Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Was he worth it?

I see that the one-time boss of a British retailer was recruited by Apple in April this year.  He was to receive a "golden handshake" of £36 million.  £36 million! Admittedly, that was payable over five years, but all the same, it seems to me an obscene amount.  Can any man really be worth that?

Incidentally, he left Apple this month having been with them just six months.  No mention was made in the paper as to whether he jumped or was pushed.  Nor do they say whether he will still receive all his handshake.

~~~~~

In other news we are told that there will be a world-wide wine shortage.  The French grape harvest is down almost 20% although it seems the Italians are OK.  The Argentine harvest was down 24% and Spain and New Zealand have also seen falls.  The US, on the other hand, saw an increase of 7%.  There was no mention of those other two big players, Australia and Chile.

~~~~~

I have no wish to belittle or make light of the problems facing the inhabitants of the east coast of America, but it is noticeable that our papers and other news media are giving much more prominence to this affair than they do to, for example, flooding in Pakistan or Bangladesh which kills hundreds of people and where communities are much less able to care for themselves in these disasters than are New Yorkers.

~~~~~

I think we've had enough pictures of France for the time being and it's time to get back on the South Downs, though perhaps not when the cloud comes down like it did yesterday morning as seen from the bedroom.


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

I can't be bothered to think of a title

I think I shall be breathing a sigh of relief this time next week.  Next Monday sees the Lions' annual firework display and that means I shall be at the cricket ground from about 2.30 until 9.00 or so.  There is plenty to be done before that, although not all of the jobs and other things are Lions connected.  Today, for example, I have two appointments at the doctors' surgery - one with my GP for a quick check and (I hope) a repeat prescription followed by a blood test with one of the nurses.  Actually, I think I should have arranged to have the blood test last week so that the doctor would have the benefit of the results before deciding whether or not to increase the dosage of the methotrexate.  Oh well, perhaps next month I'll do that.  Then this afternoon the Old Bat will expect me to accompany her on an expedition to the local supermarket, tomorrow to the butcher's in a village the other side of the Downs and so on and so on.  The while I am dashing hither and thither delivering tickets bought on line for the fireworks.  And I am on duty at the book fair on Saturday, and there should be a briefing at the cricket ground on Sunday...  At least it keeps off the street corner and mostly out of mischief.

~~~~~

We were taking a photographic tour of the little French town called Pouancé but I was distracted.  Even though the population is only a little over 3,000, Pouancé has an aerodrome.  Please note, it is an aerodrome, not an airport, and from the look of the "terminal" building I don't think Paris Charles de Gaulle or Orly need worry too much about the competition.


Monday, 29 October 2012

Ashes to ashes

Three reports in different newspapers have attracted my attention over the last day or two.  Each of those reports is rather gloomy in its way, reinforcing my opinion that one never reads any good news in the papers.  The first of those reports concerned England's ash trees.  They are, apparently, at risk because a deadly fungus which was first discovered in Poland about ten years ago has now made its way to our shores, possibly by way of already infected saplings imported from Holland.  This fungus causes ash die-back (as the condition is called) and the affected trees die.  It seems there is no cure.  Any tree found to be infected is cut down and the timber burned.  [Hence the groan-inducing pun of my title.]  But the infection can go undetected for about six months, thus exacerbating the situation.  According to the report I was reading, a third of England's broad-leaved woodland consists of ash trees so this is a serious situation.  I was surprised and somewhat sceptical to read the fraction of a third.  Although I have never undertaken a count or a tree survey, and I know the ash is a common tree in our woodlands, I would not have thought it was as prevalent as that.  Mind you, round here the beech and sycamore are possibly the most common trees in the woods.  The sycamore grows like the weed it is, while the beech is particularly well-suited to the thin layer of soil on the Downs since it has a shallow rooting system.

Another newspaper - our local freebie - reported a problem with elm trees.  Back in the 1970s the English countryside scene was altered dramatically when elm trees were felled in their thousands as a result of Dutch elm disease.  Brighton & Hove, fortunately, suffered comparatively little, partly because the Downs formed a natural barrier against the transmission of the disease and partly because of quick and effective action by the local authority.  Now it seems that elm trees in Preston Park, Brighton, have contracted a disease, although the report does not state specifically that it is Dutch elm disease.  Several have already been felled but the two known as the Preston Twins - at 350 years, the oldest elm trees in the world - are still healthy.

The third report concernes a far more serious affair - hurricane Sandy, which is due to make its landfall on the east coast of America today, I believe.  Hundreds of thousands of people have already been evacuated, the New York subway shut down, etc etc.  That alone is an indication of how serious this is.  But how does an authority find accommodation for 400,000 refugees?  Who pays?  What about feeding them?  I'm very glad that is not my headache.  I'm also very glad that I live in England where natural disasters of that magnitude just don't happen.

By the way, I did get that replacement hinge on the gate yesterday.  I also spent an hour cutting back brambles that had grown alarmingly while I was hors de combat over the past few months.  Now I have to spend another hour taking the rubbish to the tip!

Today's picture is of a grove of ash trees in High Park Wood.  The area around them has been cleared to give them a chance to spread properly.  This pic also serves as a reminder that I haven't walked through those woods for a long time.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

I've done it!

Yesterday dawned, if not exactly sunny, dry and reasonably bright.  And cold, very cold, with a strong easterly wind.  I decided towards the end of the morning that the grass had dried sifficiently for me to push the mower over it.  So, for the first time since June and for the last time (probably) till next April, I cut the grass.  I also managed to pick a few raspberries.  We have lost quite a lot over the last three weeks or so because of the rain and these, I suspect, indeed I am certain, will be the last this year.  I must now cut the canes down - as well as severely pruning the Montana clematis, trimming the hedge, cutting back the ivy invading from next door and the branches of their trees overhanging our garden etc etc.  With a bit of luck and some reasonable weather, I would like to spend an hour a day in the garden getting it back into shape.  The trouble is that for every hour I spend pruning, dead-heading the lavender, digging weeds out of the vegetable plot, I have to spend another hour hauling the detritus to the tip.

There was another job I wanted to do yesterday - in the garden but not exactly gardening.  One of the hinges on the gate to the vegetable plot has broken.  Both the hinges are those T hinges which never last all that long out of doors.  They rust up and should, I suppose, be oiled to keep them working.  Anyway, while we were in France I made a trip to Mr Bricolage and bought a pair of the hinges the French use on their shutters, rather like the one in the picture.  These never seem to rust.  The intention was that after I had walked the dog in the afternoon, I would get out the electric drill and a long extension lead - holes would have to be drilled through the gate to take bolts fixing the hinge in place.  I took Fern down into Stanmer Park for a walk, hoping to get some autumn pictures.  As I got into place for a rather attractive shot of the church tower poking up from autumn foliage, the sky clouded over.  Later, as I turned to go back to the car, the rain started.  That hinge didn't get replaced.

This morning I pulled back the bedroom curtains and saw the sun was shining on the Downs.  By the time I had eaten breakfast and started out with the dog, it was damping.  No doubt by the time I am ready to go into the garden the forecast will have come true and it will be raining properly.  The hinge will just have to wait.

Reverting briefly to yesterday's post before the picture of the day, I have discovered that the gender neutral honorific is Mx.  Don't ask me how it's pronounced.

And so, today's picture.  This is what I saw when I opened the bedroom curtains a few days ago.


Saturday, 27 October 2012

It leaves me speechless

There was a report in yesterday's Daily Telegraph which led me to look at the local paper's web site.  I cannot find the right words so I will quote from The Argus (and hope they don't sue):

Citizens of Brighton and Hove may no longer be called Mr or Mrs under new plans.
All titles could be scrapped from official council forms and paperwork after transgender activists complained the names forced people to choose between genders

The proposal, which has the backing of Brighton and Hove City Council’s deputy leader Phelim MacCafferty, has been branded “utterly ludicrous” by an opposition councillor.

It comes following an investigation by the council into the lives of the transgender community in the city.

The scrutiny panel is set to put forward a number of recommendations, including the scrapping of Mr and Mrs, to the council for approval in December.

See the report on Brighton and Hove City Council's website.

Coun MacCafferty, who chairs the panel, suggested calling people by their titles on official forms was “completely useless”.

He said: “Trans people aren’t necessarily male or female and sometimes they don’t want to be defined by their gender.  Putting Mr and Mrs on a form is completely useless. This is an issue that concerns most institutions from banks to mobile phone companies.  Why is Mr on my debit card, for instance? I don’t understand why it’s there.  We should at least examine the issue and we will have the recommendations early next month.”
Coun MacCafferty said the change would have to be “done sensitively” and promised the council would “make sure the population is with us” before any change was made.

Steph Scott, an LGBT activist who defines herself as ‘genderqueer’ – neither male nor female – described the titles Mr and Mrs as “extremely outdated”.
She said: “Being called Mr or Mrs forces me to choose between genders.  It’s assuming people live in a binary world where you’re either one thing or another and it pigeonholes people. I think it’s a good idea to expand across the city because it’s about getting people to be aware that gender isn’t just male or female.”
The activist said Brighton and Hove City Council had already started addressing people by the gender-neutral title 'Mx' on their tax forms.
But Dawn Barnett, Conservative councillor for Hangleton and Knoll, said: “It’s completely ludicrous and shows a complete lack of respect.  How are they going to address letters properly? This is just political correctness gone too far.”
The Trans Equality Scrutiny Panel was set up to examine issues affecting transgendered people’s safety, welfare and job opportunities. It includes chair Coun MacCafferty, Conservative councillor Denise Cobb and Labour councillor Warren Morgan, alongside co-optees Jay Stewart and Michelle Ross.
The panel visited support groups across the city in July to hear about the issues facing the trans community and will present a set of recommendations to the council in December.

The newspaper conducted a poll in which 55% of respondents said they wished to be addressed as Mr, 20% as Mrs, 6% as Miss, 5% as Ms and 14% gender neutral.  Some of the readers' comments are quite amusing as well.

~~~~~

Back in the real world, the Porte Angevine makes quite an atmospheric picture after dark.  Until one knows that the lighted window is of a kebab take-away!


Friday, 26 October 2012

A marital dispute

The Old Bat and I manage to agree on most things - except that I like Bovril, especially spread on hot toast or even just as a hot drink, whereas she can't stand even the smell of it.  I'm also quite keen on fish and chips but she is, at best, ambivalent.  But the one thing on which we really disagree is Hallowe'en.  or, to be more accurate, Trick and Treat.  the xenophobic side of me says that this is a nasty American invention which encourages children to pester neighbours demanding goodies or else!  She Who Must Be Obeyed seems to think it is a harmless thing which should be encouraged.  So much so, that she buys a pumpkin every year and scoops out the inside before cutting a face in it and placing a nightlight inside to tell the brats that we are up for giving away sweets.  It would help if the Old Bat managed to buy enough sweets, which she doesn't always manage.  It's always me who has to open the door and I sometimes have to think fast on my feet.  There was one occasion when I was faced with about seven kids ranging in age from about 3 to 11 or 12.  I had way too few sweets left so I gave them what I had and said that they could stroke the dog as a treat.  The children thought that a better treat than the sweets!

We have bought this year's pumpkin but it remains for it to be prepared for next Wednesday.

I didn't manage to get the grass cut yesterday.  Having finished the latest issue of Brighton Lions' newsletter, I set about despatching it to all and sundry.  My ISP won't let me send an email to more than 20 addressees so I have to send several.  I always insert the contact mailing lists as blind copies but the last couple of months I have had trouble with one of the lists.  My email software would not accept it in any way, either as the principal addressee or as "copied to" or as blind copies.  I spent ages tracking down the odd address that was causing the problem.  The when I sent an email to that address alone, all was OK.  Weird - but that's computers.

~~~~~

The medieval Porte Angevine in Pouancé.  The clock is in competition with that on the church, both chiming on the hour.  They are usually about 30 seconds apart.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Final Cut

I have been trying to work out why it should be that, over the last few weeks, I have been waking in the early hours, usually between 2.00 and 3.00, and have felt as though I have had a full night's sleep.  It has never taken me long, however, to go back to sleep - but when I should be getting up to see to the dog and make the tea, I feel lethargic and want another half hour in bed.  Or longer.

Yesterday morning I was lying there, trying to instil in myself some degree of ... no, not urgency, but the need to move myself and let the dog down the garden before I had a puddle to mop up, when I thought I heard rain.  Rather surprisingly, I was mistaken.  Perhaps I should redraft that last sentence as it was no surprise that I was wrong, but it was surprising that there was no rain.  Given that this was the second, or maybe the third, consecutive day and night without rain, I decided that the lawn would probably dry out sufficiently by mid-afternoon for me to push the mower up and down for the last time this year.  But that, alas, was not to be as events conspired against me.

You might be forgiven for thinking as a result of reading that last sentence, especially the first six words, that I enjoy mowing the lawn.  Far from it.  There was a time when I relished the idea of pushing a heavy, old, hand mower up and down the slopes of our lawn.  That was back in the days when I was working and, after a day in a London office and two hours of commuting each way, getting out into the fresh air of the garden and taking some fairly gentle exercise was balm to my soul.  But those days are long gone.  As is the old hand mower.  Nowadays I use an electric mower.  This does make life considerably easier in many ways but somehow there is not the same sense of satisfaction at the end of the job.  All the same, I hope I will be able to cut the grass this afternoon.

~~~~~

The Grand Café du Commerce in the centre of Pouancé is never especially busy but Thursday is the busiest day of the week.  That is market day - not that market day produces very much hustle and bustle, unlike many larger towns.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

X marks the spot

The American presidential election is attracting comparatively little interest in the media on this side of the pond compared with four years ago.  The whole affair is, of course, of interest to me and my fellow non-Americans not because of any difference either candidate will make directly to our lives after election but because of the influence that the mighty USA has on global politics.  Personally, I don't find myself much attracted to either candidate.  But I'm not going into that now.

We are to have elections over here in England as well.  On 15 November people outside London will have the opportunity for the first time to vote for Police and Crime Commissioners.  Each police force - there are, I think, 41 or 42 in England and Wales outside London - is to have a PCC.  This is a new position and the role includes (here I quote from a leaflet recently distributed to each home)
  • meeting the public regularly to listen to their views on policing
  • producing a police and crime plan settig out local policing priorities
  • deciding how the budget will be spent
  • appointing Chief Constables and dismissing them if needed.
The cynic in me might remark that the first three of those points should be the responsibility of the Chief Constable of each force and the last is already the responsibility of another body.  Looks like this is another example of a layer of bureaucracy being inserted where it's not needed.  Jobs for the boys even.  Talking of which, I haven't heard or read if these are paid positions.  I imagine they must be as to undertake the duties properly, the elected people will need to be working full-time.  So we will be paying a salary, travel expenses, office costs etc etc.

As yet, we don't yet know who the candidates are: their names will not be available to the general public until 26 October.  I have a sneaking suspicion that very few of the candidates will be known to the electorate although most of them will be from one of the three or four main political parties.  The PCC is supposed to be non-political but the cynic in me once again protests: independent candidates will be unable to afford the cost of canvassing.  I did read that one-time-deputy prime minister John Prescott is a candidate for one police force.  If that's the standard we can expect, Heaven help us!

~~~~~

The Grand Café du Commerce stands at the crossroads in the centre of Pouancé with a narrow, one-way road running alongside the bar and through the medieval Port Angevine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Sports Report

Dee-diddly dum dum dum dee da dee da, dee diddly dum dum dum de da dee da...

Sorry about that - it's just me humming to myself the signature tune of a radio programme that was at one time broadcast every Saturday afternoon at five o'clock: Sports Report.

Hey, I've just discovered that the programme is still broadcast every week during the football season and has been running since 1948.  It still has the original theme music - and here it is:



If my father was not away at sea, we always had to listen to this programme for the football results.  My father did the pools each week and wanted to see if he had won the Treble Chance, the big prize.  I think he did win lesser prizes very occasionally, but never much more than 10/6.

There was something very soothing about listening to John Webster read out the results and scores, a bit like listening to the shipping forecast.  One could always tell, before he announced the score of the away team, whether the result was a home win, an away win or a draw.  It was the inflection in his voice.  I always wanted to hear the result of a Scottish match read out as East Fife 4, Forfar 5, but it never happened.

All that is really nothing to do with what I started out to write about: last night's toad in the hole competition.  But I think I will draw a veil over that and just say it very quietly.

I was in the Brighton B team and we lost all four matches in straight games, 2 - 0.

But we enjoyed the evening, which was the main thing.  And I was the star player in our team.  It was the others who let me down.

~~~~~

Back in Pouancé and round the corner from my favourite boulangerie is a restaurant we like to visit, la Cravache d'Or (the Golden Whip).  (And no, Suldog, this has nothing to do with sado-masochistic practices; it's a horsewhip.  But now I come to think of it...)


Monday, 22 October 2012

Bits and pieces

I am constantly surprised that I fail to remember the date of the battle of Trafalgar.  For some reason I have it fixed firmly in my mind that it took place on 23rd October whereas the date was actually 21st October 1805.  So yesterday was the 207th anniversary.  There are those who say that it was Trafalgar that led to the downfall of Napoleon even though the final battle of the Napoleonic wars was Waterloo in 1815, ten years after Trafalgar.  Their point is that Trafalgar ensured the British navy had command of the seas and that meant Napoleon could never invade Britain so he was always on the defensive.  Or something like that.

~~~~~

Whatever the word is for eating a lot of foreign food (if there even is one), it isn't polyglut.  Perhaps it should be.  We seem to have been eating a lot of foreign food just lately.  By which I really mean that our meals have consisted largely of recipes originating in other countries.  On Thursday we ate boeuf bourguignon (French), Friday we ate Italian (pasta), on Saturday the Old Bat cooked her version of sweet and sour pork (Chinese) and then yesterday we ate the roast beef of old England (and very tasty it was too) followed by a dessert of Viennese cheesecake.  Tonight we shall return to traditional English fare with fish and chips as we are out with the Lions playing toad in the hole (another English dish but in this case an old pub game).

Our local Lions Clubs each arrange a social evening involving a competition of some sort, what we grandly name as the Zone Olympics.  One club organises a quiz, then there is 10-pin bowling, shuffleboard, darts, shove ha'penny, pool, kurling (that's curling payed indoors), skittles and - tonight - toad in the hole.  To play this one needs a stool with a lead top which has a hole in the middle.  The players take turns to throw lead discs (toads) in the hope of landing them on the stool or, better, falling through the hole.  Scoring starts at 21 with one point deducted for a disc on the stool, two points for one in the hole.  Of course, all the Lions are hopeless players as we never actually get any practice, but it is always a fun evening.

~~~~~

The last couple of mornings have been dry for my walk in the park with the dog and I have taken a camera with me in the hope of getting pictures of what passes in this neck of the woods for autumn tints.  I also tried, completely unsuccessfully, to take pictures of spiders sitting on their webs.  (Do they only spin webs at this time of the year?)  With the heavy overcast, the autumn tint pictures were only marginally better than those of the spiders' webs.  This was the best of the bad bunch.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Nanny knows best

The Government (bless 'em) is worried about the amount of crime related to alcohol and the cost to the National Health Service (and therefore the government, which mean the taxpayer) of alcohol-related health problems.  So, like all governments, they propose the introduction of a law (as if we didn't have enough already).  I don't remember what the bill is called, but I think it is to be presented to the House of Commons next week.

I have said on other occasions and in other places that one should never trust what one reads in newspapers.  But that is rather too much of a generality as there is usually some truth in newspaper reports - although it does rather depend on which newspaper one is reading.  Anyway, my fish-wrap of choice advised that the bill will, among other things, impose a minimum price per unit of alcohol.  40p per unit is the figure being bandied about.  This would have the effect of driving up the price of the stronger beers and ciders at supermarkets (and possibly corner shops and newsagents) which, it is hoped, would result in lower sales of the stronger beers to youngsters and thereby reduce the occurrence of antisocial behaviour.  It would also mean (according to the paper) that a bottle of wine would cost at least £3.60, although (again according to the paper) no supermarket sells a bottle of wine for less than that at present.

I have carried out some market research myself.  OK, so if I wanted to do the job properly I suppose I should have trekked around at least one supermarket, but I just looked at the bottle on our kitchen worktop which I intend opening later today.  (The bottle, not the worktop.)  That bottle is 13.5% proof and there are 1.1 units of alcohol per 10cl.  The bottle contains the standard 75cl , so I suppose that means it also contains about 8.5 units of alcohol.  At 40p per unit, that would mean a minimum price of - guess what - £3.60.  But the wine in that bottle, as I said, is 13.5% proof.  What of the lower proof-rated wines?  OK, so it is unusual nowadays to find a wine of 11% or 11.5%, but 12% is not uncommon, which my back of the envelope mental arithmetic means 8 units of alcohol and a minimum price of £3.20.  See?  I said you shouldn't believe everything you read in newspapers!

Another thing that this bill is said to contain is a restriction on the BOGOF policy, not that I have ever seen wine (or any alcohol) offered as buy one, get one free.  Buy six bottles but pay for five is not unusual in France and, according to the paper, similar offers are common in England.  For instance, a wine costing, say, £8 a bottle might sell at £14 for two.  "Oh ho," says Nanny, "that is encouraging people to drink more.  We can't have that!"  What tosh!!  I'm sure that the vast majority of people who buy wine and who take advantage of offers like that are just putting the second bottle away for another day, just the way they would do with soap powder or baked beans.

Obesity is reported to be one of the greatest health-problems we currently have, but I have heard of no plans to curb the sales of fattening foods.  Oh dear, perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned that.  It might give somebody ideas!

Of course, the (possible) restrictions imposed will not affect me as I so very rarely buy wine in England anyway.  But the restriction of personal freedom is a matter of concern.

~~~~~

If we pop up the road just a little from the church in Pouancé we arrive at my favourite boulangerie or baker's.  I drive here most days when we are sur place for our lunchtime baguette - and I usually succumb to the mouth-watering display of patisserie as well!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Like the curate's egg

That was yesterday.  Like the curate's egg: good in parts.

The Old Bat was at the MS Centre during the morning for her regular high dosage oxygen treatment which left me free to get on with things I should have done at least several days - if not several weeks - ago.  I caught up with unanswered email and generally tidied up paperwork and was contemplating cutting the grass in the afternoon if it stayed fine.  Hah!  Of course, it poured with rain just before lunch and was still raining when I took the dog out in the afternoon.  But as I couldn't cut the grass I made a start on the next issue of Jungle Jottings and played a CD the while, the most relaxing classical album in the world ... ever!  And yes, that is the title.  It's one of those compilation discs with the usual tracks such as Grieg's Morning, Pachelbel's Canon and the other regular attendees but none the less enjoyable for that.

As I was feeling flush (though I can't think why), I took the Old Bat to our local Italian for a meal in the evening.  That, too, was good in parts.  The meal itself was fine but on one side of us was a party of four in which one man had one of those carrying voices which meant we could hear every word he said without even trying.  His voice grated as well which just made matters worse.  On the other side were two couples, grandma and grandad, mum and dad, with a noisy two- or three-year-old.  It was all I could do to hear what the Old Bat was saying to me.

~~~~~

I mentioned yesterday that the war memorial in Pouancé is beside the church.  Seen from the south, the church towers over the town.


Friday, 19 October 2012

This day in history

It was on 19th October that President Truman signed the act officially ending the state of war with Germany.  But no, it was not in 1945 as you might expect, or even 1946.  It was, apparently, not until 1951 that the war was officially over!  I'm not at all sure that we need an Act of Parliament here in England to make a war official or to declare a war officially ended.  Come to that, I'm completely ignorant of just who or what decides that a state of war exists and makes one "official".  Thirty years ago there was, officially, no state of war between the UK and Argentina although our forces were fighting in and over the Falkland Islands.  No war officially, but people still talk of the Falklands war.  Did we have an official war against Iraq (either time)?  I don't remember - but both actions against that country are considered by the general public to have been wars.

Going further back in history, it was on 19th October 1781 that the British General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown.

Today is also the anniversary of the start of the first battle of Ypres in 1914.  This battle was to continue until 22 November.  In that battle, British casualties were nearly 8,000 dead, over 29,000 wounded and almost 18,000 missing.  Presumably most of the missing were dead.

~~~~~

Still in Pouancé, and in view of the mention of wars and battles, here is the war memorial which stands beside the church about a quarter of a mile along the road from yesterday's picture.


Thursday, 18 October 2012

If this is Thursday...

There is an old joke about Americans touring Europe which goes "It this is Tuesday, this must be Paris".  No, I have never thought it very funny either.  In fact, I don't think it at all funny, not even amusing, although I have met the stereotype American tourist who "did" England in a day with one more day for London.  Not that the foregoing has anything whatsoever to do with today being Thursday. I just threw it in as a sort of make-weight, rather like those little chocolate thingies one sometimes finds being used to bring the weight of the box of chocs up to the correct level.

Talking of chocolates, there was a frantic ringing of the door bell this morning followed by a furious rattling of the letter-box.  I was only just out of the shower at the time but I found a dressing gown and made my way downstairs, by which time whoever had been trying to attract my attention had disappeared.  It turned out to be a postman attempting to deliver a box which he had decided to hide round the back.  He said he didn't like taking flowers back to the depot.  Flowers?  Yes, addressed to the Old Bat.  They were from our daughter with belated (two weeks belated) greetings for our wedding anniversary.  And there was a small box of chocolates with the roses and freesias.

Now, where were we?  Paris?  No - it's Thursday.  Already.  This week is turning out to be a manic period with meetings, shopping errands, a lunch date with friends, a massage, minutes of meetings to be written and fireworks posters to deal with.  But I suppose it stops me getting bored.

~~~~~

Back in Pouancé, which is really quite a scruffy little place on the whole, there is this little alley-way/yard quite close to the town hall.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Storm in a coffee cup

In a way I'm rather sorry that I don't like the coffee at Starbucks.  If I did like it, I could boycott the shops but I never go in them anyway so a boycott is a non-starter.  By now you are either yawning madly, bored out of your skull, or wondering what it is I have against the giant coffee retailer.  I shall, of course, attempt to explain.

The UK company's annual accounts for the year ended 2 October 2011 (which seems a rather odd year-end date but we'll let that pass) showed that there was a turnover for the year of very nearly £400 million.  OK, if you want to be pedantic it was £398 million but in my book that's near enough to £400 million to make no difference.  Now you might think that an international company with a turnover of that magnitude would show a profit for the year on which they would pay Corporation Tax.  You might think that, but you would be wrong.  Starbucks' main rival in the UK is Costa Coffee.  Their last annual accounts showed a turnover only slightly less than that of Starbucks at £377 million.  Costa managed to make a profit and paid tax of £15 million.  That's £15 million more tax than Starbucks paid as they showed a pre-tax loss, just as they have for the last three years, and therefore paid no UK Corporation Tax.  The loss arose largely because the UK operation pays the parent company 6% royalties - more than is paid in most franchise operations.

I accept that Starbucks employs thousands of people in the UK and therefore pays employer's National Insurance contributions as well as business rates on its premises but I do think the financial structure of the group needs changing so that the appropriate tax is paid in the country of operation.  I have no doubt that similar situations exist in other countries so this non-boycott boycott of mine is on their behalf as well as the UK's.

~~~~~

All this reminds me of the time some 50 years ago when I was a teenager and we used to spend evenings in coffee bars, as they were known then.  There were three in Brighton that I patronised, the Continental in Castle Square, the Penny Farthing in East Street and one in the Savoy cinema on the corner of East Street and the sea front.  The Continental was my favourite, but all of them served coffee (sometimes frothy coffee) in wide, shallow, glass cups.  There was none of this nonsense about skinny lattes (whatever they are) and I don't think anybody ever ordered a black coffee.  Coffee was coffee and came according to how the establishment served it.

~~~~~

I have managed to get back onto the Downs this week when walking the dog and have taken yet another picture of the view from near the Upper Lodges to Stanmer Park.  I must have photographed this view - or very nearly this view - hundreds of times but each one is slightly different depending on exactly where I was standing, the amount of zoom I used, the time of year and the play of the sun and clouds.  Here is this week's effort.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Out to lunch...

...or dinner.

I now have no fewer than three Christmas meal dates - two lunches and one dinner - and we are only half way through October.  I shall probably only attend one lunch, the one where I have a choice of dishes.  The other lunch is at a central Brighton hotel and the parking is abysmal so that one is off the calendar.  The evening meal should be good - it's at Herstmonceux Castle where I had a very acceptable meal earlier this year.  That is with the club for the blind and partially sighted for which I and another Lion act as volunteer drivers.  It's actually Ron's turn to drive that evening and I don't really fancy driving 30 miles on country roads to eat even a good meal only to be faced with another 30 miles to get home when it's late at night.  That leaves the Lions Housing Society lunch (for the management committee) at Tottington Manor.  So, what shall I eat?  The choices are:

French onion soup with a Parmesan crouton

Herbed marinated king prawns slow cooked in a lemon butter

Pan fried vegetable potato cake topped with spinach, wild mushrooms with parsnip crisps

Chicken liver parfait wrapped in Parma ham with compote of berries
 and homemade toasted brioche

Smoked haddock and spring onion tartlet, rocket and Pecorino salad
~ ~ ~

Roast Turkey with a sage, apple and chestnut stuffing
with smoked bacon wrapped chipolatas, roast potatoes and bread sauce

Fillet of salmon with a white wine and dill sauce
                  
Pan fried breaded sea bass fillet with chunky chips and a spicy tomato sauce

Stuffed chicken supreme with sun blushed tomato, olive and mozzarella with a white wine cream sauce

Roasted aubergine stuffed with a plum tomato sauce topped with crispy rice noodles
~ ~ ~

Christmas Pudding served with brandy sauce

Raspberry and mango cheesecake with raspberry sorbet

White and milk chocolate mousse with a pistachio nut crust
Selection of ice creams and sorbets

~ ~ ~
Coffee

A difficult choice as there is so much I like the sound of.

~~~~~

There is a delightful little park/garden behind the town hall in Pouancé.


Monday, 15 October 2012

Back to books

A few weeks ago I remarked how I seemed to have lost my appetite for reading and how a book I would have expected to read in a few days had taken me three weeks to read.  I am pleased to note that my former literary lethargy is now a thing of the past.  Of course, that lethargy may perhaps not have been lethargy at all but simply a lack of time for reading.  Last week I had plenty of time with no newspapers, television or - worse - computer and internet to distract me.  The result was that I read several fairly unremarkable novels and one collection of letters that was far more noteworthy.

Letters From a Lost Generation is a collection of letters written from 1913 to 1918 between Vera Brittain and her brother, her fiance, and two other friends. Some of the letters were included in Vera Brittain's classic account of her wartime experience, Testament of Youth (Penguin, 1994. reprint), but most of them are now being published for the first time. The letters provide insight into the youth of the day and how their feelings and emotions developed during the war, turning from idealism to disillusionment to an acceptance of death. The collection is unique because these letters span the entire war, showing both male and female perspectives. By the end, you know the people, feel their tragedy, and see hope change to despair as loved ones are killed.  [I quote shamelessly from Amazon.]

The events set in motion by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 changed many lives irrevocably. For Vera Brittain, an Oxford undergraduate who left her studies to volunteer as a nurse in military hospitals in England and France, the war was a shattering experience; she not only witnessed the horrors inflicted by combat through her work, but she lost the four men closest to her at that time--her fiancé, Roland Leighton, brother Edward, and two close friends, Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Nicholson, who all died on the battlefield or as a result of wounds sustained.

Poignant, even disturbing, but well worth reading.

~~~~~

The town hall in Pouancé is an imposing building standing at the Carrefour de l'Europe.  [In yesterday's picture you can see that this has been translated as "Europe meeting-point" although "carrefour" actually means "crossroads", "intersection" or "junction" - something I failed to mention.]


Sunday, 14 October 2012

Back to reality

OK, so the weather wasn't up to much.  The forecast before we went was for rain every day except Monday and, I think, Wednesday.  The reality was that I spent Sunday and Monday pruning the wisteria and jasmine while dodging the showers, Wednesday recovering from my exertions, Thursday carting the prunings to the tip - and Friday was the only sunny day when it didn't rain.  Well, not until the evening.  When we got back to Brighton last night we saw more stars in the sky - over the city - than we had seen all the previous week in the dark of the countryside!

We tend to drive along country lanes while we are sur place in La Previere; let's face it, nearly all the local roads are country lanes.  That means that they are inhabited by French farmers who seem to delight in driving their tractors in the muddiest fields they can find and then depositing that mud, along with cow pats, as far along the lanes as they can.  It's not too bad if the mud has a chance to dry out but when it keeps on raining and I drive my car along, the mud soon sprays up.  I eventually decided I could stand it no longer and spent a couple of hours on Friday morning cleaning the car, only for it to get just as muddy as before during Friday evening and Saturday morning.  But at least the wine cellar has been restocked, including the wine I want for Christmas (and that's before Bonfire Night but I bought it while it was available).

Talking of rain, do you know that "poem" of Spike Milligan's:
There are holes in the sky where the rain gets it.
The holes are small, that's why rain is thin.
~~~~~


I think perhaps a tour of Pouance is in order, starting with this picture.  By the way, there should be an acute accent over the "e" in Pouance so it is pronounced poo-on-say (but I'm too idle to cut and paste).  It is the nearest town to "our" village but is a rather obscure little place with a population of only about 3,300.  Why somebody should describe the crossroads by the town hall as the "Europe meeting point" is beyond me!


Saturday, 13 October 2012

Uh oh - problems

We hoped that there would be opportunities in the summer months for eating lunch or dinner, maybe even breakfast, in the courtyard. When it came to constructing a pergola to provide a shady spot for this, I remembered the problem I had encountered with the posts for the trellis. This time I bought the type of support that fastens round the post with nuts and bolts. They had spikes which had to be hammered into the ground for a distance of about fifteen inches. I was extremely lucky in that I managed to avoid a drain which I hadn’t realised existed until Alan put in the new vent pipe for the septic tank. Had I put the first support in the place I had originally planned, the drain would have been smashed, no doubt immediately becoming another source of olfactory discomfort.

I planted another wisteria to climb up one post and a jasmine to climb a second. I had learned my lesson with the first wisteria, and these plants were bought in France. They, too, have shot up and sprouted forth in such profusion that I have to trim them nearly every time we visit the house.

Just as the plants on the pergola had got themselves properly established and were starting to flourish, a bombshell was dropped. It was Sue who alerted us to the potential problem, which meant that the plants and the pergola itself were in danger of being ripped out of the ground as a result of a law passed by the French government.

It was not that the government had taken an active dislike to either our pergola or the plants climbing up and over it, nor was it a matter of needing planning permission for such erections. The problem was the septic tank.

The government was concerned to see that all non-mains drainage systems, ie septic tanks, met minimum standards. Each commune was required to conduct a survey of all septic tanks in its area. Those tanks which were below the set standards would have to be replaced by a specified date, the replacement being carried out by government-approved contractors. A magazine article passed on by Sue indicated that the average cost was likely to be at least six thousand euros. And, from the information given in that article, we could see that our tank did not come up to the new, minimum standards.

Those minimum standards required increased filtration of liquid effluent – at least sixty metres of perforated piping in three parallel rows of twenty metres each. Everything must be at least five metres from the house, at least three metres from neighbouring property, and at least thirty-five metres from any passage for wheeled vehicles. There was no way we could meet these standards – for a start, the rearmost point of our plot was less than thirty-five metres from the public road.

However, there was an alternative for small plots like ours. We would need to have installed two huge, interconnecting tanks with no outlets at all. And these tanks would have to be emptied regularly by experts.

I could envisage the entire courtyard being dug up – probably in the height of summer. This would mean that we would not only face an enormous bill, but would be unable to let the house while the work was being carried out. And even if the contractor gave us both starting and finishing dates, you could bet he wouldn’t stick to them, so we would have to allow for at least another month of no lettings.

The article went on to say that we should expect a visit.

Time went by, and we had no contact from anybody. We were beginning to think that the people in the mairie were adopting the same attitude as the mouse had when I enquired about the need for a license to let the house as a gîte – a sort of ostrich approach whereby if they kept quiet, nobody from a higher authority would remember they existed. But that, it transpired, was not the case. The village’s annual report showed that houses not on mains drainage had been inspected, and seventy-five per cent of them had systems that were below the new standards. As nobody had actually contacted us, we decided to lie low and pretend we knew nothing about it. We have still heard nothing and had decided the pergola, wisteria and jasmine are safe. For the time being, at least.  Then when we saw Jacques this summer he told us that the mains drainage in the village is to be extended to include our house so the pergola is once again in danger.

Here is the pergola asseen from the upstairs bedroom.  It really does provide a shady lunch spot now.




Friday, 12 October 2012

Mimosa and passion flowers

The wisteria was not the only plant that seemed intent on taking over the courtyard. Both the mimosa and the passion flower have made pretty goods attempts at doing so.

The mimosa was a “reader offer” in our daily newspaper and we thought it would be nice to have a plant in bloom during the more dreary winter months, so we bought one. We knew that mimosa is usually found around the Mediterranean, well to the south of our village, but we reasoned that if it was being sold by an English newspaper, presumably for planting in England, our village should be far enough south.

The hole from which Chris, Alan and I had extracted the lump of concrete had not been filled in, and this proved ideal for the mimosa’s root-ball. I backfilled with compost to give it a good start, but I really need not have bothered. That plant didn’t need a better start than it would get from the earth in the courtyard.

Jacques, when we told him, was very sceptical about the prospects for the plant’s survival. He thought we were too far north for it, but agreed that as we had planted it is a sheltered spot, it might survive the winter.

It was just over three feet high when it was planted in the spring and, in our ignorance, we expected it to grow to about six feet by the time it was mature. When we were next at the house, we were astonished to find that the mimosa had grown and was now level with the top of the downstairs windows. Three months later, and it was halfway up the upstairs bedroom window. This was no six foot shrub. Then we discovered that the mimosa is actually quite a tall tree.

I worried that we had planted this monster too close to the house and that it might damage the foundations until I realised that, having been built in 1840, the house probably had no foundations to be damaged. The walls were two feet thick, so they should be safe. Next spring I discovered that I needn’t have worried at all: the mimosa had not survived the winter. Mrs S was a little peeved, to put it mildly, as a friend had also bought one of these plants and it was still going strong in England. And just to rub salt in the wound, we discovered two other mimosas in the village.

The passion flower also did very will during the first summer. We had collected several passion flower fruits from a friend’s plant several years before and had grown plants of our own from the seeds. Some of these had been planted in our own garden in England and some we had given to friends, including Alan. We wanted to hide the ugly breeze block wall of the sheds and set about growing some more passion fruit plants to do the job. Unfortunately, none of these survived, but Alan was able to come to the rescue with a pot of seedlings.

Just to be on the safe side, I planted three or four of those seedlings against the shed wall. By mid-summer, they had grown so well that we had to cut our way through the plant to open the shed door, and the plants had spread nearly halfway across the courtyard. In the autumn, we pruned the plants quite severely, but by the following spring, they all looked as though we had overdone it.

Despite my scepticism, Mrs S was determined to rescue those plants. I’m not entirely sure just what she did, but I did notice that the level of the orange juice went down dramatically. Whatever the secret, it worked, and once again we had to hack our way through to the shed door by mid-July. But at least the passion flower has made a good job of hiding that wall.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The wisteria

I had decided that a wisteria on a trellis would improve the view from the bedroom.  At least, I thought, it would hide the gas tank.  I had taken a wisteria and all the necessary bits and pieces for the trellis over to France and all that was needed was for the job to be done.

Banging the metal post-holders for the trellis into the ground did not prove to be difficult, but inserting the posts themselves into the holders was a different matter. The holders were supposed to have been made to accept three-inch square timber, and the timber was supposed to be three inches square, but each of those posts was a fraction of an inch too large to fit into the holders. I had two toolboxes with me, each containing a large selection of tools, but neither of them contained a plane because that was one tool I didn't own.

I retrieved the work bench from under its covering of cobwebs, mouse droppings and other assorted gunk and started trimming down the posts for about six inches from the end. By the time I had finished, the posts slipped easily into the holders – too easily. I had taken off just a bit too much. I nearly left things as they were, but remembered that if a job is worth doing...

Mr Bricolage had just what I needed – little plastic shims, or spacers. I hammered these into the post holders alongside the posts until there was not a trace of movement.

Then, of course, the trellis had to be fixed to the posts. It sounds easy; indeed, I thought it would be easy. But I had overlooked the fact that in order to fix one end of the trellis correctly, the whole thing had to be extended to the required length. This really was a job for two people, but I was on my own and had not then met Claude.

I resorted to my usual remedy when faced with a tricky job – a cup of coffee and a cigarette. The coffee was only half drunk when it dawned on me that I had been going about things the wrong way. So, I drilled four holes in the trellis, one at each corner, and a pilot hole near the top of one of the posts. A screw inserted part way held the trellis in place while I extended it to reach the further pole. It was now easy to fix that end of the trellis, and the rest followed simply enough.

There had been just enough rain to make the clay soil workable and digging a hole for the roots of the wisteria took no time at all. I trained the seven or eight branches in and out of the trellis and congratulated myself on a job well done.

What I had not allowed for was the future growth of the plant and the fact that it would very quickly become stronger than the flimsy staples holding together the equally flimsy wooden struts that made up the trellis. Only a year after the wisteria had been planted, the trellis was collapsing – and with it, the wisteria. If I was to stop the wisteria stretching out along the ground, I would have to take corrective measures. Although when I had finished it did sag rather badly, the fencing wire I fastened to the posts made a better job of supporting the wisteria than did the trellis.

By the second spring, the wisteria had gone berserk. There were branches of it waving three or four feet in the air above the lilac tree, through which they had spread. Other branches had arched across to the house and were trailing down six inches from the bedroom window. Drastic pruning was needed, but this only encouraged more growth. I might not have any grass to cut, but each time we visit ‘Les Lavandes' I have to trim the wisteria.

This was how it looked when we arrived in July.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

How about a wisteria?

There was still the problem of the view, or lack of one, from the bedroom window. After much deliberation, I hit on what I thought would be the answer. I would erect three wooden posts, each three inches square and eight feet high, using metal post-holders, and to those posts I would fix a trellis. If I trained a wisteria over the trellis, that would hide the gas tank from view very nicely, and would look attractive into the bargain.

Why I didn't buy all the bits and pieces – including the wisteria – in France is something I shall never understand. But I didn't. Mrs S and I visited an English garden centre and selected a magnificent wisteria plant, one that was already eight feet high. Just getting it back to our English home was something of a challenge, and I still had to transport it to France – along with three eight foot posts, the trellis and all the appropriate tools for a week's work. It took me quite a while to pack the car that Sunday afternoon.

After passing through check-in and before going through to the dockside at the ferry port, cars were selected, apparently at random, for a security check. So far I had been lucky and managed to avoid this hassle – but not this time. I can't have been more than a yard or so from the gate to the quay when somebody in a fluorescent yellow waistcoat jumped in front of the car, causing me to practice an emergency stop. He waved at me imperiously, directing me into the security check area.

I was invited to step out of the car and to open the boot. The security officer glanced inside and groaned. I'm sure that he was sorely tempted to tell me to close the boot and drive on, but his conscience won the day – either that, or he thought his boss might be watching. Anyway, everything had to come out – suitcase, toolboxes, wooden posts, wisteria plant, even the spare wheel. As I stood there holding up the wisteria, a sniffer dog was brought across. I was not best pleased when he cocked his leg against the plant, but relieved that at least he missed my leg!

The contents of my suitcase got a cursory examination, but not so the toolboxes. Everything was pulled out and scattered on the ground – screwdrivers, chisels, saws, a positive cornucopia of potentially lethal weapons. I was escorted into an office where I was asked to hand over my passport before being thoroughly searched. A second, more senior, security officer arrived and proceeded to question me.

I considered phoning my Member of Parliament to complain about this harassment. But even if I had decided to do so, I couldn't have done because I didn't even know who my Member of Parliament was let alone his telephone number. I decided against ringing Mrs S as she wouldn't have known either, and in any case she would have been in bed and asleep by then and wouldn't have heard the phone ringing. I couldn't anyway, because my mobile phone had been taken along with my passport – a passport which stated that ‘Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer (me!) to pass freely without let or hindrance'. And here were British people hindering my passage!

I eventually managed to persuade the security officers that I was not a terrorist intent on hijacking the ferry, nor was I a hacksaw murderer on the run, and nor was I intending to wage a solo war against the French in order to regain Anjou for the British crown. By the time they let me go the ferry was nearly due to depart and I had no time to pack the car properly before driving over the ramp just as it started to lift. As a result, I had wisteria leaves tickling the back of my neck for the rest of the journey.

A year or so down the line, this is how that wisteria looked.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The view from the bedroom

The view from the downstairs bedroom window was, to put it mildly, not exactly exhilarating. Glancing to the left, one could see an old stone wall about four feet high which had been extended to a height of about ten feet with breezeblocks. Fortunately, this wall was by now largely covered with moss and lichen so it looked a little less prison-like and the mature lilac tree and large hydrangea were doing their best to screen it. To the right, one looked across the courtyard towards the well. But the real problem was the view straight ahead.

The back wall of the largest shed (the garage for a ‘very small car', as Monsieur Detroit had jested) stood some twelve or thirteen feet away. That in itself would have been bad enough but rectifiable without too much difficulty. What made matters worse was the large gas tank that had been positioned just behind the shed. In all fairness, there really was nowhere better that it could have been placed, but improve the view it did not. It stood there like a small petrol tanker, drawing the eye every time I looked out of the window. This really was not what we wanted for our hoped-for paying guests.


Between the gas tank and the window was a flowerbed. Well, we assumed when we bought the house that it was a flowerbed as it didn't seem to be covered in chippings or concrete. When we dug through the dead leaves we found we were right: there was earth under there. But there was a strange post rising from the middle of this flowerbed.

It stood just over three feet high, but its height had been reduced by fifteen inches or so when somebody had sawed down it from the top and bent the resulting four arms out like spokes. Presumably these had once supported a tabletop, but who would want a picnic table in the middle of a flowerbed? Or maybe it had been a bird table, but if so, it must have been a table strong enough for an eagle or a vulture.

Obviously, it had to go. I gave it a shake; or rather I tried to give it a shake to see if it was likely to come up fairly easily. It didn't move, so I fetched a spade and prodded around at the base. The spade struck something solid. The post had been sunk into concrete, which I discovered extended almost two feet in every direction from the post. If the diameter of the top was four feet, how far down did this concrete block extend? I wondered.

I dug around it and eventually managed to rock the post gently from side to side, but it took the combined efforts of Chris, Alan and me to prise it from the ground – in between scraping the hall floor, checking the septic tank and installing the new light fitting. Two days later, I had recovered enough strength to start attacking the concrete with a sledgehammer, but it was to be more than a year before I had reduced it to small enough lumps to blend in with the chippings covering the courtyard. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

Lavender Cottage

From the very start we had decided to call our French hideaway Les Lavandes, this being (we thought) the French equivalent of Lavender Cottage.  The fact that there was not a single lavender plant in the courtyard did not deter us as we planned o plant our own anyway.

Mrs S thought it would rather a nice touch if we had tubs each side of the two doors, the main front door and the one from the living room, and planted these up with lavender. We duly purchased four large, wooden tubs, not too dissimilar from half barrels but considerably cheaper, which I transported to France with everything else. I drew the line at buying compost in England as it was readily available not too far from the house, but the lavender plants did come from England.

We had very high hopes for those plants as we had discovered, when staying with Gary and Wendy, that plants in the area grew very quickly and to a much larger size than they did in England. I was, of course, to find this with our neighbour's vegetables. Although neither of us is blessed with green fingers or much horticultural savvy, we could see no reason why the spring would not be a good time for planting lavender, and proceeded to put four or five plants in each tub. I even photographed our efforts after the planted tubs had been placed in position.

It was as well that I did take those photographs, as they very soon became the only evidence that we had ever had lavender beside the doors. When we returned some six weeks after planting up the tubs, all the plants looked decidedly sick. They looked so sick, in fact, that I would have consigned them all to the tip without a second thought. But not my better half. Despite her record of killing off every parsley plant on our kitchen windowsill within three days of purchase, she decided to attempt a rescue and nurse those poorly lavender plants back to health.

The plan was to replant the lavender in the borders, some plants along the front of the borders on either side of the gates, and the remainder at the edge of the third border so people would pass them on their way to the front door. First, the ground had to be prepared. This involved clearing the appropriate areas of dead leaves, weeds, and any plants which might have had the temerity to spend the winter months resting peacefully where the lavender was due to go. It took three bin liners to hold all the leaves, weeds, plants and assorted litter that were cleared – and that was just from the edges of the borders.

Next, the sickly lavender plants had to be removed from the tubs. So careful was Mrs S not to damage the roots, it must have taken her the better part of a morning to extract them. Suitable holes were prepared to receive them, and I swear that no new mother ever laid her precious baby down more gently than those lavender plants were put into their beds! A mixture of compost and soil was used to fill the holes, this being put in almost as gently as the plants themselves had been. The final part of the proceedings was to spray the plants with a fine mist. I was quite happy to tip a couple of buckets of water over the plants, but no, we had to use an empty perfume spray so that the plants would not be flooded out.

I have to say that I remained sceptical, extremely sceptical. But, as happens so often with Mrs S, she proved me wrong. Well, partly wrong. About a third of the plants never did recover, but the remainder flourished so well that we considered inviting a perfume manufacturer round to harvest the flowers.  And even now, several years later, those plants are going strong.

You can just see some of the healthy plants in this picture of one of the borders.


Sunday, 7 October 2012

Meet the (English) neighbours

Whilst we appreciated Jacques thoughtfulness in inviting another English couple for tea, we did live to regret his action. At least twice a week when we are in the village, Stella finds an excuse to drop in, usually but not always accompanied by Richard, and takes charge of our living room for at least an hour. This always seems to happen just when Mrs S and I are planning to nip into Châteaubriant before the shops close for their obligatory two-hour lunch break, effectively putting us back three hours in whatever job we have on hand. There was even one occasion when we were on the point of leaving to catch the ferry and I had to run the gauntlet of every speed camera en route in my effort to make up the lost time. The time we tried saying, "Sorry, but we are just going out," and pulling the door shut behind us didn't work: Stella just pushed the door open and walked in anyway. We have now resorted to letting Stella sit in the living room while we just get on with whatever we were doing. Even if we are going shopping, we just leave, asking her to shut the door behind her.

Fortunately, we can leave the door unlocked in relative safety, the crime rate in the village being virtually zero. Since we have owned a house there, there has been just one crime. Another Englishman bought a house on the crossroads and left his trailer on the pavement outside. One morning he went out and discovered the trailer had been stolen overnight. The theft had, of course, been committed by somebody passing through and not a villager. As far as we could make out, the village spoke of nothing else for at least three weeks.

We never did meet that Englishman, or even learn his name. Jean-Paul did tell us that he bought the house in order to live near his daughter, who had married a Frenchman from a small town some thirty minutes away. Whatever his name, he eventually sold up, telling all and sundry that he was fed up with living in a village where nothing happened and he couldn’t even get a full pint of beer. Mrs S and I were not sorry that we never met him.

Or maybe I did. Chris and I were browsing the shelves in Mr Bricolage one day - our trips to France are never complete without at least two visits to the emporium, usually on the same day because we forgot something the first time. We were gazing in bewilderment and awe at the vast array of drawer knobs or something similar, when we were approached by a red-faced man who had obviously heard us speaking in English. From what he said, we gathered that he lived in France, but he obviously missed England and launched into a tirade about the things that the French did wrong, ranging from the overuse of olive oil to driving on the right. We tried to get away, but he found us again as we were hiding behind a ride-on lawnmower. In the end we left the shop without buying what we had gone in there for, and sat in the car waiting for him to leave. He must have latched on to somebody else as it was a full twenty-five minutes before he came out.

The next day we were in the supermarket in search of lunch when he caught us again. Chris "accidentally" ran the trolley into his shin and we managed to escape while he was hopping on his undamaged leg and shouting profanities in what sounded like Swahili.

I have never been able to understand why some Englishmen like that gentleman choose to live in France when they want it to be an English France, with thick-cut marmalade, Marmite and Heinz baked beans. Mrs S and I met more of them one evening in the village restaurant. We were, as usual, the only diners when Jean-Paul informed us that a party of six was due to arrive. He announced proudly that they were English, just as if they had travelled from Bolton or Bournemouth especially to eat at his restaurant. Contrary to Jean-Paul's assertion about the punctuality of the English, they arrived forty minutes after the time they had booked and sat at their table braying loudly about how they had managed to reduce the gardener's wages and so on.

Jean-Paul introduced us, explaining that we owned a house in the village, whereupon the woman with the most jewellery (and the loudest voice) immediately switched to her version of French to talk to us. One of the men pointed out to her that we were English.

"Well," she exclaimed, "I know that!" and continued to harangue us in execrable French.

It is not often that I wish the floor would open up and swallow me, but I did that night. One of the party complained about the starter he had chosen – an unusual but excellent salad that is a house speciality – and sent it back to the kitchen. Another complained that his lamb was pink – which is, of course, the way the French eat their lamb – and sent it back. Then there was something wrong with the wine. We pointedly ignored them when we left and commiserated with Jean-Paul, who offered me a glass of the rejected wine. As I suspected, there was absolutely nothing wrong with it.

I was telling Jacques about this the next day and saying that I felt I should apologise to Jean-Paul for the behaviour of my fellow countrymen.

"I shouldn't bother," said Jacques, in his usual phlegmatic way. "There are plenty of Frenchmen who are just as bad."

~~~~~

Our village restaurant, then decorated for Christmas.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Meet the (French) neighbours

Part of our thinking when the Old  Bat and I chose the western Loire as the area in which we wanted to buy a holiday home was that there were relatively few English people living there - or so we thought. Our reasoning was that we preferred to escape from English attitudes and experience the French way of life on our visits. We were rather surprised to find that there were two English families in the village, one with children and the other a more elderly couple. In fact, they impinge on us very little as we have never met the family with children and couldn't even say where they live. It was Jacques' fault that we met the other couple.

We have from time to time been invited into neighbour our Jacques' house for the French version of afternoon tea. This all started during one of the times I was there alone. Jacques had popped in for a scotch, after which I went to his house for a glass of wine. While I was there, it was suggested that when Mrs S and I were next there together, we should both go over for a drink. Mrs S and I discussed what sort of small gift we could take with us as Jacques and Brigitte, his wife, had both been very friendly and helpful, as well as generous with their garden produce. We decided that Mrs S should bake a cake, her chocolate yoghurt cake being particularly good. The cake was duly baked well in advance, and frozen for safekeeping.

As both Jacques and Brigitte work, the invitations are always for a Saturday and are generally given on an evening during the preceding week. We calculated that there would be plenty of time to thaw the cake once the invitation had been given. As luck would have it, Jacques fooled us on this occasion by coming over at about four o'clock on Saturday and suggesting that we call round at five.

Panic stations! There was no time to thaw the cake! I dashed to the local supermarket to buy flowers instead.

Being English, we rang the bell at just on five o'clock. Jacques younger daughter answered the door, and looked at us blankly. Fortunately, Jacques had remembered to tell Brigitte (he doesn't always) and she soon appeared to invite us in, although it was obvious that we had arrived far too early. We had forgotten what Jean-Paul had told us: if an Englishman books a table for eight o'clock, he will arrive somewhere between five to eight and ten past, whereas if a Frenchman books a table for eight, he might arrive by nine.

We were offered chairs at the dining table, and cups and saucers, plates, wine glasses and beer glasses appeared as if by magic. Along with chocolate cup cakes baked by Jacques and Brigitte's elder daughter. Mrs S and I looked at each other and breathed a joint sigh of relief that there had been no time to thaw the cake.

~~~~~

I have no picture of the neighbours but this is the village square, or Place de l'Eglise as it is called.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Cherchez la femme

Or, to be more accurate, cherchez le corpse.

Had somebody told me beforehand that I would spend part of yesterday morning looking for a corpse, I would never have believed them.  But that is what I did; I drove around town trying to find a dead body.  It was one particular dead body I was looking for, not just any old cadaver.

A near neighbour died a couple of weeks back and her funeral was to be held yesterday.  Or so her husband told me.  In fact, he also gave the details to the Old Bat, details identical to what he had told me.  And he told me twice, on two different days.  Thursday, 4th October, 11.45am at one of the two crematoria in Brighton.  So yesterday morning we swapped our regular casual morning attire for something a little more appropriate to the occasion - a black, roll-neck sweater with black trousers and a very dark green coat for her ladyship, grey trousers and a darkish check jacket for me with a lilac (very pale purple, a funereal colour) shirt and a black tie.  (Had it been a close friend or a relative I would have dug out the dark grey suit and a white shirt, but this was a neighbour so I felt something a little less formal would be in order.)  We set off in time to arrive at the crematorium about ten minutes before the ceremony was due to begin.  I did think it a little odd that the husband and other mourners were still at the house, one with a mug of coffee in his hand, but assumed they knew what they were doing.  My plan worked perfectly and we arrived almost on the dot of 11.35.  I parked right outside the chapels - there are two - in a blue badge space and went to see in which chapel the funeral service would be held.  The first chapel had no name outside and the second had a completely different name.  I double checked.  Nope.  Still the wrong name at one chapel and no name at the other.

I went in search of a member of staff and found a couple just walking away from the office back to their car.  On inquiring, I was informed that the other couple were looking for the same corpse as me and, like them, I was told that there was no 11.45 funeral and the name of the deceased was completely unknown to the crematorium staff.  The man I was talking to had phoned the other crematorium and been told that there was no funeral scheduled there for 11.45 either and they had no knowledge of the corpse I was looking for.  He rang them again just to make sure and was given the same answer. 

By now there were only about two or three minutes before the service was due to start so there was no time to drive back home and ask the neighbour what was going on.  I chatted some more to the helpful gentleman and told him I was a neighbour of the deceased, whereupon he asked where I lived.  That gave him a clue.  Most funerals from my area are handled by one firm and the gentleman rang them.  As I was a neighbour who had been, it was assumed, invited to attend the funeral, the undertakers confirmed that the service was to take place at the other crematorium at 12.15, not 11.45.  For some reason, the husband had asked for secrecy concerning the funeral arrangements.  But why he gave both my wife and me the wrong information I shall never know.

Oh yes, we did get to find the corpse.  In fact, as the two crematoria are next door to each other, we were about 25 minutes early for the service.

~~~~~

Off to France tomorrow morning to top up the wine cellar etc etc.  Even though the medication I will be starting this weekend doesn't like alcohol, the consultant assured me that a glass and a half of wine with my dinner will be of no account.  But I'm afraid the Scotch  I take very, very occasionally as a nightcap will be a thing of the past.  Anyway, I have left a few posts scheduled for while I am away - more stories of Les Lavandes.  Most of the events I describe did actually occur.  Do remember, though, that I have occasionally exaggerated or embroidered the facts - just a little.

~~~~~

Yesterday was the first sunny day since last Sunday and it was very pleasant walking in Withdean Park after breakfast in the early morning sun.  I will confess that I didn't take this picture yesterday but this is very much how it was.


Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Bricklayer's Lament

The late Gerard Hoffnung addressed the Oxford Union 54 years ago and this gem was part of his address.  I defy anyone to listen to it without laughing.



~~~~~

You want a picture as well?  OK.  I did threaten to post a picture I took the other day when on the Roman Camp and here it is.  We are looking south-east across the golf course and over the Bevendean valley to the Race Hill.  At the right of the picture you can see the race course grandstand and the eagle-eyed might spot a couple of large container ships heading down Channel on the horizon.  And those two specs in the sky are gulls.



Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A l'Auberge des Pecheurs





In the shadow of Leotoing and its castle, way down in the valley, lies the hamlet of Lanau, too small to be called a village.  Here, on the bank of the River Azerre, one finds the Auberge des Pecheurs, Fishermen's Inn, where I ate one of the most memorable meals of my life.  As you might think from the picture, this is not the place one would stop off if looking for a gourmet meal.  Indeed, I would have been most unlikely to have stopped there for more than a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  But it had been recommended to us.

The Old Bat and I were on holiday in the Auvergne, that part of central France which is almost mystical with its extinct volcanoes, mountains and valleys, cheeses and cow bells.  As is our wont, we had rented a gite for the week.  Our hosts were a couple of English gentlemen whose relationship left us a tad puzzled and which we never did sort out satisfactorily.  But that is neither here nor there.  On the first evening we asked if theu could recommend any restaurants in the area.  They suggested a few but the Auberge was, they said, the best, and they rang Rachel, not so much to book a table as to warn her that we would be arriving.  Rachel, they explained, was Lebanese and had married a Frenchman.  He had been seriously ill and was not long out of hospital.  (That does have a bearing on what follows.)

We left in good time as we had a drive of several miles ahead of us, the first five of them being down the mountainside to the nearest village.  (I had no cause to use the accelerator once out of the courtyard and when we reached the village my fuel consumption was recorded as in excess of 200 miles per gallon!)  The Auberge, we had been told, was to be found soon after passing one château and before the next.  We parked in a small space at the back of the inn and walked towards the entrance in some trepidation as this didn't look a particularly inviting venue.  The plastic strip curtain hanging in the open doorway did nothing to improve our thoughts.

Nor did our hopes pick up as we pushed through the plastic strip curtain and entered the Auberge.  Immediately in front of us was a hand-football table, while to our right was an area obviously used by Rachel and her husband as their living room.  A shelf unit containing a miscellany of books, ornaments and assorted knick-knacks and implements provided a partial room divider.  There was a dining table almost completely covered with what appeared to be drugs of various kinds, a television with the sound turned down very low and an ancient computer monitor.  A cat was lying on the bench seat running along one side of this room and it was here that both Rachel's husband and his dog sat when he came in during the evening.

Beyond the hand football table was a small bar and too our left was the dining area.  The chairs were metal with plastic seats and as far as we could tell, the tables matched.  It was difficult to be certain as each table was covered with a minimum of three very thick plastic cloths.    On the one laid up for us the top cloth was white on the top although the parts hanging over the sides of the table had a colourful pattern.  Obviously the top had been cleaned so often that the colour had been wiped off.  The cutlery was clean if mismatched and our doubts were slowly being dispelled.





Rachel told us we could have either trout or pork.  We both opted for trout, that having been recommended by Bob and Frank, the owners of our holiday cottage.  We accepted her offer to make a mixed salad for our starter.  I told her that we would like wine and she went off without bothering to answer, only to return with a half litre carafe of white wine.  As it happens, that is probably what I would have ordered if I had been given the chance.  What sort of wine that was I have no idea but it tasted very good to both of us.  As did the simple mixed salad when it came.  Little more than lettuce and tomato, the dressing was out of this world and made the dish.  It didn't hurt, either,  that the vegetables were fresh.

And the trout.  It must have jumped straight out of the river at the bottom of the garden and into the pan, it was so fresh.  Plump and sweet, we drooled as we ate them even though neither of us is keen on having a fish with its head and tail still attached when on the plate in front of us.  The fish was accompanied by fried diced potatoes which were perfect and (I think) French beans.  This was followed by home-made pear tart and good coffee.

As I wrote, that was one of the most memorable meals I have ever eaten.  Memorable for three things: the setting, which led one to expect the worst; the food and wine, which combined good, fresh ingredients with careful cooking; and lastly, the price, just over £20 for the lot!

We went back later in the week and were equally well pleased.

(48 years today)