Saturday, 21 November 2020

Tricking the mind

After being in our new house for a few months we have experienced a few cold days and can imagine what it might be like on a dank february day so for that reason recently went to a wood-burner shop in the local town and sort of fell in love with a small, cute red Canadian stove that was EEK expensive. On returning to the house and the room it would be situated in we justified the expense and went ahead to ask the shop owner to pay us a visit, survey the chimney situation and give us a quote. He did and the quote arrived a few days later - the sort of quote that requires the opening of a bottle and sitting down for some time in disbelief. Admittedly, the chimney is quite tall, and the tubage required no doubt very expensive as it was red to go with the stove, even though I'd said bog standard black would be fine...

We tried the wheely oil radiator for a few evenings but it's a big room and it barely made much impression so I looked at cheaper stoves and then somehow - as you do on the Net - ended up peering at electric 'wood' stoves. No lugging wood upstairs; click of a switch and heat would appear . . . attractive as we already have a big stove downstairs. Ideas change when one inhabits a new house for a while; things you had assumed about room usage don't necessarily stick. Case in point for this oversized bedroom. We had assumed it might become a species of second sitting room but all life revolves in and around the kitchen with afore-mentioned large stove. So, apart from sleeping and stuff and watching TV with hot water bottles (heaven) was it really necessary to invest a large amount of our savings on the real thing?

After looking at the electric stoves with a wry smile and raised eyebrow Mark agreed it might be the best option. I ordered it and the van magically appeared two days later. 'Will we be able to get it up the stairs' he had said as we went to sign for the box. I reminded him it had cost around 100 euro so was unlikely to be made of cast iron. The box was very much smaller than we had imagined. The 'stove' too - about the size of an average hotel mini bar. And it was made of plastic. Plastic! I'm sure the ad said métal noir - black metal. I just checked. It does . . . not sure how they got around that one. After laughing a lot and agreeing it was the naff-est thing we had ever bought we took it upstairs, screwed the legs on it and plugged it in. 

The fire has a heat and flame option or a just flame option. The heat setting is actually pretty efficient and quickly 'takes the edge off' the glacial air temperature compared to the oil heater which sits greyly emitting a slight warmth after about half an hour. But the weird thing is how comforting the just flame option is. The mind, (or at least mine) appears to be taken in by this little flickering pretend grate of 'logs'. Even though I know our purchase is future landfill (and I am ashamed to have added to this nightmare - it almost never happens!) I'm happy to have bought it, happy to have saved an enormous amount of money, and even feel quite fond of it and its little whirring sounds.



   


Saturday, 14 November 2020

Making do, exchanging, and farming methods.

A couple of weeks after we arrived in our new locality I tracked down all local suppliers of organic fruit and veg. Jean-Paul's place is a short bike ride away from us and his veg is simply incredible. He, his brother and mum have been honing their craft for the last 40 years here, sadly increasingly surrounded by monoculture as local farmers let out their fields to the big factory farm corporations. Their work is hard, and I know - or know fractionally - as we have been helping out a bit, but the satisfaction at the end of a day must be better than what the average factory farmer experiences. 

Our farmer neighbour has decided to let all his fields to a massive supermarket-supplying company based miles away from here, so vast machinery is brought, the fields flattened into sterile lines, mountains of sand and fertiliser imported and eventually crops such as mâche (weird, small salad thing) are sowed by special tractors after which another wheeled machine puts in metal bowed struts, after which plastic is stretched over, (by machine) after which another machine punctures the plastic to inject a dose of insecticide/herbicide... and so on. It seems an awful lot of effort/waste/environmental damage so that people can eat tasteless small bunches of leaves (which most French leave on the side of their plate anyway).

Up the road, Jean-Pauls place is a seemingly chaotic jumble of fruit crates, old poly-tunnels, tools, chickens, antique tractor parts, horses, germinating seeds in trays and his patchwork of small fields striped with carefully tended crops - currently, potatoes, carrots, broccoli, various types of cabbage, lettuce, the end of the tomato crop, coriander, parsley, beetroot, leeks, a few late strawberries, fennel, celery... all of it non-treated and mulched with leaves, mowings and horse dung.


                             Not J-P, or his crops as it was raining when I went to take a picture

Recently, when buying veg, we mentioned we'd like to once again have chickens, after leaving 'the Gladys' at our old house (with the new buyers caring for them). Jean-Paul said there were four sister chickens available and so we prepared the hen area: a fenced pen and part of an outbuilding with an old sideboard re-purposed as egg-laying place with straw-filled fruit crates. Mark made a ladder out of found wood from the out-building's window down to their pen. The making do element was further extended to repairing the glassless window with one of those see-through plastic 'lampshade' dog collar attachments to prevent hound-extremity scratching. I was slightly peeved as I'd already re-purposed it as a leaf collecting device. A minor detail.

We went round to the farm at dusk when the chickens would be sleepy and he bagged the four up, literally into a large heavy duty potato bag and invited us in for an apero. We sat in their kitchen and drank herby spirit of some sort and discussed chicken behaviour, making ponds and the inevitable end of our particular civilisation. When retrieving the bag, Mark asked whether he would like cash or an exchange by way of work time. He opted for the latter and two days later we were pulling carrots in the sandy loam that makes up J-P's fields.

Carrot pulling is very satisfying; a gentle rocking and twisting motion but not too hard or the carrot will snap; then a determined grip on the top and out it slides sandily from the carrot shaped hole. Or not. These are highly organic legumes and a few develop into whole carrot citadels which take a little more work to extract. We filled wooden crates for two hours. Mark pushed them back to the farm headquarters discovering new muscles, after which I learned the art of broccoli cutting with a scarily sharp knife.

We left at lunchtime feeling happily tired with a bag of misshaped carrots, broccoli, and herbs for drying above the fire. That was just a few hours but added to the large amount of gardening later . . . well, we slept very heavily. I now regard carrots, broccoli and radishes (from a previous morning's work) with a different eye in supermarkets, thinking of the physical work involved, or in the case of the plastic bags of salad, the amount of machinery involved.

The chickens, being wilder than our previous flock, have ignored our re-purposed sideboard, outbuilding and window and have taken to roosting in one of the nut trees, as they did back at Jean-Paul's farm. And that's fine, although we may have to hunt the eggs as he does - alerted by the chicken's egg-laying song as he put it. Rather poetic. 


Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Celebration

A minuscule one of importance only to me, but a celebration none the less. Having just reached 90,000 words in my latest novel, the ending is in sight - which then just means an astronomical amount of re-writing as the plot is so convoluted that I am lost in my own literary maze, without Google maps, or even a small mangled paper version. 

It seems to be the way I work though and I know there are great authors out there who experience the same 'method'; Steven King for one, of whom I recall saying his characters just develop without his control, and Will Self who plows through draft one without stopping and then starts on the grand re-write. Writing for me is like my own experience of playing chess; I can't think more than a move ahead as my mind starts wandering about - considering lunch ideas or wondering how we could improve the chicken enclosure/our income (ha) etc.

Below, an extract. Marion (main character who is currently in Pendingville after her demise while trapped the back end of a panto-horse) is on a Heaven taster-trip with acquaintance, Quentin Faraday, an ex- very successful and egocentric - conductor. Their normal conversational exchanges seem to be alarmingly altered.

“Good morning, dearest friends, oh, and you have brought new acquaintances with you. How simply delightful.” 

The receptionist's voice was pure Merchant Ivory film. Or perhaps she really was from a 1870 English country mansion. Marion imagined her dressed in silks and brocades rather than the neat white uniform.    

“Sorry to be inquisitive but can I ask what year you came from before Heaven?” 

 “Not inquisitive in the slightest . . . 1856.”

 “And you chose Heaven after Pendingville?”

    

“Indeed. I was, what my guidance officer referred to as, fast-tracked to Heaven as my life had been deemed to be one of unerring faith and charity.” The woman paused to refasten an escaped curl of red hair that had become dislodged from its neat bun. The small act completed she smiled at them all in turn. “If you would care to follow our friends they will introduce you to the celestial cleansing boudoirs.”


Marion was led by to a cubical lit by electric candles and decorated with garlands, buddahs, holy Marys, Shivas and a host of other effigies. Incense drifted. A soundtrack of tranquil streams, four chord piano and bird song played. Slight panic enveloped Marion, a feeling that she could easily forget to return to the meeting point if she became sufficiently immersed in this unfamiliar territory. However the massage table did look inviting. 

At the woman’s invitation, Marion stripped off her garments, took a shower in the en-suite room and returned to lie down and be subjected to oils, flowers, gentle pummelling, recitations, badly sung Gregorian chants, sips of honey water and confirmations that Heaven was the place to be, eternally. Her internal response was to scream, peel herself from the table and run away as fast as possible but she found herself uttering niceties, singing along and agreeing that this was, certainly, was the place to be.

    Some hours later Marion left the building oiled, limp and with holy chanting alive in her ears. Quentin was sitting on a rock looking out over the ocean. She wandered over to him hoping they could join in some healthy sarcasm but it seemed not. He glanced up at her and patted the rock, his words hesitant, brow momentarily furrowed.

    “. . . Christ, urg, ahh . . .” His brow softened as if an internal mechanism was forcing the action . “I mean, well, what an experience. Did you try the honey water?”


Marion’s words emerged somewhat differently to what she was thinking. “. . . Yes. Sublime, wasn’t it, and you must have loved that beautiful music, the string section, panpipes, stream, waterfall, choir,  rainstick, birdsong . . .”


He spat his response after a pregnant delay. “. . . Yes! Divine! And the chanting . . . so relaxing.” His eyes appeared strained, hands jerkily conducting an imaginary orchestra with a twig. “Do you recall where and when we came in – not that I’m looking forward to leaving, oh no, quite to the contrary!”


“Yes – over . . .” The gates seemed to have disappeared, or they had perhaps been escorted further than Marion had recalled, “there, somewhere. But as you quite rightly say, not really important. Did your assistant tell you about the concert later?”


Quentin’s eyes bulged a little. “YES, he didFour harps, child choir, bagpipes and guesting, Klaus Wunderlich and . . . Liberace!”


“Really? The Liberace.”


“And, the Klaus Wunderlich.” Quentin sobbed momentarily, “sorry, I’m just a little emotional. It’s going to be so . . . wonderful. And then there’s the macramé exhibition to go to and the cupcake icing contest.”


Marion nodded, the action automatic. “Yes, wonderful. I’ve always wanted to learn macramé and cupcake icing will be a very valuable skill to acquire . . . by the way, have you seen the others since you left the cleansing?”


“Only one. That guy called Nigel – VAT inspector. He was dressed in orange robes and chanting like those people in Oxford Street . . .”


“Hare Krishna.”


“Them, yes.”


“Was he happy?”


“He appeared to be, yes, wildly.”


“How wonderful. I expect we’ll see them at the concert.”


Quentin dropped the twig and bunched his hands into fists, his voice squeaky as if trying to force words to emerge. “Marion?”


“Yes, Quentin?”


His hands relaxed and hung limp over his knees. “. . . Nothing. Hungry?”


“Not really. I had a low fat cream cheese and fresh herbs rice-cake sandwich after the massage. It was really lovely.”




Sunday, 8 November 2020

Why isn't this a film...?

People keep asking me this... especially after watching a rather excellent interview with me by Adrian Matthews on the subject of Londonia. (Magira online magazine). I don't know, well, I have a fairly clear idea, not a great time to produce a book as an unknown author and expect to be grabbed by a film company to be sure, however prescient the novel is; and no doubt 40,000 (or so) other film pitches are being made every day to all companies, plus the uncertainty of our current pandemic-gripped situation/ impending end-of-world scenarios.

Anyway, if anyone who happens to see this IS a film producer or knows anyone who is, perhaps watch and/or share this interview. Sadly, I can't seem to post it directly from youtube but here's a link until I figure it out, or not... 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92_MjRtw3mE


Londonia is published by Tartarus Press. Link to the right for info.


Sunday, 1 November 2020

Feeding one's soul

by feeding the birds. A tiny act of something positive in a troubled world. 

After reading that garden birds' legs and feet can become entangled in the 'fat ball' nets that we have bought in the past I recalled my mother making fat and seed feeders from butcher's suet and seeds - melted fat, in a small pudding bowl add the seeds, a length of twine to suspend it and let it cool. Of course back then no one sold fat balls in nets or otherwise that I can recall; it was probably something she remembered  her mother doing with leftover fat from the Sunday roast.


                                                              Mark's lard and seed bird cakes

When we bought our rather posh bird table from a lovely little bird-obsessed outfit on the outskirts of Angers the guy told me also to be wary of the nets as the common 'green ones' contain virtually nothing of any nourishment, the yellow ones, slightly more and the orange variety, better. And you if you buy them in bulk then there's a massive plastic pot to add to landfill (plastic recycling . . .) Better to go for the home made version. Coconut shells can also be used to 'house' the mixture, and vegetable oil can be used if wishing to avoid animal fats.

More home made items today in the form of Sumac 'lemonade' and Sumac spice. The former worked well and required nowt else other than picking the flower heads, soaking them overnight, draining off the slightly amber/pink water and drinking it - pleasant, slightly citric flavour. The spice failed as I think I made the heads too wet but will try again next year with younger flowers.


Interesting how the 're-confinement' or 2nd lockdown is alerting my foraging and 'make-do' character traits - probably along with many other folk. I noted the abundant nettles, plantain, and dandelions out on our allowed dog walk earlier. Nettle soup tomorrow, found salad leaves, gleaning the local fields for overlooked squashes and beets... 

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...





Monday, 14 September 2020

Postcards from a new patch of the Earth

New to us anyway.

Yesterday's dog walks revealed baby deer (moved to fast to be photographed) pumpkins in abundance, poplar forests and quiet, leafy bike lanes to be explored - when I have a decent bike...




Bali, our younger greyhound (above and below) has discovered the joy of lying about on warm grass as well as sofas, although the older lady, Gala, still prefers the latter.




Dogs and husband after a long dog walk

Today we explored the small towns immediately opposite our patch; two of which are classed as 'plus beaux villages de France. And they are: very beautiful, full of pretty streets, roses climbing the pale stone buildings and wine caves/boutiques. People we have met here so far have informed us that our side - Rive Droit, is where the peasants live, the the Rive Gauche is the haunt of the bourgeoise, and apparently it's always been like that. I am of firm peasant stock - gardeners and servants for the well-to-do, so the Right Side suits me well, but it was fascinating to nip over the river and suddenly be in Chelsea-by-the-Sea, or similar. We happened upon the excellent 'flea market' that is held in Montsoreau every other Sunday, along with an excellent food market. It was up-market brocante prices but not madly so, and we managed to buy a couple of things for the new abode without feeling guilty.


A bookseller at the brocante.




Sunday, 6 September 2020

Plastic ban

In our new (old) house we have been inspired to use even less plastic than before. We need a washing basket as the old one finally died before the move but I can't bring myself to buy another huge chunk of plastic with holes in it which will break within a few months. Yesterday while exploring the magnificent town of Chinon we came across an excellent Emmaüs (recycling emporium par excellence) and there were a whole stack of them, a euro each, but I'd run out of cash - will return. 

The cash was spent in the same place on cushions and a magnificent white tureen which has become the new dog food bowl - the old one went the same way as the washing basket. Why not have a mad china vessel that cost two euros in which to house ones dog repas? After all it does go rather well with this particular race of dog... 





Thursday, 3 September 2020

Familiarity upload

It's happening. Little by little, the maps of our previous part of France being overlaid by new ones. I don't think the maps of before will ever be erased as nearly twenty years of being somewhere lays them deep, just as my knowledge of London is still ever-present if not a little suspended in the 80s and 90s.



Dogs are great for forcing exploration. I now know all the small roads, fields, rivers and paths within a couple of kilometres of the house. Not that I needed forcing but I might have put the walks off knowing there are still about 400 boxes to undo and masses of jobs to undergo. The house is now our home for sure, as I hoped it might become when we saw it on the first viewing. There's lots to do but most of it on the creative side (hopefully!) I've tracked down a couple of local craftspeople who will pass by to give their opinions. There are a few main repairs to do, like completing the little roofs that sit over the dormer windows - wonderfully named, Chien assis (sitting dog), and the dreaded Fosse Septique - septic tank, but I'm hopeful that we will be able to spend the money (scary large amount) on putting in a relatively newly -allowed system called phytoépuration which uses plants to filter the grey, and other, water and to be able to use the result in the garden rather than flushing it away somewhere.

Further afield from our small patch of the Earth there are exciting towns to explore such as Saumur, Angers, Tours and Chinon. I drove through the latter this morning after going to look at and subsequently purchase two sofas from Le Bon Coin - excellent online site for second hand anything and everything. I didn't stop in the town as it was market day and therefore nowhere to park but admired from a distance the very handsome buildings and the chateau crowning the tufa cliffs.

Back home - yes, I can say that now - we ate lentil stew in the garden, wrote lists and waited for the local electrician to turn up to look at moving the boiler. He didn't, not because he was one of those artisans who specialise in not turning up but as he couldn't locate the house - the previous owner did say it can be difficult to find . . . Later in the afternoon lovely new neighbours appeared with a bottle of Saumur fizz and we sat in the garden quaffing wine and eating cake Mark had made using the garden peaches and hedgerow blackberries. Stories were exchanged and very useful information given; how wonderful to come across open and friendly folk. Yep, familiarity upload well on the way to completion with loads more to explore and learn about this, and now, our, region.