Saturday, 24 October 2020

Making do

 The weather has turned into a true autumnal phase and hanging washing out is largely a waste of time so...a new challenge in our house with no central heating and therefore radiators to drape undies over, and a tumble dryer is not something on our budgetary list, or any other list. Then Mark reminded me of the old 'above aga, wood-burner' wood and metal dryers - great invention. Of course, no shop has them, or not here anyway, many on the internet at around 80 euros so I thought I'd have a crack at making one with found stuff in the house.

Four bamboo poles, some red string that Mark had bought for 'Gamelan' reconstruction and two cup hooks that I borrowed from our wardrobe and we now have a very bodged but reasonably effective clothes airing system although I think 'phase two' will be worked on using two triangular pieces of ply wood drilled with four holes in which to pass the poles through thus keeping the clothes further apart...


Think my heroine Hoxton (Londonia) might have come up with something like this to dry clothes in the vestry in 2072

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Reasons to make a pond

I can think of many, mostly obvious, reasons: providing water for wild animals, birds and insects, creating biodiversity, and just for the pleasure of sitting by water - something we humans, or at least most of us feel naturally drawn to, but of course there are other reasons, just not something I would have imagined. When talking to one of our local veg growers recently I pointed to a mound of earth and a line of young trees at the edge of a nearby field and asked what was going on. He had smiled wryly and said, 'un mare' (a pond); how wonderful, I had said, people finally waking up to encouraging nature being a vital thing. Ah, he had said, that's not exactly why he's doing it. The field owner is a hunter and he's realised that the local small game has virtually disappeared, therefore by making a pond and surrounding hedges he hopes to encourage wildlife back in and then shoot it . . . 

Ten minutes into a dog walk this very sunny morning I remembered with a slight wariness that it was a hunting day; dogs would have to stay mostly on the lead and I should have been wearing a gilet jaune or at least a bright scarf or something, not black and grey - too late. We took the road opposite ours, past various stone houses, bored dogs, wandering chickens, and past the sad sheep. I have to turn away at this point in the walk and fight the urge to run over and release the creature from its very short chain and no flock situation. It's an aspect of French rural life I struggle with - a disrespect (not always) for other creatures' feelings. Maybe I'm just a sentimental ex-Londoner but I know that sheep would be happier with others to pass the time nibbling at grass and lying in the shade on a hot day. 

I took one of the many cycle tracks that weave through the fields in this region, assuming we wouldn't actually get shot on such a route - there are occasional shooting accidents but usually after lunch and the accompanying large amounts of red wine - this was nine-thirty and although a possible glass of calvados might have been consumed, hopefully people would be fairly alert. 

The morning was truly beautiful: the meadows that glass white-green colour of almost a frost but not quite; rising mist spoked by sun rays, slow downward twirling yellow leaves, and, less lovely, camouflage-attired men staked out waiting for whatever gibier (game) is still left in the hedgerows to show itself/themselves. I passed a small group and they were friendly enough, staring at my hounds with their brocade collars as if they knew these were sofa-loving beasts, spoilt and pandered to, unlike the dogs they stalked the fields with. Of course our spoilt hounds were hunt animals in their previous lives and had suffered much before we took them on (Spanish Greyhounds). Hunt hounds here are probably on the whole not treated as badly as the Spanish ones but they do spend weeks and months cooped up in pens presumably dreaming of the rare days they are let out to streak across fields and collect the birds and rabbits shot by their masters.

                                                                       Where di't go?

I'm not completely against hunting; I'm sure I'd be the first clamouring for a spare gun if/when the supermarket aisles are laid bare and finding food became/becomes a little more complicated than nipping to the market or calling into Super U on the way back from somewhere in the car. I don't have a problem with someone fishing or shooting something for the pot per se - it's something that happens very regularly in my novels - but its the getting together to track down small beasts (and larger ones where we lived before) the sport element, the joint celebration of further nature devastation I find less understandable.

Anyway, none of us got shot, even the dogs who took advantage of a few minutes non-lead liberty to streak across a distant field behind three young deer - an image I won't forget: the deer bouncing gracefully against a line of yellowing poplars, our dogs in manic pursuit but unable to gauge the terrain familiar to their potential (unlikely!) prey. We walked back, the older dog's back limbs quaking after such a chase and they collapsed gratefully to their respective sofas while I prepared their lunch and thought about constructing a pond.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Places in the mind

The brain, as I have written many times on this blog, is the most extraordinary thing. As I sit here writing, I have a track by Unknown Mortal Orchestra playing in my head complete with the detailed bass line, his distinctive voice, crispy drum rolls and various guitar riffs that make up that song. It's not even one of my favourites but it turned up on my Spotify play list while driving yesterday and it's now well embedded, pushing out slightly the Detectorists theme tune which had taken up residence for several days. Actually the latter can stay; it's a beautiful song and I don't seem to tire of it, unlike Money Money Money which became a seriously unwanted lodger some years back due to Ezra having to learn it in his crap music lessons. 

Anyway, all that to underline how amazing the brain is, and my blog post was to talk/ramble on about the more visual aspects of memory, with regard to places on this maligned planet. I was on a dog walk yesterday with new friend, author Adrian Mathews and we were discussing our respective nostalgias for London, realising that we both held the fondest memories from the 70s version of London with all the stuff that went along with it - Routemaster buses, formica cafés, few chain shops, and many wonderful old landmarks now sadly crushed under a new sedimentary layer of London's history. Mind, if the current novel I'm writing has any truth in its wayward madness, London is still there both in our collective minds, in time, and in all its phases.


During this morning's walk, I considered the places that have meant much to me, or not even much but have just stayed prominent in colour, shape, sound and smell within my memories over the years. An assortment: 

Too many in London to state, but perhaps the ponds of Hampstead Heath, the small parks of Bloomsbury and the roads around St Leonard's church in Hackney where I have done so much wandering during Londonia research.

                                       Gower St at 5:am on one of my 'deep topography' wanderings

A particular rounded hill in Dorest called Wingreen. It has featured in many of my books, and it was just visible from the end of our road when we lived in Wimborne, its wedge of beech trees strangely comforting to me; a memory of many happy walks with Mum listening to the larks and scanning the distant landscape for a glimpse of our road back home.


Win Green - Dorset pictures.com

An elegant alley of oak trees also near Wimborne in an area called Pamphill, a short walk through which brings one to a perfect little brick pub named the Vine inn/ Probably my favourite pub ever, despite its restricted menu of cheese or ham sandwiches - or that's what was on offer last time. But actually, what could be better than a hearty cheese and pickle sandwich on white spongy bread and half a pint of something with a name like Rector's Leg, or similar. 

Canford Cliffs near Bournemouth: ah, the views of Old Harry rocks and the rolling grasslands of the Purbeck area; the sand, the sea and all the memories of arriving there late on a summer day when everyone else was going to their guest houses or homes; wading into a placid sea, lying back and staring up the the clouds.

More recently, many personal postcard views of Cerbère close to the Spanish border. Two in particular - on walking into the hinterland and looking back at the sea and the train lines while a mass of bees explored the almond blossom, and swimming late at night in the town's small harbour. 


And of Limoux, where we have just moved from. So many memories and mainly of places reached on favourite dog walks. Probably the one would be the point we always stopped on the 'runny fields' walk (where our greyhounds could run easily) and gazed over the vine-striped hillsides and steep hillsides above Alet les Bains.

                               The hills above our old house, an everyday and much loved, dog walk.

So, what poignant memories will be formed in this new-to-us area of France? Certainly the Loire itself - I must have stood for twenty minutes the other day just watching the water in the late afternoon sun. I can feel affection already for many sights and sounds here: the pale stone and slate buildings with their elegant details, the slightly fen-like distant views of tree-clumps and hedges, meadows and regimented striped fields, the late-summer swallows that still swoop and dip and the graceful herons traversing the skies as silent as gliders.






Saturday, 3 October 2020

BIG birthdays

I had one; yesterday. And it wasn't 21 . . . an odd day, overshadowed by a slightly desperate feeling that each minute should be enjoyed to the max, mainly brought on by the fact that I was . . . alone, albeit with dogs but they don't generally note human events, or if they do I haven't found a card anywhere yet. 

Mark was away on a concert tour - a hugely interesting one, and was planned sometime before, although I suspect my birthday might have slipped his mind at the time of planning - no blame here though. You go and enjoy yourself, don't mind me, etc. Sob. The son was also away, some hours Southwards and couldn't leave as the building of a special carpentry model was to be undertaken; the first real piece of work after several weeks of destroying plasterboard walls, shifting rubble and other non-woodworking activities. 

So, the day started with me muttering to myself that it was only a day, a human-contrived set of hours marking an utterly overlooked, minuscule event (not to my mother!) that occurred many years ago. I did the usual routines, opened cards and found the excellent present Mark had left concealed. People rang and were lovely and said things like, 'what have you got planned,' and 'is Mark taking you somewhere special,' etc, to which I had to admit that I hadn't planned anything further than hobbling around the garden and observing birds/clouds/plants etc. I say hobbling, as I was/am. As if to celebrate a new life-phase the sole of my left foot which had been slightly painful had decided to shift up a gear to very painful. My usual, leave it alone and it'll sort itself out, policy wasn't working. Hm. 


                                                            Morning hobbly wood walk

Driving would be ok, so I decided to make a trip to a fascinating sounding plant nursery about 40 mins away via a restaurant they recommended. Dog walk undertaken, but not to usual standard, I drove, got lost but enjoyed the route; ate organic beef Bolognese in excellent down to Earth, arty restaurant and arrived at the plant place. Well worth the trip; not yr average garden centre, a serious, plants-for-the region place with not a gnome or wind chime in site. (Plantagenate Plantes, near Saumur, Loire)


                               My idea of a perfect eatery - Le Puy à vins at Le Puy-Notre Dame.

I had a long chat with the owner who will come and investigate our plot and make suggestions, bought a restrained selection of flora and returned home to dogs keen to walk. Limped up the road and pushed them into a field where they ran off and ate unspeakable things as I couldn't run after them . . . did jobs, answered emails, and then went around to our charming neighbours for an 'apero' (not an ape, spell-check). An hour of chat, laughter and fizz sorted out any lingering, pathetic self pity and I returned to clear up the dump of a kitchen, hot bath, reading, phone calls with my absent family and watching an episode of Detectorists, a brilliant series of gentle/wry humour and human observation, if you haven't seen it.



                                          Is that... yes, it could be - three day old goat poo

This morning I am one day older and the day's list contains currently normal activities interspersed by larger bouts of foot-resting reading/writing, and no pressure to enjoy anything more than I usually do . . . The hazy gloom of a grey autumn day was illuminated by a beautiful bouquet of pink, mauve and white flowers, delivered by a man in a black van wearing a black mask, rather like a Milk Tray ad from the 70s. (Thank you Katherine).


Thursday, 1 October 2020

Voyages into unfamiliar territory - hairdressing salons

Throughout my life on average I've probably visited a hairdresser once every three months, no, actually four, or even five... depending on where I was living, what kind friends were around who knew about hair-craft (hello Alvin) and cash-flow. It's not something I enjoy anyway - the overpowering mix of hair product smells, the music, whirring of dryers and of course the slight embarrassment of knowing whether to yak politely to the person assigned to create something wonderful from an unkempt mop such as mine, or not.


Very long time ago hair. around 1982?

There was one hairdresser I used to love going to see in Nottingham, Mark, I think, when I was a photographic stylist and had to look somewhat style-ish, or at least I felt I had to when dealing with art directors, photographers etc. His life was, or perhaps he invented it, but it was edge-of-seat entertaining at any rate, one of high drama; no 'thought about your holidays, then? with him, rather more listening open-mouthed and mentally scribbling it all down to be put into a future book I might write one day.

So, back to the present, or a few months back just before the UK lockdown. We were in London planning the book launch for Londonia from location, to food, junk shop china, music and . . . hair. 'Suppose I ought to have it done', I had reasoned with Mark (husband, not former hair arranger). 'We are in London, after all, not a small provincial French town where my last hair cut was. . . dull, too say the least.' He had nodded and vamoosed off to various music shops and museums while I approached an artistically sparse salon somewhere in Hackney where we were staying. 

The desk person had sagely regarded my hair without a word and called someone else from a back room. They both inspected my scraggy mane for some time and then the second one said they would do something wonderful with colour and that Sean would do the cut. I felt trapped, like in an awkward garage situation where a person says you need a flange number Z456DW and a galvanised tube compression toggle otherwise it will be impossible to drive more than three meters down the road. 'How much would it cost?' I asked trying not to look too pathetic. They calculated an amount which was terrifying but I thought, well, once in a lifetime, got to look confident, feel confident, book launch . . . etc. So agreed and an assistant did a colourant test to make sure my skin would also cope with this financial ordeal and I walked out wondering what had just happened.

Two days later, I went back to the salon having told Mark, roughly, what this event was going to cost and took my seat in the salon warily. There was no chat about holidays, whether it was my day off, or was I going to be doing a bit of shopping later just a breathy silence while the colourist created. It took about three hours... I read half a book about the history of Hampstead Heath, drank mint tea and wondered how long the next bit would take. Another three hours. Alex from Denmark (Sean was off) was indeed an artist, considering in microscopic depth every hair he was about to snip, moving silently as a panther, talking to himself just audibly. At last the finished result was unveiled and it was impressive: shades of subtle 'mink' pale mauve, pale blonde, and yes a cut of extreme greatness. 

Then I was invited to pay at the counter and nearly passed out. Okay, ready for this... 240 pounds. 240 POUNDS!! - mainly due to Alex being the master cutter and therefore more expensive than the previously suggested Sean. I resisted saying WHF or, but, but, but, etc and quietly paid, even left a tip such was my state of shock. Ok, Mark, there it is, revealed the true sum - never did tell him at the time...Spent two days justifying it: all the times I had cut my own hair, and the rest of the families, etc, and eventually got over it. Admittedly, the cut did last a long time as it was of such precision. 


The only picture I can find featuring the insanely expensive hair-do, and obviously I hadn't followed their care instructions...

So, after lockdown... I haven't ventured into another salon, partly because of the mask thing but probably due to a lingering fear of the final bill. I've retreated back into self hair defacing which is an interesting roulette, sometimes weirdly successful, sometimes hat-inducing. But for the moment, I'm rather happy with it, and have been for the last two months or so - plastic razor comb (the phrase would induce instant heart failure in most hair dressers), pair of scissors and a certain, who really cares attitude. Who does care when mostly I'm associating with two dogs, my husband who rarely comments on my appearance unless it's really bad (he hasn't done recently, so the hair must be reasonable), and people mostly on Skype where clarity of ones hair isn't overly visible anyway. Actually, someone on a zoom book interview recently said, oh, before you go, where d'you get your hair cut? I love it. 

Ha! Take that Hackney salon.
















Friday, 25 September 2020

One month

It's four weeks to the day since we uprooted ourselves from the Aude in Southern France to re-root ourselves in the Loire valley. Normally, a month in the old life would have probably zipped past relatively un-noticed but four weeks in a new life, new place, new garden, neighbours, acquaintances, towns, weather, builders, accents, food, and so on has been a journey of exploration even down to the tiniest of details such as having one of those 'grindy' loos, finding a snake in the house and cooking on the most ancient of electric cookers, ever. 


Part of the new garden

It's odd how all the memories of the house we left behind are beginning to fade even just after a few weeks. Mark asked me yesterday, when we were planning kitchen ideas, if the other kitchen had a double or single sink. I had no idea. I must have stood at it a million times washing up and peeling veg but it was now just a white unclear object in my mind. I can still hear the certain creaks of cupboard doors, the crunch of gravel from the driveway or the sound of the piano being practiced in the back room but now the creaks are different, the gravel has mostly given way to silent padding over grass sounds, and the piano is more evident - now placed in the front room which is much better. A piano should be played and heard not sometimes visited at the back of the house. 

                                                          Late summer/early autumn

The days have passed with a certain pattern in place: dog walks, and they are good ones - long, pacing over fields, down empty roads, through woods; unpacking and organising our belongings, showing builders around, exploring a little - not too far yet as there has been too much to do; talking to new friends, and old friends on the phone; getting back into our respective work and getting to know our rather extensive patch of land and all the nature it contains. The bird population within its hedges is very healthy, helped by the previous owner's clever planting of insect-encouraging plants; I've so far seen two pairs of green woodpeckers, a lesser spotted woodpecker (I think) wrens, jays, a kingfisher, many different species of finch, tits, blackbirds, and other birds I must learn the names of - especially in French.


One of the very wonderful things about this area is the abundance of local, often organic, fruit and veg. Within a short bike ride /walk there are four places to choose from, our nearest being Jean-Paul's place, a few fields completely stuffed with the most incredible produce. Having got to know him a little, he kindly came to look at our place and work out the best place for veg-growing would be, etc. We had tea and his strawberries and learned more about the area, the changing climate, the markets he sells at and how to grow things successfully in a very sandy soil. 

This morning I went up and worked in his fields for the pleasure of learning something new and to glean a bit of info for the part of the book I'm currently writing. I was given the task of picking and making up bunches of coriander and parsley - much easier than last week's tough-on-the hands and skilful radish picking and bunching. I cycled back with a slightly complaining back and a gift of newly-picked carrots and herbs.




 

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Small gestures to save the planet

Very small, but if we all stopped going to Ikea et al, a few million acres of forest could be saved and landfill seriously slowed down...

The area we have recently moved to is blessed with a fantastic Emmaüs (recycling center par excellence providing jobs, giving people with a small budget the ability to buy pretty much anything, and fighting against wastage.) France doesn't have many high street charity shops - in fact none that I've seen but most big towns have an Emmaüs and/or a similar organisation.

On this trip I arrived ten minutes early and queued with about twenty other people (all wearing masks and chatting happily about what they were looking for). The doors opened, we were welcomed graciously and shown the way in via the hand gel area. There must be about thirty people, paid and volunteering working in that one shop and everyone I came across was helpful and friendly. I shall be back, at least once a week!

So, the findings... a tall thin cupboard with two drawers which we have taken the doors off (to use in kitchen renovation) and used as the office storage place; a lovely old fish kettle to use as a bread bin ( baguettes fit in perfectly); a 60s boat-themed table for the printer, a 30s bed-side table for a bathroom cupboard, an ancient wooden trolley which must have been part of a child's pull-along toy for a TV stand, lots of jam kilner jars, and an unused wicker shopping basket, all for under forty euros. 





Yesterday we experienced once again the usefulness of Le Bon Coin - a site rather like Gumtree on which, again, you can find just about anything secondhand. I'd been scouring the site like a total addict (which I am) for a few days looking for an old dresser to put in our very old kitchen. After giving up on one which was owned by a particularly uninterested seller - never available for us to collect - I found a really unusual piece needing a bit of TLC but a very good price. We went to see it, said yes and the much more motivated seller said they would deliver it for us the next day. It is, as he said, VERY heavy, solid oak and hand carved by someone a very long time ago - I'm still trying to identify anything like it to hazard the age of it. They duly turned up and after a lot of struggling and sweating it's now happily installed in the kitchen as if it's always been there and always will be there, unlike something made of ply and plastic...