Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Auntie Lizzie ...

 ... (the eldest of my mother's many siblings) and her husband Uncle Dave had a smallholding in the depths of rural Sussex.

She grew dahlias and chrysanthemums to sell at the gate.  As a small child I was entranced by the forest of giant brightly coloured pompoms and spiky stars that towered above my head in a great swathe leading up the path to the front door, which I never saw open.  We always went round the side, in through the hot glass lean-to smelling of musty ripening tomatoes, where Dave used to sit in an old easy chair in his none-too-clean shirt-sleeves and pullover.

Her ghost was at my shoulder today, tut-tutting at my neglect of the dahlias I planted in the hot border in front of the cottage.  To my surprise, one of the dahlias - a deep rich burgundy - has turned into a triffid; its many stems weaving and intertwining, bent double from the weight of the heavy blooms.  The strong southerly winds of last weekend had broken several of its tallest stems and with twine and tomato plant poles I was trying to recover and support what was left.

I realise now that the "forest" I walked through as a child would have been tall even for adults.  Lizzie must have staked and twined those many heads with such loving care, day in day out, keeping them straight and strong to make the most splendid of long-lasting cut flowers.

I'll cut some of ours tomorrow.  They won't be here for much longer. This evening in the dark, as I closed the gate at the end of the terrace, I heard the wild cry of the cranes, speeding before the cold air coming down from the north that will drive our temperatures down to zero later this week.

Next year, Lizzie, I promise to take better care of this dark beauty.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

After they've Gone

I wave them goodbye with a guilty sense of relief and wander back into the kitchen to make myself another cup of tea.  The sink is still full of the breakfast washing-up but I can leave it to later. Much later. Nobody here now to impress.

The bed linen in the cottage needs washing, but the sheets and duvet covers will never dry in this weather.  So I'll leave them for a day. Or three. No rush.

Supper tonight - just us. At home. And not much conversation.

Maybe watch an old film. Or a repeat of "Have I Got News for You".

Early to bed maybe.Or maybe not.

Peace. And contentment.

Monday, 15 October 2012

An Evening in Bordeaux with Melody

I can't remember how I first heard of Melody Gardot.  Almost certainly it was from one of the blogs I follow, but which?  I'm glad I found her. Her voice is wonderful and her music poignant - all the more so, when one knows her story.

She has been in France this summer.  At the Marciac Jazz Festival back in July, Eric and his son went and became instant "groupies", telling us later, one summer's evening in a café over a beer, that she was appearing again in Orléans in October and they were going again. We regretted missing the chance to see her live and then, last week, learnt that she would be appearing in Bordeaux at the Base Sous-Marine this last Saturday night.  So, on the spur of the moment, we went.

The Base houses the World War Two submarine pens, built by the Germans as a place from which to launch their U-boats into the Atlantic. The photos on the internet show enormous dirty slabs of forbidding concrete with water still lapping round the pillars inside. Hardly, one would have thought, the place for a jazz concert.  And what on earth to wear on a cold rainy October night?  Would we be standing? The official website for the Base is remarkably coy about any creature comforts. So thermals and layers seemed to be the order of the day and cushions for any seats. And sandwiches for the journey home - the French start their evening entertainment late.

Bordeaux is a miracle of restoration - now a UNESCO World Heritage site - with its grand eighteenth century cream coloured mansions along the quays facing onto the Gironde and the new boutiques, restaurants and offices with trendy names in the great old warehouses.  And then, suddenly, in the dark, we turn left and drive alongside the basin itself and we have gone back fifty years. Weeds push up through rubble strewn pavements. Barbed wire fences off derelict buildings. Old chandlers with dim lighting sit alongside the occasional edgy nightclub or restaurant. And there, in the middle, is the aggressive, ugly reminder of Germany's occupation of this part of France.  As we park (to our relief right outside, this does not feel like an urban landscape where one wanders at night) the cheerful crowd streaming towards the light from the open doors reassures - as does their attire. Coats, boots and scarves are the order of the evening - we have not over-reacted.

And the bleak photos on the websites are right.  We walk across a bridge over the chilly water of one of the pens and turn alongside the great pillars of concrete towering above our heads.  Ah, but the lighting! Deep reds illuminate the pillars, reflected down into the water.  I have my small camera, which cannot possibly do the effect justice.  And the venue itself - a welcoming grandstand of raked plastic seats (good). And a blanket on every seat!  (We're glad of the cushions we've brought as well.)  The atmosphere is moody, with a darkened open stage - and continues to be so as the concert starts - a single woman in red high-heeled shoes, beating out the rhythm of her song with her feet, barely visible in the low-lit gloom.

We're glad we went.  Her husky voice is wonderful and the individual performances of her band superb.  But the sound balance in the echoing concrete arena frustrated.  Too often her voice and her words were lost in the heavy base and over-amplified accompanying instruments.  We suspect the more intimate location of Marciac would have served her better.  The French were ecstatic - but then for many her words would have been meaningless sounds; so the fact that she was no more than another instrument in the group would not have mattered.

For us, the best moment was when she sang "Baby I'm a Fool". Just her, her guitar and a soft brush on a drum - her voice and words crystal clear in the cavernous dark of a U-boat pen.

Melody Gardot.
Base Sous-Marine, Bordeaux

Thursday, 11 October 2012

A Good Day

A week beforehand the météo promised sun and thirty degrees - in October!

Well that would be very welcome. We could have everyone at tables on the veranda. So the garden needed to look good and much time was spent in weeding, mowing, strimming. And removing a year's worth of cobwebs from way up in the top of the veranda roof.

We nervously watched the forecast deteriorate as the week wore on and began to talk about "plan B".  Eat inside.  That meant the effort switched to dusting, hoovering, removing a year's worth of cobwebs from way up in the one-day-to-be our entrance hall roof and cleaning off the evidence of our spring broods of baby red-starts who had learnt to fly there.

Additional chairs and lamps and cutlery and dishes were brought up from the cottage and we anxiously reviewed whether we would have enough of everything.  Larger serving plates were needed and it looked like more knives and forks were required - so they were added to the Leclerc's food shopping list.

We kept hoping the météo was wrong and checked out several sites - his météo seemed to promise better weather than mine. Saturday was spent cooking: One in the kitchen in the house and the other in the kitchen in the cottage - better to keep out of each other's way. And still we hoped.

Sunday dawned wretched - a steady grey drizzle. Who would want to be on the veranda in this?  Our guests would be arriving shortly and we needed all the tables inside - including the long heavy oak one that lives outside and seats ten.  I thought it wouldn't work. He said it would.  And time was ticking by.

There were salads to be made - tomato, cucumber and watermelon; chicory, pear and cashews - melon and parma ham to be laid out; tomatoes and mozzarella to be cut up and dressed with basil and balsamic vinegar; the cold chicken roll stuffed with prunes to be carved. The slow roast lamb to check, the mashed potatoes to pop in the oven, the peas to gently simmer with onion, lettuce and coconut milk. And we were still moving furniture.

With half an hour to go Tod had managed to fit four tables in the house with seating for thirty-two.  I dashed round laying out napkins, place mats, cutlery, nibbles.  The one-day-to-be entrance hall had flowers and greenery and tables ready with glasses and wine bottles. Beer and soft drinks were on ice. It all looked inviting.

But all the salads were still to be made and our first guests were arriving.

Oh the joy of friends who come wandering out to the kitchen, away from the hubbub in the hall saying "can I help?".  And suddenly the salads were ready, the chicken carved and Tod's char-grilled vegetables laid out.

Some time later, pottering alone in the kitchen, I could hear the laughter from the lounge and knew, despite the weather, it was going to be a good day.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Channelling van Gogh

I've discovered on-line jigsaws!

Which is probably one of the reasons why my posting rate has dropped. But it's a great way to pass the time between bouts of gardening: "Oh I'll just make a cup of tea and just do a bit more to the puzzle." Then an hour's passed and I'm still struggling to put in the last few pieces.

Someone yesterday said I looked tired - probably the late night, "must just finish this puzzle" syndrome.

People post their own photos and images and then the rest of us can choose to do them - or not.  Some puzzles are very strange.  The most played jigsaw is a cover of a dog magazine showing a dog playing with a kong.  Much as I like dogs, and find kongs to be excellent toys, this is not one I would choose to do and cannot imagine anyone else would. I wonder if all the staff who work for the magazine are required to spend their lunch hours doing this particular puzzle in order to keep it top of the "most played" list.

Some of my favourites are images of paintings that people have found and copied - frustratingly not all are attributed - and among my most favourite are those by van Gogh.  As I painstakingly put the jigsaw together, piece by piece, I begin to understand how the painter has created the image and how rich it is.  That bit of dark green is subtly different from this bit, so no, this piece cannot go there.  These brush strokes are short and strong and dramatic, so no, the smooth texture of the piece I hold on the end of my mouse pointer cannot go here, it must belong somewhere else.

I have always loved van Gogh's work. But only now do I really begin to see just what it entails. His paintings broken up in small pieces and scattered on my screen are just tiny bits of smudgy crude patches of colour.  It is almost impossible to decide "that is sky" when he also uses a light brilliant blue with flecks of white and grey to convey the play of light on a  field.  And is this dashed off bit of brown and black the bark of a tree?  Or a hollow in the hills? Or the shadowy side of an old building?

I've decided the only thing I can do is ask him.  And I let him move my pointer mouse across the screen. He knows just why he placed that colour, that brush stroke there and the final effect is beautiful. I bless the person who is finding and posting van Gogh images onto the puzzle website.  Although it does mean my gardening and blogging are suffering.

Excuse me everyone. I've just got "The Poplars at Saint-Rémy" to finish.

Jigsaw Planet
Van Gogh
The Poplars at Saint-Rémy