughter but which never seemed nearly as funny when I tried to repeat them afterwards.  He was a gregarious, extrovert, charming, and socially confident character (none of which generally applies much to me), who hugely enjoyed being out in the world ; it couldn't help being infectious. Yet that was really just a few hours out of seven years, spent in public spaces, and/or shared with others, hardly constituting knowing someone well in most accepted senses of the term. And with all his generosity, frankness and open-heartedness, he was private and discreet in personal matters. Yet he has been one of  the most important people in my life, one of my very dearest friends.

Our friendship was otherwise the preserve of written words and images: in books and poems, English and French, recalled, recommended or sent in the post, in occasional cards and postcards, in a brief exchange towards the end of exceptional handwritten letters, in many e-mails, but above all in this shared and open medium of blogging. Such a horrible word, we agreed, for such a wonderful thing.

I first discovered Joe's blog, Now's the Time, just about exactly seven years ago through Roscoff pink onions - Joe and I conversed rather a lot about fruit and vegetables.  The relevant post, and his first comment on Box Elder, are here.The onions became something of a theme after that; I took him a bag of them when I visited, and the following year sent him a net of the sets to grow. He wouldn't rise to my attempts to start up a 'mine are bigger than yours' competition in growing them, mine after all, he said, were playing at home, though he did pay me the compliment (I think that's what it was anyway...) of saying I was the kind of girl who knew her onions. At that time he had set up a separate blog on which he had put the first few sonnets of the 'Handbook for Explorers' series, but had gone no further with it. I read them, begged to borrow a couple to put with photos for a qarrtsiluni submission, and that was the beginning of that most satisfying, rewarding and memorable project; I wrote about that time in this post, after converting it to book form. It still fills me with wonder, it was such a joy and a privilege. Later we used that blog, called Compasses, for the 'Questions' call and response series (which began with another qarrtsiluni prompt).  From very early on, Joe read my poems here with interest and care, commented positively, and generally encouraged me in writing them; I had very little confidence in their worth compared to other people's work, and without his support probably wouldn't have persevered with writing poetry at all.

For Joe was the great encourager, in so many ways, which for someone of a sliding courage like mine, is a precious thing. Which didn't mean he'd let you get away with any slacking in terms of clichés, sentimentality, or jargon; he was the gentlest but firmest of critical readers.  His presence over my shoulder will always, I hope, encourage me to find fresher, crisper, more direct and original ways of saying things. I may not always succeed (I may not always write much), but I will try.

But dear though these collaborations are to me, and the correspondence that went on behind them, and much as I treasured every comment, positive, humorous, shrewd or compassionate, that he made here, the most important thing, which made Joe dear to so many, was his writing, and later photos, on his own blog.  Now's the Time began in June 2005, and Joe continued to post there with very few breaks until the day before he died last week. In time, the format (initiated by Clare Law, née Grant, who also lives in Tunbridge Wells and still maintains her Three Beautiful Things blog)  of noting down three beautiful things everyday as a kind of observational discipline and counting of blessings, became wider in its scope for him, so that in the end almost anything could be included, and in his last few months, ravaged and wearied by illness and pain, grief-stricken at the decline and loss of his beloved Heidi, his physical strength and world reduced, though he always tried to uphold a stoical cheerfulness and positivity and find things to rejoice in, there was no place for any false Pollyanna-ism; on New Year's day he wrote

It strikes me forcibly that somewhere over the rainbow the absence of blue birds prevail in a vacuum of horrors. And I am sorry, it is not and probably never has been a "wonderful world", wonderful as it would be if that were exclusively true. It is the lies that make sentimentality unacceptable.

Now's the Time must surely be one of the most excellently maintained blogs ever, despite its consistency never becoming samey, formulaic or glib, always substantial, showing a clearly formidable intellect and erudition, but worn lightly and without condescension. Never sententious or pontificating, nevertheless there was a pervasive sense of wisdom in his work, though he would have scoffed at the idea. Martha, another blogging friend, wrote lately in an e-mail

'He posted over 3000 days of gentleness, humor, wonder, curiosity; always kind, never bitter or snarky, even when he might have been justified in being so, even when something in his life irritated him'

In the end, the final beautiful thing was Joe's life.
~

So, for the reasons mentioned at the beginning, I doubted I would make it to the funeral. Yet it was, frankly, tormenting me.  Ryanair, the budget airline on whose capricious offices we depend for much of our travel to the UK are still on their winter timetable, three scant flights a week, but we talked about it and it seemed that if it was scheduled for a Tuesday or Thursday, I could be away just two nights, stay with my sister, catch a train to Tunbridge Wells in a day, Tom and Mol could sleep on the sofa downstairs, she'd wake him up getting down and even if she peed and pooed on the mat by the door he could just throw it outside and wait till I got back, surely nothing too dreadful could happen in that time? Then the message came that it was to take place on the Friday of next week, and my heart sank. That would necessitate five nights away, including a weekend when the vet would be unavailable.  I couldn't in all conscience leave for that long. But hope had taken hold, and I hadn't reckoned with the open-hearted, welcoming kindness I have received from Joe's family, which quite undid me and made a nonsense of the hesitation that was the other obstacle.

What if, I wondered, I could find another route, getting round the Ryanair dependency?  A mad March hare took possession of my mental faculties, and the next thing I knew, I had booked a Eurostar out of Paris to Ashford in Kent, about twenty miles away from Tunbridge Wells, for the Friday morning, arriving just before lunchtime.  I did pause long enough to make sure that Robbie and VR, who, without being in any way pushy, had already made every kind offer of help within their power if I wanted to come, could collect me from there. I would stay with them in whatever overnight accommodation they arranged, and come back the following day. Tom and Mol would barely notice I was gone.  Despondency gave way to elation. 

That elation has since ebbed somewhat, and I am undergoing more than occasional wobbles about it; it really is a wayward escapade.  Travelling Eurostar at a weekend at relatively short notice is eye-wateringly expensive, at least for people whose main travelling consists of occasional budget airline hops and short excursions across the departmental border. Catching the first train from St Brieuc to Paris Montparnasse in time to get to the Gare du Nord to board the Eurostar at 10 am necessitates getting up at an hour which is not early morning but in fact the middle of the night, seriously, I am uncertain that going to bed at all will be worthwhile. The sorrow that was giving rise to incoherent crying jags that were bewildering and embarrassing  to family and friends has been allayed since the moment I made the decision, but has to some extent been replaced by a knot of terror, there is so much that might go wrong, with missed connections and who knows what, then all the expense of money and energy will be lost, and more demanded.  The woman ticket clerk at St Brieuc when I went there to buy my ticket looked at me with astonishment - that time of the morning, and you're coming back the next day?  This is exceptional! Yes, I replied, this is exceptional.  Hard-faced and bureaucratic at first, she was in fact wonderfully patient and helpful, assured me of time for connections, got me the best prices possible while explaining the pros and cons. She looked me in the face as I left with a combination of bafflement and something which might even have been concerned kindness.  

Nevertheless, since making the plan and putting it in train (no pun intended), I have been able to go about things with a lighter heart, and that same day, yesterday, I felt I could at last sit down and begin to write this. Yes, it will be an exhausting and sad day, it could all go pear-shaped and even if it doesn't I will doubtless be suffering the Channel tunnel equivalent of jet-lag, and must be very careful not to have one too many glasses of wine and keel over in some embarrassing fashion. But it might, just might, be rather marvellous, to come up out of the darkling western fringes, draw into Montparnasse station in a Paris dawn, race across the city into the graceful interior of the Gare du Nord, disappear under the sea and come out into the Kent countryside in spring, be taken up by kind and affectionate friends and have lunch in an English pub (Robbie's pledged me wisteria-clad, but it's a bit early for wisteria, so I won't hold him to that).  Then to see new faces perhaps bearing a familiar likeness, to hear words and music to bring joy and solace... to sleep well, make all the right connections and come home to find nothing amiss, it might all just happen. As so often before, and no doubt not for the last time, I find myself wanting to write and tell Joe about it. 

Best not to think too much once plans are made.
Leave without goodbyes. Discard the text
Other travellers use; keep little in your head
Except the need to know what happens next
In the story you make up as you go.
Prudence is the first thing to jettison,
Then take your leave of habit and say "no"
To every comfort you have ever known.
New patterns in chaos to discover,
First lose your way, see the needle spin,
Take moon for sun, not know what world your in,
Till, the first stage of your journey over,
You glimpse a path that seems impossible,
And know, at once, where your next step must fall.

Handbook for Explorers, 3 - in a small way, something like that.

And yesterday morning too, the first swallow swept over the garden, and wheeled around our heads as we left the house. 


Monday, March 17, 2014

Have an hour?


Though longer, with several listenings and re-readings, is better. It helps, albeit in a cold comfort sort of way, you might say:

And I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing;



The CD's been on my wishlist but unavailable for a long time, turns out some good soul who had it on vinyl has put it on Youtube, the sound quality is fine.

And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lost for words


Joe Hyam, 20.9.1933 - 10.3.2014


Saturday, March 08, 2014

A rather marvellous week for snail-mail, and reflections on thrift and ethical spending.


I love getting things through the post, as long as they're pleasant things of course, not bills or notifications of speeding points, though I did get one the other week telling me my licence was clear again after three years of keeping my nose clean, and that was quite nice (in fact the four points which had been squatting toadlike on it since 2011 were there for going through a red light, a particularly nasty hasty one with a sneaky automatic camera by the hospital in St Brieuc, where one often has a stark choice between stepping uncomfortable hard either on the brakes or the accelerator.  Since then I have been known to stop at it on green when I've observed it's been that way for unsettlingly long rather than take the chance of trying to make it).  But these days, there is often something ordered and looked forward to arriving in the factrice's little yellow van, or better still something free and quite unexpected.

It seems to me that with written communications having become, for all practical and necessary purposes, the preserve of the internet, things that come by actual, concrete, travelling mail, not least handwritten letters and cards, have taken on a new value, are all the more treasured. On the occasions when I send or receive a letter or parcel from family or friends, it's quite likely to contain pictures, cuttings, solid items in addition to its main purpose.  Even when it's part of a commercial transaction people sometimes add unexpected extras; with my rainbow wool for my Hitchhiker scarf, which was wrapped in richly coloured tissue, there were a tiny packet of love heart sweets and a little badge with her logo on it, though it must be said that seller really is something special.  

However the parcel that arrived from my lovely sister this week contained an item above and beyond the common run of exchanged gifts, trinkets and keepsakes. It shouldn't have been a complete surprise, but in fact it was, because I'd more or less forgotten about the thing it was made from, and even if I hadn't, I couldn't have imagined its being transformed into anything so beautiful.


About thirty years ago, when I was living in London, I had from a flea market or somewhere, I forget where, a raggedly made waistcoat from this fabric.  I spotted it as something rare and precious, and thought perhaps it might even have been Fortuny, whose silks and velvets I'd seen in an exhibition at the excellent Brighton museum art nouveau and deco galleries a few years before. I've no idea if it is, probably not as it's less formal than his designs, but it's a hand-painted silk velvet,old but not perished, the paint has nothing plasticcy or modern about it but is heavy and metallic, all of it shimmers in a very rich, non-synthetic way. Even my sister though, who knows her decorative arts and textiles, can't be sure of its age or provenance. It had been very roughly cut down into a sleeveless open vest shape, and I did wear it sometimes, then later I took it apart but couldn't really work out what to do with the awkwardly shaped pieces; it stayed in storage as a crumpled fragment till I thought to pass it on to my sister in case she could make anything of it.


She hung on to it for a while and I largely forgot about it, and she had different ideas about what to do with it before deciding on the bag (which got round the uneven shapes of the pieces) and though I could never really imagine using it for carrying anything around in, I'm really happy she used it for a proper, supple, living textile sort of purpose, rather than making it into something stiff or stretched or framed.


The fastening is a very small brass bell, and one of those embroidered button loops we all learned to sew as kids. She's backed and lined it with fabric from Toiles de Mayenne.


It's hanging on the end of the curtain pole above the telly, to which it provides a very satisfactory alternative for looking at. Tom is a bit iffy about things dangling decoratively and informally and gathering dust so it may not be able to stay there forever, but I'd like it to, it's the perfect space for it.

Then a couple of days later I had the most delightful letter from my Niece-who-makes-me-laugh-more-than-anyone.  The pleasure of this began with the envelope: 


She was writing to thank me for a scarf I'd sent her via her parents, and had, I think, mislaid my e-mail address, but also said she had made a positive decision to use the old-fashioned route having fallen rather out of love with electronic communication. Each page was on the back of a different picture:


a postcard of ancient carved stones from Arbroath, a photo she'd taken of sand ripples, a card she'd painted on watercolour paper, and a curious tiger face made from a lot of smaller tigers.




And of course in the appropriate space of the postcard she'd drawn a stamp, which I love because it's just one of those things that has to be done, and I think she has captured something of HM's essential demeanor rather well.  

The other things were ordered and paid for, but pleasing even so.  A pair of sheepskin insoles, direct from China through e-bay. When 99% of everything comes from China and western retailers are doing everything they can to hide the fact from our uneasy consciences, it gives me a degree of perverse satisfaction to get parcels marked up with scruffy labels and Chinese characters at a fraction of the price. They really are very cosy.


The last thing was a small package containing three rubber teapot spout extenders.  We love our old yellow teapot, but a while ago the tip of the spout broke off.  It was carefully stuck back on again with superglue, which we never expected to work, but surprisingly, despite the constant flow of hot acidic liquid over it, it held well, and we repeated the operation several times.  Finally, though, it almost crumbled off, looking rather like a decayed tooth, and we conceded no further repair as possible.  We used it broken for a week or two, but it dribbled everywhere, and we knew we must make do something.  Then Tom remembered those rubber teapot spouts. I instigated an on-line search and found a three-for-two offer, also on e-bay, from one of those people who seem to sell small quantities of small items from home. Voila:



Yes, I know, it's somewhat obscene.  This review rather says it all. But it is very effective, has put off the sad moment of saying goodbye to the yellow teapot, and it still makes us laugh.


Afterthought:

Now I know I probably deserve castigation for choosing to buy Chinese products, and I've now learned I could have bought ethically produced British sheepskin insoles for not very much more, so I am rather sorry about that. Others would gripe about the matter of buying on-line at all, thereby causing real shops to go to the wall.  I do often choose to shop in proper shops even though I'm paying more for the sake of supporting them, but in the case of these two items, I don't think I could have found them anywhere locally anyway. Living as and where we do, so every trip to the shops involves outlay of time and petrol, sending for things often seems the better choice.  And I do think to some extent it's down to the retailers to find more constructive ways to work within the on-line world.  For example, I found according to Phildar's official website I could order wool from them and have it delivered to my local Phildar shop and collect it from there, saving somewhat on postage.  Good idea I thought, and went to the shop (whose range of stock was pretty dismal) to check. The woman manager/proprietor/franchisee could barely bring herself to answer me civilly.  No we don't do that, no Phildar shop does, if everyone bought from the internet there would be no shops, no we don't receive any commission at all from orders placed that way, the website is nothing to do with the shops.  I e-mailed Phildar who replied in a terse and uninformative way that only some Phildar shops did it, even though the one I went to in Lamballe was listed... I gave up and resolved to buy nothing more from Phildar anyway.  Plenty of better places to get wool, including enterprising and original small business people on line like Old Maiden Aunt where I got the hitchhiker wool.

In the end one has to balance personal thrift, which often involves not buying anything new or buying only the means to repair and renovate old things like teapots and winter boots, and spending money virtuously or otherwise.  Thrift isn't good in economic terms anyway, in a system that depends on continual waste and over-consumption.

But I do very much like these things that came in the post this week.


Saturday, March 01, 2014

February collage


I can't say I'm too sorry to see the back of February, though it's not been all bad; here as promised is the end-of-the-month collage to illustrate some of it.




  1. Molly enjoys la vie en bleu
  2. A wintry day's end, walking without Molly when she was poorly, which felt odd.
  3. Bluebell bulbs temporarily living in a pot since we dug them up and didn't get as far as rehoming them.
  4. Wonderful Monserrat F;  the Song of the Sybil has been proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. The list of these is fascinating reading, yet there seem to be glaring omissions and inaccuracies: really, nothing whatever in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, any of Scandinavia, Iceland, the USA? While Aubusson Tapestry is hardly intangible...
  5. My 'Nothing to Hide' Hitchhiker scarf. Not sure if that link will work if you aren't signed in to Ravelry, but the yarn and its story are here, and the details of the pattern are here.  Now finished and I have more or less bonded to it - it is rarely off my neck.
  6. A white pink, still flowering occasionally, and a sprig of rosemary.
  7. A nice tidy sock draw.  At least two pairs, the Bugs Bunny ones and the grey ones top left with the jacquard pears and cherries on them are a good twenty years old and not worn too much.  Yes, I am someone who can attach sentimental value to socks.
  8. Cotoneaster against hazel catkins.
  9. Fingerless mitts.
  10. The engendering of toads.  I know, it's gross, and Lucy from Attic24 from whom I took this idea certainly would not feature copulating amphibians on her blog, but it's still part of the seasonal round herabouts.
  11. Hellebore.
  12. Molly by the sea.


No food this month, though we've eaten well, including lovely fish and seafood curries, and an excellent general purpose korma sauce which involves boiling the nuts then blitzing them, and hot oysters grilled with beurre noisette at Le Vivier.  I just didn't get around to photographing any of it.

So here's to March.