Friday, 28 October 2016

France: The autumn garden

These photos need no comment. I took them to remind myself of the colours of October, because when we next come it will all be bare branches.

Berberis

Spiraea
                                    Redbud


 Red oak - tiny tree, big leaves

                                                  Flowering cherry


From the top of the garden, with Rosie

                                                       
                                                        The dogwoods, looking tidier without rampant ferns and brambles
       

                                                                Claret ash





                                                       Peach



 Two deciduous azaleas (my favourite)



 Purple cotinus, scarlet willow, yellow dogwood, and some fabulous fungi.

Friday, 7 October 2016

A feast for ear and eye

Over the past year we have been going rather frequently to the opera. We are neither opera fanatics nor fabulously wealthy, but have a fondness for a musical treat once in a while and have taken advantage of a scheme run by the English National Opera, based at the Coliseum in London, which offers seats for £20. You select the opera you want to see, and the date, and a few days before you go you are sent your seats by e mail. We have had seats in the stalls, in the circle, in the dress circle, sometimes with a very slightly restricted view, but never such that the seating has detracted from our evening's pleasure.
The Coliseum Theatre, a mere five-minute walk from Charing Cross Station, is large and sumptuous, with all the traditional trappings of velvet, gilt and glamour that we expect from an opera house. Here we have seen some wonderful operas, but a few days ago was the cake's proverbial icing: we went to see Puccini's 'Tosca.'


Giacomo Puccini




 This opera has had a special resonance for me ever since I was about twelve or thirteen when my late father came back from helping at the Scouts' bazaar with a stack of 78s. At the time I was barely aware of the operatic luminaries on these records: Maria Callas, Carlo Bergonzi, and Tito Gobbi in the principal roles; but I was soon to find out. We had few other records then, so despite each lasting about three minutes before the next one fell from the spindle onto the turntable with a most unmusical crash, the opera was played frequently, such that I could before long sing the famous tenor aria 'E lucevan le stelle'  in Italian. (Why the tenor aria? No idea, since I was and am a soprano.) Over the years we have seen other productions, including one transported rather appropriately in time from the Napoleonic era where the story is usually set to that of World War 2, with corresponding costumes and sets, dark and foreboding. However the recent staging reverted to the original time and the colours and clothes of the period.
Here there were no great international names, but the singing was ravishing and the orchestra, as always, a tight-knit group of virtuosi magisterially directed. The story, in true operatic tradition replete with tragedy, ill-starred love, cruelty, treachery and murder,  provided the opportunity for heart-breaking arias. But it was the final scene which drew forth from a captivated audience a cross between a gasp and a roar. The set representing the prison of Castel Sant' Angelo in Rome was a circle of stone with  a backdrop view of a star-spattered night sky, resplendent in blue and gold. Following the discovery that her lover was dead,  the grief-stricken Tosca stood on the lip of the abyss. Dressed in a simple gown of pale gold, her dark hair loose, she raised her arms to shoulder-height, and for a moment they looked like angels' wings. Then with a final declamatory, 'Scarpia, in the sight of God!' she fell, almost serenely, backwards to her certain death. I guess every member of that audience knew what was going to happen, but it still had an extraordinary impact. It was an electric moment.

Harvest

These photos speak for themselves: gathering apples and digging potatoes in our French garden, ably assisted by Rosie. Collecting the Braeburns was a truly golden moment, one to savour, with the September sun warming my back, nothing to hear but birdsong, and the acre tidy (though I know all too well how a few weeks' neglect will see my mortal enemies the brambles preparing a renewed assault!)



Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Life in France: the nuts and bolts of everyday

Today has been a good day.
It's often problematic getting anything done here at our rural pile in Normandy, especially when, as is often the case, we are here only for a week or ten days. I have spent many a frustrating hour, for instance, on a mobile phone, with a signal that dips in and out, trying to convince an uncomprehending operative that our  internet and landline really aren't working, and it's not because we are idiots. (On this occasion we were over a year without these necessary things and it was eventually discovered that a cable was down between us and our neighbours, probably clobbered by a cherry-picker on top of a tractor.)
We recently found that our electricity meter wasn't working - like most of this place, it's ancient. Whoopee, free electricity! But as we all know there is always a reckoning, in this case, no doubt, a vast bill. So we rang up and told them. At first there was much tut-tutting - the time was too short. But eventually, several calls later, we had an appointment: between 0830 and midday. Early this morning I had a phone call to say that they would be here between 10 and 12. This gave us a window to hare into town (before breakfast!) and seek out a new drive-belt for our very ancient lawn-mower (mentioned before on this blog, with portrait.) The mower is now 22 years old and held together with fibreglass, screws and prayer. A belt was sourced, and we were told it had been in stock since 2010 and would not be replaced - I guess because the mowers it would fit have all gone the eventual way of all machinery.
Every hour we are here is precious, especially when the weather is fine, so this was a big help. The chaps from the electricity company arrived at 11, by which time my husband was already under the mower, muttering and groaning. Now we have a new meter, and the mowing can get finished - result!
This visit has been fruitful in other ways as well: we now have a handsome  new front  door. The old one was rotten, insecure and draughty, as well as difficult to open, such that we rarely used it.
In addition, I have made great strides with my Work in Progress, novel no. 6.
It's not often that successes outnumber frustrations, but as I write the fragrance of soup made from home-grown leeks is wafting from the kitchen, and on the way to the mower man's this morning I saw three red squirrels.

 The old door, once home to lurking spiders.










The new door.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Summer in France

We have had four weeks at our house in France, now drawing to a close. It has been very hot and dry at times, but fortunately rain arrived in time to rescue the smaller plants from death by desiccation. We have been hedging - chopping off the top and sides of a tall, thick Leylandii hedge surrounding our kitchen  garden on two sides. It's hot, dirty work on top of a platform with loppers and various heavy and business-like telescopic electric implements.
The usual mowing, weeding, cutting back and clearing has gone on too, and we have burnt vast mounds of  hedge-clippings and assorted rubbish - four times! I also got very hot and sticky hacking back ferns and brambles which were choking our dogwoods and extending out over the lane at the top of the garden. Because I was on a public road and our dog likes to be around us, we shut her in for her safety. But someone left a door not quite shut, she escaped and appeared in the garden, looking very pleased with herself!
This summer we have been infested with moles. We always have them and normally simply ignore them and live alongside. But this year they have  been nothing less than rampant. We work hard trying to keep our acre tidy and beautiful, and molehills (taupinieres) across the lawn and under my little shrubs, with new ones appearing every morning, were making an unsightly and potentially damaging mess. So my husband did some research on the internet and found that the best trap for a marauding mole is something called a 'putange', known to mole-trappers everywhere as 300-year-old French rural technology and the best thing for the job. However, despite repeated efforts for a fortnight he caught nothing at all. Neither of us is keen on killing things, and normally tolerate anything that shows up (although I was rather dismayed to find one of my small hydrangeas ripped apart, we think by a hare, which had also debarked some of the smaller trees.) We understood that a humane trap is really not something to be used on moles; such a trap would need to be checked with unrealistic frequency if the poor creature was not to die of starvation or stress - a far crueller death than the swift one meted out by a successful 'putange.'
We consulted our French neighbours who, of course, knew of a professional mole-trapper, one Fernand. In due course Fernand turned up in his blue van, full of 'putanges' and other tools of the trade. He looked all round our garden, working out where the runs were as if he had X-ray eyes. He came again the next day, and the next, and caught 3 moles. The fourth day he came to collect his traps and be paid, and we noted that for a while mole activity decreased markedly. Since then, unfortunately, we have noticed more molehills, so my husband, who watched Fernand with keen interest, is back to laying traps.
A more welcome visitor was the owl - our owl or another, we don't know. The first few evenings we were here I thought I saw one on two occasions, but I wasn't certain - they fly so fast. Then, early one morning I was out with the dog near the small outbuilding where we put the owl house last summer. I heard a thump and out from the building came a barn owl, quite unmistakable. It flew away over the garden and I haven't seen it since. I guess it was roosting here in our absence, and once we were about decided to decamp elsewhere.
I have been reminded as we drove about on various errands just how fertile this part of France is. Hay bales have now been collected, leaving the fields stripped and golden. Maize stands tall, but it will be taller still when it is harvested in October, to be stored as winter feed for cattle. Once it is cut the  views of the countryside open up again. Market stalls are loaded with produce, much of it local, and the summer fruits are sumptuous and colourful - nectarines, apricots, melons. We are fortunate to be part of this bounty.



 Another aspect of the summer in rural France is the town's or village's annual festival, and this year we spent a hot afternoon with crowds in holiday mood at one such in a nearby town, a 'Corso fleuri' in which slow-moving floats are decorated with thousands of paper flowers, each about as big as my thumbnail. The whole tableau depicts some aspect of local interest, including a Viking longship, dairy products and, of course, the local beauty queens. The town was also replete with real flowers - on every bridge, lamp post and balcony. It must have taken many people many weeks of preparation and the colours were dazzling. For my husband, however, the biggest attraction was the town band
(called, wittily, 'Elefanfare') which, as we expected, included two sousaphones - one decorated as a blue elephant!




Wednesday, 20 July 2016

My friend Maisie

In December 2013 I posted about someone I called Maisie, an old friend of my late mother's, and a couple of months later posted briefly about her again, because she was and is such an inspiration. I went to see her today, after a phone call during which she told me she had decided to go into a home. This was her decision, made realistically and thinking about the weight of responsibility resting on her only surviving son, who is himself in his seventies and  lives a couple of hours' drive away. Maisie's health has deteriorated from what was already not a great state: her eyesight is worse, her joints more painful, her mobility more restricted, and her dependence on others greater. A few months ago, having to get up to go to the bathroom in the night, she had a disastrous fall. I found her a few days later in hospital, with a very dramatic purple bruise down all one side of her face. She was sitting in an armchair by her bed, as positive and chatty as ever, but I think that episode has set her back, and she has now come to the conclusion that she needs round-the-clock care. It's a big step for her, but she says now the decision is made she  can't wait - not because she wants to leave her home, but because she wants to be less of a worry for her family and friends. Today she said philosophically, 'Wherever I end up, I'll make the best of it.' And I am certain she will.

Last month Maisie celebrated her 98th birthday. We had a tea party in her house and so many people came there was barely room to move! Today I took her some photos of the day - printed on A4 so she had a better chance of seeing them. Here's one of them, catching her  mid-laugh. She was holding a neighbour's baby, and I whispered, 'Maisie, you didn't even tell us you were pregnant!'

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Friends across the pond

Recently an American writer whom I know via the internet kindly read and reviewed my latest novel, An Iron Yoke. You can see her review on www.amazon.com and www.amazon.co.uk. Then she suggested that she interviewed me on her blog. You can see the result on www.juliesaffrin.com. Julie is herself a talented writer and the author of BlessBack.

The interview is charming and full of photos many of which Julie herself sourced. She did her research well - a must for any writer. At the end of the interview she asked people to comment, and offered a free Kindle version of An Iron Yoke to one of the people who left a comment. I trust the winner enjoys the read.

Julie herself, and many of her friends, are great Anglophiles, it seems. I am very thankful to Julie for her generous efforts on my behalf, and I hope they result in a few more American readers for me.