Thursday 29 December 2016

A december walk along the Canal du Midi

We parked at Le Somail, a tiny village about half an hour from Carcassonne, leashed the manic dogs and set off on a circular walk - or, actually, more elongatedly-triangular, taking in the village of Salles' D'Aude about half way round. Odd name - seems to translate as 'the rooms of the Aude', but maybe means something else . . .
A perfect winter day for walking - sunshine, no wind, and no other dogs about to provoke stress-inducing barking episodes. Sadly, quite a few of the plane trees that grace the canal banks have been cut (due to some malignant tree-pest), the dates off their executions marked in red on each trunk's sawn base.
About an hour into the walk the planes stop as the coastal influence starts and elegant pines appear - Alep, or umbrella, I'm not sure, but just the most beautiful trees.




We ate an appalling picnic (laughing cow cheese, white bread and chocolate mousse) and enjoyed the sun as it winked through the waving river grasses, then slightly more wearily continued on past rotting boats and gleaming cared-for boats, and turned right into the village which was completely deserted except for a few cats sitting about. The last section of the walk was through open fields with distant views of crinkly brown mountains; still no one about, and apart from an occasional farting moped or misplaced gull, complete and wonderful silence surrounded us.





Monday 26 December 2016

Goodbye George

Stick on an extra jumper and do the hoovering to this carefree 80s number - oh, his teeth, hair, attitude, embodiment of the 80s . . . coooool, coooooool . . .
R.I.P, George.

Sunday 25 December 2016

What's it all about?

This year, amongst all the wrapping paper, presents, food prep and celebratory glasses of fizz, I felt there had to be a point where we stopped to think about what this once-a-year madness actually represents.
Some years we have gone to a midnight mass or walked down to a morning service, but as we don't actually visit any churches during the passing months apart from out of a desire to admire their construction and artefacts, joining a service didn't seem particularly meaningful.
Going up to the highest point in the area and really having a think about The World and us in it, did, and up at the highest point near us there happens to be a tiny church which (unlike most churches around here) is always open - probably as there is nothing inside worth making off with.
We drove up the twisting road, let the dogs out for a whirlwind canter around the bald fields (750 meters altitude) had a brisk walk (9 degrees rather than the more balmy 13 down in Limoux) and then visited the edifice with our plaster statue of Christ rescued from a bin at our local recycling place . . . 
I don't know what I believe - agnostic? a confused but interested wonderer more likely, anyway, mindful enough to feel that I wished to mark such a hugely fussed-over event in some way other than presents and eating too much.
The church had its usual festive-time decoration of white plastic tree, tinsel, and small nativity scene. I added Christ to the altar with some olive twigs and a candle and we sat for a moment, possibly not doing much more than trying to imagine how the medieval church-builders had fabricated anything so solid and elegant miles up from the nearest settlement without so much as a tile-cutter but it felt oddly moving, more so than standing within a mass of people who, like ourselves for the most part would probably only be there for the one event.
The day has been wonderful, the hours moving slowly as they seem to on the 25th of December as a rule - time spent with your favourite (hopefully) people, in my case, thankfully, yes; many wonderful gifts, food, reading, walking etc, but somehow all the much richer for sitting quietly for a few moments in that small, seldom visited church.

medieval church in the tiny hamlet of St Salvayre near Alet les Bains.

Saturday 24 December 2016

The turning year

How many Christmas cakes have we made, decorated and ingested as a family . . . well, must be at least eighteen - age of son now, give or take the odd year when we didn't get around to it and a shop 'log' was bought instead.
I was looking (unsuccessfully) for a picture of my favourite: a couple of years back - small lead penguin alone on the top of a white frosting with a cardboard sign marked North Pole.
I'm rather pleased with this years decoration though: another snowy scene topped with a 50s ceramic train, Jesus and his mum.

Happy Christmas from me, my dog (one of them) and blog . . .

Monday 19 December 2016

Does it get cold here?

Immortal words spoken by many people visiting us on a rampantly-hot August day in the Aude region. Yes it does, and it seems impossible that the thermometer was hovering around 37 or so for weeks this year.
This morning I took the dogs up to a favourite hill and watched them canter about, breath steaming while I shivered in the minus 4 degree, blueish half-light.


Friday 16 December 2016

Beautiful insignificancies

if that last word is a word, and if it isn't, it should be.

Most of my dog-walks around this part of France incorporate vine fields (vignoble) as we are surrounded by them, and quite often the tiny 'houselets' or cabanon, (or casots, if its a walk in the coastal wine-growing areas). They were built as places to hide away from the sun in the grape-picking season, or places to shelter from wind, rain and frost at the vine-clipping times.
Sadly, most of these characterful little buildings have been abandoned over the years, even the ones that had obviously been more than just shelters, the remnants of gardens, benches and climbing roses often still visible.
One of my regular walks features a particularly intriguing cabanon on the top of a hill, usually inaccessible, a rusted wire fence, gate and padlock keeping inquisitive people like me, out. Today the gate was open, so it was my duty as an amateur investigator, 'flaneur' and story-concoctor to look a little closer.
The overgrown garden had obviously once been loved, the clumps of lavender and rosemary still stragglingly visible. A slatted bench still faces the mountain view, although now partially obscured by rampaging poplar and fig.

Inside the cabanon was the usual collection of junk: bottles, broken chairs, collapsed shelves and the blackened trace of a fireplace, but the walls, unusually, held more interesting history - drawings and memos from the 1940s, particularly this quietly arresting pencil sketch that I felt could have been done by Chagall if he had happened to be in the locality and doing a spot of grape-picking.


Wednesday 14 December 2016

Reinventing things

Odd how some things just come about: the way one walks, sense of humour, likes and dislikes, and writing style . . .
I can't actually remember deciding on a style as such. I do recall a brief flirtation with italic nibs at school and taking ages over forming a few words but then that changed over time and somehow I've ended up with a fairly illegible scrawl. Maybe it's just that we are lazier now with keyboards and texting; writing, something a little alien and tedious. However! all that has changed for me from working on a script style for the character, Smithi, in my book of the same name.

After escaping from The Domes of Manchestershire (year 2073), Smithi travels the length of Britain, scribbling furiously in notebooks until the pens he has with him cease to function. He (and I) start to use a dip pen and ink. What joy! Writing becomes slower, a little more formed and sometimes a little haphazard - which I like.
Is it odd to reinvent one's handwriting? I don't think so; maybe it is but maybe I don't care. However, I wish I had thought a little more about my spidery, terrible signature - bit late for that perhaps, unless I become incredible famous and decide to change my name to include the middle A as something more than a letter - Alfred, I feel might be interesting . . .
Of course with this new way of writing, one has to have the right equipment . . . cue a bit of internet junk browsing and obsessional ebay tracking for a few hours. The inkwell I decided I would buy zoomed up to over four hundred quid! well, it was Georgian and apparently, and understandably, a rarity, so back to some cheaper options.
Le Bon Coin, in France is a great site for occasionally happening upon things that no one else seems to be looking for, and ancient inkwells obviously were not 'things of the moment' so I managed to pick up someone's bizarre collection for little money, including this rather intriguing 1920s ceramic bird - the inkwell part hidden under the snail shell - and it came with an excellent scratchy pen.

So onward with Smithi's next illustrations and letters.



Friday 9 December 2016

Stretching yourself

I've been saying 'I'll go to a yoga class' for about twenty-three years, give or take a few months, but for the last two Fridays I have - gone to a yoga class.
When you look up yoga images on the net - such as the above, (thank you, Huffington Post) 99% of the images are of lithe young beautiful people with slim limbs, poised in ligament-wrenching poses in front of impossible sunsets, aqua seas and white-sanded beaches.
Our yoga group was mainly OLDER people: grey haired, a little thicker around the middle than perhaps they (certainly me) would like, but nevertheless, relatively fit-ish. The class was held in a 'bien-être' center (being good to yourself, place) which was a sterile as a dentist's waiting room with a view of a lot of dead grass and a soundtrack of grunting from the adjacent weights room.
BUT! the class was a revelation, both times. 
I do exercise each morning; a sort of home made routine of physio, Alexandre Technique and yoga that I have vague memories of from decades ago, but this is so all-consuming, even with the grunting from next door invading one's inner beautiful space. 
Even though I've only done two classes, already I feel more supple; legs more energised, less (slightly) stressed about trying to get everything done - and I'm working on this. Maybe I'll add in the other thing I've been meaning to do for the same twenty-odd years - meditation.
I did attend one class back in London on the Hornsey Road where we spend about half an hour examining the complex taste sensations of a raisin and then did breathing techniques of counting to ten slowly and not letting ideas, worries and lists of the following day intrude. I was supremely bad at this but was attracted to the IDEA of it - the idea of being able to really empty the mind of all useless angst and to concentrate only on The MOMENT, etc.
I did wonder if after these two sessions I might think . . . nah, not enough time, another thing to find money for, whatever, but I feel drawn to continue and find out what my not-so-young bod can put up with and, hopefully, embrace.

Thursday 1 December 2016

being connected

Do we sometimes forget the importance of being connected to reality, The Earth and just to ourselves?

I often 'forget' my phone when walking so that I can concentrate wholly on being 'in the elements' and being in THE moment without the umbilical cord of digital information. Yes, there can be inconveniences - like when I got stuck on a mountain a couple of years back and had 'forgotten' my phone. But actually it was fine and I met some friendly mountain inhabitants who kindly gave us (me, boy and dogs) pizza and towed us back down, which was probably far more interesting and possibly safer than waiting three hours or so for the insurance company to send out a rescue truck.
I was listening to a talk recently about the over use of phones/tablets, etc. The speaker suggested that we may be in danger of losing the capability and knowledge of how to be on our own - uncomfortable, restless; fingers twitching ready to scroll, jab, text, delete, like, and send visual information to anyone out there ready to receive our description of what we are doing, rather than just actually doing whatever it is and forming memories about it.
A most poignant example of this was a program I heard on Radio 4 where a professional balloonist was talking about the trips he organises and the behaviour of the people sharing the basket with him on each voyage. He said in nearly all cases people are so busy recording, photographing and sharing on social media, The Experience that they are not actually experiencing The Experience. Yes, they will be able to recall that moment on Facebook or Instagram but they won't have the actual, visceral memory in their heads.
It all has a place - social media, phones, computers, and it's all amazingly useful but perhaps not to the extent of forgetting our real connections.

Sunday 27 November 2016

small steps

Although my adopted country has, and practices, certain things that I feel disturbed/disgusted by: fois gras, Marine Le Pen, ultra-bureaucracy (well, it was invented here) bof, etc, there are many wonderful things: cheese, bonjour Madame, empty countryside and a certain bloody-minded - 'right let's do this attitude' which occurs sometimes, for example when our local small train route is threatened each year - "Quoi? Mais NON! You weel not take our tiny train away from us - eet is our right to ave zis!"
I was a bit mystified when the smoking ban in bars/cafés came into force. I'd imagined mass rioting: "Mais NON! c'est pas possible - we 'av zer right to fill our lungs wiz ow you say tarmacadam."
But no, the ban seems to have stuck and with no apparent fuss. Perhaps most people realised it was actually a more pleasant experience to enjoy one's fois gras with an accompaniment of fresh air, not a fuggy cloud . . .
Anyway - small steps: hurrah for La France! It has been decreed - no more plastic plates, cutlery and cups! Moving slowly towards reducing some of the terrifying amount of discarded apres-nosh garbage, although apparently this won't come into effect until 2020 by which time a landfill area of about the size of Bordeaux will no doubt be occupied by the stuff - still it is a start.
Here's a pic I took of a few bits of packaging gracing our home, two of which are usual to the eye, and depressing, and two of which I was impressed and intrigued by.


Tomatos in a plastic . . . thing. Why? Why not in cardboard with a cellophane covering? Cost I suppose, and tomato protection to a certain extent. But if there was a ban on plastic packaging there would have to be an alternative. Why did we buy them then? Hm, good question - think it was because all the 'en vrac' (loose) ones from Holland looked scarily genetically engineered. Will try harder!

Organic chilies (or they were until we ate them) in a poly tray with cling film . . . organic! Surely they really could be in a small waxed cardboard tray? cheese-box balsa wood stuff? a cellophane packet?

Then, these two:

Very unusually, a pot of cream cheese in a waxed cardboard pot - not even a plastic lid!! Amazing!

And, a TIN of body/face cream- I love this stuff; mainly composed of almonds and probably a load of water, it costs about two euros, does the job, and the pot will rot down, or you can keep screws or something in it afterwards - well you could in the plastic version, but there's something very satisfying about small metal pots with screw lids . . . don't you think? No? (Yes, I need to eat something -writing this dangerously beyond lunchtime).

The company - Le petit Marseillais probably have a factory the size of Luxembourg, and unfortunately all of their other products seem to be encased in plastic - how did this one escape into tin/aluminium or whatever it is? Why can't they produce more stuff, or perhaps less stuff (we all have FAR too much choice!) in the tin-type material. Actually . . . I'll ask them, when I've had lunch - Oh, it's Sunday. Tomorrow then.

Friday 25 November 2016

Information, and fathoming stress

To a certain extent anyway.
The information part of this post refers to Ted Talks.

I'd forgotten about these marvels until friend Kim reminded me via a Facebook link to one such mini-lecture on the cheering subject of Hitler.
So, the last few days during any fairly mindless activity: washing up, going through bills, etc, I've loaded up a Ted Talk and have learned and/or certainly deepened any previous knowledge I had acquired on a variety of subjects: why sugar is so bad for us, sleep behaviour, how the brain synthesises happiness, neurosurgical implants to combat depression, environment issues . . . so many talks, so many subjects.
The one I was listening to this morning while clearing up the kitchen was about Stress - not avoiding it as such, more how to look at it. Rather than assuming stress is totally a bad thing, the speaker (who was an eminent psychologist in this field) was describing what happens in our bodies if we learn to accept stress and know that we are in fact equipped to deal with it.
So, rather than panicking and feeling we are about to do damage to ourselves during a stressful situation, we should understand that our heart is beating harder for a reason; breathing faster, important, as we are sending more oxygen to the brain in order to rise to whatever the challenge is. Err . . . probably not so well explained (but then I'm not an eminent scientist, more of a muddled muser). Anyway, I thought I'd try out these theories this morning on a dog walk - often fairly stressful as at the sight of even a pathetically small squirrel will send the hounds into a frenzy with me desperately hanging on to their leads.
We went 'up the hill' and as usual one of the local cats was sitting in the middle of the lane, smirking at our approach. The dogs shriek-barked, gyrated, pulled and did all the usual stuff they do and the cat continued sitting and smirking.
Normally at this point I will swear a lot, get very cross and become anxious about what might happen to my back, arms, etc, and what might happen if the dogs slipped their collars. This time I thought about dog-stress. These dogs have been bred to chase and probably maul furry creatures; their bodies were reacting as they should, I was reacting to their stress and that was okay. I could deal with it and I wouldn't die (hopefully).
I let them shout a lot, and studied the morning's spectacular clouds rather than swearing and when the cat finally went off to find something to be stressed about itself, we peacefully continued the walk.
I'm sure I'll forget these rather Zen thoughts when a particularly appalling bank statement arrives or whatever but . . . maybe not.
Right; in-tray and a lecture on Space, I think.


Thursday 24 November 2016

More free food

November - sweet season of hazy bonfires, russety colours and . . . unpicked fruit.
In this part of the country we are lucky enough to be blessed with the king of fruit, or perhaps, goddess of fruit - the most beautiful, exotic, health-giving, and largely ignored, pomegranate (grenade). Our main tree gives enough to make jam, juice, syrup, salads etc, but we often forage for other overlooked fruits as it seems criminal to waste them.
Oddly, people will buy them from shops(?) - as well as other seasonal 'up for grabs' such as figs, walnuts and cherries; not enough time? too fiddly? I don't know but it seems a crucial part of the passing year however stressed or busy we might be, as much as blackberrying in the UK - also seemingly, largely forgotten when I was back there in the early autumn. Step backwards a little? bit less watching TV about people baking big wobbly cakes, or bitching over other peoples' table decor/dinners and a bit more time out in the wilds collecting the real stuff?

Sunday 20 November 2016

Life chapters

The last trip back to the UK was very different to the last thirty or so I've made in the last five years to see my mother in her nursing home.
Now it's a different home - modern, town-based with different benefits: familiar shops, tea rooms, Oxfam and a river walk as oppose to a rambling, Lutyens-style house surrounded by towering beeches and oaks; mossy lanes and . . . well, that was the problem, there really was only one mossy lane walk and we did it (with wheelchair) about 7,000 times (or so). The home is a lovely place, and she had a lovely room, but once you were there - you were there, often staring out at the rain and discussing where socks go to to after being introduced into one of the home's cavernous washing machines.
When I had visited Mum in the new place, I felt the need to go back and say hello, and thanks, to all the staff I had got to know over the years in the old home, after all I probably spent about three months of my life there - one of those sums I occasionally muse over - how many weeks or months of life are spent queuing in a post office, or how many days actually imbibing tea . . .
Having no hire car (another advantage of the new place - get-atable on P. Transport) I decided to bus as far as possible and then walk the few miles that are only reachable by car, or horse.
Oh . . . this should always be done! Like any route that is hyper-familiar - to get out of the car and do it on foot is to observe the previously un-observed details of that path taken so many times and never really considered; especially a route so layered with emotion - sadness, guilt, relief or happiness depending on the particular visit . . .




                                              Acer planted at the old home for Mum's birthday

Friday 18 November 2016

Free food

I've often noticed these graceful trees down on the South coast, but never observed, or perhaps have never been there when it was their fruiting time - mid-november. The small pink and red berries, I discovered after some Googling, are 'Peruvian peppers corns' not actually pepper, and more closely related to cashews.

The taste is peppery (really . . . duh) a little spicy, sweet and bitter. We added them to currys and salads, etc and the taste is quite unlike anything else - in a good way.
Once picked they can be laid out on trays for a few days to dry and then stored in jars/added to other pepper varieties.
Only snag - if you are allergic to some nuts - tree-nuts like cashews, probably not worth the risk of a trip to 'urgencies'/ER. However I've tried them out on quite a few family members and friends - no complications as yet . . .


Saturday 12 November 2016

happy willy graffiti

Every time I visit our favourite seaside village of Cerbère I see more of this artwork - this one I reckon is the best, semi-hidden behind a municipally-trimmed bush, and seemingly ignored, (possibly revered?) by the the town's 'mairie' and the Cerbèrians (inhabitants of Cerbère).

Friday 11 November 2016

Saturday 29 October 2016

Next stop Mars?

It could be the next planet ready to be covered in a layer of plastic once we've done with this one . . .

Making my way back home, I stopped in Liverpool Street station to buy a bottle of water, having forgotten my own one to refill (tut-tut). Of course, if you listen to all the stuff telling you that you should be drinking your own body weight (actually, possibly a litre, I forget) in pure, clear, fresh water each day, by the time you have spent three hours on a train and have only consumed a creosote-like paper cup of tea, the alarm bells start ringing . . . quick find water.
Delice de France, Pret a manger, etc, only had large bottles and I just wanted a glug as I wished to avoid fighting my way past the aircraft drinks trolley to the loo. Boots had bottles of all sizes including this tiny one (below) containing water from a famous source situated in a French mountain range. Why is this? - I mean, why am I buying water from under a hill in central France when Buxton or Malvern are considerably nearer, and actually all I wanted was a slurp of tap water - something we are lucky enough to have!


This bottle holds 33cl. Including its very thick 'danger, do not drink' style flip-cap I would think it is constructed of enough plastic to make about, I don't know, twenty syringes? or a vital part of a solar panel? - anyway, something else plastic is actually vital for.
I'm looking around at this one train carriage. The guy opposite me has a bottle - bigger and from some unsuspecting mountain in Scotland (better); the woman next to him is sipping every now and again from a green bottle - that one from Italy with a beautiful name - in fact that's a statement in itself, I suppose: my choice of water.
So . . . why can't we have THIS (bearing in mind I know nothing of economics, market strategies or how this might be realised) - Water fountains - just tap water, like in the olden days before water became fashionable.
And if you need to buy mineral water, commercial fountains, along the lines of those giant upside down office bottles. The companies providing the fountains and Boots or whoever could still rake in their profits, we could have paper cups and then throw them into recycling bins. Fifty pence for a small cup? True we wouldn't have that 'mouth-to-breast' sort of continual comfort sipping but I think we could all cope.
I read the other day the US alone gets through something like 50 million plastic water bottles every day - gets through - and NOT recycled.
So, why can't we stop this? Too much money to be made from H2O; too much mania about 'fresh' pure and straight from the source; too much advertising revenue and not enough willpower or foresight from governments, I imagine.
No more plastic bottles except where really needed - a relatively small thing to implement, compared to mass invasion of another country or space exploration?

Thursday 27 October 2016

More London wanderings

I only had a day to explore this time so planned meticulously what I would do, to then not do it as like any respectable 'flaneur' or 'flaneuse'? (not flannel, thank you spell check), I got distracted by the lure of previously-unknown alleys, buildings and signs, one of the most memorable being 'The Horse Hospital' somewhere in WC1.

Starting point: outside St Athan's Hotel in Bloomsbury


Bloomsbury at 5. 30 am

So, I wandered around the borders of Camden and Holborn with exploratitive (not a word?) zest and part nostalgia, as ever, seeking the perfect Formica, fuggy café of my London years - sadly mostly gone, certainly from the hyper-center; Nero's, Starbucks, et all, now sitting smugly on nearly all streets.
The art gallery part of my plan now becoming less likely, time-wise, I headed towards Clapton Pond and Lea Bridge Rd to do a bit of shadowing of my main characters' footsteps in my current tome.
Smithi and Jarvis walk (in 2073) from Sureditch (Shoreditch) to the Hackney Marshes, to a pub called the Princess of Wales, and then back again, avoiding certain dangers but encountering others unforeseen. I wanted to see how long the walk would actually take (not allowing for the total fog-out and swamp of which I have placed in the book).


as decreed by Jesus?


re-postisioned gravestones in the beautiful St Georges garden/ancient burial ground, WC1


          A habitation of extreme pointiness in Lloyds Square.

Time restricted after meanderings in WC1, I took a bus to Clapton pond and was amazed to find . . . a pond! For some reason I had imagined this to be not so, the water just a memory, now filled in, the ghost of it trapped under a chain-coffee shop.

Clapton pond

the pub and below, part of the filter beds area

group of sulking pigeons - man pictured had just walked over, stood near them and told them over and over 'don't you move'.

I walked up Lea Bridge Road and found the pub lurking betwixt the river, the bridge and large grassy zones bordered by vast plane trees. The pub was shut so I couldn't investigate the inside and imagine where 'Jarvis' was going to play the violin standing on a piano with antlers strapped to his homburg, so I traced their journey back to Shoreditch, following the river before turning westwards.
The joy of discovering completely unknown (to me) areas of London. I had never imagined there to be a tract of such wild land enclosed within the city - the filter beds of the river Lea. I could have been standing in the Fens, such was the quietness, just waving bog grasses and birds flitting.
I continued to 'The Marshes', enormous, flat expanses of cropped grass as green as, well, grass . . . But the space! interrupted only by the white, skeletal poles of football goal posts and the occasional dog-walker.

Time-restricted now I ceased wandering, tuned right over a bridge and strode onwards to Chatsworth Road where I had a tea break in the intriguingly-named, and atmospheric, 'Cooper and wolf' café where a friendly person drew me a map of how to get to St Leonard's church, my return point.


A pink house                                              a blue house

I followed the criss-cross of roads and eventually arrived on Kingsland Road, got my hair cut (much needed) in a barbers, ate an iced bun and found the church where I was happy to enter its cool interior and spend a little time thinking about my characters' existences within the building.
A train to catch, I walked on, retrieved my case from the hotel and caught the tube to Waterloo pleased with the day and already thinking ahead to the next opportunity to discover/re-discover more of my home city.

The biggest fig tree in London town? Somewhere near Farringdon Road

Thursday 20 October 2016

Building 59

I've passed this house many times and wondered about the exterior 'decoration'. This time I stopped the car ready to knock at their door and see if they wanted to have a little discussion on the pros and cons of hunting . . . but then . . . decided not to.