‘Tis the Season to be Merry

No, there isn’t a breach in the time-space continuum, the season in question is the start of the vide-greniers – aka car boot/yard sales and I have to admit I am a v-g junkie.

When I moved to France  I rapidly discovered that every week from about now onwards, the v-g’s start. They vary widely and I prefer the small village affairs where there is anything and everything on offer – from great-granny’s frilly bloomers to rusty scrapers for getting the hairs off a pig’s skin – once it had been swiftly dispatched first of course and a load of other ancient artefacts whose purpose escapes me completely.

Oh, the rustling, rifling, poking and picking over in boxes of…well, stuff…only to stand up, victorious holding just the thing you were looking for. The cut and thrust of complex negotiations to get the price down by 50 centimes; the waving of arms, pulling of faces ( you have no idea how many different faces a Frenchman can pull to express his disapproval and disappointment at your offer); I love it.

Among all the trash and gash there are goodies to be found for anyone like me trying to “dress” a room once it is renovated. The room in question this week is my Tart’s Bathroom (or to give it a more genteel title, Guest Bathroom). Granted there is tiling to be done, the bath to be installed – well to be honest it has yet to be totally renovated – but it’s never too early to start collecting bits and pieces together. This bathroom is to be a vision of black, white and silver, with a bit of saucy wallpaper to boot.

Saucy Wallpaper

Saucy Wallpaper

I’ve been seeking out bits and pieces for this room. This is my haul to date which includes a ceramic oil lamp for those lazy soaks, two silvered champagne buckets and a bath salts jar- a gal has so many bits and pieces to store, wrought iron hooks and a pair of opalescent glass wall lights for around the basin.

Goodies haul

Goodies haul

The V-gs are very sociable affairs and there is always time for a cup of thick black coffee, a natter with friends and neighbours (they aren’t always one and the same thing) and a reveal of each other’s ‘finds’.

The serious buyers, (dealers and brocante shop owners) as opposed to flibbertigibbets like me walk round purposefully, like hunting dogs on the scent. Eagle-eyed, elbows sharp and at the ready, their hands reach over your shoulder to whisk away the object you were about to pick up and mull over. You have to be quick to make up your mind; ‘after you’ has no place at a v-g.

Then, when you get your haul home, unpack it, try it out in its designated future place, that is the moment when you find that it is just perfect or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s not quite what you were looking for. Ah well, it can go back in a box for a while, it’ll come in handy some time.

” When Sorrows come, They come not as single spies but as battalions”

The sorrows I’m talking about are snails – from the Big Daddy with mottled brown shells to the smaller more delicate brown yellow and cream ones. Over winter they gather in gangs in my plant pots and down the bed-edgings discussing tactics and waiting for spring and a humid evening before launching their assaults. They’re here! It’s happening now.

Big Daddy

Big Daddy

Let's start on the wisteria buds

Let’s start on the wisteria buds

When I moved here the house walls were covered with Virginia Creeper and Wisteria. I had to strip it back to make repairs to the stonework and in doing so evicted hundreds of the beggars. Last summer was the summer of the snails’ revenge. They tiptoed among the tulips; gobbled the hostas; crunched the clematis and invaded the veggie boxes razing lettuce, spinach, peas and beans. They breached the defences. Gravel, grit, eggshells – bring’em on, no problem; sticky tape – we eat it; mass eviction to the fields beyond – ha we’re homing snails; copper wire – shock? What shock?

Tea for Two

Tea for Two

This year the Gardener Fights Back. But how?

I can’t bring myself to deliberately stamp on them but if I accidentally squish one I confess I get a hypocritical shiver of satisfaction when I hear the juicy crunch.

I have Mr (or possibly Mrs) Toad by my side. He lives in a disused drain and comes out to sit on the stone bench where I take my nightcap (drink that is, not headwear). We have had long meaningful conversations about strategy – granted he doesn’t say much apart from ‘ribbit ribbit’ – however I have installed a number of small water features intended to facilitate the expansion of the Toad family.

Similarly the hedgehog that slept all winter under a pile of leaves has joined in the battle enticed by a promise that I will create a more des. res. for her…perhaps a little more insulation…for next winter.

Then there are the birds. I don’t recognise some of them that frequent this French garden but we are entering into negotiations which exclude the use of the gut-busting pellets and include a daily donation of juicy morsels.

Eating them? Out of the question. I know I live in the land of snail eaters but have you ever tried eating them? They are truly tasteless, rubbery and without question one of the most unappetising comestibles ever.

Can I win this battle? I doubt it but possibly I may be able to agree a compromise and cease-fire. However any tips and hints that exclude the use of noxious chemicals and pesticides to add to my armoury would be more than welcome.

Two Years in France

This week it is exactly two years since my goods and chattels turned up in a whopping great van at my new French front door. The heavens opened, great spattering rain – welcome to the Languedoc. Lace curtains in the houses opposite danced the Twitch, faces peered out cautiously at this short, stout alien disturbing the peace of Petite Rue.

I had burnt all boats and bridges in England to buy a house, with big bro Mike, and move to France. The idea which came from nowhere – I mean I wasn’t looking to move across the Channel – was for me to live here permanently and my brother would take on the apartment on the first floor. It was to be one last great adventure.

Garden on first viewing

Garden on first viewing

My kitchen - 1st generation

My kitchen – 1st generation

My bedroom - 1st generation

My bedroom – 1st generation

As I attempted to marshall order out of the chaos of furniture and boxes that were disgorged from the van I tried to quell fears about whether I had done The Right Thing. How would I cope? Would my schoolgirl French stand up to scrutiny? Would I feel isolated, would I fit in, would I, would I? The thoughts buzzed around like a swarm of angry hornets.

We had spent just a week looking at properties and The Old Lady of Petite Rue got our vote. It is a village house in the middle of a row of others. There’s a barn at the back, a walled garden and about a quarter acre of land beyond. The house had received the twin curses of basic neglect and “modernisation”. I’ve come to the conclusion that many French do not like old property and do all they can to eliminate or cover up its origins with cladding, Upvc, plaster board and the dreaded crepi (sort of decorative plaster). It was a case of ‘out with the new and in with the old’ as we tracked down old windows, shutters, doors, door handles and so on.

I have learned a whole new vocabulary relating to building, electrical, plumbing and roofing along with more colourful tradesmen’s terms, appropriate for moments such as when opening up an electric socket and a whole wriggle of burnt out wires, which had no business being there in the first place, spew out like demented worms.

As I have got to know my neighbours I have also learned to tread carefully through the tight-knit family circles that make up the community. Some folk have lived here for generations and spats will break out from time to time which resonate through the village. Last Armistice day at the little ceremony held in the village square, the divorce of a village couple had split families and friends. A ceremony intended to celebrate peace was blanketed by silences, back-turning and gorgonesque glances. It is hard to know at first who is related to whom so the fear of putting foot in mouth is always at the back of my mind.

Like many rural villages its currency is gossip and the old stone benches that have survived modernisation and sit outside some of the houses – gossip seats – provide the means to pass on the latest ‘on-dit’.
“He didn’t, never! Bah alors!”
“She said what? Incroyable! Oh ma foi”.

After two years I still feel I’m a bit in limbo land, wedged between England and its culture and my adopted country. I miss my UK friends but now there is a civilised spare room, I expect visits and I have my french and other expat friends. We expats are known collectively – Les Anglais, Les Irelandais and so on. This last summer I almost graduated to becoming an individual again – Shayla or Madame Weelliams – so I must be making progress.

Group conversations still baffle me a bit – they go so fast, ‘du coq a l’ane’ (from the cockerel to the donkey). often I’m still framing a response to the cockerel whilst the conversation has whizzed on to the donkey. But I arrive in the end.

I am writing a lot more regularly now; the house is still work in progress; I scour the vide-greniers (boot sales) for goodies for the house and the garden is beginning to take shape. I have centuries of history on my doorstep waiting for me to discover and breath-taking (literally) landscape to explore. So this last great adventure – based on a totally unplanned, spur of the moment decision – is proving to be one of the best I’ve ever had. I hope I’m not tempting fate.

For Hands That Do Dishes

Hands! A strange subject for this blog but one somewhat forced upon me this week. To be specific I am talking about my hands. They want to retire, to give up working for me; to lie still, sun-warmed, on the armrest of a deck-chair, waving languidly from time to time as friends walk by.

I’ve known them all my life, from the chubby pink starfish waving out of the pram to the wrinkly-backed, blue-veined veterans that they have become. They have square palms, short fingers, one bearing the scar of a momentous tussle with a tin of salmon and a vintage can-opener. The nails are always short, often ragged particularly after a bout of gloves-off gardening.

They have cooked, cleaned, baked, lifted, hammered, twisted, built and demolished. They are hands that once twinkled over the piano keyboard, playing Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and the rest of the gang in a manner I’m sure the composers never intended. Once they could span an octave+2, now, I doubt they would reach a 6th.

They have played midwife to countless ewes in distress and brought forth their lambs, covered in eggy yellow slime, for their mothers to lick and nuzzle, whickering softly as they worked. They have also sadly buried those that never made it.

These hands have never held a baby of their own and were always anxious when a proud new mum thrust her new-born into them. The mite always pee’d, pooh’d or bellowed, red-faced – more often than not all three.

They have caressed in love and occasionally struck in anger.

They have tried and failed dismally to master the art of sewing – a button is about their limit. Similarly they never got past knit one, pearl one, damn, I’ve dropped ten stitches.

Now, poor things the dreaded arthritis is slowly fossilising them and I fear, that one day in the not too distant future I will wake up to find them encased in stone like the ammonite that sits on my desk, their history forever locked away.

They have worked hard for a living (they belong to a Saturday’s child after all) but now, when I pick up my pen or hunt and peck at the computer keyboard, they protest, painfully – the flesh and bone is weak but the spirit is still willing. They will soldier on encased in warm mittens that my friend Brigitte has knitted for me, embalmed in Nivea, sustained by glucosamine but if anyone out there has any ideas to help them, however weird and wonderful (short of ritual sacrifices) do let me know.

Short Story, Novella or Novel?

That was the week that was. Last Tuesday the editor’s report on my spooky stories came in, threw me a complete curve and left me in a tizzy – my poor synapses working overtime.

It started well –
“Like your style and what you’ve done with the stories”
“Very good writer, stories have real merit.”

Oh goodness I was having a warm fuzzy glow moment (actually a bit tearful) of pride.

I read on. She took each story in turn, made some very helpful suggestions and complimentary comments and the fuzzy glow began to turn into a flush to rival any of those crappy menopausal ones.

I arrived at the last few paragraphs. Here’s where the kicker came in. She suggested in effect that I turn the collection into a novella or even a novel.

“What” I shrieked at the computer screen. I’m writing short stories. I can’t do novels not even short ones. I have the evidence to prove it – three half written very dead ones mouldering away in a drawer somewhere.

But the damage was done. Stealthily at first, my brain woke up; then gathering speed it zigged and zagged through a zillion different scenarios. Ideas came; ideas went. What if? What if? Oh yes I could do this or that or even this and that. After a week of serious brooding I felt like one of those stupid chickens trying to hatch a pot egg. I used up a ream of paper drawing out scenes, new chapters, the mechanisms I could use, the new characters I could develop.

Hatching a pot egg

In the end I took last weekend off and painted a lambris clad (tongue and groove) ceiling a fetching chalky white. There was method in my madness because to paint lambris well you need to pay attention – all those little grooves that a roller misses have to be painted in by hand. It’s a boring job but takes my mind off more meaningful things and I’m working on the principle that my brain will be free to rove around on its own, unfettered by my attempts to coax and corral it.

For two days, whilst I played Michaelangelo and lay on my back painting the ceiling (sadly with no Sistine Chapel effects) I left Richard, my possible protagonist festering in the Nonesuch Club – a very unusual and select establishment. Will he emerge shoe-horned into a short story? Shall I give him more air time and expand him into a novella or shall I go for the big time novel?

I haven’t the faintest idea – the pot egg hasn’t hatched yet. I think I’ll go find another ceiling to paint.

The Quotation Challenge

Today I have picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Half-baked in Paradise to share three quotes, meaningful for me and perhaps for others too. I fear they may reveal the true depth of my character – as Oscar Wilde said: “Only the shallow know themselves”. (That’s a bonus quote; now engaging smug mode).

So quote number one will be familiar, or at least the first words will be. They are chanted like a mantra by just about every personal/life coach and self-help book on the planet. However, it is what follows that has more impact for me.

“When one door closes another door opens but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the ones which open for us.” (Alexander Graham Bell)

In my occasional reflective mode I look back over my life and see a pattern of doors not opened through fear – of change; of the unknown; of lack of ability. Sadly in the past, I have fallen into the trap of gazing wistfully at the closed door but I’m making up for it now! A door opened, I stuck my foot in it, burnt all my boats and bridges in the UK and, voila, here I am, in France, loving life and learning to become the best writer I can be – which brings me neatly on to my second quote.

When I started to write, I mean seriously write, I plotted, planned, characterised my characters within an inch of their lives and read every “how to write a best-selling blockbuster in 24 hours” book. In doing so I accumulated more scrap paper (yes I still write longhand, I’m an old-fashioned kinda gal) to replant a rainforest. Then I came across this, from poet Ted Hughes (Poetry in the Making):

“Imagine what you are writing about. See it and live it. Do not think it up laboriously, as if you were working out mental arithmetic. Just look at it, touch it, smell it, listen to it, turn yourself into it. When you do this, the words look after themselves, like magic.”

Something just “clicked” for me and this is how I try to write now. I let the story roll through my mind like a film, fuzzy at first but eventually coming into focus. I let my characters take me over for a while. I can be seen flitting distractedly around the garden grizzling to myself like a demented bumblebee as I develop one of my characters. My upcoming book of short stories represents the first dip of a toe in the water of this Hughesian philosophy… it’s much more relaxed and fun to work this way.

So, my last quote for day comes from Zen Buddhism:

“Tension is who you think you should be; Relaxation is who you are”.

I have spent the greater part of my life, stressed and uptight, trying to be who I think I should be – conscientious student, good wife, dynamic business-woman, empathic coach blah, blah, it is only now that I’m discovering who (and what) I am. The tragedy for many of us is that this awareness (and the time and space to sit back and breathe again) often comes so late in life.

It is never too late.

In France, I have learned to relax and reacquaint myself with myself. I still “work” hard but at something I really love so it doesn’t count as work and I remember now to value the little things of life – watching the lizards playing tag on the sunny courtyard wall; treading barefoot on squishy turf that sparkles with dew, listening to an irate blackbird defend its territory and wanting to tell it to ‘chill out man there’s room for everyone.’ It is these little things too, that remind me to walk softly and thoughtfully on this beautiful planet that struggles so hard to combat the depredations we inflict on it.

That’s it folks!

A NOBLE ENDEAVOUR

For a couple of years I lived in a seaside village in East Yorkshire when, in autumn and early spring, storms would blow in. Sometimes I watched from the cliff tops as huge waves, crested white, rolled relentlessly on to the beach smashing themselves in fury against the cliffs. The raw power of the sea, uncontrollable, unfettered, filled me with awe tinged with not a little fear. Occasionally I would catch a flicker of light on the horizon – some ship making for shelter or just riding out the storm. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to be out there and what it must have felt like in earlier times before modern technology made the sea a slightly safer place. There were times when I watched the RNLI lifeboat launch when it seemed almost impossible for it to remain afloat and admired the courage and dedication of the crew. When all else fails it is the bravery and determination of lifeboat crews and coastguards that save lives.

This is the story of the day of February 10th 1871 when a violent gale tested the courage of all who went to assist ships and sailors in distress.

For several days earlier atrocious weather forced ships to seek shelter in ports along the north eastern coast of Britain. When a break in the weather occurred, a convoy left shelter and headed south. But the westerly wind that helped them on their way dropped suddenly on the evening of February 9th and many of the ships were becalmed in Bridlington Bay on the east coast of Yorkshire. In the early hours of the morning of February 10th the wind got up, increasing in strength and bringing a maelstrom of sleet and snow. Crucially, it also changed direction and blew from the south-east straight into Bridlington Bay and in doing so trapped many of the ship in the Bay.

In the grey morning light, lifeboats and all their crews were readied. Clearly many of the ships were in great danger. Some captains tried to run their ships ashore for safety; others, choosing to ride out the storm, found their vessels driven mercilessly onto the shore by huge waves and boiling surf. Bit by bit, with anchors dragging behind them, 17 ships were thrown ashore to be pounded and smashed up by mountainous waves.

Both Bridlington lifeboats were launched. The local coastguards swam or waded chest-high through turbulent surf to pull crews off the nearer wrecks and get them to safety. Townsfolk ran to the sea walls to help out wherever they could.

The lifeboat Robert Whitworth went out time after time to the wrecks, snatching the sailors from certain death. In one case its crew fought for two hours to reach a vessel but was repeatedly beaten back. On returning to harbour, exhausted crew members were lifted from the boat with hands raw and bleeding from the oars. By this time conditions were so dangerous the Robert Whitworth was withdrawn from service, having saved 12 lives.

Meanwhile the other Bridlington lifeboat, the Harbinger, put out to sea again and again and as one crewman fell exhausted another stepped forward to take his place. However, after the seventh launch, during which sailors from another four vessels were safely recovered, replacement crew were becoming difficult to find. At this point it appeared that the Harbinger, like the Robert Whitworth, would have to be withdrawn.

It was then that David Purdon, Harbinger’s builder and John Clappison, his assistant, stepped up and volunteered to take her out. Another seven men came forward to help. They set off to rescue the crew of the brig Delta, aground and breaking up on Wilsthorpe Sands. On the way they came across another grounded vessel and took off the five man crew, landed them and then turned back to the brig. When they finally got there only one crew member, the captain, remained, clinging desperately to the rigging. The rest had taken to the brig’s lifeboat and drowned when it capsized.

Just as the Harbinger hove alongside the Delta a tremendous wave struck the brig sending her crashing into the lifeboat. The lifeboat, hit by the same wave, was thrown into the air and turned turtle. For a few minutes the Harbinger hung upside down until another wave righted her. Only crewman Richard Bedlington remained in the boat; he helped another, John Robinson, to climb back in, using his scarf as a rope. One further crew member, Richard Hopper, managed to scramble back aboard. The six other lifeboat crew all perished, including the first two volunteers David Purdon and John Clappison. All the boat’s oars were lost or smashed and eventually the boat drifted ashore near Wilsthorpe.

As the day wore on the destruction and loss of life continued as it became almost impossible to launch rescues, though not for want of trying. Those on shore could only watch helplessly as men struggled for their lives. A contemporary report describes how, ‘the piercing cries of the drowning crews were frequently heard amidst the howling of the storm’.

All through the night distress signals were seen far out at sea. At daybreak on February 11th the wind dropped and the devastation of the storm was revealed. Estimates put the number of ships lost to be around 30 and the number of lives lost to be 70.

On February 14th the first mass funeral took place. An estimated 4,000 people turned out to pay their respects. A public fund was set up to assist the widows and orphans of those lost as well as those who manned the lifeboats. Public subscriptions also paid for a monument erected over the mass grave at Priory Churchyard in Bridlington in memory of all those lost. The inscriptions serve to remind us of the price paid that terrible day. On one side of the monument the inscription gives the names of those lost, ‘whilst nobly endeavouring to save those whose bodies rest below’. The other three sides contain inscriptions, ’in lasting memory of a great company of Seamen who perished in the fearful gale… on February 10th 1871’, listing the names and number of ships lost before finishing with the grim tally, ‘Forty-three bodies of those who on that day lost their lives, lie in this churchyard’.

(Extract from “Close to the Edge – Tales from the Holderness Coast” )

Memorial - Bridlington Priory Church

Memorial – Bridlington Priory Church

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