Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Buns & Covens

Bill the Baker - a retired expat baker from Tavistock who likes to keep his professional hand in - turned up this afternoon with a seasonal present of a clutch of hot cross buns. Kind soul, he does this every Easter.

Five years ago at Easter time the roof timbers of our new house were complete and ready for tiling. Bill appeared with his usual Easter offering, and, seeing the stage the building had reached, told us about a strange Devonshire custom: fixing a hot cross bun to the highest point of the house both assured protection against evil spirits and also brought good fortune to the household.

Two French builders, both called Alain, did most of the bricks-and-mortar work. The moment was ripe: I asked the senior Alain, Alain Papelou, if he would mind clambering up to the apex of the roof timbers and nailing one of Bill's hot cross buns into the wood. Not the slightest expression of surprise or doubt flitted across his features. He found a 10cm nail, took the hot cross bun and a hammer and swung himself up into the roof trusses.

A little later the tiling, insulation and suspended ceilings were completed. The Alains fitted access traps to the roof space, but no one ever went up there and the hot cross bun was forgotten.

A few weeks ago it seemed that some ventilation trunking in the loft had moved after a violent storm. I fetched ladder and torch and a mask - the spun glass insulation fibres get right into your throat and sinuses - and climbed up and fixed the problem. As an afterthought I shone the torch up to where Alain Papelou had fixed the hot cross bun five years earlier.

It was still there, intact. It was rock-hard, but un-mildewed and unchewed by any passing loft denizen. I can't say we've been much troubled by evil spirits, and these last five years our life has trotted along amiably without any major misfortune, so maybe there's something in the hot cross bun theory.

But I haven't told the insurance company. They'd only reduce the cover. As for me, I'm hoping the hot cross bun cover extends to us whatever we're doing. I'll tell you why: a few days ago we were driving in Devonshire, across Dartmoor on dual carriageway, heading for Blue Catland. Every now and then a black Ford Ka would pull out into the right hand lane, as though to overtake, but would draw level and stay abreast for a minute or so of whatever vehicle lay on its left and then drop right back. This was as annoying as it was dangerous. Eventually it drew level with us, and the occupants may have been surprised to find that the 'driver' apparently had no steering wheel in front of him/her. (Ours is left-hand-drive, of course.)

The Ka had four middle-aged women in it. The woman in the passenger seat held up against the window two sheets of A4 paper, the first with YOU WILL BE written on it and STORED on the second. I found this somewhat cryptic. Someone in the back then held up a human skull and shook it. My first instinct was to echo Philbrick in Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall: 'Crikey, loonies! This is where I shoot!' My second was to take no notice of what seemed to be a coven of witches on their way to - well, who knows? We lost them about Okehampton. Weird things happen on Dartmoor. Clearly Bill the baker knew a thing or two.

So far nothing untoward has happened. Hot cross buneficence?

Monday, 29 March 2010

Fesses dessus


I'm sorry to inflict this on you, and I do try not to bang on about French things, but I feel you would wish me to keep you right up to date with technological innovation that might concern some of you very directly.

B., the blonde alto whose image I attempted to reproduce not very convincingly in a Slough hotel by means of an Individual Spotted Dick and Custard, sent it to me.

It may bring your French on no end.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Fun with food

(Sarah, you're not to look at this)

A minor highlight of our recent UK trip was an individual serving of The Blessed Spotted Dick in a Slough hotel.

Nothing but the best for J. and me when we travel abroad.

It struck me that with a little ingenuity my helping could be made to resemble B., a blonde friend who has appeared in Lydian Airs occasionally. It was the work of a moment to carve a mouth and two eyes in the flank of the pud, and then to pour the vernal daffodil yellow custard strategically over it to suggest her blonde hair.

Alas, the custard ran a bit too far down before the camera could be readied. But you get the general idea.

* * *

Very many thanks to all those friends who left messages on my previous post, offering unstinted hospitality and advice from Lowestoft to Wisconsin via Farnworth, which I enjoyed reading when we got back. Much appreciated. Next time I'll post notice of absence well in advance of departure.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Just when things were getting interesting...

We're going abroad for a couple of weeks.

Abroad? Well, the UK, which is abroad for us.

As the family have chosen to live at the UK's extremities (for the Blue Cat outpost to go further would be silly, ho ho) fitting them all in means several trips a year.

If you see a French-registered sage green Peugeot van with a tendency to drive on the wrong side of the road, give us a wave.

Happy days.

Monday, 8 March 2010

For Kaz and Sarah. (Vicus is excused.)

I met her first when we were students in London. I was a second year, she was a fresher. I and the producer were casting The Gondoliers, which I was due to conduct in a few months' time. She said she thought she was a soprano. She wanted to audition for a solo part. She was lovely, rather than gorgeous: dark hair, sculpted figure, about my height (i.e. not enormous), trim and neat, delectable in every way. She was indeed a soprano. She had a beautiful voice, pure rather than powerful, perfectly in tune, well modulated, velvety in the lower register and maybe a little thin at the top of her range. She was a find. I fell in love with her before I even knew her name: Alison.

I kept my feelings to myself. There could be no hint of the casting couch, especially as she landed the plum solo part of Gianetta. She felt a bit uncertain: she'd really wanted a smaller part, Fiametta or Vittoria.

As rehearsals progressed she responded well to encouragement. The plot of The Gondoliers requires Gianetta and her mate Tessa to form a quartet, two couples, with two gondoliers, respectively Marco and Giuseppe. Alison really enjoyed working in quartet. Every note she sang pierced my heart yet deeper. I said nothing. Like the Spartan boy in the legend, the fox bit deep into my vitals, but I suffered in silence. It hurt to watch Marco take her in her arms, where I had hardly touched her. From the podium it was painful to watch him kiss her, where I had never kissed. These agonies were abated a little by knowing that off-stage Marco was going out with Tessa, a gorgeous petite redhead from Cumbria, and Giuseppe was already spoken for elsewhere. I longed for the last performance. When it was all over I could tell all.

But over the months of rehearsal affections and affiliations shifted. Rumours snaked through the cast. Marco was two-timing. It wasn't all his fault, the kindly ones said: Alison had come to depend on him. Too demure to flirt or throw herself at him, nevertheless she found herself increasingly attached to him. You can guess the outcome. After the run of three or four performances Alison and Marco were a steady couple, as long as Tessa, who came from another college, wasn't about. I was out in the cold.

We stayed good friends, as we always had been. We went out once or twice, nothing much. She sang under my baton in the following year's opera, Die Fledermaus, but in the chorus. I was encouraged when one summer holidays Marco came to stay in my cottage in Scotland with . . . Tessa. (When they left Tessa gave me a weigela. I planted it in front of the sitting-room window. It's still there, goodness knows how many years after. Tessa died very young. That weigela is her memorial, as though it's living the full span she ought to have lived.)

At the time of my finals I started looking for a teaching job. I didn't mind where. Alison said her father, a Southampton headmaster, was looking for staff. My heart leapt: if her father took me on, the link with Alison wouldn't be broken. I went for interview and was taken on. When I found out that snake-in-the-grass Marco had slithered off in search of other prey, it seemed that at last Fortune had smiled.

There was a serious miscalculation, though. Alison had two years of further study. While I was working in Southampton, seeing her eyes in her father's (not really to be recommended, staring fixedly into the eyes of your boss in the hope of a vision of his daughter) she would be in distant London. While she was in Southampton for the holidays, I would be in even farther-flung Scotland. There was an overlap in September, however. We saw quite a lot of each other in those few golden weeks. There had never been the slightest diminution in my feeling for her. Shortly before she was due to start her new term, we met in the Civic Centre rose garden. The words wouldn't come: Suppose we?...Could I?...What if?... Would she?... How about?...Do you think we?...

She knew what I was trying to say. No, she said. I'm sorry. I can't.

Is there someone else? Marco? I asked.

She nodded.

I never saw her again. If she ever married I never heard of it. Via her father, she gave us a wooden bowl as a wedding present when I got married, first time round, three years later. I still have it.

I dug out the dress rehearsal photo, above, from the archive. Most of the cast mentioned above are in it somewhere. The pair of shoes (extreme right) belong to the Duchess of Plazatoro, who has just passed out. You'll recognise the conductor, of course.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Hymn and her

I don't hark back much to the few years I spent working in Southampton. For one thing, there's no need now, being a man perfectly content with everything except certain waning powers, but I do remember vividly a painful romantic tryst in the rose gardens in front of the Civic Centre, pictured above. I expect they've been uprooted now to make car parks, and the only relic of my bitter disappointment will be an inexplicable ghostly tugging at heart-strings felt by anyone who parks in slot G45, where there was once a stand of a floribunda called September Love hard by where she finally said No.

To start with she was late - not that this mattered very much - and her lateness was marked by the Civic Centre clock. This used to chime the hour with a hymn tune called St Anne, better known as O God, our help in ages past. The hymn words were written by one Isaac Watts, a son of Southampton who I hope had more luck in municipal rose gardens than I did. Church-goers and attenders at Remembrance services will know it well.

Fans of Evelyn Waugh will know it, obliquely, through the brilliantly bizarre use Waugh puts it to in Decline and Fall. Convicts - which include the hero Paul Pennyfeather - use this hymn at their daily service as a cover for exchange of news, in this case the overnight murder by a lunatic of Mr Prendergast, the prison chaplain.

O God, our help in ages past
'Where's Prendergast today?'
'What, ain't you 'eard? 'e's been done in.'
And our eternal home.

...Time, like an ever-rolling stream
Bears all its sons away.
'Poor Prendy 'ollered fit to kill
For nearly 'alf an hour.'

'Damned lucky it was Prendergast,
Might have been you or me!
The warder says - and I agree -
It serves the Governor right.'


Eventually Paul Pennyfeather 'dies' and is lifted from prison, though the good offices and influence of his love, Margot Beste-Chetwynd. Despite Paul's urgent proposals, she can hardly marry someone who officially doesn't exist. She promptly marries someone else, suspiciously hastily for Paul. A disappointed man, he turns to theology. I know how he felt.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Red Face Day

A lot of irresponsible twaddle yesterday about building walls, levers . . . and Pythagoras.

I'm sorry to have misled you.

It wasn't Pythagoras at all.

It was Archimedes.

I'm tempted to say it was the ever-watchful J. who leapt out of her bath shouting έυρηκα! - but actually she sent me a corrective e-mail. I even got the Greek wrong. What Archimedes is supposed to have said in demonstration of his principle of the lever, was, according to Pappus of Alexandria (Synagoge, Book VIII, c.AD 340):

δος μοι που στω και κινω την γην (Dos moi pou sto kai kino taen gaen)

Give me the place to stand, and I shall move the earth.

Thank you, J. There is none like you. You stand alone. I stand corrected.

Humble pie for lunch. Please excuse me.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Back to the Wall

I see the first signs of spring are encouraging my fellow-hibernators and dormice to shake legs, make marmalade, take baths in the open air, roll the 2CV sun-roof back, drive from New Mexico to Wisconsin, celebrate Green Beer Day, find human hairs in the apricot crumble, digest the Leicester Mercury, frolic in the woods, etc, etc, so it's high time I too poked my nose out from under the covers and got out and about bit more.

So yesterday I dusted off my masonry tools after their long winter break in the garage and set to on the 2010 edition of The Great Wall. I capitalise it unashamedly, knowing that in no sense can it possibly rival The Other Great Wall, the one that Dave is helping to build for Z. Theirs is a true wall, standing independent and proud, with cunning see-though panels to re-orientate yourself if you get lost navigating the length of it. Mine is merely a single-faced terrace wall, designed to hold back the hillside behind our house.

It will see me out, this wall. I started it 6 years ago. At the present rate of progress it will take 30 years to finish. I shouldn't be doing it at all, really. There's a wall there already, but so derelict that it's crumbling away here and there. Rampaging wild boar make further breaches in it, sending jagged boulders crashing down on to Lydian Acres. I'm only repairing it, admittedly by totally rebuilding it. It doesn't belong to us: in France uphill walls are the responsibility of the uphill proprietor. In our case the land behind the house belongs to the commune, the most local unit of local government. Our commune hasn't got two sous to rub together, so I'm doing them a big favour.

It's slow work. The photo above shows the total of one day's work, digging out, measuring, heaving vast stones, planting foundations. The square stone is the first of a flight of steps. Last year's progress included three primitive peg steps, in the local fashion, in another section of The Great Wall. There's a photo below. Not a very good one: I should have got Dave to take it. I 'm proud of those steps. I use them every day to get to the bird feeders. Each 'peg' is actually a stone at least a metre long, but most of the length is hidden, inserted into the wall to provide stability. They will bear virtually any weight. The principle is the inverse of Pythagoras' theory of levers.

In respectful view of the multitude of gifted Classical scholars who come here every day, I'm happy to quote Pythagoras' idea in the original:

Δος μοι που στω και γιγνω την γην

(Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth, but I'm sorry, I've forgotten how to do accents. Detention's the only thing for it, I'm afraid. )
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