Monthly Archive for January, 2011

Siege of Ostend

I pioneered another walk today but very much a fine weather one. It’s been dry for the last few days but a drizzle of rain overnight left a grey day and turned the soil into putty. The walk through the middle of some fields along a tiny stream but the farmer had not left a headland initially so I had to stop three or four times to peel the accumulated clay from my wellies. Otherwise one moves like an old-fashioned deep sea diver in lead boots. The dog is light enough to avoid the problem but it turned his bottom half isabelline, the colour supposedly named after the wife of the Spanish governor of the Netherlands. She swore not to change her knickers until the siege of Ostend was lifted. It lasted for three years up to 1609. She and her husband were childless.


It’s not easy to concentrate on much else with Al-Jazeera showing the goings-on in Egypt as they happen. They’re a child of modern communications and, as with Wikileaks, this seems to require a fundamental re-think of the way governments operate across the globe as their power is weakened by more and more information being available to the governed.

But France is peaceful and doesn’t seem to be as miserably obsessed by the economy as Britain and my stunningly parochial life potters happily on. I entertained for lunch yesterday, my first tentative attempt to do so. But I must learn to cook more than bits of hen mixed with anything I can find in the kitchen cupboard. The only good point of this cuisine is that it will vary each time I offer it.

I had an excellent sighting of a hen harrier by the chateau this afternoon, the first time I’ve clocked this bird.


Visited Albi today. The Toulouse-Lautrec museum was closed and it was bitingly cold but the cathedral, the palace and the view of the town and the river from its terrace made more of an impression than anything I’ve seen in this country so far. It was built as much as a fortress as a place of worship to celebrate the brutal crushing of the Cathar heresy and begun in 1280. It inspired more astonishment than awe at the vast and immaculate cliffs of brick of which it was built. The interior is just as remarkable with glorious paintings and decoration. Some of the carved stone work would make the guys who built Rosslyn feel like amateurs.

It was very much a skim round the inside since a meagre congregation had gathered for a funeral and the deceased was waiting for entry. He had turned up in what looked like the boot of a people carrier.


The high pressure just to the west of the UK is leading to still, cold conditions here. It’s blue but the temperature rises little above freezing and the steam from the nukes rises straight up. I sit in my armchair at the computer with the highly recommended burbling away in the background. When I lift my eyes there are always about a dozen tits fighting to get to the peanuts and seeds just outside the French window. Sparrows, collar doves and bramblings are the only other visitors. And a greenfinch has just turned up for the first time.

The dog nags me about lunchtime for a walk and today he went on a magnificent chase after three roe deer that came from behind the chateau and ran across the great bowl of farmland to the west of here. They were in sight for at least three quarters of a mile with Cato, an absurd rolling ball of fluff, trailing them by a couple of hundred yards. Nonetheless he seemed very proud of himself when he gave up and returned.


I sometimes feel that I’ve been parachuted into one of the fermtouns in which most people lived in the Highlands of Scotland in the 18th & 19th century. I don’t properly speak the language here any more than I could have spoken Gaelic there. Here there are fifteen or so houses rather than the half dozen which would have been more normal there. But half those fifteen houses are either for holidays or on the market and thus empty. Here, like there, a mesh of kinship links many of the inhabitants. The village is off the main road, which I shouldn’t think sees more than 30 vehicles a day passing along it, so no outsiders come in unless they’re visiting a resident. It allows the neighbour’s dogs to spend their days sitting in the street.

Like every such community here, it’s generally a secretive, silent place. I could not tell you how many of the houses are occupied during the day. I know of a nurse; another who works in a supermarket a few miles away, but most people seem to work in their own time and have a variety of occupations. It feels complete and self-centred rather than an adjunct of a larger place. I feel I live in complete privacy but I know this can be no more than an illusion in a community like this.

Listen with Mother

I’ve now moved on to putting together the clan magazine which has been my lot for the past 15 years. It’s a chore but the more one does it, the better one becomes at doing it. The better it gets, the more difficult it is to dump the job on someone else and I’ve a nasty feeling I may have to go to my grave before I can offload it. Most of the recipients are Americans and, for the first time, it’ll be printed over there which will save large amounts of money on postage.

I hosted the dog walk here yesterday. In the countryside in the UK such a thing would take place on the maze of footpaths that crisscross the countryside. On roads it would be impossible because of the traffic. Here there are few paths, although we managed half a mile of field headland, but virtually no cars. I think that perhaps three passed us in an hour and a half.

i found myself listening to a French radio programme today, understanding most of it and not having to translate in my head as it went along. It wasn’t even ‘Listen with Mother.

Mucky mags

I painted a gate at the bottom of the garden today – peaceful, mindless activity in the sunshine with the neighbour’s two dogs and Cato sitting alongside looking down on the chateau and growling at the occasional tractor that passed in front of it. The next door dogs are flea-free at the moment and quite nice to know.

I did the lake first thing & went to a tabac to buy ciggie things. Idly scanning the vast array of magazines while the bloke in front pissed about with lottery tickets, I noticed there was no ‘top shelf’. In fact no sign of anything at which my Victorian granny, who found the original Dr Finlay a bit racy, would have pursed her lips. It may have been the patron’s preference; or custom, or the law. I shall investigate further.


One summer, probably in 1969 I went to a party at Gleneagles Hotel. In the middle of the evening my partner and I went to the little open portico outside the front door for some air and a break from the reeling. A thunderstorm was in progress. There were already half a dozen people there slumped in chairs, all actors and all pretty pissed. Peter O’Toole was one; others were equally big time but I’ve forgotten who. We were greeted amiably enough and sank into the two remaining places, tongue-tied amid such glitterati. Then, barefoot and wearing a thin silk minidress with damn-all underneath, Susannah York decided to dance in the rain. Her performance was enjoyed in complete silence..

It’s odd how I still observe weekends. I’ve had no need to do so for 35 years since it’s been that long since I’ve held down a grown up job. Today I spent most of the day in the sunshine painting more railings green instead of the in-your-face brilliant white that they were when I came. There’s still a full day’s work to finish but I prefer to potter at them for an hour or two at a time. The only urgency is to finish the task before the Virginia creeper stirs from its winter rest and starts to take them over before launching itself at the house.


If I succeed building up time here, I suspect that one of the most pleasurable discoveries will be that I will lose my dislike of winter. Ever since the time I stopped greeting snow with squeaks of excitement or looked forward to stamping on ice in puddles, it’s been a looming foreboding as summer ends. I find the season very uncomfortable, expensive, dreary, goes on far too long and nasty things can happen during its dark months.

But here, so far, it’s been delightful. On the odd occasion that it’s wet, I don’t have to go outside and normally it prefers to drop its wet at night. There have been mists and frosty nights and very occasional frosty days but they seem a pleasant counterpoint to the heat of summer. And summer starts up again in March, usually. That bleakness I felt when the Atlantic depressions streamed through dumping days of cold rain, or snow is entirely absent.

The mist crept up from the valley to the west again this evening as the sun went down. For a few minutes the chateau looked like something from a fairy tale with the tower and the pine trees still sharply defined at the top and graduating to grey invisibility by the bottom.


The souspréfet has postponed his arrival for a fortnight. It is, I am told, an extremely rare event for such an important official to involve himself in such a footling business as the planning difficulties of the village.

I went a few miles up the road last night and returned in the mist at about 9.30pm. Crossing the road in front of me at various points were a family of sangliers – it looked like a sow and four followers – a fox and a hare.

It was about 17 degrees today and it induced me to do a little pottering in the garden. This is a decent summer temperature in the highlands of Scotland and yet the normal nasty time of winter here is still quite likely to come but bad weather never lasts long. There are said to be dreary days of chilly mist but there have not really been any extreme climatic events since I arrived, which is a bit of a shame since I enjoy ferocious thunderstorms and such like.