Sunday 27 April 2014

Carrot cake and black metal

It's fascinating living with a musical polymath.

I came downstairs this morning to find Mark listening to Slint - post punk from the 90s; he then swiftly moved over to the Boccherini string quartet, followed by a bit of 1950s jazz. When I came in from a dog walk a little later he was furiously grating carrots to the above. In between I had heard him playing Chopin on the piano, practising the congas and mixing some cello and organ improvised music from his duo: Las Vegas Power Cut.

Saturday 26 April 2014


Where did mugs come from?
Like duvets, they just somehow crept into everyones' lives and took over: feathers in a bag rather than blankets, tea in a small bucket as appose to a cup and saucer.
They are practical I suppose, and sometimes comforting - cold hands wrapped around a steaming MUG is a different thing to cup, saucer, index finder, thumb and, if you like, little finger extended in manner of Vicar partaking of tea, in Sunday afternoon dramas.
Over the years, I have kept a small (very small) mental study going, of what makes the mug experience good, bad or indifferent. As an ardent tea drinker - now restricted to three cups a day, sadly, due to caffeine (or whatever the tea equivalent is) making me more than usually removed from sensible behaviour.
So the findings of this non-funded study:

White china is good. Non-white inside of mug, not good; whether it be buttercup-yellow, acid-green or homely terracotta.
Shade of white: (yes, there are hundreds) friendly off-white, or ivory – if you are feeling Interiors magazine-ish, bordering on cream, best.
Shape: Ah, now, probably the most important thing.
Slightly rounded, good, but nothing silly like a barrel shape; no 1980s severe, cone-shaped things with painful spiky handles. Good honest greasy-spoon café type shape is great - off white, with a nice round handle that you can tuck your index finger into, while you wait for the egg, bacon, beans and buttery white toast.

These are our present mugs.
No one else seems to give a poop what they drink out of in our house, but to me it does make a difference, so from the left:

1/ Silly mug that came from a sex shop in Bournemouth - think I just went in because I'd never been in one. Why they had mugs in there next to the pink and purple rubbery things, I don't know.
Two much colour on it for me, but fun to give to vegetarians. (I love animals - they taste so good).

2/ Probably my favourite: old now, it came from a supermarket for two euros - the embodiment of comfort-mug, to me anyway: off white, gently rounded, quite chunky china, but not too chunky.

3/ Cheap offering from supermarket, recently. I thought I liked it, but it's too small, and too Persil- white.

4/ Good café shaped one, but a bit too small, and a blue-white that feels distinctly cold - not good.

5/ This is actually my favourite one: from a second hand shop, just a bit too small for the times of really needing a 'nice cup of tea and a sit down' but I love it's friendly orange 1970s-ness.

6/ We have several of these; they came from an appalling shop somewhere on the outskirts of Toulouse, when I had gone to buy bed-linen and discovered that Ikea, was SHUT!
Basically, a good colour, interesting ridgy effect, but dangerous, in that they are lacking in base-weight and liable to fall over . . . usually on this computer keyboard.

Link to a very wonderfully silly site all about tea and biscuits.

Sunday 20 April 2014


Jobs I could not do:
Security guard in a shopping complex: well, I wouldn't meet the burlesque stature required anyway, but just the thought of standing for hours in an artificially-lit place . . .
Incredibly famous actor/musician: oh, the crowds, the never-ending attention, the accountants, managers, the money . . . I suppose I could cope if I had to.
Garage worker: the cold, handling metal in a freezing cavern-like space; and of course the ability to be practical in real terms - I'm very practical in my head . . .

Anyway. Yes, garages.

I had to find one yesterday as the car had been warning us for sometime of the need to carry out an oil change. Mark makes great cake, but fiddling around under the bonnet of the car, nope . . . more likely to be me, but this was urgent as a special spanner-shaped light had come on with the word IMMEDIATE.
Saturday on Easter weekend: very unlikely that any garage would be open or if it was they would say:
Madame you are a fool to have not supplied your car with oil, and I am going now to eat copious quantities of lamb with my family and friends - au revoir.
Most of them were shut, and the others said go away, except one that I had once been to when I backed the old car into a gate and the door had fallen off.
Oui madame, he said, this is not a problem. Come down at 11.00 and we will do it for you. 

I appeared at the appointed time, and, as the owner was engaged with talking to some other people about lamb, I ignored the 'do not entre as it could be dangerous' sign and wandered happily looking at the massive piles of amputated car bits and the forgotten hulks of vehicles slumbering towards the back of the building.

On the back wall I was surprised to see ancient signage: 'Lait, oeufs et Fromage, printed in faded orange 70s lettering.
I asked a mechanic if they still sold eggs and cheese.
Don't be une pillock Madame, we are a garage, not une epicerie. 
Actually, he said that the garage is housed in the old Leclerc supermarket, and it just shows how much our town has grown - you could fit about six of the old one into the new 'Hypermarché'.

It was 11.30; the mechanic put plastic bags on the car seat, said he would also change the two bald front tyres (which they indeed were) and told us to come back at midi. I questioned his idea of changing two tyres and doing an oil change in half an hour, but he assured me it would be done. And it was.
I was asked to make a RDV to come back, as the baldness was due to the car driving in a sort of knock-kneed fashion. For this I had to enter the nerve centre of the whole garage operation: a small dark space filled with teetering, ancient computers, bits of old pipe and two vast hounds.
I duly made the RDV, thanked them profusely and left to go home in our happy car (now reading 19,000 KM to the next oil change) and eat beans on toast in respect of the Easter celebrations.

Saturday 19 April 2014

Building No 38

All over the globe, or at least the bits I have been to, I have favourite spots: places I feel some special resonance with; sometimes an overwhelming melancholia, or joy or nostalgia. The Vine Inn is one of the latter.

Sitting squarely into a hill in an area near Wimborne, the building of red and grey brick has a comforting air of 'I will always be here, no matter what happens' about it.
When I was forced, at the age of about thirteen, to go on school cross county runs, I would often slow (not that I was going at any speed at all) near this pub and admire its burgundy-framed windows, hand-painted sign and clambering vine.
Sometimes when unable to go any further, (running is something that has always eluded me) I would collapse near the pylon at the top of the hill and lie there, looking at clouds and wondering how electricity travelled in the power lines.
On my trips back (see last post) to see Mum in The Home, I visit the inn occasionally, as I am now well over the age of thirteen and thus able to drink ginger beer in the establishment. I leave the yellow dining room of The Home, drive through sunken Dorset lanes back to the hill and install myself for a reflective half hour of cheese sandwich eating/ginger beer drinking.
The menu is how pubs should be: none of this Tai chicken on a bed of exotic whatever, just four items: Cheese sandwich, ham sandwich, cheese ploughman's or ham ploughman's; extra items (tomato, pickle, 10p)

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Funny thing, life . . .

Something Mark and I say about every three months or so when something happens to make one stop, sit/stand back and think . . . well, yes, what's it all about really.
I've just returned from The Trip Back to the UK to see Mother, something that always raises the afore-mentioned fundamental question.
The home she now resides in is about, to my mind, as good as you could get, especially if you were, like Mum, someone who felt nourished by being in the landscape of Dorset.
Thank God the winter has moved off leaving the cherry blossom, daffodils and bluebells a joy to look at. We spent many hours during my stay just sitting, drinking tea, watching the rabbits chasing each other and new mole hills popping up.

Sometimes, when visiting, I paddle forth into the dangerous waters of 'well it's really not a bad place to live, is it?'
This is always met with a resolute, 'but I don't want to stay here for the rest of my life,' or similar words.
I like to think at the grand age of eighty-five, if I had to live in a place with many other old folk, that somehow I would feel content enough: a busy life, lots done, now just an occasional trip out to a garden centre or a National Trust House - gone the excitements of travel abroad; planes, boats, the unknown, but I would have done enough. But maybe when that time arrives, it's never enough, what we have achieved.
This trip back I decided to take over (as in guerrilla gardening, not taking one over on the plane) a flower border; to create a small Mum space where I can put plants in and make it feel like her own place. Perhaps this will be enough to link her with the ground there - so similar to the soil and plant species in her own garden.
We put in roses, delphiniums and small plants I can't remember the name of. Soon enough the bees were visiting, the plants looking well-settled, and I drew a map of the border so she can remember where the new inhabitants are.

As I finished weeding, one of the staff appeared bearing a tray of tea and scary cakes - iced in yellow and blue.
"Why on Earth, blue," questioned Mum. Why indeed? Then I remembered it was National Awareness day, or something. The letters of the posters dotted about The Home were in the same neon colours – cakes to match. A few days before she had asked me what National Awareness meant, and I had duly read the info and then tried to reinterpret in a manner that would be . . . acceptable.
"They want to try and open up conversations about life and . . . death."
I sighed, knowing where this was heading.
"Well, say, Aunty Mabel had always wished that before she . . . you know, died . . . that she could have seen Tom Jones sing, preferably in his pants, or that Uncle Tom had wanted a small part of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra to play on, or possibly at? his death bed. These things, perhaps could be possible."
"What rubbish. How would you fit the B.S.O into one of these bedrooms."
"I know . . . it's just an example. Just think how bad the relatives would feel if, after the event, so to speak, they discovered such a wish written down somewhere, and someone could have done something about it."
Mum thought for a while as we watched a huge-eyed deer stepping out from the rhododendron bushes.
"So," I said, "what about you? Is there anything you would like me or the home to do . . . about . . . before, you know . . . "
She smiled at me wryly, picked up one of the cup cakes and bit into the blue icing. "They can just push me down the hill."
I smiled too and picked up the yellow cake.

Friday 4 April 2014

Town planning

After looking at some incredible images of Detroit (as is now) in The Guardian this morning, I started thinking about our own small town and how it has changed over the years.

One of the smaller factors of Detroit's demise (the vast one being the decline in industry) was people moving out to nice new housing estates, away from the urban angst. This is happening (on a minuscule comparative scale) in our small French town; and probably many others.
People want somewhere to sit outside and eat, tinker with plant pots, etc; therefore when small villas on the outskirts of the town with terraces or small gardens are offered at cheap prices, they are snapped up, leaving the town centre more and more depleted.
'Bâtiment du France' or 'buildings and structures police' - sort of, are mega-strict about people building roof terraces, even part covered ones in most 'historical' French towns. If you live anywhere near a church - forget it. It's something to do with the arial view of the town - history in tact and no stripy parasols, merci bien . . . but, what about all the nasty plastic shop signs blazoned everywhere, even in the central square with its fountain and arches. What about the plastic doors and shutters? Why aren't they concerned with banning such items? Why the policing of a few roof terraces?
I'm no town planner, but common sense would suggest that if people had their sitting out area on the roof of their town house, they would be less likely to crave a new villa, and have to drive to the out of town 'malls' for those 'oops, forgot the cat food' moments.
Populated town houses = keeps the town centre alive: shops, restaurants etc.
Busy, well-kept town = tourism.
Bigger population in town = less driving everywhere, increased need for local shops; more taxes for the Marie, etc, etc.
No doubt there is some bigger motive for the construction of all the yellow and pink boxes, to do with local politics and bigger taxes coming from all the supermarkets now clustering around this town like ugly, square battleships; but there just seems to be a total lack of future thinking.
When I lived near Matlock, Derbyshire, the same thing was happening then, with regard to 'out of town' shopping, and on a huge scale with the terrifyingly huge Meadow Hall complex that apparently cleaned out most of the independent shops in Sheffield.
Anyway . . . where was I? No idea. But here's a picture of the balcony attached to our old town house to demonstrate how much greenery, flowers and thus insects and birds one 3m x 1m space can hold. It was just enough space to take tea on, listen to the swallows wheezing in the summer skies and sit gazing up the road at Madame cat-hater planning her next death attack. Enough to feel you could experience 'the great outside', and be able to walk up the road for a fresh baguette.
The balcony would have been added in the 1950s (highly unlikely to be allowed now) before the town planners had really woken up and Bâtiment du France were probably more embroiled in after-war re-construction, if they even existed then.

Thursday 3 April 2014

Building No 37

One of a million or so small concrete buildings that haunt train station platforms.
I wondered how many people have sat in here thinking about their destination, escape from someone/something, or perhaps thinking of nothing, mind blank with the routine of another day at work.
I had a sudden image of the three wise monkeys in human form sitting on the three central seats.
Someone stifling a yawn, someone asleep, and someone with headphones firmly clamped to their head.

Odd, how climate effects the aspect of a building. If this had been in Havana, it might have contained a small lively bar; vibrant beer posters slapped across the walls and an absurd shining 1960's car parked outside. However, it was in a small, empty train station somewhere south of Toulouse on a damp Sunday afternoon in March: no music, no beer and only a small rusting Renault five in the station car park.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Shameless advertising

Like most artist type folk I know, I am totally pathetic about 'getting it out there' or advertising as people in the trade call it. Now re-editing book three in my trilogy of novels, I was looking back at No 1 earlier and I thought - 'well, it's possible that this blog could be read by a number of people, and some of them might be interested in what I do when not writing blogs. So, here is a chapter at the end of Book 1.

Two of the main characters are preparing to head off for a new life in France, when someone unexpected arrives . . . 

Archway  January 2003



"Do you really need this?" asked Holly, picking up a broken zither.
    "Yes, it might be useful."
    "For what?"
    "Err, I don't know at this moment, but I sense that I shouldn't get rid of it."
    "Records of Russian Orthodox choir music, box of ancient music scores, Skipping in a Glen?"
   "What about your rubbish, then?" said Peter, grinning and holding up a bird skeleton and a rusting metal sign marked: The End Of The World IS Nigh.
    "Okay, point taken, but we have to get rid of something. This is never all going to fit in the removal van."
    "Do we really have to get all this done by tomorrow afternoon?"
    "Yes, by 4pm. That's when the Collins are bringing their stuff."
    "Do we like these people?"
    "So, why do we have to do what they want? Remind me."
    "You don't remember all that horrible negotiation at the end?" 
    Peter enfolded Holly in his arms. "No, not really - I was working. Mrs Mussolini here sorted everything out." Holly tickled him. "Aaarrgg, stop . . . mercy! I'll pay attention in future."
    "It was part of the agreement, to get the price we wanted. We said we would be out by the tenth of January - they're in a chain."
    ". . . Right, let's get on with it," said Peter reluctantly. "Sarah will be bringing Gabriel back in the afternoon."


"Crap. . . I'm so tired, couldn't we just stay in bed for another half an hour?" groaned Holly, the following morning.
    "We can't," yawned Peter. "Martin and a friend are coming in half an hour to help us take it apart and get it downstairs."
    "What time is the removal van coming? Look at my list - I can't remember what they said now."
    "Err . . . 10am." The intercom buzzed. "I'll get it, must be Martin, they're early." Peter slid out of bed and picked up the handset. "Hello, Martin? Hello?"
    "Not him?"
    "No reply. I'd better go down. Perhaps it's not working."
    Holly went to wake Gabriel, and then started breakfast. Peter came back upstairs looking ashen, someone following him. "Holly, my mother's here . . . umm, not quite sure what to do."
    Peter's mother came into the kitchen and sat down heavily. She looked dishevelled, her expensive suit creased, makeup smudged. 
    "I got a taxi, he . . . wanted me to stay, I had to come, needed to get . . . away." She continued in short, breathless phrases. "Your brother . . . away, till Tuesday, didn't know where to go."
    Peter backed against a wall, looking scared.
    "What happened?" Holly asked.
    "He, had . . . an affair, another one, not the first you know . . . but . . . I came back, found them in bed, our bed." She started sobbing loudly.
    "We're leaving, to go to France - today," said Holly, feeling hysterical. "The ferry's booked."
    "What am I to do?" wailed Peter's mother.
The intercom sounded again, and Peter answered. It was Martin and his friend.  He let them in and directed them to dismantle the bed. Giggles issued from the bathroom; Holly went to check. Gabriel had emptied all the toiletries from a box onto the floor and had made a huge shaving cream, shampoo puddle. He was lying in it, fully clothed, his dark hair a mass of foam. She looked at him and thought about all the stuff still left to do.
A pressing feeling started up in her temples.
    The buzzer went again - the removal men ahead of time. Martin went to direct as best as he could.
    Peter phoned his father. "She's here. Yes in a terrible state . . . yes she got a cab . . . no, I don't know how much. Last time we saw you both, you accused me of being a loser - you might want to look at yourself." There was a silence, broken by the sobs from his mother. Peter listened to the ranting on the other end of the phone and interrupted. "I don't care, I'm really not interested in your sordid affairs. You'll have to come and get her. We're leaving today. You can't buy your way out of this mess. I don't want your money . . . what, what?" The phone went dead. "It cut off," said Peter, staring at the handset.
    "I told the phone company that we were leaving today," said Holly. "The Collins are using a different one."
    As Holly left the kitchen to deal with Gabriel and the mess, Peter's mother stopped her, grabbing her arm. She looked wild. "You don't know what I've been through," she spat, "and now you're taking my son away from me."
    The threatening migraine sprang. Holly squinted at her through the stabbing pain. The memory of the disturbing visit to Cornwall re-emerged: Peter being compared with his brothers, Peter practically told he was worthless.
    "You brought this on yourself. You have no love for him, we are his family, and we are going today." She wrenched her arm away from the spidery grip and went into the bathroom, tears flowing: her head a war zone.
    Peter followed her in and wrapped her in his embrace: "It's all right, she's going. We'll be away from her soon, Holly? I love you . . ."
    The intercom sounded again - the pedantic neighbour next door complaining about the removal van. Peter told him to piss off and put back the handset. Two minutes later it buzzed again. "Look, just fuck off will you!" yelled Peter. "Oh my God, so sorry! Holly, it's your mum and dad." They came up the stairs.
    "Mum, Dad," sighed Holly, holding a cold flannel to her head. "This is incredible, you drove down?"
    "Well, we couldn't just let you go off without a housewarming present . . . " said June, her words tailing off as she observed the chaos.
    "Err . . . this is my mother," said Peter. "She . . . just arrived - sorry, not quite sure what's going on."
    "All my life," moaned his mother, "did what he wanted, his choices . . . he's not getting away with it . . ." She looked mad. Peter wondered if she had been drinking, he had only ever seen her with an occasional gin and tonic.
   The intercom sounded again. Holly answered; it was another neighbour warning that the whole of Archway Road was blocked off due to someone threatening to jump off the bridge. "Think I might join them," Peter said desperately.
    June took matters in hand: "Jack, make tea for everyone. Peter, go and check on the removal people. Holly, Gabriel is drawing on the living room walls, give him these." She handed over the big drawing pad and pens that she had brought for him. She turned her attention to Peter's mother, instinctively feeling the immense gap between the woman and her son.
   As Holly went to find Gabriel, she could hear her mother speaking calmly. "Here, a cup of tea, come and sit here and tell me what's happened." June, ex-nurse, general pourer of oil on troubled water.
Buzzzz - the intercom. The Collins. Holly went downstairs to see them.
    "Really sorry, but the guy buying our flat is being a right pain," said Mrs Collins. "He's moved all his stuff in already and is saying that we must be out by eleven. We're ready now." She pointed at a battered van and looked imploringly at Holly.
    "How did you get through?" asked Holly. "Someone said the road was blocked."
    "Oh, it's okay . . . he jumped," she said, absentmindedly.
    "He jumped, and it's okay?" said Holly incredulously.
    "Yeah, he broke a leg apparently. Can we start?" she persisted.
    "Yes, why not? I'm thinking of asking Brian Rix to come and help. We could do with a few extra people screaming and running about with their trousers round their ankles."
    Peter ran up. "I got through to my father, he's coming to get her. Your mum is fantastic, calmed mine right down - she sounds quite human."
    "Has this happened before?"
    "I think so, but my brother was around last time."
    "Is what she said true?"
   "I don't know, probably. As I said, I really don't care. I'm going to go and get fish and chips for three hundred now."

It was 3pm. The bed had finally been made to collapse and the furniture was in the van; the Saab was stuffed, the Collins were halfway through moving their belongings, and Peter's mother was still in deep conversation with June.
Holly unwrapped the present from her parents. Inside a box was one of their Liberty platters. Holly admired the colours and swirling design. "It's lovely. I'll thank Mum later."
    "We're making a delivery to Liberty's tomorrow," said Jack. "Thought we would stay overnight in London and catch up on a few things."
    "It was brilliant timing," said Holly gesturing to the kitchen and Peter's mother. "I don't know how we would have coped with her otherwise." She sat quietly talking to her father and gradually the migraine eased into a normal headache.
    Peter came over. "We really need to get going or we'll miss the crossing. I'm wondering if I should stay here, Holly and catch you up. I don't know how long it will be before my father gets here."
    June overheard. "Certainly not. Everything's ready. We'll stay here and hand the keys over, and we're happy to wait with your mother until your father arrives."
    "It's a bit strange though," said Peter doubtfully, "I mean you having to deal with all this."
    "This journey is important for you both. We don't want Holly to have to do it by herself with Gabriel; you should all be together. I imagine your relationship with your parents is obviously a little, err . . ."
    "Complicated?" assisted Peter. "You may have gathered we're not really on speaking terms. I'll write to them when we've settled a bit. I think we need to start again."
    They said their goodbyes, Peter, tentatively to his mother, now subdued and wanting to go home. They walked down the stairs for the last time.
    A parking ticket flapped on the car's windscreen; Holly stripped it off the window and ripped it into tiny pieces. "No more tickets, clamps or car pounds," she said happily.
    "No more tube journeys, squashed bikes, or bus queues," said Peter. "I wonder what the grumbles will be instead."
    He looked at Holly as they set off. "Why aren't you going towards Southwark Bridge?"
    "It'll only take five minutes longer. I just want to drive down that road in Covent Garden."
    "The one where you tried to assassinate me, and then kissed me in front of all those people?"
    "That one, yes," said Holly.
Peter leant over and kissed her gently on the cheek: "I enjoyed it - the second part."
    The old Saab edged its way up Holborn High Street and turned into Covent Garden, silver between bus red and taxi black.