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-ĂȘtre' 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.