Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Toulon and Toulouse

I'm in Montpellier, which I discovered the other day is France's 8th largest city. We go there about twice a month. It's about 90 minutes away from where we live. It's one of the most sophisticated Mediterranean cities: only Barcelona and maybe Nice outclass it.

We're there because J. has her monthly visit to her acupuncturist, and my business involves pins, too.

We park in one of the many city centre underground car-parks, from which we're borne up into the heart of a shopping mall called Le Polygone by lift. We've time for coffee before going our separate ways, double espresso, strong egg-cupful, twice, for J. ('Intravenous, she says. Straight into the vein.') and I prefer grand crème, a rich, creamy, potent café au lait which has not the slightest resemblance whatever to so-called latte or anything like that to be found in Costa's or Starbuck's.

Caffeined up, she takes the tram to Dr Acula's pin tables, and I take the trousers of my one and only suit to a place prosaically called l'Atelier de Retouches, the alteration workshop. Several genteel middle-aged ladies are sitting at sewing machines. I'm a little uneasy: J. has told me that in order for the alteration ladies to ascertain what work has to be done, I'm bound to have to put these trousers on and show them. H'm. Not only is it a bit of a quart-into-a-pint-pot fit, changing has to be done behind a flimsy folding screen, decorated with birds of paradise, with wide see-through gaps at the angles. How will the birds of paradise compete with furtive glimpses of my knees and calves?

In the event it doesn't matter. The genteel lady who receives me understands the problem straight away. I got this suit in Los Angeles 10 years ago, to wear at a wedding. When I first tried it on all those years ago the trousers were - can't resist this, I'm afraid - Toulon and Toulouse, so they had to be taken up and in. My leg length hasn't changed, but over the intervening 10 years I've put some weight on, nothing gross, just a bit of dignified girth that limits activity while wearing these trousers to holding my breath, walking bolt-upright very stiffly and slowly, like Frankenstein's monster, and trying to prevent my eye-balls from popping out.

Madame examines the original alterations. There's plenty of material. She won't have to let in a gusset. In fact, she'll only have to restore the trousers to their original state, the pristine way they were when they hanging on the rack in Hugo Boss in Century City, LA.

They'll be ready by Monday, she says. Will I have to try them on? I ask. Do I betray some apprehension? If you want, she says, but I think it would be more sensible to take them home and try them there, with the jacket. If they're not right you can bring them back in. That will be €14,40, please.


I really don't know how I've managed to become so sidetracked. Possibly some subconscious notion of freedom, of liberation. What I really wanted to post about was a demonstration in Montpellier in support of two French journalists held hostage in Afghanistan. It's a year since they were captured, and any negotiations for their release don't seem to have got very far.

Next time.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Liverish? Splenetic? Bilious? Gall-bladdered?

Here are some definitions from Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, first published in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book.

All you have to do is match the definition with the picture.

a. Once too often
b. The first and direst of all disasters. As to the nature of it there appears to be no uniformity. Castor and Pollux were born from the egg. Pallas came out of a skull. Galatea was once a block of stone. Peresilis, who wrote in the tenth century, avers that he grew up out of the ground where a priest had spilled holy water. It is known that Arimaxus was derived from a hole in the earth, made by a stroke of lightning. Leucomedon was the son of a cavern in Mount Aetna, and I have myself seen a man come out of a wine cellar
c. A prestidigator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket

d. The feeling that one has for the plate after one has eaten its contents

e. One who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs


f. A person who talks when you wish him/her to listen

g. A popular entertainment given by the military for the benefit of innocent bystanders

In line with the instruction given to male royalty at receptions, etc, especially when greeting female guests, DON'T LOOK DOWN

1g 2c 3e 4f 5a 6d 7b, but you got them all, didn't you, even without ringing Dave?

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Figgy pudding's off, old chap

Christmas greetings from . . .

. . . J and C

The best-laid plans . . . we had intended to wish you a merry Christmas and base our greetings on the sense of joy and quiet achievement surrounding Christopher's mother's 100th birthday, but the snow, deep and crisp and even, prevented us getting any nearer her home in the north of Scotland to celebrate with her than Luton airport.

So in the absence of any centenarian input here's a poem by Siegfried Sassoon:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on--on--and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Clearly Sassoon had the event below in mind when he wrote this. Sound on, do please watch it through to the end, even if you've seen it before.

Meanwhile, a Christmas lucky dip into our 2010 doings brings up:

Hush, do not wake the infant William, born to Fiona and James on August 28th, a brother for Eliza, and apparently destined to become a night-club bouncer


First performance by C.'s choir Les Jeudistes and the Thalia Quartet (the photo was actually taken at the second performance, in what was once a lowly cattle-shed attached to local château) of C.'s cantata L'Imitation de Notre-Dame la Lune. Dedicatee of this work, head tenor Jean-Claude, in centre, hawk-like in his attention to the conductor.


We welcomed Ad Hoc Voices, a small choir (standing around all in white) based in Sevenoaks, paying us a return visit after our World Tour of Kent and Sussex in 2008. Which leads us to next year's adventure: Les Jeudistes' World Tour of Ross-shire, Nairnshire and Inverness-shire in early May.

Yes, we do all kinds of other things than rejoice with heart and soul and voice about choir events and the arrival of grandchildren, but a lot of energy is devoted to spending time with J.'s mother, in a wonderful retirement home that we're tempted to put our names down for, and with C.'s mother (ditto) in far-flung Scotland. Entre deux mers, as you might say. Ho ho ho.

Happy Christmas! Joyeux Noël !

Happy New Year! Bonne Année 2011 !

See our village amid the winter snow . . . we expect you've picked up all the quotes from and references to Christmas carols gathered all above. No prizes except an extra large helping of figgy pudding with all the trimmings if you get all 8. Go on, have a go.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Freezing and sneezing while Beelzebub lurks

Medieval theologians held that certain moments of bodily convulsion allowed the devil to enter. Sneezing, for instance: at the moment of greatest contraction, heightened sensation and subsequent release you're not in control, momentarily you're in another mind state, and who knows how many lurking demons may surge in through E, N and T at that moment and merrily begin their work of moral corruption.

I was reminded of this the other day after an experience I really wouldn't like to repeat. J. and I were in the UK, primarily to attend my mother's 100th birthday. She lives in the north of Scotland. Well, we never got there. The flight to Inverness which we were due to take from Luton, where we planned to leave the car, was cancelled, no suitable alternatives were offered, so very sadly we abandoned the mission and set out to drive back home through the snow and ice and general tundra of south-east England.

On the way - on the old M10, near St Albans in Hertfordshire, black with untreated and unsuspected ice - I braked very lightly, slowing down from about 30mph in order to maintain my 10-length distance from the car in front. There was a violent skid and spin, which I tried to control with handbrake, steering wheel and very low revs, and we ended up neatly parked on the hard shoulder. It must have taken all of five seconds, but on such occasions time passes both faster and more slowly than usual, and your - my, at any rate - mind state goes into that beatific mode outlined by those medieval theologians where you know a perfect peace, though which you can see quite calmly the dreadful thing that's about to happen, but that terrible fear and panic doesn't actually hit you until it's over.

We'd spun fully through 180º and were now facing the oncoming traffic. On the hard shoulder, it's true, but several trucks were taking advantage of the better grip the hard shoulder offered. Knots of slow-moving traffic crept past, slowing further as they passed us. Clearly we were an awful warning.

What to do? We put out a warning triangle. J. called our insurance company in France. In French she explained what the problem was. Magically, somehow their office in Paris managed to pinpoint us. They promised to send a breakdown truck. No, not from Paris. They had a local agent in St Albans.

While waiting a denser than usual knot of traffic appeared. In its midst was a police Land Rover. Seeing our predicament from a distance, the police surged to the front of the knot of cars and trucks and gently brought it to a halt. Two officers, a female sergeant and a male constable came over to us.

Again, that state of mind. Would we be charged? Obstruction? Would our French number plates help or hinder?

They told us they would hold the traffic back until we had turned car back and had set off again. The constable said he would turn it for us. I gave him the key. He tried to get in the car on the right, maybe wondering if the steering wheel had somehow spun off too: ours is a left-hand drive car. Grinning, he changed sides, started the engine, turned the car back through the missing 180º and invited us to continue our journey. The sergeant said they would hold back the traffic until we were well on our way.


If anyone from the Hertfordshire Road Traffic Police picks this up, I'd like you to know that nowhere in the world do you have two more fervent admirers than J. and I, now safely returned home to France. You were superb. You stand alone. There is none like you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And I don't think any lurking Beelzebubs managed to squirm in during those frantic seconds while we were spinning, but I'll keep you posted. Or maybe some son of Belial did get in: we never managed to contact the breakdown service. I hope they're not still there, chugging up and down looking for us.

UPDATE: My mother's 100th birthday, today, went extremely well. The royal telegram was duly delivered by the Lord Lieutenant of Nairnshire in full fig. Champagne was poured, my mother made a gracious and cogent speech to the 50 or so guests, which she finished by inviting the company to raise their glasses to Vicus the Queen. I'm so sorry we weren't able to take part.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Through a local lens No. 6

Bizarrely, this is one of the main 'streets' in the village. It's called L'Escalier de la Commanderie, the Commandery Stair. ('Commanderie' is a medieval term. Nowadays we would probably say 'military HQ' or something similar.) The locals call it l'escalier noir, the black stairway. It dates from about 1300.

There are six flights of stone stairs, rising up under a vaulted casement through the heart of the village. Each step is a monstrous slab of gneiss. On the way up there were once houses, with their front doors opening off the stairs. Not so very different from apartment blocks today. One of the old houses has been converted into a museum of local arts and crafts, others are unoccupied and more or less derelict, awaiting the arrival of some devotee of French medieval villages built into rocky slopes to do them up. Or one of those countless TV house conversion programmes.

The stair takes you up to the church. It's a stiff climb. It's possible to reach the church by car, but the streets zig-zagging up there are so narrow and the bends so tight that you're lucky if you come back down again with wings and hubs and mirrors intact. At Christmas time the area in the photo above is taken up with a life-size Christmas crib, so you might think that the village had religious leanings, but it hasn't at all. I've never known such a heathen place. An ever-dwindling number of elderly women totter up the stairs to Mass on the occasional Sundays when it's celebrated. A dead church is a mournful place. It only comes to life when concerts are given there.

For villagers' final, horizontal, attendance at church the authorities chug out a very narrow-beamed tractor, one otherwise designed to harrow between rows of vines. No ordinary hearse would ever get up there, so the tractor pulls a special narrow catafalque to carry the coffin, designed with crude folk-images of death.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

My love is like a malady, correction melody

There, that's No. 14 done. It's my ambition to set every lyric in every Shakespeare play to music for four-part choir (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and piano. There must be about 60 of them altogether. Some of the verses are dreadful, others are very fine. I've long had a deep affection for this poem, at the end of Love's Labour's Lost:

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,

When blood is nipp'd and ways be foul -

- Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu whit! Tu whoo! A merry note

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow

And coughing drowns the parson's saw,
When birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,

When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl -
- Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu whit! Tu whoo! A merry note
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

[Glossary: keel = skim the fat off. Doth = does. Saw = wise saying, i.e. sermon. Crabs = small, hard, sharp-flavoured apples.]

So this one's No. 14 of my collection. I introduced it to my small choir, most of whom are French, the other evening. 'Icicles' was unfamiliar to them, though their general standard of English is good. Did I by any chance mean 'bicycles'?

I gave the tune to the two altos, on the grounds that their English pronunciation is best and this is a poem worth hearing. It's a bleak, wintry tune, surrounded by the other voices humming bleak, wintry phrases like eddies of the north wind, while the piano accompaniment has high notes dropping like snowflakes at dusk.

Then I took a great musical risk: everything cheers up for the refrain Then nightly sings etc. , so the music takes an unexpected swerve into a kind of Brazilian samba that had my hips wriggling as I sat at the piano working it out. A few musical owl-hoots, and it's the end.

I wish I knew how to transfer it to something you could click on to hear it. We're due to perform it, along with the other 13, in Ullapool, in NW Scotland, of all places, next May. Maybe I'll have learnt how to do it by then.

Monday, 6 December 2010

My love is like a red, red nose, correction rose

Botticelli. More pink than red, really. Still blooming strongly despite frosts and glacial winds from Norfolk. All the other roses have been pruned right back - growth followeth the knife - but it would be a shame to prune this one while it's still on track to give us flowers for Christmas.

If you don't find this very interesting, here's a photo of some wild boar piglets we came across on a forest walk about 18 months ago.

I wonder if these are the very same wild boar which, having grown into adults, ploughed up so much of our garden last summer? And I wonder if, as a result of the distant shots we hear every weekend, they've now reaped the whirlwind and are now steaks, chops and pâté?

Deservedly? I wouldn't say so. I don't much care for them being killed for the sake of killing them. We don't buy wild boar meat. I'm quite happy for them to rootle about in their own necks of the woods. If they must ravage people's gardens, let it be someone else's. Nimby. Our good friend and much-valued neighbour M. Hector is bound to have a view on this.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Them and usquebaugh

In an elegant essay Ms Kentucky (aka Charlene) runs up the flag for deferment of gratification. I can only add the following story.

SOME years ago a brand of whisky, as celebrated for the excellence of its product as for the egregiousness of its copy style (a callow forerunner of the quality on offer here), advertised in the national press for stories, poems, cartoons, anything that readers might care to send in for publicity use. Whatever made it into their marketing department out-tray would be rewarded with a case of whisky.

I remembered the gist of a story my aunt Evelyn used to tell, typed it up, not certain that it wasn't too feeble, indeed too fey, for the distillery to use. I sent it off and thought nothing more about it. I gave myself some licence: I never had a great-uncle Sandy, aunt Evelyn could hardly specify which brand of whisky he drank, we never kept a family journal. However, a next door neighbour we had at one time when we lived somewhere else in Scotland did indeed refer to porridge as 'them'. And I did spell 'practice' correctly in my original.

One Saturday morning a few weeks later there was a ring at the door. Who should be standing there but the Marketing Director of the distillery in person, with a case of whisky at his feet. I was as pleased as I was surprised, and the personal delivery by such an august personage might have been even more gratifying if he hadn't lived a quarter of a mile away the other side of an enormous field.

I gave most of it away. I don't remember ever pouring any of it back into the bottle.

For several weeks beer mats and publicity material, like the card above which folds into a kind of pyramid, carrying aunt Evelyn's story were distributed to pubs and hotel bars throughout the UK. This probably marks the very pinnacle of my literary career.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

My love is like an arquebus, correction arbutus

At last I've remembered to take the camera on my daily walk. There's something I've been wanting to photo for weeks, and today it's almost too late. Anyway, there it is, up there: it's the neighbours' arbutus tree. I don't know whether they grow in the UK, but they're quite common in this part of the world. It's also called the strawberry tree, and you can see why: that red fruit with another behind it is about the size of an average strawberry, and the taste is similar although not quite so tart. The arbutus is unusual in that it flowers and fruits simultaneously.

You can eat the fruit straight off the tree. Once I offered one to my son Nibus, who can be particular about what he eats. In an impressive display of courteous discretion he took it outside, ostensibly the better to appreciate its texture and flavour. At any rate it had gone when he came back in.

J. tells me the Portuguese distil a potent brandy called Medronho from the fruit.

In Madrid, apparently, taxis and manhole-covers feature images of bears eating from the arbutus.

This is all I know about the arbutus.

I did not see any bears on my walk. Nor manhole-covers. But as always I enjoyed the view of the village and the mountain behind, a massif called Mt Caroux. This mountain is curious in that there's no other side to it. Once you scale the cliffs and reach to the top, it just undulates away at the same height into the far distance, in fact for about 300 miles northwards. Mt Caroux and its neighbouring mountains are the ragged southern edge of the massif central.