Sunday, 31 July 2011

In vino veritas

I'm not sure the title I've already typed will have an awful lot of bearing on what I am about to write - or should that be the other way round? Whichever, the only word in the title that really applies is probably "vino".

It's strange how a word can disappear from my life for months or even years and then suddenly become the focus of my attention. That has happened with "oenophile". I don't suppose I had seen or heard the word for ages - until this week. For some reason it just popped into my mind completely unbidden. I hadn't been thinking about wine, talking about wine or even drinking wine, but there it was, right out of the blue. Perhaps I wouldn't have noticed if it had not been such an unusual word. After all, it's not exactly a word that we habitually use in everyday conversation. Well, you might, but I don't. Then it cropped up again on a television programme, New Tricks, which is nothing to do with food or wine but is a drama about an eccentric group of ex-policemen, brought together to solve unsolved crimes. And now it's in Terry Wogan's column in this morning's paper!

I like wine, but don't get me wrong. I'm not an alcoholic - just one and a half glasses with my evening meal - and I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm oenophilic. I'm certainly not a connoisseur, but I know what I like and I like what I know.

Most of the wine I buy is French. Not because I consider French wine necessarily the best - in some cases I don't think it is - but because I buy my wine in French supermarkets while we are across the Channel staying at our house in the Loire valley. I certainly don't reckon to pay very much for my wine, most of it coming in at under 4 euros a bottle. But for ordinary, everyday drinking it really isn't necessary to pay a lot. I buy several different varieties of red wine: Cotes du Mont Ventoux, Fitou, Cahors, Corbieres, Cotes du Rhone Villages, Saumur Champigny being among them. When it comes to white wine, though, I tend to stick to just one - Muscadet Sevre et Maine sur lies. I don't think the French are as good as the New Zealand or Chilean wine makers when it comes to the sauvignon blanc grape and I occasionally lash out and buy a bottle - usually New Zealand - if I'm feeling flush or want one for a special occasion.

There was a time when I would try all sorts of ways to buy Cloudy Bay when it arrived. If you don't know it, that is one of the world's best sauvignon blanc wines and it acquired cult status some years ago. The price gradually went up until I decided it was too high for my pocket.

My younger son worked for several years in very posh restaurants, the sort of place that included in its wine list bottles priced at £1,000 or more. On one occasion, somebody ordered just such a bottle and actually left some wine in the bottom. YS tried it - and pronounced it horrible! I do have to wonder about the man who, this week, is supposed to have paid £75,000 for a bottle of Chateau d'Yquem. Granted, it's the 1811 vintage, but even so - that's over £12,000 a glass! And he's not even going to drink it! He says he will just admire it for the next six years and will open it in 2017. (I didn't see why.) He will probably find the cork disintegrates and the wine is undrinkable - and that's not just sour grapes!

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Today

The quote for today is, I think, worth preserving. It shows such positive thinking.

Thomas A. Edison
"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."


What a treat it was to open the curtains and see blue sky over the Downs. Mornings recently have been grey and overcast even if we have seen a few small patches of blue later in the day. May be we'll feature a picture on the Stanmer blog tomorrow.



Brighton & Hove Albion play their first match at the new American Express Community Stadium this afternoon - against Tottenham Hotspur. The stadium was shown on the local television news yesterday evening when it was announced that the building cost was £93 million. What a staggering sum! Apparently one man, the chairman of the club, has lent the club £80 million interest free but where the balance came from I don't know. Presumably Amex had something to do with it as their name is associated with the stadium.

In all the planning it seems there was one small matter overlooked. Bear in mind that the stadium is out of town but is served by (I think) two bus routes with a railway station being fairly close as well. But there is no parking. There is a "park and ride" scheme by which spectators have to park a couple of miles away. Now, when I say there is no parking, I mean there is no parking for spectators or staff - who number 200 on match days. But they have to be on site by 11.00am - and the park & ride doesn't start until noon. The regular bus services look like being swamped.

The opening of the new stadium also means that I might have to avoid certain of my regular walks on match days so as to avoid the crowds.

Friday, 29 July 2011

That's one job less

When I listed all those bright ideas yesterday I left the list incomplete. Or maybe I just added "etc"; I don't remember. Not that it matters in the least. One of the other things I had been wanting to accomplish involved the other blog, the daily photo of Stanmer and around. I have recently given that blog a makeover but there was still one thing outstanding. Photographs were being displayed in the format 400 pixels x 300 and I really wanted them to appear larger than that, preferably 600 x 480. I had tried amending the HTML to increase the size of the pictures, which worked well - except that the pictures now looked a trifle out of focus. They looked OK in the smaller size but what was actually happening was that Blogger uploaded them 400 x 300 and when I increased the display size, they started pixellating. I was puzzled because I had seen pictures in the larger size on other blogs (Jilly's Menton blog, for example). I was also rather taken with the format on HPY BIS which is 800 x about 280 and is, to my eye, very attractive with the right subject matter. I even tried opening a new blog with a different template, one of the old templates which are now a little difficult to find but which I did in the end manage to winkle out of hiding. I have tried all sorts of tricks - but to no avail. I think I have decided to settle for what Blogger gives me and cross this job off the list but maybe one day I'll go onto the Blogger site and see if anybody can give me the answer through the help forum. One day. Maybe.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

With age comes... ?

I'm old enough to know better. I really am, and yet I fall into the same trap time after time after time. I'm closer to 70 years of age than 60 and should by now have gained just a smidgen of wisdom if not a basinful of common sense. But it seems as though I am still in the early teenager stage. Every now and then I have (or suffer) a brainstorm. Well, that's OK, I don't mind the occasional idea even if it does entail me spending an inordinate amount of time producing something of very little benefit to me or anybody else. It keeps me amused and out of the clutches of the Household Manager.

As I say, the occasional idea is just fine by me - but why oh why do the ideas have to come one behind the other as if they were No 23 buses?

Come to think of it, I have never seen No 23 buses one behind the other. In fact, I've only recently realised that there is a service 23. Perhaps I should have compared the ideas to the No 5B bus which often comes in twos or even threes. But whether the bus is the 23 or the 5B, those ideas come along one behind the other. That in itself wouldn't be so bad, but my scattergun approach means that as soon as the second idea is anything more than a grain of dust in the air, I have to take it on board and start dealing with it. That is where the trouble comes in as I have never ever finished the first idea before I start work on the second, and then the third, and maybe even the fourth.

I discovered a little while back that Lions Clubs International now have a facility for Districts to host web sites with LCI similar to one that has existed for clubs for some time. As district webmaster I decided to register, only to find that one of our Vice District Governors already had. Anyway, he sent me the log in details last week so I decided to start experimenting. Then I had the idea that I really needed, as a matter of some urgency, to re-sort and re-title my digital photographs. I think there are about 9,000 of them but they don't all need attention. Then I decided to add a calendar to Brighton Lions web site, and the video on that site could o with updating, and then something else really couldn't wait...

As I said at the beginning, I really am old enough to know better. But what the heck, it's fun!

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

An irritating man

In fact, he's more than irritating: he's infuriating! But we'll get onto that shortly. Meanwhile, let me ask you a question. Have you ever wondered about the origin and evolution of things; simple, everyday things? I'm not talking about the Big Bang Theory, the large hadron collider or Charles Darwin's On the Evolution of Species. I'm referring to matters far more mundane. Take bread, for example. I have often - OK, I have sometimes wondered what drove somebody to take the seeds of a certain wild grass, grind them to a powder, add water and bake to produce bread. Even in that over-simplified example there are no fewer than four discrete steps: selecting the grass, grinding the seeds, adding water and baking. That's without kneading, adding yeast etc etc. So why did anybody do it? And did whoever it was have any idea what the outcome might be or were they just, well, experimenting for the sake of experimenting? Then there are carrots. What impelled somebody to dig up the root of that plant and find it edible? How many other roots did they try before this one?

What never occurred to me was that I might be able to make money from random musings such as these. If I could expand upon them - and introduce a few other odd, unconnected thought jottings - I could produce a saleable book like one I read in France last week: Bill Bryson's At Home, the 500+ pages of which are described as 'a short history of private life'.

I implied earlier that I find Mr B an infuriating man. That, perhaps, is unfair of me. I have never had the pleasure (or otherwise) of making the acquaintance of the gentleman so I am judging him without hearing all the evidence in the case against him.

I first met Mr Bryson - or, rather, his work - a good many years ago when I was warned not to read Notes From a Small Island on the train to or from work. Other passengers would think me demented on account of my frequent giggles, I was advised. Since then, Mr B has made a career out of writing nothing much about quite a lot. Which is where the infuriation comes in. If he can do it, why can't I?

Mind you, he does seem to do a lot of research. His latest tome lists what is described as a "select" bibliography, presumably implying that the author has read all these titles and a few more besides. I don't know how many of the listed titles are lengthy books or how many are simply pamphlets, but there are nearly 500 titles listed in this select bibliography! (No, I didn't go to the trouble of counting them all. I simply counted one page and extrapolated from there.) I wouldn't want to force feed myself to that extent so maybe I will just content myself with a few unpaid ramblings like this one.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Perchance to dream

I'm not a person to have difficulty in sleeping. That's not to say that I'm asleep as soon as my head touches the pillow, but insomnia is not a problem with which I am familiar. Despite this, there have been a few occasions recently when either it has taken my longer than usual to fall asleep or I have woken in the early hours and felt little need for further sleep for an hour or so. When this happen I try to lie still and avoid tossing around to that I don't wake You Know Who. Not that I'm likely to do so as she sleeps soundly. Very soundly. When this happens I might give in and rouse myself to sit and read for a while, but that means I disturb the dog. The night before last I lay in bed mentally writing this blog. I composed some wonderful sentences covering a wide range of subjects and knew full well that people reading this purple - well, purplish - prose would be full of admiration for the 21st century Charles Dickens. Even I, in my wildest flights of fancy, couldn't rank myself alongside the Bard himself, but Dickens, with his great descriptive passages, well, yes, perhaps I was equal to him. Of course, I fell asleep and promptly forgot everything. And I overslept as well.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Doors to manual

So while we were away last week the blog was set to auto with a bit scheduled for posting each day. Now we are back from gallivanting around the Loire valley the autopilot can be switched off.

I was both pleasantly surprised and mildly irritated when I first checked my email after returning. The pleasant surprise was that there were fewer spam emails than I had expected - only 1200+ in the spam folder and five that had escaped the net and got in amongst the "proper" emails. There were 122 in that folder, including the 5 spam but including also some 70+ returned or undeliverable emails. That was the irritating part - somebody had hijacked my email address to send out spam! Catching up with what all my favourite bloggers had been writing and admiring the pictures taken by the city bloggers passed quite a few happy minutes - but then it's back to the grind. Get the accounts brought up to date, reply to emails, letters and telephone messages, laundry, mow the grass, get cracking on the next issue of Jungle Jottings, update club and district web sites...

I'm not complaining, not really. I know I'm lucky enough to be able to take off for a week in the way we do every couple of months. We get to enjoy two completely different lifestyles and there have to be some small drawbacks.

Oh yes. I'll continue the story of how we bought our French house a bit later on. Maybe next time we are away.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Saved!

Having started, I suppose I may as well carry on with the story. If you are new to this, you might like to read last Saturday's post and then (if you still have both the time and the inclination) follow through the daily posts to end up back here.

- * -

Back home again I looked once more at the meagre information about the house that had been dispensed in such a miserly manner by the French estate agent. Did my eyes deceive me? Had I really missed the note about rights of way? I think I managed to look disappointed when I pointed this out to my dearly beloved. All it said was that there were rights of way in existence. But by now we knew all about French rights of way. I hastily composed an e-mail to Monsieur D asking for more information.

Three weeks passed before I received a reply, presumably because we were still just within the French summer holiday season. Just twenty minutes with a dictionary provided what I was confident was a reasonable translation. The answer quite surprised us. This time it was the owner of the house who enjoyed the benefit of a right of way in the field beside the property in order to reach the walls if repairs were needed.

We were still undecided – no, let me be honest. I was still prevaricating – when another e-mail arrived from Monsieur D a few days later. If we were serious about buying this house, he warned us, we should move quickly as another offer had been put in. We found this hard to believe since the house had been standing empty for years, probably since the Duke of Wellington routed the local French in the Napoleonic wars. Was this just an estate agent's ploy to force an offer from us? we wondered. It can be difficult enough to tell when dealing face to face with an agent speaking one's native language but quite impossible when translating an e-mail in a foreign tongue. We agreed to play safe and make an offer. But an offer of how much?

We covered about three reams of paper with calculations in our efforts to arrive at a purchase price that would attract the vendor while still leaving sufficient money in the bank to carry out the extensive renovations. We already had an idea of the cost of replacing the roof, but how much would we have to pay for a bathroom to be installed? What was the price of rewiring? And new windows and doors? We scanned the catalogues of builders' merchants and studied advertisements in the local paper in an attempt to collate the figures we needed, then converted the answer to euros and added a bit for luck. Then we started again. And again.

Midnight came and went. Fortunately our local supermarket is open 24 hours a day so we were able to replenish our exhausted supply of coffee. Somewhere around 2.00am we came to a conclusion and decided to sleep on it. If the figure still looked about right in the morning, that would be our offer.

It was in some trepidation that I composed another e-mail the next day. Almost by return came the reply. We were too late, I read with relief. An earlier offer had been accepted.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Could this be it?

Having started, I suppose I may as well carry on with the story. If you are new to this, you might like to read last Saturday's post and then (if you still have both the time and the inclination) follow through the daily posts to end up back here.

- * -

Rights of way were a little bit of a problem at the next house. The interior was nearly as uninspiring as the outside, but it was immediately habitable. The fact that half the village, or so it seemed, had the right to use the side passage and cross the garden to draw water from the well was just a minor irritant. What really put us off was the right of way that the next-door neighbour had. This allowed him to mount the staircase and cross the landing past the bedroom doors in order to gain access to his loft.

We moved on again to the third and last house on the list. It stood foursquare and forlorn with drooping shutters and with just about sufficient fragments of paint clinging to the door and window frames for a forensic scientist to work out what colour it had once been. Devising a way of opening the gate without causing it to collapse in a heap of worm-eaten wood almost needed the intelligence of Einstein and would have made a first class project for that old TV programme, The Krypton Factor. The garden was so overgrown that Dr Livingstone would have been quite at home in it. It would probably have taken Stanley just as long to find him here as it had in central Africa. When we had fought our way into the house and entered the kitchen, the first thing we noticed was a tidemark about fifteen inches up the wall. This, apparently, marked the highest level of the last flood.



"Not to worry," advised Monsieur D, jauntily. He went on to explain that the local authority had spent vast sums of money on flood defence measures which he would be delighted to show us.

The rest of the house was in much the same condition. The roof needed replacing, as did the windows and door. The wiring would have to be ripped out, and one room would need to be converted to a bathroom. Mrs S would never put up with the tumbledown brick shed beside the front gate, even if I had cleared away the jungle. There really was far too much work required although, as Monsieur D cheerfully said, it was "a small price for much work".
While I was glumly considering the wash basin on the landing with its mottled green and brown stains, Mrs S was pulling up the tattered carpets, which lay two deep, to expose the original terra-cotta floor tiles. I have to admit they were in remarkably good condition. But that was it, as far as Mrs S was concerned. The walls might have been falling down and the wiring more lethal than Alabama's electric chair, but as long as there remained perfectly good, old, terra-cotta floor tiles, she would be happy.

Monsieur D was astounded. "Madame prefers this?" he asked in a faint voice.

"Definitely," replied madame firmly.


Somehow I managed to get us away from this monstrosity without making any commitment, but that was not the end of the matter: those terra-cotta tiles were still exerting a malign influence on Mrs S. Her confidence in my ability to overcome all the obstacles was really quite flattering and, although my head was telling me I should know better, I fell for it like the mug that I am.

As we drove back to Wendy and Gary's house, Mrs S was jigging about so much in her excitement that I became quite worried about the car's suspension. In an attempt to get her to calm down I promised the dear lady that we would make enquiries about the flood prevention measures. As luck would have it, Wendy and Gary had a friend who lived in the village. Furthermore, he was both an electrician and a roofer who could be relied on to do a good job at a reasonable price. Lady Luck had certainly deserted me that day. He was in when Wendy rang to ask about the floods.

"Pfff!" he exclaimed. "It was nozzinck. A couple of sandbags across ze door, and no water!"

Mrs S was overjoyed. Using a form of logic which only she understands, she had decided that the floods were nowhere near as bad as the evidence had suggested, and as we would have a tame roofer/electrician living practically next door, nothing could be simpler. In her mind we had already bought the wreck and my magic toolbox had transformed it into the perfect residence secondaire.

The rest of our holiday passed with me frantically studying a specialist dictionary full of building terms which had not been covered by either my 'O' level or the conversation classes at night school. After all, how often does a soffit or doorjamb crop up in casual conversation? Just imagine the looks you would get if you walked into the local and announced, "Hey, chaps! I saw a great architrave today." In an idle moment I wondered if French builders shake their heads and suck air in through their teeth in the same way as their British counterparts when sizing up a new job.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Monsieur Detroit

Having started, I suppose I may as well carry on with the story. If you are new to this, you might like to read Saturday's post and then (if you still have both the time and the inclination) follow through the daily posts to end up back here.

- * -

In his late twenties, dark haired and good looking, Monsieur Detroit was charm personified. His suit, shirt and tie appeared to have been selected especially to match the office decor, and the shine of his shoes would have found no fault with a Regimental Sergeant Major of the Grenadier Guards. He apologised profusely for being late, even though he wasn't, and pulled forward a chair for Mrs S, who is always a sucker for smooth-talkers like this, especially when their smooth-talking involves a sexy French accent and a minimum of English. I had the uncomfortable feeling that this would be a difficult session but hoped that I would be able to control the situation as my French is better than Mrs S's. My French appeared also to be better than Monsieur D's English, although this did seem to improve fairly rapidly. Cynically, I wondered just how much he was holding in reserve and how much of what we had seen so far was a performance designed especially for English ladies of a certain age.

It was not long before I thought my doubts had been confirmed. Monsieur D had pulled down a lever-arch file with a dark-blue cover which blended perfectly with the muted tones of the office. Leafing through this, he had selected a number of properties which were all priced far beyond my slim wallet. With a puzzled look, he checked the details that Bernice had noted on our previous visit.

I should perhaps explain at this stage that, despite the fact that France had adopted the euro at the beginning of the year, French estate agents, in common with almost the entire population of the country, were still paying no more than lip service to the change of currency. The properties shown in their windows might display prices in euros, but the agents still thought in francs.

Monsieur D asked me to write down the maximum we were prepared to pay. I did so, giving the figure in euros, francs and, just for good measure, sterling. I was determined he should realise he was dealing with somebody who knew full well how many beans make four.

"Ah!" he said. "'Ere is ze problem."

It transpired that the fault was mine. I had been speaking of euros when I told the super-efficient Bernice, on our previous visit, the maximum that I was prepared to pay. She, quite understandably, had been thinking in francs and assumed that I had made a mistake, saying thousands when I really meant hundreds of thousands. I waited for us to be ushered politely out of the door once the true level of our finances had sunk in, but the suave Monsieur D was nothing if not equal to the situation, although no apology was forthcoming from him and I gave none either. Another colour-schemed lever-arch file was produced.
Flicking through a seemingly endless number of building plots for sale, Monsieur Detroit eventually managed to find five houses that we could afford. Among them were both of those that we had previously enquired about, together with the House of Bells which we had been shown by Monsieur Moran, and two others. I explained that we had already viewed one through another agent, who was offering the house at a price almost 25% less than that shown here, and that, having seen it from the outside, we had no wish to view the inside of the 'flea house'. Monsieur D seemed unsurprised by this latter revelation. Indeed, it seemed slightly to improve our standing in his eyes. We agreed on the three houses that we were to view and, to our astonishment, Bernice handed us written copies of the details of each.

We were to travel together in Monsieur D's car and, in view of his sartorial elegance, the condition of this vehicle came as a shock. It was at least fifteen years old, in need of a thoroughly good wash, and the rust spots looked like an outbreak of chicken pox. The inside was no better. Monsieur D unlocked the driver's door and reached inside to do the same for the rear door. Opening this, he proceeded to throw empty drink cans, chocolate wrappers and various papers onto the floor before brushing the seat down so that Mrs S could enter. A similar performance preceded my admission to the front passenger seat.

Age and appearance notwithstanding, the engine started at the first attempt and we left the market square in a cloud of smoky exhaust fumes. Now that he had escaped from the constrictions of the office, Monsieur D was able to relax a little and we laughed with each other at our puerile attempts to engage in conversation, each using the other's language. This must have proved something of a distraction as Monsieur D did get slightly lost trying to find the first house on our list.

In the fulness of time, and after a very pleasant tour of the local countryside, we did arrive at the correct village, only to find our way blocked by a burly, red-faced gendarme. I was very glad that the brakes on Monsieur D's car worked well enough to stop us before we hit this human mountain. It would have been a soft landing, but the gendarme looked a bit trigger happy to me. Beyond this human roadblock was a seething mass of French peasant farmers and their wives, shepherded by another two gendarmes. The whole crowd was dressed in its best market clothes. So large was this heaving mass of humanity that it completely swamped the centre of the village. It was obvious that we would need to exercise a degree of patience. The man (it could only have been a man for all those chauvinistic farmers to be there), the man whose funeral this was had evidently been a personage of some standing in the local community. I was somewhat alarmed when I thought I recognised the two stout ladies from the wedding a few days before. Being a practising coward, I slunk down in my seat but at last everybody had been shepherded into the church and I was able to relax again. The three gendarmes stepped aside and we slowly made our way past the church and into a nearby side street. It was only with some difficulty that Monsieur D found room to park his car within walking distance of the house we were to view, a house where, we had been told, we would just need to finish off the renovation.

Finish off the renovations? The place was such a disaster we might as well have attended the funeral. The current owner had started converting two small, semi-detached, single-storey houses into one, but no doorway had been opened between them so it was still necessary to go into the street to pass from one to the other. In one of them the ceiling was supported by a veritable cat's cradle of scaffolding and there seemed no way to hold the ceiling up without removing it completely and starting again. In any case, converting these two houses into one would be like trying to make a thatched cottage and a public lavatory into one house. We were told that the present owner had decided that he lived too far away to find time to complete the conversion, so wished to sell. Good luck to him, we thought, as we dodged between scaffolding poles and over trenches to look out of the back window into the garden over which neighbours had rights of way.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Fleas' Blacksmith

Having started, I suppose I may as well carry on with the story. If you are new to this, you might like to read Saturday's post and then (if you still have both the time and the inclination) follow through the daily posts to end up back here.

- * -

The nearer of the two houses we had thought might be suitable was in a small village with an intriguing name that we thought translated into "Fleas' Blacksmith". We set off imagining a village populated by leprechauns or Cornish piskies and, as we drove, we amused ourselves by drafting advertisements for a gîte in a village with such an unusual name.

There was a long, straight hill leading down into the village, with a sharp bend at the bottom as the road rounded the church. We parked near the foot of the hill and walked on past an attractive memorial commemorating some obscure event in French history. Continuing round the bend, we saw on the other side of the road, opposite the church, the object of our search.

We knew from the picture we had seen at the estate agent's office that the house would never be pictured on a chocolate box, but the reality was even worse. It had presumably been a detached property when built, but at some time an inhabitant had blocked up and covered the passage between it and its neighbour. Whoever it was that had done it, he must have graduated from the Blue Peter School of Architecture as the construction appeared to consist of cardboard boxes and double-sided sticky tape, the whole having been painted over to match the rest of the house. And the fence was lying in several heaps just inside the garden, evidence that more than one driver had failed to see the chevrons warning of the bend and had veered off the road, coming to an abrupt halt just outside the front window.



There appeared to be a rather grand house just up the hill, but apart from that and the memorial, the house we were looking at fitted its surroundings perfectly. No self-respecting leprechaun would ever have set foot in this village! The 'green' was a patch of dried earth with just a few blades of yellowing grass. On the edge of this desert stood a bus shelter which was covered in fly-posters and which stood three inches deep in litter. There was another dozen or so posters in garish colours along the wall of the farmyard and the church looked too poor even for mice. We drove away up the hill without a backward glance, wondering if perhaps the village was really called "Blacksmith's Fleas". Either way, it now seemed more apt than intriguing.

If the house in "Blacksmith's Fleas" had been easy to find, we didn't need the powers of Sherlock Holmes to find the second house either. We drove into the village, and there it was, complete with a 'For Sale' board, which rather gave the game away. It was the end house in a terrace of four or five, decidedly uninspiring to look at, and situated at the poorer end of an attractive and well-kept, largish village. The bar boasted a crêperie, there was a boulangerie which doubled as a grocer's with a few tins on one shelf, a chemist and a post office. Oddly, we didn't find a ladies' hairdresser's. This is usually the first commercial establishment after the bar and the boulangerie, but there was no sign of one here. Despite this lack – or maybe because of it – we liked the village. It was a pity that the house was on the plain side and was at the wrong end of the village, but it appeared to be in good condition and currently inhabited. It looked the most likely one that we had seen so far, although when we saw two leather-clad bikers, one with pink hair, the other with purple, leaving the house next door, this did raise a question or two in our minds. All the same, we decided that we were rather looking forward to the promised appointment with Monsieur Detroit.



But before we could meet Monsieur Detroit we had a long drive in front of us, for it was on the next day that we were to travel up to Normandy to meet Clothilde. We set off with high hopes. None of the houses we had seen so far had possessed that special something, that atmosphere which sets off the chemistry and says, "This is it!". In any case, we were not really interested in buying a house in the Loire. Normandy was our objective and did we not have with us the details – sparse details admittedly, but details nonetheless – of three potentially suitable properties which we planned to view? At least one of them looked as though it could easily become one of the 'roses round the door' type of cottage that we both secretly had at the back of our minds.

That, of course, was before we had met Clothilde.

On our return to the Loire from Normandy, we reconsidered our requirements. I was still adamant that any house we bought had to be in a habitable condition; while I was prepared to redecorate and perhaps do a little making-good, wholesale renovation was most definitely out. The size of the ideal property remained the same, as did the preference for having the daily necessities of bread and wine in reasonably close proximity. On one thing we did change our minds. The River Loire is, to many people, the dividing line between the north of France, where the weather is much like that in Britain, and the sunnier south. And, perhaps surprisingly, property tends to be cheaper in the Pays de la Loire than it is in Normandy or Brittany. We redefined our search area to the Anjou area in the Pays de la Loire.

We approached our appointment with Monsieur Detroit with mixed feelings, wondering if we would be shunted off to a back office so that other wealthier (and more smartly dressed) clients could be spared the sight of two English eccentrics. We arrived a few minutes early and were advised that Monsieur Detroit was currently out of the office, but he would be sure to return at any minute. Which he duly did. On the stroke of the appointed hour, the door flew open, creating a gale-force draught which caused Bernice to fall spread-eagled across her desk to hold down the papers on which she was working. Monsieur D had arrived.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Monsieur Moran's trick

Having started, I suppose I may as well carry on with the story. If you are new to this, you might like to read Saturday's post and then (if you still have both the time and the inclination) follow through the daily posts to end up back here.

- * -

Monsieur Moran had recommended that we visit a colleague of his in a nearby town. When we arrived there some time later, it was only to discover that the colleague was on holiday and his office was closed. In fact, three out of the four estate agents in the town were relaxing somewhere in the sun by courtesy of the vendors of local properties.

We stood at the window of the only agency open, drooling at the properties offered, all of which were way beyond our pitiful budget. Or so it seemed. Then, tucked away in the corner of the side window, as if trying to hide from all their upper class neighbours, we spotted pictures of just two that we could afford. We went in search of a quick intake of the local morale booster before venturing into an office which hummed with quiet efficiency. Decked out in muted tones of blue and grey, and with subdued lighting from hidden ceiling lights and elegant uplighters, this was obviously an office that was accustomed to dealing in sums at least ten times what we had to spend. The receptionist introduced herself as Bernice and invited us to sit at her desk while she endeavoured to work out what we wanted. My spiel didn't sound quite as good now as it had in the bar where I had prepared myself with the aid of a dictionary. It did not help to be constantly interrupted by telephone calls which Bernice calmly answered and transferred, by faxes from other branches of the agency which had to be passed on immediately, and by e-mails arriving with a loud 'ping' on the printer beside her despicably neat and tidy desk. I felt like a grubby child who had gone into Fortnum and Mason's to ask if they sold tuppenny gob stoppers. We even had to go outside to point out the tumble-down shacks which we thought might be of interest. This caused quite a stir among the locals passing by, who immediately realised we were mad English people prepared to pay hard-earned money for any pile of stones standing, or even just lying heaped, in the corner of a French field. Almost to a man, they edged past us leaving as large a clearance as possible and making the sign against the evil eye. I kept looking over my shoulder, half expecting to see the local dog warden approaching with a gigantic net to entrap these undesirable aliens.

There followed what seemed like three days of questioning and form filling. Before we could escape we had to explain that no, we were not French; yes, we were English; yes, we were married; no, we did not plan to live permanently in France; and so on and so on. At last we were graciously permitted to leave the presence having been given an appointment for two days hence when we would meet Monsieur Detroit, one of the negotiators, to discuss our requirements in greater detail. I could hardly imagine what greater detail was needed, unless they wanted my chest and inside leg measurements as well.


English estate agents attract a lot of criticism, some of which might well be fair, but much of which is almost certainly unjust. Be that as it may, there is at least one thing they could teach their French counterparts. Enter any estate agent's office in England and you will need a small van to carry off the amount of paper that will be thrust at you. Even the humblest property on their books seems to require five sheets of paper to describe it. Enquire about a property in France and you will be fortunate indeed to be given any sort of written details. Bernice had imparted no information about the two houses we had in mind apart from what we had already learned by looking in the window. So on leaving her office we tiptoed round to the side window and furtively memorised the locations of the two which we would be discussing in greater detail with Monsieur Detroit. The idea was to be one step ahead of him by having a sneak preview.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The bells, the bells

Having started, I suppose I may as well carry on with the story. If you are new to this, you might like to read Saturday's post and then (if you still have both the time and the inclination) follow through the daily posts to end up back here.

- * -

Thankfully, Monsieur Moran's driving was much calmer than Clothilde's was to be – that pleasure was still to come – but just a few minutes later we were in the square of the next village along the road, in the middle of a crowd of people dressed up as if for a wedding, which indeed proved to be the case. It seemed easier to accept the carnation buttonhole than to explain we were not there for the wedding but only to view a house. Why is it that one Frenchman or Frenchwoman alone can be quiet and charming, but when two or three dozen are gathered together they sound like a flock of starlings at dusk? By the time we had fought our way through to the door of the house, the volume of their conversations had increased to match that of Wembley Stadium on Cup Final day. Things got even more out of hand when a procession of cars swept round the corner, each driver trying to sound his horn louder and longer than the one before him. I was approached by a trio of femmes formidables, all billowy and blowsy like ships of the line under full canvas. From the glint in their eyes I got the distinct impression that they were intent on revenge for the Battle of Trafalgar. Disengaging myself with some difficulty, I followed Monsieur Moran and Mrs S into the house as the bride descended from her limousine.

Did I call it a house? It was more like a rabbit warren, a delightful hotchpotch of rooms running off at all sorts of crazy levels. There was at least one room halfway up each flight of stairs. Stairs led down into a cellar which led on to a second with exits to both the garden and the kitchen. Somehow, the kitchen, which seemed to be on the same level as the rest of the ground floor, was also on the same level as the second cellar, despite the fact that we had descended stairs to reach that.

One thing it didn't have was a bathroom although in typical French fashion there was a shower installed on the landing. That problem could be solved quite easily, we realised, by converting the third bedroom or by utilising one of the rooms leading off the stairs. On the other hand, if a latter-day Bridget Bardot came to stay with us ...

Smiling inwardly, I went with the others to inspect the garden. This was, or rather could have been, a delight. Walled on all three sides, it had two mature pear trees and would be a magnificent sun trap. The well, fortunately, was in a shed which could be padlocked for safety. Mrs S has a passion for gardening, and it was difficult to restrain her from getting down on her knees to start sorting out the borders.

Going back indoors we admired the new double-glazed windows in the living room. The house stood in a very pleasant position at one corner of the village square, the front windows giving onto the square, dominated by the large church just to one side, and looking across to the bar on the opposite corner. From the side windows we looked straight into a farmyard complete with ducks wandering about. We had reluctantly decided that both house and garden were too large for us, despite the knockdown price, when a major disadvantage confirmed our decision by revealing itself. The wedding service in the church had just finished, and as the bride and groom arrived at the church door the bells started. Two minutes of that and I knew just how Quasimodo must have felt in the tower of Notre Dame. I shuddered to think of the peace and quiet of lazy Sunday mornings being so rudely shattered, especially those mornings after good nights at the bar.

Monsieur Moran seemed very philosophical when we told him we would think about it over the weekend and let him know. He had obviously heard that before, although others had doubtless expressed it more elegantly than my French would allow. He got his own back, however, by means of an underhand trick which we should have seen through but which took us in completely.



I forgot to take a picture the first time and it was raining when we went back to do so. As a result, the house looks terribly forlorn.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Monsieur Moran

Having started, I suppose I may as well carry on with the story. If you are new to this, you might like to read Saturday's post and then (if you still have both the time and the inclination) follow through the daily posts to end up back here.

- * -

When we arrived at Gary and Wendy's, we found that by coincidence, Gary had been collecting copies of the French equivalent of 'Property News' for other friends of his. Glancing through them on the first evening, we spotted the picture of a property that looked quite interesting even though it was not in Normandy, which we had agreed was our preferred area, being the most convenient for the ports of Cherbourg, Caen and le Havre. We decided to drive over to the village the next day just to have a look from the outside. But we were to find nothing is quite that simple when house-hunting in France.

The village was a delight. Two bars, a boulangerie and a mini-supermarket, and quiet streets. Well, they would have been quiet had it not been for a blaring radio and the noise of a heated discussion coming from the open windows of the gendarmerie. But of the house in the photograph there was no sign. We walked up and down every road and alley and peered around all sorts of unlikely corners, but nowhere could we find it, although every step we took confirmed our early impression that this village would suit us admirably.

Indeed, so smitten were we that 30 minutes later we were standing outside the estate agent's office in the nearest town. There were no lights on and the door was locked. However, there was no notice announcing that the office was closed for congé annuel so we assumed that he was just late back from lunch as it was then only 2.15. We strolled around the town and returned a little before 3.00. The door remained resolutely locked. Where could he be? It was with somewhat impolite thoughts about French estate agents and what they did with their secretaries during the lunch hour that we drove away rather disappointed.

Our faith in French estate agents was, however, to be restored the next morning. We had often driven through a village only a few miles along the road from Wendy and Gary's house but had never stopped there. Gary had told us that there was a notaire practising in the village and we thought that we would see if any properties on his notice board looked at all interesting. It being a Saturday, we had no thoughts of the notaire actually being there to answer questions. Expecting nothing, we were not disappointed: nothing was what we got. Apart from it being Saturday, the office was closed for the rest of the month while the officer of the law did what all sensible French people do during August – take a holiday in the sun. And there were no houses on his board that were of any interest.

Strolling back towards the bar, we passed an estate agent's office. Wonder of wonders, it was open for business so we decided to seize the opportunity and forgo the vin rouge for one morning. We stepped inside and were welcomed enthusiastically by Monsieur Moran, as if we were his first potential clients that month. Full of Gallic charm, he begged us to be seated using formal language strangely at odds with his informal attire, which consisted of an open-neck shirt, jeans and trainers without socks. We explained to him in broken French what we were looking for. Unfortunately Monsieur Moran's English was nonexistent, but he managed to get the gist of what I thought I was telling him. Yes, he had one property on his books that might suit, it was in a village just five minutes away. Would we like to go and see it now? He switched off the lights, locked the door behind him, and off we went. Light dawned: this, presumably, was what had happened the previous afternoon.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Yesterday continued

Having started, I suppose I may as well carry on with the story. If you are new to this, you might like to read yesterday's post and then (if you still have both the time and the inclination) come back to read how it all started.

- * -

I had been retired almost three months, and the balance of my commuted pension was still sitting in our bank account while we decided how best to invest it. I favoured a government stock that would provide a yield higher than most deposit accounts while still providing protection for the capital sum. My track record of investing on the Stock Exchange is distinctly second class and I wanted to play safe with what seemed to me to be a considerable amount of money.

Mrs S, however, had other ideas. She has always managed to find the most opportune moments to introduce her thoughts about what we should do, and she waited patiently for the right moment to arrive. After dinner one evening we were chatting quietly about a forthcoming holiday in France. It was then that she cunningly slipped the fatal suggestion into the conversation.

"Of course," she said, "we could always think about buying a cottage over there. Not to live in, but as a holiday home. We could rent it out as a gîte for most of the year. Perhaps we could have a quick look around while we are staying with Wendy and Gary."

Nothing too drastic in that, you might think. But I hadn't been married to the good lady for nearly 40 years without getting to know an instruction when I heard one. I duly retrieved the previous Sunday's papers from the waste bin and started scanning the property pages, but to no avail.

I resorted to the fount of all knowledge. After several hours spent trawling the Internet, I had accidentally subscribed to a specialist magazine to be sent in a plain brown envelope, inadvertently put my name down to run in the Chicago marathon, and printed out the details of several properties in the Normandy, Brittany, Limousin and Poitou-Charente areas of France which looked vaguely as though they might suit our requirements. These requirements were really very simple: (1) the price had to be within our (ludicrously low) budget; (2) the house had to be habitable immediately; (3) it should not be too large – two bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and a bathroom would be ideal; (4) there would be either a small garden or a courtyard as I had no intention of spending holidays weeding and cutting the grass; (5) amenities such as a bar and a boulangerie would be in close proximity; (6) the journey from the Channel ports would take no more than half a day.

The idea was that our holiday in the Loire would provide an opportunity for a quick look at the market; it was not going to be a determined house-hunting expedition. All the same, we had left ourselves very little time to make appointments with estate agents. It was, after all, August, the month when France closes down for its annual holidays and the month when Brits like us descend on the country determined to buy property. But we did manage to make appointments with two branches of the same chain of estate agents in different towns in Normandy. The one in Brittany whom we wanted to see just could not fit us in.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

We wanted to buy a house in France

It's very nearly three years since I first "blogged" and I thought I might repost what I wrote then. This might stretch itself out over several days. If it does, please remember that although most of the events described did actually occur, the reality might have been a little different. I might have used a touch of artistic licence and exaggerated slightly. Similarly, although many - indeed, most - of the characters are based on real people I have changed their names (in most cases). Especially when I have described them more as caricatures of the real people that as the people they really are, if you see what I mean.

- * -

"Non!" said my wife, leaning back in her seat with her arms folded.

It didn't take a degree in body language to realise she was on the point of walking out, but Clothilde, the French estate agent, appeared not at all disturbed at the prospect of losing a sale. She jumped up from her chair and rushed out of the office for what seemed the forty-seventh time. It was probably only the seventeenth time really, but by now both Mrs S and I were becoming just a little disgruntled. After all, our appointment had been with two English-speaking gentlemen, or so we had been told, not a female who's command of the Queen's English was no better than even my almost forgotten 'O' level French.

I really felt quite sorry for the poor woman because she seemed to be suffering from a version of St Vitus' dance. At any rate, she kept springing out of her chair to disappear either into the main office to make and receive phone calls, or into a different office where, she assured us, another English couple was just signing to buy a property that had gone on the market only that morning. It may have been that she was trying, in an oblique way, to tell us our budget was too small for her to bother with us, and we had better buy something – anything! – quickly or someone else would snap it up. But this property, which we didn't like and which happened to be 20% over our budget price, was, she insisted, ideal for us. On the other hand, the two which in our temerity we had suggested might be suitable were quite obviously no good. In fact, Clothilde had said point blank that these two were not for us. So who were they for, I wondered. And why was she so keen to push the more expensive, ugly house? Could it, by any chance, belong to a friend or relative?

There was another thing that was niggling me. The English feeder agent had told me that he had advised the French agency of all our requirements – budget, number of rooms and so on. So why had we been asked those questions again that afternoon? And what about the houses we had specifically asked to see, the details of which had been sent to us by the English agent? Had they really all been sold in the two weeks since our appointment had been made?

All the same, in a perverse sort of way I was quite enjoying myself and taking some pride in playing the game in what was, I assumed, the French way. If we were planning to buy a house in France, I reasoned, I had better get accustomed to doing things à la mode française.


But perhaps I had underestimated Clothilde's body-language reading ability. It was at this point that she produced the details of a house which had gone on the market that very morning and which was bound to sell quickly. "Bien sur, c'est pour vous," she assured us.

Our eyes glowed as we studied the details. This was just what we had hoped to find: a small cottage on the Cotentin peninsula, situated in a reasonably small village with all the important amenities such as a bar and a boulangerie. Clothilde assured us that it had a new roof. Even the price was just within our budget, although it would leave the money for renovation more than a little tight. Clothilde showed us on a map where the village was, and we agreed to follow her in our car in order to view this most desirable property.

We had parked in a large public car park nearby and, having described our car to Clothilde, we set off to wait for her. She was to drive her car round to us so that she could lead the way into the depths of the Normandy bocage. After twenty minutes or so we were beginning to lose faith, but eventually Clothilde arrived, presumably having taken another batch of phone calls and having sold two more houses before condescending to show us what was almost the cheapest property on her books. Either that or she had lost her way in the 200 yards from her office.

I do not consider myself a slow driver, but I do like to think that I will usually arrive at my destination in one piece and without leaving too much carnage in my wake. Not so our Clothilde, who must have had dreams of being a champion rally driver. When she managed to find her way out of the car park, after driving past both exits three times, she took off like a cat with a tin can tied to its tail. And I was driving the tin can! We screeched our way up and down hills and round hairpin bends with complete disregard for anything that might be coming the other way. As we passed through villages all that could be seen of us was the cloud of dust hanging in our wake like a sandstorm in the Sahara.

Now, Mrs S has mastered (should that be mistressed?) many skills. She can produce a three-course meal out of practically nothing in the blink of an eye and she can clean a paint roller better than anybody I know. But a road map and the wiring diagram of a space rocket could be one and the same as far as she is concerned, so you will understand that I was just a little surprised when I realised she was following our route on the map. I was also just a little sceptical when Mrs S announced that we were on the wrong road. Surely Clothilde knew where she was going? But then I groaned, remembering that she hardly knew the way to a car park two hundred yards from her office. I resigned myself to a long journey.

In the fullness of time Mrs S was proved both correct and incorrect. We were on the wrong road for the village Clothilde had marked on the map, but the house was in a completely different village from that one. However, the real village seemed attractive enough if rather sprawling. It had the promised boulangerie and not just one, but two bars! We followed Clothilde into a narrow lane, rounded a tight corner into an even narrower alley, and pulled up. In unison, we breathed sighs of relief that our torment on the road was finished.

When we had recovered enough to look beyond the bonnet of the car, we saw in front of us our dream come true. We gazed, first at the house, then at each other. All the books had said it couldn't be done. The people we had spoken to had said it couldn't be done. The sort of cottage that we wanted just could not be found at a price we could afford, especially in Normandy. But it looked as though we had proved them all wrong – and at the first attempt at that. In front of us stood an old house built in the local stone which glowed a soft pink. A climbing rose carried a profusion of blooms and a honeysuckle practically smothered the door.





Our hopes, alas, were soon to be dashed. The first thing I noticed on entering the house was a ladder. This was propped artfully against the edge of a hole in the ceiling and provided the only means of access to the first floor. Still, there were only three rungs missing and although it looked a bit worm-eaten, there should have been no problems with termites in that part of France.

The gaping chasm in the kitchen wall was, Clothilde assured us, just a crack in the plaster. A crack in the plaster? I could see straight through into the barn on the other side! In fact, I could put my whole arm in and shake it all about. It seemed to me to be a little more than a mere crack in the plaster. And why, if the roof was new, could we see daylight streaming down?

"Oh yes," confirmed Clothilde, "it is a new roof. You will see it better from the back."

We did. The back roof of one of the barns was indeed comparatively new, but the rest was just about to fall off. When it did, it would join the remains of one of the upper corners which had already given way. Repairs had been carried out, probably by a blind bricklayer who had used ordinary bricks to plug the hole in the wall built of the local stone. The butler's sink projecting into the garden from the rear wall, filled to the brim with nauseous green water, did little to improve the ambience.

Clothilde completely failed to understand why we were not prepared to pay a small fortune for this putative rival to Versailles and Fontainebleau. We left her deep in discussion with a neighbour about perfidious Albion and the failings of the entente cordiale as we began our 200-mile journey back to the Loire, determined to cancel the second appointment with an estate agent in Normandy.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Dolly mixtures

I decided on a complete redesign of what had been known as Fern's blog even though there is so much more that I should be doing today. I have been less than happy about the tweeness of having a blog for a dog - especially a photo blog! - for some time and it came to a head yesterday. I just couldn't live with it any longer, so Fern's photo blog is henceforth known as Stanmer and Around. But I have added a nod to Fern in that there is now a favicon of her.

I had thought of blethering on today about the number of English churchyards in which are to be found yew trees, often several hundreds of years old. (There's a picture of one today on the Stanmer blog.) I have this vague idea that these are connected with some pre-Christian thoughts or beliefs but there is also an idea rattling around what passes for my brain that the old English long bow was made from the heartwood of the yew tree and that there was once a law passed that all English men (and presumably boys over a certain age) were to practice archery after church on Sundays. I'm not sure that this law has ever been repealed so there might well be several million transgressors every week! But if I am to blether about that at all I really should do some research - and I don't have time for that.

Talking of churchyards, I came across a delightful inscription on a tombstone in Stanmer churchyard this week.



It reminded me of another gravestone, this one in the hamlet of Brockley, Somerset. The grave is known as the pirate's grave and is the opposite way round to all the other graves.


The inscription is a little difficult to make out so here it is:

"Come hither, Mortal, cast an eye,
Then go they way. Prepare to die.
Read here thy doom for know thou must
One day, like me, be turned to dust."

Now, if I am to be ready for the off first thing tomorrow (we are off to France for a week) I must get on with the various things that have to be done:

Check tyre pressures.
Check oil.
Check coolant.
Check windscreen washer bottle.
Set recorder for TV programmes the Old Bat wants to watch.
Set water heater to go off while we are away.
Cancel paper delivery.
Pay paper bill.
Buy more oil for the car in case.
Sort tools needed in France next week.
Buy paint and brushes needed in France.
Take dog to kennels.
Pack suitcase.
Sort out books to take.

I think I had better get on with it! But don't fret: I have left a few posts scheduled for while I am incognito. No, not icognista, incommi-something. Oh heck - out of touch!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Up close and personal

I see from a report in the paper that a 78-year-old widow has been trying to force her local council to ban cars from her road. The council produced 25 witnesses that the road had been a full vehicular highway since 1669.

Amazing they could find anybody nearly 350 years old, let alone 25 people who could remember that far back.

Meanwhile, closer to home, I was back the hospital again yesterday for the second time this week. On Monday I had another CT scan and yesterday I was back to see the consultant. She did at least - and at last - confirm I do not have cancer, which comes as a great relief. Instead, she thinks I have a condition she called ABPA which, she says, is linked to the asthma from which I suffered as a child. ABPA, allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis, is apparently linked to a fungal growth in the lungs and is treated with corticosteroids such as the inhalers used by asthmatics. So I have a short course of steroid tablets plus two inhalers, one - known as a preventer - for daily use for the foreseeable future and one - a reliever - for use as and when necessary.

I started using the first inhaler yesterday evening. I suppose it may be some form of autosuggestion, but I do feel rather better this morning and I hope the improvement continues. I've to have another x-ray and see the consultant again in six weeks.

After what I wrote yesterday, what a coincidence that the quote for today is:

"This is like déja vue all over again".

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

It's worrying

I usually try not to run reposts but my memory has let me down twice in the last few days. As a result, two posts have reappeared, one pretty much word for word while the other was written from scratch on both occasions. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing in particular against reposting material but I would prefer it to come with a standard health warning.

"Warning: this post may lead to feelings of déja vue"

On the other hand, I get the feeling that most of the semi-regular readers of my ramblings are, well, how can I put this nicely? I'm not in the business of offending people purely gratuitously. Let's just say that they have all reached an interesting stage of life.

Getting older is interesting. Well, I find it to be so. There's the interest involved in opening the cupboard and trying to remember what you were looking for, the interest in trying to find the tea bags in your sock drawer. And what about when you've caught the bus, taken a half-hour ride into town - and then have to walk round all the shops trying to remember what you set out to buy?

Set against that two reposts in a week are mere flea-bites so perhaps it's not worrying after all.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Hydrangeas



One of the Old Bat's favourite plants is the hydrangea. It certainly isn't a plant I drool over - neither does the Old Bat if the truth be told, but she is certainly more keen on the plant than I am. So keen is she that we have four of the plants in our garden. One is in the front and the other three, two of which are in tubs, are in the back. The plants in tubs are, if I'm honest, a bit mangy while those planted straight into the soil are now biggish specimens. But all four are pink. (That's the one in the soil in the back garden in the picture.) Which is a disappointment to the Old Bat. She has always hankered after a blue hydrangea.

The day I found a large lump of rusting iron was a red-letter day in the Old Bat's life. I can't remember just what that lump of iron had been, nor could I swear to where I found it but I think it turned up when I was digging over a bit at the bottom of the garden that appeared to have been used by a builder as a dump for all his broken bricks. Anyway, the Old Bat, who , Hilda Rumpole-like, also goes by the name of She Who Must Be Obeyed, swooped on the iron. She had read somewhere that a lump of iron buried beneath a hydrangea plant would ensure the plant produced blue flowers. I duly replanted the hydrangea, having dug through the soil to excavate a hole in the underlying chalk in which I reverently laid to rest the lump of iron I had only just dug up twenty feet further down the garden.

I don't know where SWMBO had read that piece of nonsense, but the hydrangea never did produce blue flowers. In fact, it only produced any flowers at all one more year before going to that garden centre in the sky.

If you have been reading between the lines, you may well have gathered that we have a chalky soil and it is that soil which results in pink=flowering hydrangeas. All the same, SWMBO claimed she had seen hydrangeas with blue flowers in our locality so she was convinced that nature could be tamed by nurture. If burying iron would not turn pink flowers blue, maybe we should make sure we bought a blue-flowering plant. We went off to the garden centre and there was a hydrangea, only small but beautifully formed, with blue blooms. Madam bought it, I planted it. The blooms stayed blue for the rest of that season but the following year... pink flowers.

And so it was back to taming. We bought a large tub which we filled which I filled with ericaceous compost and in it I planted another hydrangea that had blue flowers. Blow me if that hadn't turned pink the next year!

We have now given up trying to grow blue hydrangeas in our Sussex garden, and the Old Bat is delighted that the house we bought in France has a very large, blue flowered hydrangea just outside the bedroom window.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The world about us

Without looking back to check that I'm correct (and I am probably not) I would say that I have not made more than passing mention to what are generally known as current affairs for quite a time. I have been indulging in navel gazing and egocentric trips to an embarrassing extent so today I will make an effort to look wide.

Now, let me think. There has been coverage in our news media of a certain royal visit. William and Kate - sorry, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge - seem to have been wowing the Canadians on their first official overseas tour and have gone down pretty well in Los Angeles as well.

(Now that's a surprise. Blogger was telling me that it doesn't recognise the words "Los" or "Angeles". No - wait a minute - it's changed its mind and does recognise them.)

Sorry about that.

The big story, though, has been the phone hacking scandal. It seems that reporters and private detectives employed by the Sunday newspaper The News of the World have been hacking in to mobile phones belonging to all sorts of people. This - the story - is something that has been growing and growing over years rather than days or months. Coincidentally, it all started off with Prince William, or a story about him published in the said red top tabloid. As no information about the knee operation the story was about had been released to anybody, Palace officials were concerned to learn how the newspaper's royal correspondent had come by the story. It transpired that the only way was if he had been privy to the Prince's voicemail and a couple of recorded messages. Eventually the royal correspondent and a private detective were jailed. The Metropolitan Police decided there was no need for further investigations (I think I've got that right) but it transpired that a number of celebrities phone's had been hacked into by the paper. Sienna Miller was the first celeb to accept a cash payment from the paper - £100,000 - which announced it had set aside a cool couple of million to pay off the celebs concerned. Gradually, more names came out and, eventually, it has emerged that the paper was hacking into the phones of relatives of troops killed in Afghanistan, the mobile phone of a missing (later discovered murdered) teenager - even deleting stored messages on her phone to make room for more!

During the period covered by the hacking - and we are talking years - the paper had two editors, both of whom claim not to have been aware of the illegal activity. One of those editors is still employed by one of the companies in the group in a senior position. The other resigned because of the hacking before the full extent of it had become known, and was employed by the Prime Minister as an adviser, a job from which he has also resigned.

The newspaper is one of those owned by Rupert Murdoch's companies, the other titles being the Times, the Sunday Times and the Sun. Murdoch also owns 39% of Britain's main satellite television broadcaster, B Sky B, and is anxious to buy the remaining 61%. Permission for him to do that is needed from the Government who have to be satisfied that the company will be owned by people who are considered suitable to own such a business.

Last week, Murdoch announced that yesterday's edition of the News of the World would be the last and that he was closing the paper. So ended abruptly the 168-year publication of the country's biggest selling paper with a circulation of 7.5 million, putting all the employees out of work. It has been suggested that this was a cynical move by a ruthless businessman who was planning to close the paper anyway as he wanted to change the Sun into a 7-day operation and/or he hoped that this action would show him in a good light when it comes to a takeover of BSkyB.

One wonders how long Rebekah Brooks (the other past editor) will manage to hold onto her highly-paid job with Murdoch or if she will be sacrificed along with the paper. Or does she have some sort of a hold over her boss? Now don't get me wrong - I'm not suggesting she does, simply raising the point and asking the question. Nor would I dream of suggesting what that hold might be if indeed she were to have one.

It seems this matter will be filling many column inches for some days to come.

And why has Blogger managed to lose my followers?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

"I say, I say, I say. "

"My dog's got no nose."

"How does he smell?"

"Terrible!"

It may well be that I have mentioned this before. My memory not being what it was - not that it was ever all that brilliant. I had to spend hours and hours pacing the garden in order to memorise bits of Shakespear or Wordsworth or whoever else I was studying for my O level GCE exams when I was a teenager. I think perhaps I had better clarify that last sentence. I wasn't studying the poets themselves, you realise, but their work and it was bits of their work I had to memorise so that I could show off my knowledge by quoting the authors concerned in answer to a question in the exam paper. Probably hopelessly out of context - or it's entirely possible that I managed to mix up my authors so that I quoted Shelley when writing about Coleridge. But all this has nothing whatsoever to do with what I was starting to blether about. My memory not being what it was - and we won't go off at a tangent again at this point - I can't remember if I have or not. Mentioned this before, I mean. I have almost no sense of smell.

Some people, when I tell them that, immediately ascribe my disability - for that is what it is - as a direct result of my smoking habit. They do tend to look somewhat askance when I assure them that it is has nothing to do with the noxious weed but everything with genetics. My mother could hardly smell either. Nor could her mother. So it is blindingly obvious to me that I am not personally at fault here and the finger of blame should be transferred.

It's not that I have absolutely no sense of smell. Some things do manage to get through to me seemingly with ease. With other things I have to put my nose almost into contact with the source of the smell before I get a faint whiff of something. And with other things still I pretty well fail to smell them at all no matter what. A few examples: daphne, a strongly scented shrub, gets through with no bother, but with fragrant roses, lily of the valley and sweet peas I have to bury my nose in the flowers. I rarely small the Old Bat's perfume although just occasionally she will wear one that I do catch as we sit in the car, close to each other and in a small, enclosed space. But burning toast - well, the house could be on fire before I can smell that.

This lack of a sense of smell is not something that bothers me: I've never had it so I don't miss it. But just sometimes other people get flustered. ‘For goodness sake, couldn't you smell that?' somebody might ask. (You can guess who that it.) And the honest answer is that I couldn't. It's a bit like the difference between a blind person and a deaf one - both are disabled but the blind person is visibly so. This does appear to make a difference to the way we treat people. Take a group of 4, 5 or 6 people, one of whom is blind. If he (or she) wants to move across the room, any one of the others will be there to guide the blind person round the furniture and other obstacles and will do so quite happily. But if that blind person were to be deaf instead... OK, so he/she wouldn't need a guiding hand, but what about conversation? Would the others make that extra effort to enunciate distinctly, looking towards the deaf person and perhaps speaking more slowly and slightly louder than usual? Or would they just hope the deaf person picks up enough scraps to make sense of what is being said? And if the deaf person asks a question which was answered just a minute ago, is the reaction one of irritation?

And it's not just deaf and blind people who are treated in diametrically opposite ways. It's the same with all handicaps or disabilities. Those people with obvious - usually visible - handicaps are treated with sympathy and consideration. If the handicap is invisible, forget it. It's quite ridiculous that we should act this way. Or is it only me? Either way, I must make every effort not to do so in future.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

In celebration of maturity

A wealthy old lady decides to go on a safari in Africa, taking her faithful aged poodle named Cuddles along for company.

One day the poodle starts chasing butterflies and before long, Cuddles discovers he's lost. Wandering about, he notices a leopard heading rapidly in his direction with the intention of having lunch.

The old poodle thinks, "Oh, oh! I'm in deep doo-doo now!"

Noticing some bones on the ground close by, he immediately settles down to chew on the bones with his back to the approaching cat. Just as the leopard is about to leap the old poodle exclaims loudly, "Boy, that was one delicious leopard! I wonder if there are any more around here?"'

Hearing this, the young leopard halts his attack in mid-strike, a look of terror comes over him and he slinks away into the trees. "Whew!", says the leopard, "That was close! That old poodle nearly had me!"

Meanwhile, a monkey who had been watching the whole scene from a nearby tree, figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the leopard. So off he goes, but the old poodle sees him heading after the leopard with great speed, and figures that something must be up. The monkey soon catches up with the leopard, spills the beans and strikes a deal for himself with the leopard.

The young leopard is furious at being made a fool of and says, "Here, monkey, hop on my back and see what's going to happen to that conniving canine!"

Now, the old poodle sees the leopard coming with the monkey on his back and thinks, "What am I going to do now?", but instead of running, the dog sits down with his back to his attackers, pretending he hasn't seen them yet, and just when they get close enough to hear, the old poodle says: "Where's that damn monkey? I sent him off an hour ago to bring me another leopard!"

Moral of this story...

Don't mess with old farts - age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill. Bullshit and brilliance only come with age and experience.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Healthy eating

The Old Bat does her very best to see that we eat a balanced diet. Breakfast consists of a bowl of cereal plus, for her Ladyship, a banana. I do like plenty of full cream milk (none of this skimmed or even semi-skimmed for us) and I will admit to being fairly liberal with the sugar on my cereal. However, I take little sugar otherwise: none in tea and just one teaspoon in coffee. Lunch is usually a couple of bread rolls (home made) with cheese, eggs, tuna, salmon or cold meat. For dinner we will eat a variety of meat or fish with, usually, two vegetables as well as potatoes (never chips). Very rarely do we eat fried food. Dessert is often fresh fruit.

A book I read recently made me wonder just how housewives coped during the Second World War. With food rationing so strict and some foods only occasionally available it must have been almost impossible to plan any sort of a menu more than ten minutes or so in advance. I have heard that the wartime diet was actually healthier than that of many people today but I have to wonder. By the end of the war, the weekly ration per person was:

Bacon and ham - 4 oz
Other meat to the value of 1s 2d, which bought just over 1 lb.
Tea - 2 oz
Sugar - 8 oz
Cheese - 2 oz (it had for a time been only 1 oz)
Butter - 2 oz
Margarine - 4 oz
Lard - 2 oz
Preserves, eg jam - 8 oz per month
Eggs - 1 per week when available, otherwise 1 packet egg powder per month (made 12 "eggs")
Milk - 3 pints, plus 1 tin milk powder (equivalent to 8 pints) every eight weeks

It was only after the war that bread and potatoes were rationed which must have been particularly gruelling. Of course, many fruits virtually disappeared during the war; oranges, bananas, lemons, pineapples, peaches etc being rarely found.

Which reminds me of the first orange I ever saw. It must have been about 1947, when I was 5. I was in hospital to have my tonsils removed and I, along with another boy a few years older than me, was in a ward of mainly elderly men. One of the nurses took pity on us youngsters and gave us each an orange. Never having seen one before, I didn't know what to do with this strange object but the boy in the next bed knew. He showed me how to bite a hole in the skin and suck out the juice inside before eating the pulp. I thoroughly enjoyed my first taste of this exotic fruit, but the nurse wasn't happy. She had intended us just to play with the fruit as if with a ball!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Modesty or false modesty?

Since neither of my readers is likely ever to ask me my opinion, I suppose I had better take it upon myself to give it anyway. If I were to be asked, I would, I think, have to describe myself as a pretty modest, unassuming sort of a chap as chaps go. At least, that is how I have always thought of myself. I'm not the sort to push myself forward when there are others who want to get to the bar as well, which generally means I go thirsty for longer than anyone else in the pub. I don't claim to be especially good at anything, certainly not any sporting activity, although I do think I have a modest talent for some things. Ironing socks, for example. Which is all very well. But then I stop and reassess. Yes, I do have a certain talent. I can string a few words and sentences together and occasionally come up with something interesting or amusing. I was actually surprised how well received was my first effort at writing a book although I don't kid myself that it will ever be accepted by a publisher. And just occasionally, very occasionally, I manage to take a photograph that could almost have been taken by a professional.

I think most of us need from time to time to step back and take a look at ourselves as I have just done. Is our talent really as good as we think or are we kidding ourselves? One the other hand, modesty is all well and good, but false modesty does nobody any favours.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Four weeks and counting

I mentioned the other day that I am hopeless at remembering anniversaries. Well, not so much remembering the dates as realising that the dates are approaching. Anyway, I missed another one yesterday. Not an important one, indeed, one might even describe it as trivial. Yesterday was four weeks to the day since I last smoked a cigarette. As I said, not a particularly memorable anniversary, not even an anniversary, in fact, but it nonetheless a significant marker for me.

It is as yet too soon for me to claim to be a non-smoker. Indeed, I think - like a recovering alcoholic - I will always be a smoker, just a smoker who has chosen not to smoke for a while. So far it has proved a lot easier than I would have expected. Yes, there have been times when I have been tempted to smoke "just the one" but I have resisted the temptation, sometimes by eating a dry biscuit. I would have expected the temptation to come hardest after meals or when drinking a mid-morning or mid-evening coffee, but oddly enough that has not been the case. It has been harder for me to resist after I have been sitting at the computer for an hour or so. Not that I have ever smoked while working at the computer. My "office" is upstairs and for several years now we have smoked only in the kitchen. Yes, the Old Bat smokes as well and she has not given up. To give her her due, though, she does refrain from smoking when I am around. Not that it would bother me overmuch.

I think that what has made it easy for me so far - relatively easy, that is - is that I still have a bad cough and a tightness across the chest which has meant that I really have not wanted to smoke. Not often, anyway. The difficult time is still ahead of me. When we are in France I will be tempted far more unless I can find something else to distract me. Oh well, there's no point in trying to cross that bridge until I come to it.

Four weeks, one day, and counting.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

End of the line

A few days ago, Quedula posted on her Brighton Bits blog a picture of trolley buses at Fiveways. Fiveways, for those who don't know Brighton, is a junction on the Ditchling Road, this being the road that runs up from the centre of town, heads over the Downs by way of Old Boat Corner to Ditchling Beacon and then down the steep northern face of the Downs to the village of Ditchling - not that that has anything to do with this post but I just threw it in as a bit of gratuitous information that you might find comes in handy one day, or maybe you won't. Either way, you've got it. That picture showed trolley buses on route number 26. (Bus number 26 still runs up Ditchling Road but goes a bit further than the old trolley buses did.) Anyway, the end of the line for the old trolley buses was the junction of Ditchling Road and Surrenden Road where there was a semicircular sweep for the buses to turn round. It's still there today.


The bus shelter is one of just two like that, the second being further down the Ditchling Road at the junction of Hollingdean Road. Both are, I believe, listed buildings.

Monday, 4 July 2011

"As high as the flag on the fourth of July"

Even I, a died-in-the-wool Man of Kent who is proud to be English, know that today is Independence Day. In America, that is.

It is really quite something that I manage to remember that the fourth of July is Independence Day. I am not a great one for remembering dates. I do know the date of my wedding anniversary and I know the date of the Old Bat's birthday. But that's not to say that those significant days won't creep up on me quite unawares so that it seems as though I have forgotten them. I can also tell you the dates of my children's birthdays but I have to admit that things get a little hazy when it comes to the birthdays of the grandchildren. I even struggle to recall the ages of the grandchildren, all three of them!

I have been to America four times - no! Five times. New York (well, I suppose that is America), Virginia (for the Blue Ridge Mountains) with side trips into Maryland, DC and West Virginia, New England (into Boston, across Massachusetts, up Vermont, down New Hampshire, briefly off into Maine before heading back to Boston), Detroit (a Lions convention), and California (San Francisco, Yosemite, a quick trip into Nevada as I wanted to see Carson City, then Northern California, across to the coast at Eureka, back south to Monterey then back home again). I have been impressed on all my trips - except, perhaps, for New York - by the courtesy and generosity of the American people I met.

I even managed on one occasion to be in America on Independence Day when I was invited by a family I had never met to join them at their home for a barbecue. It was a most memorable occasion.

So to all my American friends, whether we have met or not, I wish you a very happy Fourth of July.