Thursday, November 27, 2014


We went to the doctor yesterday for our flu jabs and to talk about Tom's eyes. The appointment was for midday. He never used to have appointments, you just turned up and waited your turn; he still doesn't have a receptionist but takes calls himself or his wife fields them sometimes. She's a bit fierce and protective when she does, and he tends to pull a face and say not to take any notice of her.  He also used to freely make house calls. Our first winter Tom was ill, mostly from exhaustion, and Dr le G called in twice a day, unasked, for several days, clearly worried about the clueless and shattered English couple living in a draughty damp shack with the roof half-off. He's a dear, dear man from a family for whom caring and service and civic-mindedness are central to their lives, I used to teach his cousin who was a retired primary teacher, they always spoke glowingly of each other. But he's getting tired, we think, and despondent.

He was running about forty minutes late, which was already taking us well into any sensible person's lunchtime, but there were still people coming through the door. It's partly his own fault, he will chat away with you as though he had all the time in the world. We showed him the optometrist's note, which he said was readable and usable in French, but his response as to how we should proceed was a near-hopeless shrug. Surgical ophthalmologists with free appointments are rare as hen's teeth, we would need to search around, he didn't refer, but we could forget St Brieuc... perhaps Pontivy? No probably not, try Rennes, or Nantes... but beware those who weren't conventionnés (state covered) they could charge what they liked. Cataracts aren't considered urgent, but of course they are when they begin to interfere with driving and other necessary functions.

Everything is overloaded, he went on, not enough doctors anywhere, look at all the people out there in the waiting room, he should have been finished by 12.15, and he'd be back tonight till nine o'clock.  He stuck our jabs into our arms while still grumbling. Tom didn't feel his, I did, in and out, but today he feels bleary and queasy while I just feel a bit as though someone's punched me in the arm.  We appreciate having them anyway, two for the price of one as Tom's is free.

Dr le G is probably still a few years off retirement, when he takes it, as his cousin MH said, there won't be another like him, and indeed, there might not be another in that surgery, since there are fewer and fewer generalists available for the more rural practices, which is why he's busier and busier, as he's taken on patients from other doctors round about who have retired or moved on.

This morning I researched around a bit as to where the operating eye doctors might be. I looked despondently at the clinics in Rennes, I really hated the idea of that drive, especially in the winter, and trailing there on the train didn't seem a great idea. One could perhaps stay over... I tried St Brieuc anyway on the off-chance, but the answering machine in the hospital department wasn't even taking messages, there were no appointments, not now nor in the foreseeable, it told me. From when I had a threatening retinal tear a couple of years ago, I didn't imagine the private clinics would be a much better story, and the doctor had warned us off them rather as possibly unregulated as far as charging was concerned.

I had a look on AngloInfo forums. One or two people spoke well of the new clinic in Pontivy, so I thought it might be worth a try, and it's not too far. I carefully wrote out my enquiry, a thing I rarely bother to do now but I wanted to sound clear and not too easy to put off. Is there any possibility of an appointment at all? I asked and waited to be told it was out of the question. Yes, said the secretary, who I had got through to in a couple of minutes, in two weeks, early afternoon, OK?

Much relief all round, we can even treat ourselves to lunch in Pontivy, which is a lively little town down in Central Brittany (no, that's not necessarily an oxymoron), as it's just a day or two before my birthday. I don't know how long it will be before Tom can have the cataracts seen to, but at least we've got things underway.

Well, I've written more than I intended to now so the stuff about creative mending which I was going to include in this post, on the theme of getting things mended, will have to wait till tomorrow, but you can go back and look at the ponies or the man with the cheekbones, otherwise here's a pretty pink rose, some of which are still blooming in the garden yet.

Oh, and belated happy Thanksgiving to everyone on that side, it slipped my mind, but thankfulness is always to be treasured.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A coasting post

Or rather a cheating one really, because I thought I'd just share some stuff which makes me smile from one of my Pinterest boards, the one where I put general pleasing, inspiring or funny things about knitting.

Three on Fair-Isle:

This is a character called Johnnie Jamieson who may be seen at the Shetland museum (though sadly no longer in the flesh I wouldn't imagine).  His hat is calles a toorie:

He's kind of Whisky-Galore-with-knobs-on isn't he? Magnificent.

This next guy is even funnier I think. He's quite beautiful too though, I think he's just out of a Rowan catalogue or something: 

I'm sure there are some who'd have the jumper off his back. I would, in fact, but purely to keep the jumper.

But these look the most adorable of all in Fair-Isle, no contest.

I think they came originally from the Shetland tourist board or something.

And lastly, one I fear is a little too close to the truth for comfort:


That'll do for today!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Knitting review of the year # 5: Man Paws and Heartbreak

I rather wanted to make something for Molly's vet Emmy and her husband Paul, who works with her, to thank them for all their kindness over the years. Paul is a big, kind, bearlike chap, so my trusty fingerless mittens in a fuzzy brown mohair/wool mix (Rowan Colourspun) which I had stashed, seemed reliable, which I have seen called Man Paws:

(Just a quick webcam pic for those, I'm afraid)

For Emmy I thought triangular shawl/scarf things are a pretty good bet for most people. I tried to remember what colours I'd ever noticed her wearing other than her working white coat/blouson thingy. I thought mauvy-bluey-greeny ones were probably about right. Good old Drops again, their pure alpaca had a lovely range, including some 'mixed' ones with a number of different coloured fibres blended into one strand which makes for more subtlety.

I browsed a while for patterns, wanted three toning colours but wasn't sure about little narrow stripes or great big blocks. Then I found this one, which when I saw its name, Heartbreak, had to be the one.  In fact the designer, Lisa Mutch, tends to give her designs rather terse, angst-ridden, minatory or elliptical names: others include 'Asunder', 'Enshroud', 'Maim', 'Slain', 'Nevermore'. Not quite your granny's knitwear, is the inteded impression, I think. She is one of those clever people who can create all kinds of shapes and patterns from quite simple elements, which are easy enough to follow and carry in your head once you see how they work, but which most ordinary knitting mortals like myself couldn't possibly imagine coming up with and putting together ourselves. It takes a certain kind of mathematical brain, I think, combined with a tactile aesthetic sense.

You make it from the bottom point of the overall triangle up, and the different coloured triangular sections are made using short rows and wrapping-and-turning, which I'd not really done before, except I suppose in the heels of socks, but I wouldn't have known how to transfer the technique. It wasn't really difficult anyway, once I'd followed the directions. It was in fact rather a small shawl, all-in-all, and Emmy is not a slight person but quite broad-shouldered, so as I had plenty of yarn left I thought I'd add another section. But if you follow the pattern of enlarging the triangles each time, the triangles get bigger and bigger, deeper as well as longer, and it soon became apparent I didn't have that much yarn left, and even if I had the top green one would be enormous and rather overwhelm the purple, which I didn't want, so I had to improvise, and make it longer and thinner. I really didn't have much idea what I was doing, and any careful maths went out the window; the short rows got longer and longer as I raced to get to the end before the yarn ran out. Yet it was surprising how forgiving the principle was, and how it didn't spoil the overall effect.

Emmy, of course, had no idea of these fascinating facts about its construction, not being a knitter, though once when she was doing a nifty bit of suture work on Molly she did mention she rather liked doing that kind of thing with thread and stuff and had been fond of crochet as a child (Mol was fine, it was on a wart where she didn't have much sensation and she'd had a small local anyway). But she seemed genuinely pleased when I gave it to her, said what nice colours, wrapped it round her shoulders and gave me a hug. Paul slipped his mittens on with a smile, and said they reminded him of the milkmen in Holland in the winter.

There is a theory that one should only really give knitted gifts, or more substantial ones anyway, to fellow knitters, as they are the only ones who fully appreciate what goes into them.  But I don't hold with this, I'd rather put the love and effort into them anyway then let them go with my blessing to take their chances*.

I do rather hope that Gina and Mimine don't get hold of them though.

*Also fellow knitters are also more likely to spot the mistakes and sloppiness and short cuts.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Winter blues, and another Breton island added to the collection.

Greys more like. The kind of day where to say it grows dark early is almost pointless, it has scarcely grown light all day. The e-mails unanswered, lists unwritten, photos unscanned, all the projects unbegun never mind unfinished, hang over the day like the wet pall of cloud and mist and rain hangs over the day and the damp washing hangs round the house.  Blues would be welcome, in fact, and with that in mind, it's a moment to revisit the Ile de Batz.

It's about a quarter of an hour's boat trip from Roscoff, but most of that time is spent turning the boat around. We visited the island (pronounced 'Ile de Ba') back in September, we'd never been before, in spite of frequenting the mainland area frequently and knowing it well. It's about three km long and about one wide at its widest point.

It's popular with tourists, and probably a fairly desirable dormitory suburb of Roscoff, but it's a proper working community as well. They grow vegetables, most famously delicious new potatoes, but also pink onions and artichokes and other things, we saw a lot of little fields of bulb fennel. And there is fishing.

There are motorised vehicles, though tractors and mopeds probably outnumber cars.

There's a well-known light house and a semaphore station, and this rather fine lifeboat house,

which I think has an open day once a year (not the day we were there), but no souvenir charity shop.

This is the island's football pitch, home ground of Moles United, I think.

There's a ruined chapel,

where people play a bit and express themselves with rocks and pebbles, 

a lot of wild fennel, and a number of horses.

The building glimpsed through the dip in the photo above is the sailors' chapel on the headland at Roscoff, where the fishermen and onion sellers used to say their prayers and ask for blessings before they set out to sea.

We had a delicious lunch at the island's main hotel: a light flaky pastry filled with confit pink onions and pâté, and a dish of the small scallops called pétoncles, then we walked across to the other side of the island, where there are wide beaches of white sand, and very blue sea.

I love how, in these small western islands, whether here in Brittany or in Scotland, there is a landward side which is homely and busy and pragmatic, and a seaward side which is wild and open and dreaming.

The small white dash on the horizon is the ferry out of Roscoff, to Cork in Ireland or Plymouth in Devon.

It was a hot day; I had a long t-shirt on and there weren't many people about, so I stripped off trousers and paddled. Tom wasn't dressed or quite up for this, though he regretted it, and we had not towel or means of dusting off sand, and he minds sand in his socks and shoes more than I do. He went down to the water's edge and dipped his hands and arms in anyway.

We went back to the port, and had tea,

communed with the birdlife (these below are ringed plovers, not a great photo but I take these zoom shots for identification)

and took ourselves off, back across the water.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A wet Sunday in November

Which I ended up spending binge-watching Noggin the Nog dvds. It was that or Bergman; I was in the mood for something Scandi and I don't do Wallender or Borgen.   Here's a taste of it:

Amazing, it's even older than I am.  I also did a couple of square foot of pretty rough lace knitting while I watched, which I won't try to show you; it might end up as a Christmas present anyway so best not in case the recipient sees.

And here is some of a pumpkin I cut up for dinner - courtesy of Lyse and her green-fingered husband, who have kept us very well stocked with veggies and vitamins this year. Merci Lyse! (But I'll leave all the andouille for you...)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Back from Jersey, with a mixed bag

Thank you very much for your kind comments about Tom's garage. He wanted people to know that he wasn't looking at his most elegant in the pictures. Vanity is a harmless vice, I've decided.

Just back from Jersey, which was pretty good. I didn't really take any photos once we left St Malo because... oh I don't know, I just wanted to walk and look and not worry about the camera. And we didn't go to the zoo, as it was raining and wet and we reckoned if the animals had any sense they wouldn't want to come out and play, so we moseyed round the covered market where I bought two tins of smoked paprika, an ingredient I have never been able to obtain here and the museum, which is a good one, with a restored interior of a 19th century merchant's house, and a terrific horde of really old Celtic coins and gold, so people haver been stashing large amounts of money in the Channel Islands for quite a while.  They have a special laboratory in a kind of glass box within a room of the museum, so you can peer in at the men in white coats carefully working on the treasure piece by piece, as well as organic material they find in amongst it. This was one of the best bits of the trip for Tom because the very charming and helpful lady on the desk when she took our admission said, apparently without guile, 'So no reductions? Obviously neither of you is over 65...'

After that when it had stopped raining we had a very interesting walk around the port, and watched men at work on a big wet and muddy civil engineering project with some really serious plant and gear and tackle (though I still resisted the temptation of getting the camera out), and some others loading containers, and sundry other salty, boaty, watery activities, and I bought a red model VW combie in aid of the Lifeboats from a little RNLI shop on the quayside.

smoked paprika and a Volks combie

Indeed, there were quite a lot of rather fun things like Lifeboat shops and collecting boxes converted from big red Second World War mines or in the form of life size dogs and cats with slots in their head, which rather seemed to be out of a time warp from my childhood. 

We had some unbelievably good Indian/Bangladeshi food from Café Spice; we couldn't eat it all but we did our best and I brought some of the naan bread home with me. We couldn't believe how big a medium sized coffee was from a well-known chain selling oddly-flavoured hot coffee milkshake (sorry, I'm afraid latte mostly seems to me like a kids' drink, as I think it probably is in Brazil; we had a black and a white, or as they insist, an Americano and a cappucino). 

Unfortunately I think I fell foul of some dodgy scrambled egg at breakfast on the second day, and couldn't enjoy things quite so much after that. In fact it was a really lovely hotel with very good food (including Madeiran espetadas) and run very well by really nice people, so I don't like to think they may have poisoned me even a bit but I did suspect the scrambled egg, though it tasted fine at the time. On the other hand, eating more rich meaty food in 24 hours than is normal in a month, and the fact that everywhere you go is so warm and stuffy, it seems to us, I think makes one a bit susceptible to being upset. It's a little tiresome really, how adjusting and adapting doesn't get easier; we live in a certain way, with parameters of food and drink and temperature quite finely tuned, and going outside those seems to pose problems, and they then need to be readjusted to. The house seemed cold and damp and a bit miserable when we came back too, though we left the radiators on a reasonable setting, and they'd not come on, and it smelled rather sour and sooty. But it's cheering up a bit now, and the chimney sweep's coming next week. It's a bit late to go away really, the house doesn't really like us to do so at this season, we find.

The optometrist took a long and careful time over Tom's eyes, and wrote him a doctor's letter, so that was time, effort and money well-spent, but means we've things to sort out now. 

So a mixed bag, but still a good trip.  I'll find some more pictures soon.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Lest you think Tom has been idle while I rake away at the Sisyphean piles of foliate matter, I must assure you he too has been busy, rather more so in fact than I have. For he has been building.

One end of our house has always been rather uglified by a corrugated iron lean-to known as the garage. This has always been a rather inaccurate descriptor, since it has never been possible to keep a car in there, because the doorway is too small, the lie of the land into it is so uneven that any car would probably be irreparably grounded on entry, and it's too full of tools and logs and other stuff anyway. One day it may fulfil its destiny as a place for a vehicle, but more and more, as the rest of the house has become less of a building site and more of a habitation, it's needed more and more for storage.  For this reason, weatherproofing, and, I'm afraid, bird-proofing, have become imperative. We love birds, we love bird excrement rather less, and putting one's hand on some necessary item and finding it coated with guano was getting a bit desperate. 

Anyway, the back end of it was beginning to crumble; I don't have a photo of what it looked like before, indeed a mere few weeks ago, but it was in essence a pile of rusting corrugated and rotting wood, as may be seen here, in its dismantled state:

That was pulled down just before we went to Paris, and a tarp nailed over the hole. When we got back, there was a delivery of material and the work began in earnest:

A low wall was built from recouped stone, on which I did the pointing, my only real contribution to the project, apart from tea making and hauling an obsessed bricoleur indoors to eat and sleep occasionally. Then a new wooden framework was erected, replacing or incorporating some of the old, and slates leftover from when we replaced the roof seventeen years ago were hung on it. We bought a sheet of UV-proof clear perspex-type stuff to make a window.

This all happened really very quickly, it seemed to me. Oh yes, and it's got a proper door, which despite being autoclave treated etc is already warping wildly in the wet Brittany weather, much to the obsessive bricoleur's annoyance, but it will still do the job* I'm sure. 

And yesterday it was done, in time for us to make a hop over the water to Jersey for a couple of nights, ostensibly to go to the opticians (appointments with ophthalmologists here, who are specialist doctors and not attached to commercial opticians, are harder to procure than... oh I don't know, something very hard to procure, suggestions?) but largely to have one more trip away before winter closes in, with the possibility of Indian restaurants, Waitrose, Marks and Spencer's, an anglophone milieu and other Brit-treats. Also Portuguese food as something new to us, there is a substantial Madeiran Portuguese community there, not sure why, I'll find out. 

Plus it means the bricoleur is obliged to be dragged away from his bricolage for a day or two. Having finished this section of it, he was to be seen up a ladder tinkering around with the next one, plugging holes I think. 

Anyway, on account of being away a couple of days I shall take a break from daily posting. We're resolved to be off-line and not lugging any hardware around with us, so I've been printing out maps and scribbling notes. It's surprising how quickly having the internet to advise has become normal, and how reliant on the access to information one becomes. I can remember when you just turned up in a new place, perhaps with a map or guidebook, maybe just located the tourist office, picked up a few leaflets, and took it as you found it. On the other hand there was a lot of frustration and bad timing in those days too, and I think we also missed a lot through ignorance, though some might say we gained more through serendipity, I don't know; one can certainly get more from a short visit somewhere with a bit of research and handle on the salient facts.

So back in a couple of days.  

* That of opening and closing, I suppose.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Autumn leaves

Yeah yeah, very pretty, I love all shades of ochre and gold and mustard as well as orange, as I said, and flame and russet and the rest, but just now

I've kind of had enough of them. The man came to cut the hedges, so this is what they now look like:

and this is the view from the kitchen window, which is all very nice, complete with pumpkins and washing-up liquid just before the rain came again:

And this is just one of the piles of leaves and cuttings I swept up:

They are piled on the terrace on a tarpaulin because this year we have a shredding machine, which we hope will transform our garden into a place of seasonally managed order and suppressed weeds (ha ha, I don't do LOL), but with laurel you have to wait a bit till the toxins have composted down a bit, so here they are providing an alternative view from the kitchen window. 

But there we are, it's what late autumn and early winter are all about, along with luxuriating in fatigue afterwards, eating tomato and chickpea soup with paprika and saffron (on this occasion, it could be leek and potato, or pumpkin and chestnut), and watching retro boxed sets which don't demand too much of one intellectually, in this case Star Trek the Next Generation. 

Which is what I intend to do next.

Monday, November 17, 2014


Just lately the subject of self-portraiture is rather in the air. I seem to be overcoming my aversion to showing photos of myself somewhat.  Admittedly the last one was back view only, but that was partly to show the shape of the jacket better, I don't mind this one either:

And these aren't even selfies; I suppose one of the things about taking one's own photo, consciously, with all the redundancy digital technology allows, is the control over one's features one has, with the option of deleting all but the ones we like. Unlike those snaps that other people take when you aren't aware of it, talking or laughing, the angle just catching the double chin at its most horribly evident, the mouth slack or distorted, or even worse the ones you know they're taking, but without the benefit of seeing ourselves as others see us, so you start holding your face in a certain kind of unnatural fixed pout or grimace.  Or I do anyway, I've seen other people whose faces relax into beautiful repose in front of the camera but I'm not one of them; Tom always laughs when he sees me approach a reflective surface or be approached by a pointing lens, and imitates my pursed lips and widened eyes.

I don't particularly mind the neologism 'selfie', it doesn't seem to me necessarily to carry a negative value judgement. We've long been ambivalent, it seems to me, about 'self-' as a prefix: selfishness, self-centredness, self-indulgence, self-regard, self-satisfaction, self-seeking = bad, but self-preservation, self-esteem, self-reliance, self-knowledge = good. (Self-love and self-consciousness are more opaque). The self-taken photograph is simply something we can now easily do, so we do it. Younger people maybe do it rather more because they're more concerned, for better or worse, with how they appear, more attached to their toys, and youth is pretty of course (no, I know, not more beautiful, nor more interesting, nor superior in any way to age, but undeniably pretty), but none of that's anything new. The camera phone or webcam or whatever now enables us to see how we will appear in the image we make, whereas previously we couldn't see through the camera when we turned it on ourselves, or had to take our reflected image in a mirror, where the camera often got in the way. Though I still can't quite get used to my image in the webcam not moving symmetrically with me as it does in the mirror, but seeming to go the other way, and my newish silvery pre-molar crown which glints when I stretch my mouth, to smile or pretend to, apparently on the other side.

Self-portraiture also seems to be something of a theme because of the Rembrandt Late Works exhibition at the National Gallery in London, which has been mentioned quite a bit around the place. We won't get to see it, but we very much enjoyed Simon Schama's TV preview of it (the link is to a review of the programme, it's been on BBC I-Player but you can't get that outside of the UK and it runs out tonight anyway), and it was also the central topic of today's Start the Week on Radio 4 (that link available indefinitely), which I happened to switch on this morning. An excellent presenter (Tom Sutcliffe,  who I don't remember hearing before but he was quite as good as his predecessors), and four very impressive guests from different disciplines, including Betsy Wieseman, the curator of the exhibition, all of whom have clearly prepared their own contributions carefully and speak eloquently but come across as spontaneous and - dare I say it - unself-conscious, and who have also clearly studied and the other guests' work and show one another great respect. It's a joy to listen to for that reason alone.

It was posited that making the self-portraits the central element of the exhibition's presentation  was perhaps a sign of the times, that at one time it might have been a big group portrait or a historical or biblical scene or whatever that might have caught people's interest.  Self-portraits however, have always been of valued, most artists of the time and before and since did them and their patrons wanted them.  Rembrandt's, it was agreed, were more candid, more frank, more ugly and self-exposing, all the things everyone says about them; his gaze at himself is steady, concentrated, solitary, as opposed to that in Vandyck's self-portraits, where his 'quicksilver glances' seem to be always flitting over his shoulder, anxious as to who else is looking at him and how. But Rembrandt's apparent candour may be deceptive; he was frequently dressed up oddly, and trying out moods and attitudes and expressions - what does melancholy look like, or anger, or despair? Rather perhaps as the self-snapping smartphoners might?

The programme explores the tension between the negative and positive ways in which self-regard has been viewed culturally and historically; Narcissus, it seems, was not always considered a vain and preening wuss: Voltaire's view of him was as a hero of  interiority, the examined life, retreat from worldliness in order to know oneself, even Ovid's original version of the story hinges much more on his unawareness that it is himself he is seeing; it was largely Freud, who seems to have done a lot of unhelpful and unnecessary pathologising of things to a dubious agenda, who identified narcissism as an arrested and unhealthy state. 

And there are many other gems and insights: the received idea that self-regard and hence self-portraiture took off in the 15th century when the Venetians started making flat glass mirrors is probably false, these were very expensive and uselessly small, people were doing it long before that by other means - convex mirrors, polished metal, water. (So we aren't always led by the nose by the material technology...); that people like Montaigne started the trend in ideas which the visual artists took up; Montaigne himself was inspired and encouraged in his own quest for an examined life by seeing an early self-portrait painting by a contemporary royal artist. And then there was this quote from Martin Buber:

We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves

So, take a selfie today in the right spirit, and don't feel bad about it. And if you've any time left after reading this self-indulgent ramble, listen to the programme.