Wheelies On The Tarmac

10.6.12.

It rained during the night and throughout the morning, part of which I spent blogging in Le Code Bar.  By noon, the deluge having subsided, I set off along the Eymet road via the Ste. Innocence fork.  Cattle were lying down and the enormous white rabbit I had seen in a field last year was no longer in evidence.  The dogs from the garden next to the retirement homes were clearly sheltering.  Perhaps they were not mad enough to venture ‘out in[to] the midday [gloom]’.  Nothing save the caws of distant rooks and the dismal ‘uni-ted’ of a solitary bachelor woodpigeon disturbed the silence of this soggy Sunday siesta period.

Ater half an hour I retraced my steps and by the time I re-entered Sigoules a weak sun was struggling to emerge as had a man quietly tending vines; and a young boy, with whom I exchanged ‘bonjour’, was doing wheelies on the tarmac.  Nothing else was happening.  Was the lad as bored as I would have been at his age on a lonely Sunday?  Reflecting on the rainy weekends of a pre-television childhood I realise that the older one gets the less boredom there is in life.  Not that we were always bored.  Chris and I once made our own Monopoly set.  This wasn’t a game to play with Grandma who would ‘accidentally’ upset the board when she was losing.

In the evening I watched ‘De L’eau pour les Elephants’ (Water for the Elephants).  This is a very good story, beautifully filmed, set in a circus during the Great Depression.  The stars are Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz.  In order to improve my understanding of French I watch films, either in the original or French versions with French subtitles.  Although I can read the language quite well I have difficulty in grasping the spoken word, particularly when delivered at the normal rate.  This doesn’t really work with fast-paced thrillers like ‘Unlimited’ which I watched last night, so something more romantic like this one is more helpful.  Sub-titles, of course, are never literal translations, but I am at the stage where I can recognise the difference between what is said and what is written on the screen.

I slipped up on the catering front today.  Those who follow the culinary codas to my posts may be amused to learn that today’s meal was two boiled eggs.  I had not realised that Le Code Bar does not provide meals on Sundays and anyway closes at lunchtime.  I suppose the staff do have to rest sometime. It was a privilege to be allowed to stay and finish my blog.  Nothing else is open in Sigoules on the sabbath and the eggs were all I had in the fridge.

The Dordogne Chippy

9.6.12.

This morning I was collected by my long-term friends Maggie and Michael.  For coffee we visited their friends Cath and Charles, ex-pats from the West Country, all of us continuing for a drive through changing countryside to the Agenais region.

Vines gave way to hazel and plum plantations.

Arriving at our destination, the imposing castle of Bonaguil, near Fumel, Maggie and Mike laid out a folding table and chairs brought by each of the couples and we sat by a stream consuming a splendid picnic.  My friends always enjoy bringing their customary thoroughness to such events.  We therefore lacked for nothing.  We were able to contemplate the scary climb up the hill to the imposing fortress.

The gentle hills around Sigoules were nothing to the steep incline leading up to the towering edifice which had been 500 years in the making.  My now tightening calves suffered a bit.  Just before the French revolution the then chatelaine, Marguerite de Fumel, had died, thus possibly saving herself from the guillotine.  After this turning point in history the place had been sacked and left to its ruin.  According to the assistant in the mediaeval bookshop in the village, by the middle of the nineteenth century this splendid relic was concealed by trees and undergrowth and consequently forgotten until rediscovered by Philippe Lauzin, the author of one of the books I bought there.

Set in a cleft in the hillside and partially hewn through the rock; built of huge blocks of stone; with deep steps; and of gigantic proportions; I wondered how on earth men of lesser size than my 6’3″ frame managed to dash up and down wielding their weapons in defense of this impregnable fortress.  And how could any invaders have scaled the cliff and protective walls?  They must have been as nimble as the goats in Sigoules.  Surely even Errol Flynn or Gerard Depardieu (in his younger days) would have struggled.  William the Conqueror, who castellated England, must have modelled his plan on such a stronghold.  We marvelled at the superb, straight as a die, round tower piercing the skies.  And how did they get the stone up there?  The walls of one of the rooms, now used as a conference centre, contains historic graffiti.

Returning to the present, we dropped Cath and Charles off at their home and repaired to Le Code Bar.  Here, as on every Saturday night, The Dordogne Chippy had set up stall.  The chippy is a travelling English fish and chip shop which featured in last year’s T.V. series ‘Little England’.  Helen and Dave Mansfield have brought this slice of their culture to Aquitaine.  The poisson-frites and mushy peas were excellent.  The television programme had focussed on what I believe the French, perhaps not entirely in jest, call ‘The Invasion’.  On our return journey we had stopped off at Monflanquin, one of the Bastide towns which are a feature of the area.  Established in the 12th. and 13th. centuries, these ‘new’ towns, centred on an arcaded square, were built alternately by the French and the English, depending on who happened to be in charge.  I’m not sure who built Eymet, but it has surely been ‘invaded’ by the English now.  David and Frederick have certainly welcomed Helen and Dave, as they, and the rest of the village, have welcomed me.

In Monflanquin we had waited an age for lukewarm coffee, passable Earl Grey tea, and execrable ‘hot’ chocolate on which Michael had had to perform his favourite occupation, D-I-Y, from a packet of powder.  We were invited to ask for more milk if necessary.  When Maggie drained the little white jug revealing brown stains in rings round the bottom she wasn’t sure she wanted any.  These beverages had been produced by a woman who, some time after we had placed our order, had hurried out of the house next door.  I quipped that she had been summoned by telephone by the shopkeeper saying he had caught some customers.  Maggie said the loos were no better.  A far cry from Le Code Bar.

Le Code Bar

8.6.12.

Featuring similar countryside to that described in the last two posts, today’s walk took me to Sainte Innocence and back.  To be able to climb these hills and look down on the fields and hamlets below is a blessing indeed.  Especially with an artifical hip thanks to Mr. Marston, an excellent, personable surgeon at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington.

At the edge of Sigoules, close by the shops, there is now a block of retirement homes on a site which two years ago bore one farmhouse and a field of cattle.  These residences are not labelled, as in England, with various versions of ‘homes for the elderly’.  They bear the legend: ‘The future begins with us’.  What the occupants make of the dogs in the garden next door which bark frenetically whenever anyone passes, I can only imagine.

As you enter Ste. Innocence there is a roadside shrine to Our Lady fronted by  magnificent Arum lilies planted in a ditch fed by a measured trickle of water from a cistern.  Their 12th. century church is locked.  I had hoped to find a cafe, but although this small village runs to the said church and a town hall, there are no other public establishments. I was a bit parched when I got back.

This evening I used the Wi-Fi at Le Code Bar to send the last two days’ posts.  It is, of course, mentioned in those missives.  Now is the time for a fuller description.  It is only a month since David and Frederick took over, renamed, and changed the face of what was La Renaissance.  That establishment had been run by Joel and Nicole, an equally friendly, but more retiring couple.  I believe they struggled because they are unable to keep the hours maintained by the current partnership, who are open all day and every evening seven days a week.  They were perhaps less naturally gregarious than this new team.  David spends much time chatting in a pleasantly unobtrusive way with the clientele.  There is a lively, friendly, atmosphere and David and Frederick speak pretty good English.  In Franglais we do rather well.  The name, incidentally, is a wordplay on ‘barcode’.  A pool table upstairs attracts the younger element.  The piped music is usually of French artistes performing English songs.  Currently I am listening to a very good version of a Beatles collection.  Perhaps the future begins with Le Bar Code.

The lunchtime menu offered by Joel and Nicole was excellent and took some matching.  I believe it has been matched.  This evening I began with classic French onion soup saved for me from midday, followed by a very good ham and egg salad.  This was only the prelude to an enormous platter of chicken and chips which not even The Martin Cafe could have rivalled.  Double-fried frites.  Marvellous.  In England the heart and liver are not included when you buy a bird to roast at home; I have often shredded and eaten the meat from the neck after boiling it up for stock; never have I had all three served up on a plate with a leg and part of the torso.  Delicious.  The chicken was not stuffed, but I was.  I shouldn’t have finished the second basket of bread.

Sacred Copulation

7.6.12.

Today being Mordred day, that is, when my crossword appears in The Independent; and that newspaper being unavailable in Sigoules, Jackie has undertaken to buy one for me.  You may wonder why I would want to buy a puzzle I had set myself.  Well, it makes me feel proud to see it in print, and it’s quite impressive to be able to complete it in three minutes on the tube.

Before I got up I finished ‘Whose Body?’ by Dorothy L. Sayers.  She brings a most literary element to her detective stories.  Quite apart from their being excellent examples of the genre she develops her characters with insight and humour.  Indeed, there is a touch of P.G.Wodehouse about her narrative and, in the book, she makes occasional reference to Holmes and Watson.  Lord Peter Wimsey has his equivalents of both Jeeves and Doctor Watson.

As I left the house for my daily perambulation an elderly woman with a shopping bag was leaning with one hand against the wall, panting for breath.  Had I come down the steps which lead onto the pavement I would have blocked her path.  I therefore remained on the top step in order to keep her way clear and to pause in case my help would be required.  She smiled and told me to come down.  I stood grinning like an Englishman who hadn’t grasped what she’d said, which, of course, I hadn’t.  She laughed and said she granted me permission to descend.  That time I got it, and my grin developed into an equal expression of amusement.

A warm and sunny day with plenty of cloud, cooled by the occasional smattering of large raindrops, greeted my departure.  En route to Monbos, some two miles out of Sigoules, maize was sprouting and barley flourishing.  The vineyards around Monbos were in good shape.  The ditches and chalky banks on the roadside were decked with clusters of poppies, sweet peas, bramble blossom, and a profusion of other wild flowers.  The first time I went this way was with Elizabeth.  She suffered badly with sunstroke, and it was only afterwards we learned that the temperature had been 40 degrees.

I passed a field in which a string of horses came galloping down the hillside to investigate my presence, just as the donkey had done the day before.  About halfway you come to Sigoules Heights.  This is intended to be a vast housing development.  Three years ago a system of roads, impressive street furniture, and parking areas, was laid out. It seems you buy a plot and have your own house built.  To date there are only three houses in situ.  Perhaps another casualty of the worldwide recession.

My goal today was to visit the 11th./12th. century simple stone-built church with a barrel roof.  This humble house of God is decorated with stylised mediaeval carvings representing various examples of animal life.  Standing out amongst these are naked men without fig-leaves, and two couples hugely, graphically, copulating.  Not even in the missionary position.  The phalluses have at some time clearly been replaced.  Perhaps denizens of a more recent age found them offensive; perhaps someone stricken with penis envy simply nicked them.  Either way it is wonderful that these works of naive art have survived 1,000 years of continuous worship.

Set in the back wall is a peculiar square window containing a kind of porthole.  We believe that was for the relevant hermit to observe the Mass rather than the carvings.

Having watched a film last night based upon one John Le Carre novel, it was fitting that I should begin to read ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’ today.

This evening’s fare at Le Code Bar was Salade Nicoise encircled by shrimps, followed by gammon steaks, ratatouille, and kus kus.  After sending me a huge platter of the main course Frederick, the chef, told me to ask for more if it wasn’t enough.  Not enough!  I have no idea what the sweet would have been because I had no room for it.  My choice of wine was rose.  The wine comes from Les Caves de Sigoules, the manager of which once introduced himself to Michael as my personal wine supplier.  This was at one of the Friday evening festive meals which take place in the village square throughout July and August.

Later, I watched ‘La Dame Aux Camelias’, starring Greta Scacchi, Colin Firth, and Ben Kingsley.  This was beautifully filmed and pleasant enough but, perhaps inevitably, lacked the complexity of Dumas fils’ original novel.  Having watched Colin Firth as a middle-aged man the night before it was fascinating to see him perform as a very young man.  His serious, somewhat shy, expressions and winning smile haven’t changed.  Greta Scacchi was as decorative as ever; and Ben Kingsley full of charisma.

A Freudian Slip

6.6.12

I travelled this morning by cab to Southampton Airport for my flight to Bergerac where I was met by Sandrine who drove me to Sigoules.  Sandrine, who speaks very good English, is the daughter of Lydie Semprez who is Taxi Eymetois.  For three years now I have been driven to and fro by one or the other of these delightful women.  I never know which of them will meet me, but they are always on time, and when it is not possible for either of them, Lydie’s husband occasionally obliges.  When I pulled out my wallet to pay, Sandrine reminded me that I had paid in advance on my May trip because Lydie had had no change.

After opening up the house I walked to Pomport and back.  This is a four mile round trip through hilly countryside comprising woods, fields, and vineyards.  The roadside is full of wild flowers and at this time of the year is most verdant.  On this overcast, yet warm and humid, afternoon the Donkey and goats 8.12only creature I met with whom to hold a conversation was a donkey who shares his his long hillside habitation with a family of goats.  Although he fell into step beside me and treated me to assinine utterances we didn’t get very far because I don’t understand his language and he didn’t understand mine.

There is a leisure centre at the bottom of the hill leading from Sigoules which has been derelict since I took possession in December 2008.  There had been plans for renovation to take place the following summer, but I expect they fell foul of the credit crunch.  However, there are signs of work in progress at last.  Watch this space.

Further on, up the hill towards Pomport, by the roadside on the edge of a wood, is a memorial embossed: IN MEMORY OF SIRON AND LAMY SHOT BY GERMANS 23.4.1944.  In front of the stone is a pot containing geraniums and sweet peas.  I reflected that almost 70 years later I have a good life and their’s was cut short.

On my return journey Lydie drew up alongside me in her taxi.  The first time she had driven past me had been rather different.  In my mobile phone memory I have the numbers of three taxi firms; Bergerac, Sigoules, and Eymet.  Early in 2009, not realising that Lydie is perfectly happy to start a journey from Sigoules, it seemed sensible to use the Sigoules firm.  I duly made a booking by telephone.  This was for Chris, Frances, and Elizabeth to be driven to Eymet.  Setting off earlier, I was to walk and meet them all there.  Just before the time due for the pick-up I received a phone call from a woman checking whether I wanted the trip from Eymet to Sigoules, or the other way round.  A little puzzled, because the Sigoules company was run by a man, I said the journey was from Sigoules.  Continuing on my way I soon noticed the Eymet taxi speeding in the direction of Sigoules.

I then had an alarming thought.  Which company had I booked?  Checking the calls in my mobile phone memory I discovered it was the Eymet firm.  Panic then set in.  I couldn’t phone Chris because there was no signal at the house.  I imagined Lydie turning up at the empty property and my siblings walking up to the Sigoules taxi firm to ask where their transport was.  To compound the problem, my family members did not speak French and Lydie had no English.

Consequently I had a very uncomfortable continuation of my walk.  I needn’t have worried.  They managed to communicate well enough and were soon beside me on the main road from Bergerac.  We have not looked back since.  Now, of course, Lydie and I know each other’s voices.

Today I began reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘Whose Body?’

This evening the clouds had dissipated and I dined alfresco at Le Code Cafe, two doors away.  At a table prepared for me by David, the proprietor, I enjoyed vermicelli soup, roast duck and frites, followed by a delicate pear flan, with half a carafe of red wine.

Afterwards I watched ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ on my laptop.  This slow-paced under-stated film, directed by Tomas Alfredson, which nevertheless demanded, and held, undivided attention, was excellent.  Gary Oldman as George Smiley, gained the plaudits, but no film featuring Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Roger Lloyd-Pack, and Mark Strong, could possibly go wrong.

Bookmarks

This morning I finished reading ‘The Remorseful Day’ by Colin Dexter.  This is the final novel in his series about the cerebral Chief Inspector Morse.  A pleasant and intelligent detective story which ends appropriately, if far less dramatically than the acclaimed television series.  I found it impossible to read without visualising, and indeed, hearing, John Thaw in the eponymous role; Kevin Whately as Sergeant Lewis; and James Grout as Chief Superintendent Strange.  A superb piece of casting if ever there was one.  Indeed, I am told that the author himself began to write with John Thaw in mind.

For a number of years now I have been playing a little game with future readers of my collection of books.  I leave a bookmark inside.  This can be a train ticket; a boarding pass; the visiting cards of restaurants, hairdressers, or any other profession; even a shopping list.  That will give them something to think about, I imagine.  A couple of times I have been hoisted by my own petard.  This is only one of the beauties of second-hand books.  One paperback I had had for some thirty years before actually reading it contained not one, but two bus tickets.  One was the old stiff card type of ticket issued on country buses, from a route in Surrey;  the other the kind which came off a roll dispensed by the conductor on London transport.  He (always a he in those days) would wind a handle to produce the printed ticket.  The blanks were like minature toilet rolls.  These were given out on the trolleybuses mentioned in my post of 17th. May.  If you were lucky a generous conductor might give you a whole roll to take home to play with.  The ticket in my book was for the 52 bus which ran very close to Sutherland Place in W2 where I was living and the time and finally reading the book.  Frances once knew a librarian who found the weirdest objects in returned books, perhaps none so mind-boggling as the rasher of bacon.

My copy of E. Annie Proux’s ‘The Shipping News’ contains a postcard written in German sent to a woman in London soon after the novel was published.  As I know no German any confidentially is preserved until the book is picked up by a German reader.  ‘The Remorseful Day’, however, contains something potentially more intriguing.  This second-hand hardback purchased in the charity bookshop in the grounds of Morden Hall Park (all hardbacks £1, paperbacks 50p)  has no need of a bookmark because it has a ribbon attached to the binding.  What it does have, however, inscribed in ballpoint pen, is an outer London telephone number on the penultimate page.  So far, I have resisted calling the number.  Will the next reader be able to refrain?

Soon after mid-day rain set in for keeps and I gave up composting the final prepared beds.  We all decided to troop off to the antiques centre at Wickham, only to find it closed.  Every visitor to the village had had the same idea, namely to take shelter in one of the two tea rooms which were open.  We were unable to get into Lilly’s but managed to squeeze into The Bay Tree Walk tea rooms where various beverages were enjoyed until we returned to The Firs and Jackie and I continued planting in the rain.  Trooping around Wickham I had used a folding umbrella.  It takes me so long to work out how to open and close these things that there is hardly any point.  I did of course leave it in the tea rooms and then again in Chris’s car.  By this method I never normally manage to keep an umbrella for more than one trip, unless, of course, I am as well chaperoned as I was today.

In the evening, when everyone else had departed, Elizabeth, Jackie, and I ate out at Eastern Nights in Thornhill.  Just up the road, this Bangladeshi restaurant was very good.  We have tried many in the area and this was one of the best.

The Gite from Hell

Inevitably, with a six month old in the group, conversation at breakfast focussed on stages of development, in particular what can be expected at each milestone.  Here we had a little boy obviously very alert and taking everything in with a very intelligent expression.  When could he be expected to talk, to walk, etc., etc?  This gave Jackie the opportunity to recount Becky’s first words.  Becky had not said a word until, at 11 months, she had walked up to her astounded mother, stretched up her arms and said: ‘Pick me up please, Mummy’.  It was the formation of the sentence that had amazed Jackie, not the walking; that had first been demonstrated 2 months earlier, when this child, who had never crawled or furniture walked, got to her feet in the middle of the room, and walked across it.  This achievement took place before the very eyes of Jackie’s fiercest maternal rival.  Yeesss!!

I spent the morning and part of the afternoon digging, weeding, and pruning more of the shrubbery bed.  Chris and Frances arrived just before their grandson took his parents home, and Chris collected the boy’s great grandmother later on.

Over lunch Elizabeth spoke of a postcard she had received based on the pun of a leek in the bath.  Now, I cannot think of a leak in the bath without going back to the gite from hell.  Indirectly the gite from hell is the reason why I bought my house in Sigoules in the Dordogne from my friends Maggie and Michael Kindred.  I will, incidentally, be going there for 8 days in two days time and therefore be unable to continue regular daily postings.  I will keep notes and when possible use friends’ internet facilities.

In the summer of 2008 I had stayed at a gite in Les Landes with Michael, Heidi, Emily, Oliver, and Alice.  When the barbecue turned out to be a toasted sandwich maker and resin oozed out of the garden table onto my trousers we began vaguely to wonder whether  all was as it should be.  Michael and Heidi were expected to share a single duvet.  Heidi said they would just have to snuggle up.  It was when Michael went for a bath that serious alarm bells rang.  If these bells had been wired up to the domestic electricity supply, and needed activating after we had switched on more than a couple of appliances, they would have fused the system.  But that came later.  Back to the bath.  Michael, a builder, could see that a hole, near the plug hole, eaten away by rust had been plugged with some very soft substance, which he recognised, but the name of which currently escapes me.  When confronted with this the female proprietor denied that it existed.  When pressed, however, she allowed us to use a shower in an annex to her own house, saying that the plumber would come on Monday.

It being August, surprise, surprise, the plumber was on holiday.  Her husband, however, was a retired builder.  He was unable to work because only one quarter of his heart was working.  This after major surgery.  I checked this statement most thoroughly, fearing the truth may have been lost in translation.  Veracity was absent, but certainly not subject to any problem with the language.  Quite apart from the unlikelihood of the story, we knew that the gentleman concerned was building a house further up the hill.  However, out of the goodness of what was left of his heart he undertook to replace the bath.

After three more days we had a new bath.  It fell upon Heidi to sample this new fitting.  Having completed her ablutions she came into the living room with the circular plug adjuster in her hand.  When attempting to turn it to let the water out it had come apart in her hands.   A bath we couldn’t fill had been replaced by one we couldn’t empty.

The next day it was the electric iron that fell apart in Heidi’s hands, and a while later the whole electrical system fused.  Michael investigated the fuse box and established that there was insufficient supply to cater for the various appliances in the house.  The proprietor said that we should not have more than two appliances on at any one time because the utility company did not supply enough juice.

This is a significantly abbreviated version of a four page ghost story I wrote for the children based on the experience.

The rest of the week was spent in a three star hotel at the expense of Brittany Ferries, who also refunded the rental of the establishment and gave Michael a £200 voucher for a further trip.  This, however, put my Francophile son off arranging such a holiday again; my friends in Sigoules were struggling with a bridging loan; I had the cash; so I bought No. 6, rue Saint Jacques.

Elizabeth provided the evening meal of shepherd’s pie.  Hoegarten blanche, red and white wine, and orange juice were variously imbibed

Tenacious

The rain kept off and we had a very pleasant day.  I was able to dig more of the shrubbery bed and do some pruning before visitors began to arrive.  These comprised my niece Danni and her partner Andy; Chris and Frances’ daughter ( my niece) Fiona, her husband Paul and their six month old son, James; and my mother.  As was mentioned, James, the delightful latest member of the clan, had three greats in the gathering, Elizabeth and me as great aunt and uncle and my mother as great grandmother.  We spanned practically ninety years.

Taking a break to watch the Jubilee flotilla on the Thames we Shared Danni’s excitement at the appearance on screen of ‘Tenacious’ and two of the Pilgrim brothers.  Danni works part-time at the Jubilee Sailing Trust, a registered charity which manages two tall ships, one of which is the ‘Tenacious’.  These offer sailing holidays all over the world.  Their two ships are the only ones designed to enable people of all levels of physical ability to sail together as equals.  One of the brothers interviewed was able bodied; the other severely disabled by meningitis in earlier life.  Danni was particularly pleased that two representatives of the Pilgrim family had been chosen for interview.

The waterborne theme continued when Fiona asked me for advice about fundraising for particular physical feats.  She has a friend who is wanting to climb Kilimanjaro in memory of another whose ambition to do the same has recently been cut short by an early death.  She needs to raise money for the trip.  The reason I was asked was because of Sam’s ocean rowing achievement.  He had formed his own charitable company to raise funds for his row.  Anyone who has read my post of 28th. May will realise that I wasn’t the most successful fundraiser.  Nevertheless I was able to give her some ideas. My approach to Samsonite to suggest they might like their logo on Samson Knight’s boat was quite fruitless.  Given that he won the race, I think that was rather short-sighted of them.  Fiona and her parents had made the trip to Barbados to welcome Sam’s arrival there after 59 days at sea.

Comparing James’ electronic musical toys with the wartime toys available to his grandfather and me led us into the perennial discussion we have when we all get together about the rapid technological progress which has taken place in our lifetimes, let alone Mum’s.  Mum and I reminisced about an Intercity train trip we had taken about twenty years ago from Newark to York.  She had been absolutely amazed at the modern 125.  She had not been on a train for fifty years.  Then many still ran on steam, and carriages were designed to consist of several compartments each with their own separate doors.  Those were the days of the named locomotives and there was no ‘leaves on the line’ problem.  I am told railwaymen say that this is because the stoker’s embers burned off the leaves from overhanging trees.  Steam trains ran past the maisonette in Raynes Park in which we grew up.  They were splendid specimens often hauling most ornate Pullman carriages.  We all got excited when they puffed past and we could check their names.  Each one bore a different name and we ‘collected’ them.  Mum reminded me today that that up to the minute train to York had also carried the passengers from a broken down one bound for Durham.  She had been wondering whether perhaps it would be easier for her to travel by train than by car from Southampton to Newark.  That particular element of our journey had put her off the idea.

For the evening meal Danni and Andy produced a very tasty chicken casserole which we enjoyed with various assorted wines.  Danni told the assembled company about a misunderstanding that had arisen between her and me earlier on.  She and Andy had been driving out and I had stopped them to find out whether they were coming back.  ‘I’m only going to my Dad’s to collect something.  We’ll be back later.’  she’d said.  ‘Buy him some mudguards’  I had replied.  ‘Really?’ said Danni, quizzically.  ‘Yes’, said I, ‘I don’t have a problem with him’.  She drove away looking puzzled.  Some way down the road she realised that what I had actually said had been ‘give him my regards’.

The Great Storm

Setting off early en route to The Firs for four days, we stopped off at the Lower Morden Garden Centre; joined the hordes of hopeful gardeners ignoring the drizzle on this dull and gloomy day; and contemplated the curse of the English Bank Holiday.  Here we were, hot on the heels of the first weeks of genuine summer warmth, and the temperature  had  dropped significantly and the skies clouded over.  Just when the nation is warming up to celebrate the Royal Diamond Jubilee.  In all areas of habitation that we drove through much bunting was in evidence, none more so than that festooning Loomie’s cafe at West Meon.  This establishment caters, almost exclusively it seems, to bikers.  Their steeds were all lined up in the extensive parking area and in their leather jackets they were milling about just like so many genuine insects.

The forecast for the West End area (of Hampshire, not London) is not good (it’s not good in London either).  Nevertheless when we arrived we were welcomed by sunshine  and were able to admire the fruits of last weekend’s gardening.

As the day went on it became more and more windy.  Wine bottles on the table outside were knocked over by the billowing oilcloth covering it which was subject to the gusts.  Watching Jackie and Elizabeth mopping up the spillage and battling to batten down the cloth took me back to the ‘great storm’ of 1987.  Jessica, Sam, Louisa and I were then living in Furzedown in the London Borough of Wandsworth.  I must have been the only person in Southern England who slept through the whole phenomenon.  Our neighbour across the road enjoyed no such luxury.  He was having a new roof put on, and spent the whole night hanging on to the ropes and stays which were keeping the tarpaulin covers over his otherwise unprotected upper storey.

I always ran to work in Queens Park in those days.  This was a nine mile journey which I covered daily carrying a back pack containing my clothes and other necessities for the day.  I was employed in the former Paddington Town Hall where there was a shower room which had been installed for the council members.  I would take a shower, get dressed, go to a greasy spoon for a fry-up, and start the day sometime before 9 a.m.  On this particular day, completely oblivious of the night’s destruction, I set off as usual.  I vaguely wondered why a tree I hadn’t noticed before had been felled on Tooting Bec Common, and why there seemed to be rather more traffic jams than usual.  Since much of my journey followed treeless routes or public parks I had no idea that the tree I had seen was not the only arboreal casualty.  Many others were blocking main roads into London.  When I arrived at my building in Harrow Road, I followed my usual routine and then began to wonder why no-one else had arrived.  Had I gone by car I may have learned the news on the radio.  On the other hand, I too would not have arrived on time.

This storm changed the landscape of Southern England.  70% of the trees in the wooded valley in which Chartwell (see post of 19th. May) is set were lost.  Those you see today are in fact their replacements.  Sevenoaks in Kent is no longer appropriately named.

During lunch Elizabeth suddenly let out a cry of pain.  In her haste to take a bite she had fastened her gnashers onto her own finger.  This led Jackie to suggest that today’s blog should be entitled ‘biting the hand that feeds you’.

After a trip to Arturi’s garden centre for potting compost and bedding plants I dug more of the bed begun last weekend.  I found it harder today.  Maybe it was the humidity; maybe the fact that the weeds and grass were bigger; or, just possibly, last night’s bottle of Malbec.

Jackie made bangers and mash (a rather more sophisticated version than Desperate Dan would have enjoyed),  and this was helped down by a Portuguese Pinot Noir.  We then had what we call a gawp.  This involves watching a piece of recorded television.  Tonight’s choice was Wycliffe, a rather gentle detective series set in Cornwall and starring Jack Shepherd.  As usual I slept through it on and off, waking in time for the denouement, which Jackie missed because she was falling asleep and went to bed.  Between us we probably saw enough to know when it is repeated that we have already seen it.  If not we’ll probably sleep through it again.  We’re never quite sure whether Elizabeth saw the whole thing or not.  But that doesn’t really matter because she never knows whether she’s seen them before until about half way through anyway.

The Dragon’s Tears

Meiji vaseIt being Jackie’s birthday, I can now reveal the nature of the present bought in Wickham’s antiques centre last month.  It is a bronze Japanese vase from the Meiji period (mid-nineteenth to early twentieth century).  Gold and silver inlay depicts a splendid cockerel with an incredibly long tail perched on a branch of cherry blossom.  This is a most elegant piece with which Jackie is delighted and which has the approval of my Japanese friend Rie Sug. En route to Morden Hall Park for my daily ramble, in the middle of Cedar Close, waiting to join a traffic jam in Links Avenue, was a car the driver of which was eating something she was scooping from a tub.  Well, ‘why not?’, I thought, then remembered a scene from twenty-odd years ago.  I was in a traffic jam driving down Park Lane.  Every so often I would lean to my left and bend over the empty passenger seat.  My slow trip down this thoroughfare on the edge of Hyde Park was punctuated by flashing headlights from the car behind.  It didn’t seem particularly significant to me, although I was a bit puzzled.  When I arrived at my Westminster destination to meet my friend Ann, she greeted me with: ‘Get the crossword done then?’.  She had been the following driver.  Although she could not actually see what I was doing, she knew me well enough….

As I saw the Jubilee bunting blooming all over Morden, much being put up by Asian shopkeepers, I recollected that morning in 1952 when we witnessed the dragon’s tears.  Miss Bryant was an extremely fearsome headmistress.  Hitherto the only tears associated with her were those of pupils who were in for it.  The cane was, of course, wielded in those days.  You did not want to be sent to Miss Bryant.  This time, Miss Bryant came to us.  That in itself was an event, as she toured the school with the dreadful news.  This calm, contained, diminutive, yet terrifying woman burst into our classroom in tears to announce: ‘The king is dead!’.  I can assure you there is no more effective way to imprint an image for life on a child’s memory.  It is a sobering thought that most people alive today have known no other UK monarch than Queen Elizabeth II.

Passing the Civic Centre and arriving outside Iceland I was presented with the sight of a young woman wearing flesh-coloured tights, no knickers, and a short t-shirt, bending over a buggy.  It was only after I had done a double-take and taken my eyes off her backside that I noticed a woman in a yashmak standing nearby.  I have often wondered what goes through the minds of women such as each of these when encountering the others.  There is much evidence of such differences in London in modern summers.

In the park itself roses are now in bloom and the aroma of horse manure has subsided.  At one of the footpath junctions I met a man standing with a dog chain around his shoulders looking nowhere in particular.  I asked him if he had lost his charge.  ‘No’, he said, ‘she takes her time these days, she’s 87 in our years’.  A large, labouring, nondescript, dog soon came painfully into view making her way along the path.  There ensued a conversation about joints, those of dogs and humans.  I mentioned that my mother had had a hip replacement when the same age as the rather disabled dog is now.  This opened the way for him to express his worry about whether he would need one, and me my pleasure at my recovery from mine.  What we had been able to do in what my son Sam would call our ‘able-bodied’ years, and can now no longer achieve.  It comes to us all.

I finish this post having consumed a bottle of excellent Malbec at the Buenos Aires Argentinian steakhouse  at the bottom of Wimbledon Hill Road.  Jackie had an Argentinian beer which I might have remembered at the beginning of the evening but which currently escapes me.  We also had meals.  I enjoyed a  steak such as to put me off ever ordering one anywhere else.  It was as good as the last I had eaten there, on St. Valentine’s Day.  Jackie had an equally enjoyable lamb dish.  The starters and sweets were of similar quality.  18 Bernard Gardens 7.12Fortunately it was Jackie who sampled the small bowl of tiny magenta coloured flakes which turned out to be salt.  From our window seat, opposite a modern block housing nothing but a row of classy estate agents, we could observe Wimbledon’s decidedly cosmopolitan population walking up and down the hill.  We had some sympathy for the man who had to walk in and out of the restaurant five times to satisfy his nicotine craving.  We finished off the evening driving to sit outside 18 Bernard Gardens where we had first got together in 1965.