Saturday, 29 May 2010

Cherry ripe

In an unprecedented access of initiative, drive and energy I bought a new pair of trainers today. They're called 'baskets' in France. Honestly. Où sont les baskets de ma tante? = Where are my aunt's trainers? (If you're wondering why this should be, the answer's at the foot.)

I had some old ones somewhere, but I couldn't find them. J. may have thrown them out. (For those of a biblical cast of mind, may I politely refer you to the confidently prophetic Psalm 60, verse 7?) J. is away for a long weekend in the UK, so I thought it was maybe time I bought some new ones. So I did. Size 42. Chinese. 22 euros 50.

Non-slip soles. That was the important thing, because this weekend is cherry picking time, and I was anxious to reduce the risk of falling out of a tree and lying in a heap moaning feebly with no one to hear and come running with stretchers and morphine except maybe the lad from the house down the lane who has spent all day trying to play the Marseillaise on his recorder, not an ideal instrument to express sentiments like (lines 4-8) 'do you hear in the countryside these ferocious soldiers roaring? They're coming almost into our arms to cut the throats of our sons and our friends'. But that's France for you.

We've got about a dozen cherry trees, but we only bother with the fruit of about four. First to fruit are the reds. The whites, suitable only for eating fresh or making jam, will be ready in a couple of weeks. So all day I've been swinging from branch to branch and I haven't fallen out of a single tree. Moreover I've picked about 6kg, bagged them up into 600g freezer bags and put them in the freezer ready for the winter. When we're looking for a quick dessert J. empties a bag into a saucepan, simmers them for a few minutes, adds sweeteners if necessary, and serves with cream and maybe a little powdered cinnamon.

My neighbour M. Hector has an individual method of picking cherries. He cuts entire branches off and picks the cherries off the fallen branches. The last time I spoke to him about this he was eyeing up entire trees to cut down. This is tantamount to the French draining the entire Mediterranean to scoop up all the remaining fish.

(Because they're what you play basketball in. I wonder what it's like, being French?)

Friday, 21 May 2010

Two-pin plug

I know, I know. Ho hum, yawn, yawn. You've seen it already. Yes, this photo appeared last December 9th. That's my grandfather on the right, Vicus in the middle dropping off in the midst of his interminable discourse about the villainous Emmott - we'll come to him - and the young Dave all ears on the left.

Two things have brought my grandfather to mind lately. The first was a glorious essay in blue and pink a few days ago by I,LTV, who does these things so beautifully. It was her mention of litmus paper that was the catalyst, because little books of blue or pink litmus paper were an indispensable item in my grandfather's larder. With advancing age he lost his sense of taste. His diet consisted mainly of boiled mince and mashed potatoes, with bread and butter, and maybe a pastry or some custard to finish with. Rather than boil fresh mince every day, he would prepare several days' worth at a time. He had no fridge, so anything uneaten was kept in a perforated metal meat safe in his larder.

After the second or third day it was possible that the mince or the custard had gone off . He would be unable to taste it, of course, and in extreme cases - because his sight was failing - he might be unable to see the mould growing on it. But he wasn't beaten: a quick test to see if the mince turned the pink litmus paper blue, or the custard the blue paper pink, or vice versa, I can't remember. If all was well, he would settle down to his dinner. If not, he would boil up some fresh mince, glowing with the ingenuity of applied science.

The second reminder came in a back-to-front way from my grandfather's book Romantic Wycoller. Wycoller is a hamlet secluded in a deep valley not far from his home in Colne, in Lancashire. A keen Brontëan, he was convinced that the ruined Wycoller Hall was the original of Ferndean Manor, Mr Rochester's house in Jane Eyre. A certain Emmott, another Colneite, argued publicly to the contrary and earned my grandfather's undying anathema. Romantic Wycoller is a rather overwritten account of Wycoller, the Cunliffe lords of the manor and the possibility that the place might have inspired Charlotte Brontë.

But it was a book, and it counted for much in the family that a member of it had actually written one. His son, my uncle, wrote several, all manuals of the economics of fruit farming, probably with a readership as concentrated as Romantic Wycoller had attracted. Ditto my own books, whose combined weight hardly makes the bookshelves they rest on groan with discomfort. And now my son-in-law has made it into print with The Cabinet of Curiosities, for which my son Nibus (not his real name, in case you were wondering) has designed the cover. Not his first, by any means.

I find myself rubbing my tum (which despite all my efforts more and more resembles that of my grandfather) with a sort of family delight and satisfaction. In much the same way as my grandfather would have done on discovering that the mince had passed the litmus test, I expect.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Top lines from Chaucer No. 2

Ther nas no dore that he nolde heve of harre,
Or breke it, at a renning, with his heed.

(There was no door he couldn't heave off its hinges
Or, running at it, smash it with his head.)

Geoffrey Chaucer (?1340-?1400): The Canterbury Tales, Prologue.

Five or six years ago I was invited to Montpellier to take part in an English literature evening hosted by a French cultural association. To put everything into context they'd made a time-line of Eng. Lit. giants to put on the wall. Eng. Lit. giants included William Beckford (who?), Barbara Cartland and Agatha Christie.

First on the list, however, was Geoffrey CHANCER. I expect he would have been proud to be associated with this spirit of adventurous spelling. He would also have enjoyed our hosts' attempt to cultivate the ambience of a typical English gathering of literary giants. Among other things they served jelly, not made in the usual way with boiling water and left to set in moulds or little dishes: they simply served jelly cubes straight from the pack with cocktail sticks stuck in them.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Now more frivolous than ever

I'd like to be able to tell you that the initial letters of these trees gracing the broad Lydian Acres spell out a rune, a mantra, a magical incantation which, if repeated at the new moon, brings you the secret of eternal youth and guards against resurgence of the Old Trouble.

(Above: a gift from Monsieur Hector)

Alas, they spell out JTOWP.

You could try it, all the same. You should try everything once, as the composer Arnold Bax is supposed to have said, except incest and folk-dancing.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Easy rider

Dave made me this out of bits of wood in his garage.

There must be many who ask themselves 'Is there no end to his talents?' Maybe this points to the answer.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Beware of Imitations

(If you're bored already, scroll down to the foot.)

Yep, it's finished. The ink's just about dry on the sign-off: Olargues mai 2010.¹ Sample page above. Au large = out at sea

Months of hard labour over. Wonderful!

I've just the title page to dash off:

L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune selon Jules Laforgue²

Cantata for SATB and string quartet in 10 movements³

by me*

Dedicated to Monsieur XXX on the occasion of his 70th birthday**

Champagne tonight, then barbecued steak followed by strawberries and the thickish kind of cream we get round here, what J. and I call Dulux. I really wish you could all be here to share it. (Spinach and cranberry juice for Monsieur V. Scurra, if that's what he'd prefer.)

¹ Olargues: where we live; mai = May

² The Imitation of Our Lady the Moon according to Jules Laforgue. Laforgue (1860-1887), French poet, interesting but not much cop. Might have developed into something more solid if he'd lived longer. Obsessed by women, at least in this collection of 40 rants about their fickleness and changeability, like the moon. Not easy to set this stuff to music.

³ SATB = Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass.

* You can read about this here, page 18

** Monsieur XXX is a French friend, a distant cousin of St Theresa of Lisieux, whose reminiscences always always start unpredictably:
'When I was a messenger at the Vatican...' or 'When I was advising the Egyptian General Staff...' or 'When I was working with Pasolini...' or 'When I had finished my monograph on Vizigoth ceremonial jewellery...' A bloke (Fr: un mec) worth a dedication or two.

* * *

J. got this from the chemist's the other day. It's an expectorant. The French have such a gift for brand names. In this case, I suppose you have to say they are partly Flemish.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Is your name Bum?

There has been a complaint that Lydian Airs is 'a tad high-brow'. I'm sorry about this. I do try to please all comers. The following may redress the balance:

Escalus: Come you hither to me, Master Tapster. What's your name, Master Tapster?

Pompey: Pompey.

Escalus: What else?

Pompey: Bum, sir.

Escalus: Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you...

(William Shakespeare: Measure for Measure, Act 2 Scene1)

Alive to the possibility that Pompey's descendants are still in evidence, I consulted one of those genealogical websites. I'm afraid it was a French one, one that pops up uninvited while waiting for other things to load. There are 728 registered Bums.

The site helpfully lists the most popular Bum family forenames. 'Pompey' doesn't appear. Nor does Al, too busy sticking things into himself to register.

They are:

Elisabeth Enric Fritz Jakob Large Madeline-M Mary-Elizabeth Milliard-Fillmore Minnie Mnukhe Oliver Otto Tressa Vigder William

That's all I can tell you. I ought to know better, really.

Next week: Is your name Halfwit?

* * *

If you're in need of further diversion (maybe the election didn't go the way you would have wished?), try this:


Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Not quite bald yet

Having an hour or two to kill in storm-lashed Montpellier yesterday morning I went to the Musée Fabre, the very fine city art gallery. I've been several times before, but always in company or with limited time, both of which affect one's ability to wander at will. The woman on the ticket counter was one of those thankfully rare French people who, as soon as they hear the slightest trace of a foreign accent, speak very very slowly in a sort of moronic pidgin-French amplified by infantile gestures, talking to a colleague the while about something else. In these circumstances I'm reminded of the immortal poem
See the happy moron,
He doesn't give a damn.
I wish I was a moron...
My god! Perhaps I am?

Nicolaes van Verendael (1640-1691): Vase of flowers, 1674

Anyway I bought my ticket and went in. I spent a good hour hour going Dutch, absorbing all that the Musée Fabre could throw at me from their giant collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters. From all the peasant scenes, portraits of plump burghers with crazily goffered ruffs, land- and seascapes, I chose a flower painting, itself a minor genre from the period, from the souvenir postcards in the gallery shop.

I expect you too can find an ant, a bee, a looper caterpillar, a Red Admiral, a snail attacking a peach, a fritillary, along with a fat watch and its key on a ribbon. I expect it needs winding up, because time seems to have stopped, if it allows a season in which brambles (bottom right) and tulips are prominent together. Tulips in Dutch paintings are always significant because they point to the wealth accruing from a busy and lucrative overseas trade which England was wrenching away from them even as this painting was drying on its easel. Tulip bulbs, originating in the Near East (the words 'tulip' and 'turban' are etymologically close) commanded high prices, especially flowers as striking as these. But however magnificent the flower, in time it withers and dies. I think the whole painting is an unwitting commentary on the decline of Dutch commercial primacy. I expect this is completely fanciful.

I moved on to a special exhibition the gallery was holding of the work of the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, a specialist in portraits. Among other people prominent in Paris in the 1770s and 80s (Benjamin Franklin, Christoph Willibald Gluck) he sculpted the philosopher Voltaire, who had recently been allowed back to France as an old man after years in exile in Switzerland. When he died in 1778, a month or two after Houdon had finished his portrait, he was greatly mourned in certain circles because of his outspoken criticism of pre-Revolution France. The demand for memorials grew, and Houdon found his order book filling with demands for Voltaires, even though his subject was cold in the grave. The need for speed of execution grew too, and we find Houdon moving from marble to the much speedier terra cotta and plaster.
Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741-1828): Voltaire seated, c. 1780-90

This is one of the many posthumous portraits, a quarter-life-size portrait of Voltaire, and I do like the way Houdon has captured the wit, the fine intelligence, the humanity and dignity of this first-thing-in-the-morning old man in his dressing-gown, his few remaining wisps of hair held in a band (I wonder why?) and his attitude of quiet, smiling, even smug, satisfaction. But you never know with Voltaire, always a man to spring surprises. It's just possible that his attitude may be due to the effectiveness of his laxative.
Finally I couldn't resist this magnificent bat in (I think) sand-blasted bronze. The French for bat (that's to say flittermouse, pipistrelle, etc.) is chauve-souris, bald mouse. That's how I feel sometimes, too, especially when Sarah forgets to pretend not to notice it.

Germaine Richier (1902-1959): Bat, 1946

Monday, 3 May 2010

Ding donge

J. produced some new soap the other day, a brand called Donge. I didn't see the pack, so I didn't know where it came from. Living in deepest European Union, the possibilities are legion.

If it was French, it would be pronounced 'dawn-zhuh'. If it was German it would be 'donger' to rhyme with 'longer'. Spanish? 'don-hey'. Italian? 'don-jay'.

And English? 'donj' , 'donjy', 'dongy' or just 'dong'?

'Dong?' J. said. 'That's a colloquial American word for--'

But that's neither here nor there.

'However you pronounce it,' I said, 'I've seen that word before.'

And so I had. With me it was the work of a moment to speed downstairs - this conversation having taken place in the upstairs bathroom - to the bookshelves.

Eng. Lit.

Chaucer, Geoffrey: The Canterbury Tales

The Nun's Priest's Tale, ll 190 ff

(A man dreams that his friend is about to be murdered and is calling for help. He wakes, dismisses his friend's SOS as a nightmare, goes back to sleep. It happens again. The third time he dreams his friend says:

"...I am now slawe;
Bihold my blody woundes, depe and wyde!
Arys up erly in the morwe-tyde
And at the west gate of the toun ," quod he,
"A carte ful of DONG ther shaltow see,
In which my body is hid ful prively..."

(GLOSSARY: slawe = slain, killed: Arys = arise, get up: quod = quoth, said: DONG = dung, manure: shaltow = shalt thou, shall you: prively = secretly.)

In the morning the man does as his friend's ghost has told him.

And forth he goth...
Unto the west gate of the toun, and fond
A DONG-carte, as it was to DONGE lond

(GLOSSARY: goth = goes: fond = found: DONGE = to spread manure: lond = land.)

And guess what? He calls on what passes for the constabulary in 14th century England, the people rally round, upset the cart-

And in the middel of the DONG they founde
The dede man, that mordred was al newe.

(GLOSSARY: mordred = murdered: newe = newly, freshly.)

Completely vindicated, satisfied that in Chaucer's day few soap-boilers would have called their product DONGE, I went back upstairs and completed my toilet.

* * *

No donge here, but compost instead. I'm now digging in all last year's compost. I see the compost box is home to a lively population of worms, grubs and creepy-crawlies, which is as it should be, but goodness knows what these 1½-inch maggots are:

Now and again I come to curious lumps about the size of a haggis. I poke and prod: what are these things that haven't broken down into a rich grainy compost and which even the most omnivorous larvae eschew?

I remember: last September Patroclus and Mr Blue Cat and the Blue Kitten came to stay. The Blue Kitten's disposable nappies, supposedly entirely composed of natural fibres, went into the compost. Bio-degradable?

After all this I washed my hands. With DONGE, of course.

(GLOSSARY for the benefit of the legions of US Chaucerians who come here : nappies = diapers)

Saturday, 1 May 2010

A Mayday Call

Here in France it's the custom every May 1st to present the ladies of one's acquaintance and more with a sprig of lily of the valley. This is in appreciation of past favours and expectation of future ones. Happy 1st of May!

(A bargain, if you ask me.)

I've been a bit worried about Dave. I think he may have gone a bit OTT with the lily of the valley in Wiltshire. Or could this be his BMCC umpiring school? I see the top right hand nymph is signalling a bye.