Last night was the first time I had been out to the theatre for ages so I feel I actually have something to blog about. Recently, I have been taking refuge in my living room with my books, Ted Lasso and The Morning Show, and doing very little writing. I haven’t been out and about much, except for hobbling around on a stick on the Farnham Estate with Poppins and getting drenched in the rain. I’ve enjoyed the odd swim in the freezing outdoor pool (it didn’t matter about getting wet there) and sprawl in the steam room after the cool of the outside.
However, last night, I enjoyed the trip to the theatre. I went to see ‘Work Is the Curse Of the Drinking Classes ‘. by Neil Titley with local man, Will Govan, playing the role of Oscar Wilde. I think Will Govan was extraordinarily brave to take on the role as it must have been difficult to maintain the tension between the ‘drunken’ character while at the same time portraying the writer/socialite who was so intense, complicated and clever. And Will had so few props which I’m sure would have been an anathema to Oscar Wilde himself.
Will Govan certainly has the stature and presence that I equate with Oscar Wilde, so it was a joy to watch him in action at Cavan Town Hall, and, with such a bare Parisian set, he really had to carry the audience alone. I think, he mainly succeeded. At the start, I was impressed with how he captured and conveyed the ‘inebriation’ of the character. He managed to articulate the ‘slurred’ words yet still annunciate the script. I’m not sure, however, that he retained this at the end, when the language and monologue became more intense. Somehow the pathos of the Oscar character became more two dimensional.
Aside from the last ten minutes, I thought Will’s performance was good. However, I would like to have seen him come back on stage and take a proper bow, with a smile. I felt he ran off and hid. I’m not sure Oscar Wilde would have liked that.
Aside from the theatre, I’ve been getting to know my glorious granddaughter, Aine, so have been up and down to Dublin a good bit. Last week I watched Roisin take her to a swimming class. Gosh, it’s all so different from when I was a young mother. When I took Roisin into the public pool as a baby, over thirty years ago, it was just me and her and the rest of the people, splashing and dive bombing about! This was an actual class for the mothers and babies. I was sitting behind the glass, watching them do all sorts of dolphin tricks. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t see too much because the damned tears were coursing down my cheeks!
Finally, the reading. I have read loads of books since Christmas, but I loved The Trees by Percival Everett which addressed racism in America with humour, panache and hard hitting honesty. He writes a ‘murder mystery’ and through this shows the truth about the thousands of lynchings and murders of black Americans that has taken place over the years. Also, I have just finished The Hunger by Ross Raison. It’s a grim read about dementia and shows how women are easily manipulated by their families and loved ones. The protagonist is chef so there are also wonderful kitchen scenes. Its deftly written, and though grim, it’s a very good read.
So…I’m waiting on the hip operation and after that, life will begin again!
Truly spectacular sunsets across the Shannon River, Japanese Ramen in Taikichi and the pints of Polly at Crew were the highlights of my St Bridget’s weekend in Limerick, but there were also gorgeous jaunts to Glenstall Abbey, walks in Curragh Chase and fabulous late night music sessions at Joe’s using his coffee table edged with conductor tape, his Arduinos, and his triangle protractor stuck in his mouth. Using these tools, Joe succeeded in accompanying Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World beautifully.
After our days of walk and adventure, in the early evenings we took Poppins for a stroll around St John’s Castle, along the river taking photos of the fabulous sunsets and then somehow we found ourselves having slow pints in Tom Collins, or Pharmacia before wandering up to the Wickham Way food trucks, grabbing burritos, or pizza and washing it down in Crew with a pint (or two) of Polly.
Crew is a lovely craft beer pub in Thomas St, Limerick run by a group of young ones who seem to love dogs as well as beer. They always make me and Poppins Dog most welcome and the atmosphere is truly easy going. They brew their beer here too, so gorgeous silver tanks, which they polish regularly with loving care, stand omnipresent behind the bar. A blackboard tells you about all the guest beers and you can taste any one you want. I love it here.
On Saturday night, we discovered they have a newsletter which each month adopts a favourite visiting dog. This month’s current dog occupant arrived while we were there, quite upsetting our equilibrium! Trixie was a sweet little thing, though not as gorgeous as Poppins. So, now, Joe and I have a long-term objective related to Crew which surely explains, if not justifies our continued presence there! When we popped in again on Sunday, I wanted to dress Poppins up in the lovely silk scarf that I gave Joe for Xmas two years ago, but Joe wouldn’t let me. Said my tactics were too obvious!
A new visit for us this time was Glenstall Abbey (thanks to Kathleen Connelly who was also visiting her son in Limerick and happened to post pics). This is a lovely place to visit. The grounds are glorious, and the abbey is very beautiful. We couldn’t go in as it was closed (it was Sunday so I felt a little confused by this…shouldn’t they be open on Sundays?) so we didn’t see the inside of the church or any of the monks who still live there, but the grounds themselves were well worth visiting. Beautiful parkland, woods, meadows etc.
On Saturday we went to Curragh Chase which is one of our favourite places in and around Limerick. It is lovely woodland, lakes, swamps and parkland, managed by Coilte, and you can barbeque there in the summer. A warning, however, if you do, make sure you ignore the maps and signs dotted around the place. They make absolutely no sense. Every time Joe and I go, we examine them and find ourselves none the wiser and twice as lost.
Finally, eating out in Limerick just gets better and better. Taikichi, a Japanese restaurant on O’Connell St, isn’t just sushi, there is a wide range of choice and it was totally delicious. I had a lovely chicken broth ramen for lunch on Saturday. On Friday night we went to Viko Viko, a Vietnamese and Korean restaurant (which incidentally has a bus as part of its dining experience) which was also really tasty. And there are the delicious food trucks in Wickham Way and, of course, the Milk Market which I didn’t get to this time. I had no time to cook…too busy eating.
So, another fab weekend in Limerick with our evenings ending up in Joe’s home-made musical house. He has taped conductor tape to his coffee table and connected it all up with aduinos and so is able to make music with extraordinary things…like bananas, protractors, and whatever you’re having yourself! I don’t wholly understand it, you have to see it to believe it. If you want to know more, you’ll have go study sound engineering at TUS or possibly I can get you a private viewing!
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was the first book I read this year. I had no idea at when I started it how much Russia and Ukraine were going to feature in my year’s reading, and looking back at the books I read in 2022, it is bizarre how many were set in Russia/Ukraine, or were about war, as war is not a subject I naturally veer towards.
Having said that, maybe I should refer to what it is I like to read before telling you my best reading of the year. In brief, I like stories that sweep me into the scenery, I enjoy experiencing the emotional upheaval of the characters in the book. I do like ‘reality’ in my reading and enjoy references to ‘actual’ places and events that happened. I like ideas, discussion, and seeing how the characters are driven. I like novels with a philosophical bent…and this, in fact, brings me back to A Gentleman in Moscow.
The book is set in Moscow during a forty year period of the early 20th century. The protagonist, a respectable count, is condemned by an early revolutionary committee to live in a Moscow hotel for the rest of his life. The story is about how he adapts and makes use of his ‘honourable’ and ‘civilised’ principles. It’s clever, witty, erudite and well written.
I listen to a lot of radio and get many of my book recommendations from this source as well as podcasts. I had never heard of Konstantin Paustovsky, a Russian writer, who wrote about his life in Ukraine and Russia during the first half of the 20th century. His memoir ‘The Story of a Life’ is an extraordinary book. It is broken into three parts, childhood; the war and youth; and the revolution and the WWII. The book is beautifully descriptive, so I felt as if I was really experiencing life in Kiev as a child. In the second part he travels throughout Russia as a medical orderly on a train, picking up injured and dead bodies from the war. The poverty, violence, and cruelty caused by war is vividly described yet so is the kindness, sensitivity and resilience of the individual people he comes across. The third section which covers the Russian Revolution onwards depicts the chaos and confusion that people lived with. The book really illuminated the territory and history of Ukraine which was particularly fascinating given Russian’s invasion at the start of the year. Paustovsky was a romantic and a writer in search of experience and in his memoir he forges a path through violence and horror finding the glory of human nature and the power of humanity in a society that was cruel and relentless.
I read The Story of a Life just after reading To Paradise by Hanya Yanighara which is also three books in one. So, after the Story of a Life I wanted to read something shorter and thought maybe an Irish author would do the trick. So, I read Audrey Magee’s The Undertaking. Oddly enough, it is also set in Russia during the war and shows how human vanity massages the weakness of human nature. While being a grim read it was again vivid in its description of the violence, greed, fear and shame…the ultimate victors of war. I found Audrey Magee’s other book, The Colony, an easier read, though the violence of the Troubles in the North is interleaved throughout its pages. It too is a beautiful book. Her language reflects the harsh conditions of the islanders, the cruelty of deprivation, the hypocrisy of love and honour and how small communities breed jealousy, resentment and betrayal. It’s very good, but sad.
I guess, because I enjoy reading books about people, it is inevitable that many I read are about violence and degradation. But this year in particular, most have shined a light on the harsh nature of everyday cruelty. I read thirty five books this year so I am not going to go into all of them but I do want to mention Natasha Brown’s Assembly which, although short, stayed with me a long time after I read it. For me, it was beautifully written and very poignant. It is about a young black woman living in London who works extremely hard and makes it in the world of Finance. But she finds herself wondering for why? She is still black, peoples’ attitudes have not changed, her liberal middle class white boyfriend and his family have no appreciation of her real self and existence; she realises she still doesn’t belong and never will. She gets an incurable cancer, tells no one and doesn’t mind that she is dying. Natasha Brown’s minute observations of people’s behaviour and attitude are very sharp. It is a short book, well written and shocking.
Yes, unfortunately, dying featured a lot in my reading this year (is this blog itself beginning to tell a tale?) and one the best books I read in 2022 was Mend The Living by French author, Maylis de Kerengel. It is an extraordinary book, but wonderfully positive. The language, the words (brilliant translation by Jessica Moore) encapsulated and surfed the emotions that are immersed in life, death and love. The detail, the technical words drill down into the heart of the book. It’s about a boy who becomes ‘brain dead’ and the consequent ‘harvesting’ of his organs. It begins with him surfing the waves in North France. The description of the water, the force, the rise, the fall, the pressure, the balance of the wave is then continued throughout the ‘death’, the ‘actions’ of the doctors , the relationships and reactions of the loved ones, the recipients. Each has its own sequence, delving into the power /forces of emotion through words and technicalities, each of which enrich and deepen our understanding. Her use of language is exquisite, as was the use of words in The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. The latter book is an examination on love. Yes, it reveals love in all its glory, mendaciousness and ordinary betrayal. The story is erudite and clever. Her attention to language is precise. She succeeds, with marvellous perception, in illustrating the minutest aspect of love through exquisite detail and with a wonderful use of metaphor and simile. It is extremely satisfying.
I also enjoyed the latest Celeste Ng Our Missing Hearts about a dystopian future with strong roots in our present day. It picks up on the current streams of right wing hatred and nationalism. The book illustrates the power of words, language, stories, poems, origins, nature and innocence. It describes both the beauty and the cruelty of courage and the need for us all to share our humanity.
I think these were the books that stood out for me in 2022 but I also want to mention A Golden Age by Tamima Anem which showed the brutality of the Pakistani response to the Bangladeshi bid for independence. I knew little about this. Lessons by Ian McKewan I found slightly irksome though fun because it spanned my life experience. However, I think it was too long though this book and the recent detective novel of Val McDermuid, The Distant Echo, are both novels which span nearly the whole lives of their characters in order to reflect the impact of what happens in youth. Wisdom clearly comes with the author’s age. In contrast, White City, by Kevin Power, a younger writer, was in really brutal and in your face. Set in Dublin, it was about the corrupt investment practices of the rich and powerful, the reign of drugs, and the weak moral fibre of the upper classes. It is gritty, well written and incredibly depressing. Finally, If It Bleeds by Stephen King whose novels I haven’t read before, I really enjoyed. Stephen King is a concise writer, he does tension brilliantly and his plots are absorbing. I will go back for more in 23.
I’m able to write this review of the books because after reading each book, I write a short blurb about what its about and what I think of it. If I don’t do this, I forget, which is worrying because most books I read these days help me frame my thinking. I have never had a great memory which is why I have always written, whether it be notes as a student, or as a part of my work. When I start to write I can see my thoughts start to take shape. They then begin to behave like an unruly crowd and all jostle for attention. It is only when I reorder or line them up (literally), that I can clarify my thinking. My poems come from this disorder too. If I didn’t write, I wouldn’t think clearly.
The books above, fiction or memoir, helped me appreciate better the world we live in and somehow made a little more sense of the madness which seems to be all about us, while, at the same time, magically, allowing me to escape it.
I have spent the last five days feeling very at home in five different places, each hundreds of miles away from the other, which is a little odd. Why did I feel at so at home at each place? I guess because of the friend/family where I was and the food and drink they served me. It’s odd to travel so far, journey on planes, buses and trains, and then put my feet up in the company of that person, eat a meal, drink a glass, feel very at home, and then move on to a totally different place where I feel equally at home.
However, I must tell you, to my horror, and his chagrin, one of these old beloved friends didn’t recognise me while walking past me at the airport, probably because I was walking with a stick rather than a glass of wine in my hand!!
Anyway, after finally tracking each other down in the Orange Car Park in Stanstead with the help of mobile phones, we stood appraising each other. His hair, like mine, is on the turn. It’s at a grubby, mid-way between brown and grey, two tone stage. We have both got droopier and have bulges which we try hide with shapeless baggy clothes. He has crooked fingers due to arthritis, I have the aforementioned stick, due to the same condition. But he still had his long nose, shaggy eyebrows, deep voice which launched into a familiar rant about the decline of the country, the stupidity of the Tory party, and the bullying unions while we succeeded (with irritated muttered asides, and various about turns) in navigating ourselves out of the airport complex.
Finally, we got to his posh new house where I spent the next ice ridden day either stretched out on his sofa, in front of the new stove fire, with a glass in one hand and a fork in the other or exploring the idiosyncratic architecture of the well appointed local streets of six bedroomed houses and the charming alleyways and lanes in the centre of the endless Colchester ring roads and roundabouts. The focal points of my short stay were the noodle restaurant where we had delicious ramen and other delicacies for lunch, the new air fryer, and the cheese feast.
Having had my fill of the above, and they of me sprawling on their couch, Martin dropped me at Colchester station, still decrying the unswept streets, and ineffective practices of the council, en-route. There, I got an on time, working train to Liverpool St, and caught an efficient tube to Green Park and made my way to the upstairs bar of The Goat for the 40th plus reunion of friends from my alma mater, the University of East Anglia. There was only one person I didn’t recognise due to age altering differences (and I would have done had I crossed the room), and the afternoon passed very pleasantly with me finding out what everyone was doing and explaining to them what it is a poet does while imbibing pink champagne…. so, obviously, one or two were doing extremely profitable things and happy to share the fruits of their labour! Thank you, Ray, in particular.
Maria (one of my best alma mater mates) and I made our way back to her house where I was staying overnight, stopping off at the new Marks and Spencer in Finsbury Park to pick up a fish pie, watercress and salad leaves, some St Agur, a bag of peas, mangetous and spinach, as well as bars of alcohol soaked stollen for dessert, not forgetting a bottle of Pro Secco and we spent a happy evening, feet up, discussing all our other old friends and relations which is what you do while eating and drinking with bestest and oldest friends.
The next day, after joining Maria in a few irritating banking chores, and after further foraging in Waitrose in Holloway, I caught an on time and efficient Stanstead Express. Sadly, there, the woes of Blighty finally caught up with me and I was delayed for hours, while Ryanair battled the elements and I got charged £12 for a glass of red. Actually, I was lucky to escape the strike embattled / high cost of living UK at all. Many poor people got stranded but, thankfully, I was able to make my way through the snow driven streets of Dublin to the warm hearth of my very pregnant daughter in Stoneybatter. This was my third ‘home’ from ‘home’ in four days, and I got served a tasty plate of roast pork cooked in honey and mustard with roast vegetables, and a delicious bottle of red.
The next day, at 9.30am at Pauline’s home, one of Roisin’s best friends, the last home I went to on this trek other than my own, for breakfast we had delicious pain au chocolat, croissants, strawberries, raspberries, blue berries, grapes, granola and coffee. This was followed by a birth blessing ceremony beautifully facilitated by Jenny Lee. Six of Roisin’s best friends came, three with lovely babies, and we did breathing exercises, sent good intentions to my beautiful daughter for her labour and symbolically bound ourselves and our female ancestors with red wool binding our love and loyalty. I was chuffed to be asked and felt strangely at home in this lovely group of young women and mothers. I was treated as if I was a wise woman (which I’m obviously not, but it was a good feeling). Funnily enough, I burst into tears and wasn’t able for the beetroot coleslaw, the wensleydale, cold roast chicken, the avocado smash on brown bread, not even a smidgeon of the array of colourful hummus’.
At the end of my five day trek, I was pleased to see husband Jerry who came to collect me and we drove home to fog bound Cavan, put up the Christmas Tree, and while I cooked spaghetti carbonara for supper, we toasted ourselves and our own lovely home with the last of the crémant from France!
London was made up of various culinary feasts and friends put together by the fair hands of the brother in law with whom we stayed in Crouch End, and walks. In fact, it seems, wherever I go, feasts , friends and walks feature. I imagine, as one gets older, friends disappear, mobility becomes more of an issue, and life whittles itself down to only feasts. Still, if that is the case, I won’t complain too much…as long as lovely food is in my life, I’ll be relatively happy. Anyway, there has been little whittling down yet, though the long drive back to Ireland did seem to hasten the degradation of the hip!
Back to London, during our three days we had mushroom and lentil curry, fanned avocado salads with diced tomato and a minty vinaigrette, chicken curry, Tabouleh, rhubarb crumble and custard, Mexican spice burger, lashings of toast and lemon curd, and of course, muesli with fruit, and that gives just a brief flavour of the food we gobbled up.
I walked the Parkland Walk (along with a marathon of other dogs and walkers), Highgate Woods (a real sortie down memory lane), the streets of Piccadilly (I went to visit the Milton Avery exhibition at the RCA which I really enjoyed, particularly his peculiar perspective), and Stationers Park which used to be a playground where we took the kids. It is now sadly diminished and rather dilapidated, though still used by gaggles of North London parents shepherding young children. So, London did us proud, as did the brother in law, and I thank them. I love London, but I have to say, I love leaving it as well.
Particularly when there are the culinary delights of baking Irish bread and churning Irish butter with Manchan Mangan at the Cavan Town Hall to come back to, (not to mention the St Agur, Pyrenean, Epoisse, Pie D’Anglou, Camembert, Brie, Reblochon cheese etc that we hauled back from France).
Last night, at Cavan Town Hall, Manchan Mangan was wearing a very nice pair of tweed trousers while he was preparing to bake bread on tables with rather wonderful tree legs. He baked it in a pot which he put in a le creuset casserole dish and then put in the microwave. We all churned butter in a lovely old butter churner which he passed around the audience. We then spread our churned butter on the microwaved soda bread he had baked while chatting to us about the Irish Language and how Irish words have so many different meanings (32 words for a field). Of course, I suddenly realised, listening to him, that explains everything!
More culinary delights to come tonight, I hope, in the Oak Room restaurant, Cavan. We’re celebrating 34 years of marriage…whatever you say, say nothing.
Cloud, mist, fog, and rain darkened our door last week which was a bit sad as we had two friends visiting. They euro-starred here. To get to Calais from London, you have to catch the Eurostar to Lille and then get on another train to come back to Calais. It doesn’t make sense as the Eurostar actually rises from the ‘tunnel sous manche’ in Calais. Maybe the French want to force people to visit Lille, or to have the English make use of off their fancy TGV trains, but I suspect it may have more to do with thwarting the refugees.
All around the shuttle tunnel are miles and miles of ugly, forbidding barbed wire fences, presumably to keep out refugees. Last week, about 200 brown skinned young men, with small, neat backpacks were escorted across the heath opposite our house into town by armed gendarmes. Another day, as we drove along the road to go to Wissant market, groups of more dishevelled and tired looking refugees were sleeping on the side of the road. As we went to Calais Frethurn to collect my two friends, there were bands of refugees dotted around everywhere. Two Kurds were asking Jerry about buses. He was the worst person to ask, I don’t think he has ever caught a bus in his life, not in England, Ireland and certainly not in France. Anyhow, now refugees are much more in evidence. I wonder what the French did with them during the summer.
Despite the squally winds and mizzle, we got a few walks in with the friends. Just North of Wimereux , you can walk all along the cliff path from one pretty French village to another between the Cap Blanc du Rey and Cap Gris du Rey. So, after visiting Wimereux market and buying an enormous custard tart for the weekend, Jerry dropped us in Ambleteuse, and togged up in our coats and hats and we set off along the stony beach to Ardresseus. I have never seen such beautiful stones on a beach, full of colour: blues, greys, reds, browns, yellows. I got a few to bring home). I also loved the crunch and crackle under foot…like a marching along a massive bowl of rice krispies. We could have walked through the sand dunes which would have been much more romantic, but it’s hard on the hip and I would have had to chase Poppins chasing rabbits.
The next day, we took Ellen and Lesley (a different Lesley) to the Musee du Chateau in Boulogne which took us on an epic, very interesting and dry tour of Egyptian mummies, Grecian vases, Alaskan native masks Polynesian spears, and Italian renaissance paintings.
We had planned to go out to dinner, but it was too wet to venture into town, so we dashed across to the intermarch and got the wherewithal for salmon and prawn stirfry (I had bought fresh chilis and ginger in Paris) and beverages. The next night we braved the rain, and went to La Vie est Belle and shared a delicious tomato tart (yes, to those of you who know Jerry), various rillettes, un boucherie (Lesley wondered if it was horse because it was so very large), and a delicious chocolate mousse. The next night, after the friends had been taken to Calais Port to catch the boat home, we ate out in the Café de La Marie. I tried a french Andouillette sausage and that is certainly a delicacy I won’t be packing into the car.
Andouillette is a French coarse-grained sausage made from the intestine of pork, pepper, wine, onions, and seasonings. Andouillettes are generally made from the large intestine and are 7–10 cm in diameter. True andouillettes are rarely seen outside France and have a strong, distinctive odour coming from the colon. (from Wikipedia)
After the two women left, the wind and rain still howled around the roof and chucked the garden furniture about. However, it gave me the opportunity of a day’s rest as my body had totally tuned into the tempest and was I tossed with raucous coughs and swirling snot.
I soon recovered when we decided to visit the grand intermarche to buy stuff to take home. I had a very happy time filling the trolley with wine, petit beurre biscuits, cheeses, pate de compagne, madeleines, brioches, butter, flageolet, tinned cassoulets, canned saucisses aux lentilles etc. Mon Dieu I said at the Caisse as I looked at the thirty wine bottles cascading along the conveyer belt…as if I hadn’t put them there.
Before I leave Wimereux, I want to give the final French word to the Musee de Batterie. Formidable. All the time I have been coming or passing through the Pas de Calais, walking the cliffs, or along the beach, there are the ‘pill boxes’ and I have often tried to imagine the German soldiers stationed in there. The Batterie (there were fourteen of them along the coast) is like a giant pill box, a veritable hi tech killing machine. We saw tanks, shells, the anti aircraft artillery, Rommel’s asparagus (wooden poles used against sea invasion) the mines and guns used by the men in navy. On the last day of the war, it fired shells for three hours on Folkestone and Dover. The Musee de Batterie tells the story of the men who designed the guns, how they lived there and the weaponry they used. It was a chilling reminder of how mankind puts his progressive technology into practice.
We leave Wimereux tomorrow. Me and Poppins will miss the beaches. The next stop is London for a few days where I hope to visit family, the Tate , Victoria and Albert, and maybe even the RHA… then, finally, back to the Cavan forests and lakes to enjoy the final splendour of the autumn colours.
I’m also looking forward to facilitating a new poetry workshop back at home. The last workshop I did, we never had enough time to properly read the poems that I chose as prompts each week. I think there is great joy in reading poems together, so this time round, we will spend four weeks reading and discussing the poems alone, and then four weeks workshopping the poems they prompted!
So…from au revoir from the Pas de Calais. I have had the most wonderful time.
Mid week, after an interesting morning discussion with Roisin as she walked to work in Dublin about ‘what is the new Irish identity,’ ‘how we achieve social cohesion in Irish society,’ and ‘Ireland’s positive engagement with Europe’, we set off adventuring again.
On the Map, we identified a P (parking) near a tiny place called Croquet in another part of the Foret Domaniale de Boulogne, (last time there we were fording rivers and climbing ravines) The P was full of disability vans, so we parked up beside them and set off for a walk through the forest. This time we kept to the main path and enjoyed a lovely 5km walk through the trees and along the lanes of very pretty, rolling French countryside. Some of the houses we passed were gated and warned of surveillance. It was clearly the home of the petit bourgeoisie. There were very few cars and in the valley below, horses and farms decorated the landscape. Very pastoral.
On our return to the car, we checked out the buildings close by. It was a school/sheltered accommodation for people with disabilities. I would love to see Irish facilities as good. The place was set in lovely grounds, with accessible, light, airy classes and rooms. The surrounding village homes were as prim and proper as you’d ever see in Ireland. Pretty shuttered homes, lovely flower filled gardens, a shut Mairie with boxes of geraniums everywhere. Everything seemed pitch perfect except there was not a soul to be seen.
We drove on looking for somewhere to eat and fortunately immediately came across an auberge with a few local cars parked outside. We pulled in and joined the electricians and other local workers for the day’s ‘entrée’. We had a choice of pizza and veal. Satisfied Husband had pizza and I had the veal which was came swimming in wine, creamy juices with lentils, pureed spinach and smashed potato (out of a packet, I think). I even had a dessert, fromage blanc avec jus de fraise. Delicious, and all washed down with a glass of wine.
A snooze was called for after lunch, so we returned home, dozed, painted, read until aperitif time when we strolled into Wimereux for un cuir cassis and un verre de vin rouge. Well, I strolled down to the beach and husband drove. Back home for bread, pate and cheese and bed. A pretty perfect day.
Recent mornings, the tide has been in, and out of the window we have seen a grey, green blanket of flat sea. The strip of peninsula between us and Boulogne has been a silvery shimmer and the five turbines have been clear white markers on our horizon. The sky has been a play of blue, white and grey and the heath a lovely variety of greens. It’s a view, and which constantly changes with the weather. In the evening we have glorious sun sets. The massive blowsy clouds curl up in pink, and the sky shoots pink rays over us. Sleeping in the pitched attic is like sleeping in a tent. When the rain pelts, it feels as if an army is marching over you, when the sun shines, it feels as if you are walking through vapour, and one night the wind howled through every piece of the timber frame and red tiles.
I went to market in Wimereux this week which was exciting because the fridge was bare! I filled it with radishes, epoisse cheese which was gloriously soft and trying to escape its paper, reblochon, Pyrenean mountain cheese, olives farcie avec anchovies, artichoke tapenade, saladerie de tomato tapenade (a little disappointing), radishes, pate compagne (for me and Poppins). Then popped into Intermarche to get my daily bread and few bottles of Celliers de Dauphins, a cote de rhone I used to drink with my father, so now I am set up…for a few days.
I also meandered down to the French cimetaire one afternoon (this blog has a very strong current of death streaming through it). As mentioned before, the French do a good cemetery. They are always crowded, very pastiche, with very little space or green between one, just pockets of colour from the flowers arranged in tacky vases.
In this region, it seems, they often have a Commonwealth Grave cemetery attached for the commonwealth soldiers who died in the first world war (with a few unknown soldiers from the second thrown in). The majority of the three thousand graves I saw in Wimereux were named. They were fallen soldiers who had died in the hospitals hereabout. They came from Derby, Yorkshire, Enniskillen, Canada, Australia, India, London, Sussex, Dorset, Glasgow, the Borders…everywhere. They are beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth Graves Commission. It was very moving and I felt discombobulated, an emotion further stirred up afterwards when we did a petit tour of the Prom. Our breath was stripped away by the wind, and the waves crashed wildly and smashed into white drops against the rocks. After that we needed profiteroles and wine in a café.
On Saturday, we decided to visit Le Touquet, the Paris Plage. As we drove into the town, we remarked how similar it was to Hardelot: except the surrounding roads are red, and somehow everything is grander. Again, there are lots of roundabouts, even bigger detached Hanzel and Gretel houses hidden away in trees. You could describe it as Hardelot Plage on steroids. The architecture is very much of the Belle Epoch period, timber frame houses with wooden turrets and towers, very startling. I love them, they are like fairy castles. The covered market was also fab, though it was shutting down as we arrived. We had lunch in the café Marche which was thronging with people (I had a delicious Fish Soup and Jerry had a welsh rarebit swimming in gooey yellow cheese). We then had a wander. There appeared to be four streets of shops and cafes (and the famous casino), rather like a noughts and crosses layout. All the shops were designer shops, and there were too many people, so we came home.
Finally, for this week, we went to Lille for the day. As you progress further North and East, the French place names get more Flemish, like Wormout , Diksmould,and Randscoot. They have great guttural sounds. In Lille, we aimed for the Parc du Citadel to walk Poppins and la Veille Ville to walk ourselves. Fortunately they were side by side, because Jerry, having taken to his bed with a cold for two days, was not keen on walking!
I have decided, I want a Citadel Park in Cavan! The Farnham Estate is all very nice, but this has is surrounded by a canal with café barges (one, according to the blackboard, that is run by a co-operative of workers. Jerry tried to get a coffee but, it was closed because they were having a meeting!). There was a pretty little zoo with monkeys and ‘exotic animaux’, there were gorgeous avenues of grand old Oak trees, there was a fair and a swimming park, and, typically French, a military base, in the middle of it. Yes, if I can’t be by the beach in Cavan, I definitely want a citadel Park. And a few of the gorgeous old buildings from the Veille Ville!
A Poppins palaver has dominated our past few days. On my return to Wimereux from Gay Paris, I found a Worried Husband and Sick Dog. Poppins stood stock still, giving me a long accusatory stare, burred tail between her legs, and slunk away to hide in a corner. It seems she had escaped the lead on the cliff tops while I was away and chased rabbits. With the scent of a rabbit, Poppins is loath to respond to commands of ‘Come Here’, even if all the letters are capitalised, so to speak! When she was eventually caught by Worried Husband, she was put in the bath. Poppins doesn’t like baths and despite Worried Husband’s best efforts, she escaped the tub too, spraying water everywhere, I imagine. We tried again together and did quite a good job at excavating aforementioned burrs. I held her tight, did some dog whispering, rubbed and picked away. The water afterwards looked like a Spanish armada of prickles and sticks. However, Poppins Dog wasn’t well. She wouldn’t eat. I went to Intermarche and bought Saucissons which she loves, fried them up and chopped up two for her delectation. During the night she was retching and vomiting, and one by one, each piece came back, undigested. Her Paddington bear stares continued. I kept a watchful vigil (keeping King Charles company) all night and next morning decided we had to visit the French Vet.
Poor Poppins screeched and snapped as I held her down while Pleasant Vet tried to take her temperature up her arse. ‘Je n’ai encore fait rien,’ she exclaimed. ‘I haven’t done anything yet’. I confess, having stayed up all night with Poppins, I was close to tears at this stage, and the temperature soared in the tiny room which was already high with three adults and Miserable Dog. I don’t like people who say, ‘I haven’t done anything yet ‘. The statement opens a cruelly imaginative door as to what is coming. The air thickened with intense stress and emotion. However, I took a deep breath, did my stiff upper lip thing, and managed to control myself. The vet took a minute too. And when she came back, the room was calmer and everything went a lot better. In fact, I would recommend this vet to anyone. I came back armed with a bottle of medicine, a syringe with which to feed her the medicine, more pills, and instructions to cook roast chicken and boiled rice to feed Poppins the next day (and a 100e lighter). Poppins wasn’t having a syringe anywhere near her, but she was happy to lick it off my little finger.
Exhausted by our dog ministrations, we left Poppins and her baleful eyes still cowering in the corner and went to Boulogne to visit the Musee du Chateau which is in the vieille Ville of Boulogne. Who knew there was a vieille Ville of Boulogne. I didn’t, despite being here so many times, thirty years ago. You can walk all around the veille Ville city walls which has fabulous views both into modern Boulogne and the old town. The chateau and the ramparts are beautifully restored! Lots of circular towers, circular cobbled stoned courtyards but sadly it was Tuesday and museums are shut. We petit toured around the beautifully maintained city wall, descended into the old town and found the Crypte de la Basiique du Notre Dame instead. What a spooky place! It was 4000 square metres of meandering around religious artefacts! There were ancient old painted walls painted with a series of 160 religious scenes, whitewashed in the 20th century and then restored. The vaults were adorned with arabesques or ornamental features, but apparently, the artists were never known. And the red brick work was exquisite. Still red, and perfectly synchronised. After poking around in there, we went for a delicious hot chocolate in the old town in the rain and came home to roast a chicken for Poppins.
Aside from the Poppins palaver (I think she’s on the mend), it has pretty much rained for two days. I don’t mind rainy days. It gave me time to try my post impressionist painting (not for show yet), pamper Poppins, and continue reading my Stephen King book, If It Bleeds, which is an easy read. It’s made up of three novellas about death/the end of the world so its not particularly life enhancing. I prefer it, however, to the Nuala O’Faolain memoir. Sadly, I found that book to be a badly written tirade of begrudgery and misery about a well lived life, which at the same time managed to name drop at least a hundred famous writers, apparently for no other purpose than she met them. I couldn’t really trace a cogent argument or rationale for the book, other than Nuala! Maybe that is the point of a memoir…but usually, I find memoirs more coherent.
As I mentioned before, the French seriously memorialise the two world wars. So, yesterday, to get away from rainy day activities, we went to an excellent Musee in Ambleteuse about the second world war which is privately run without any State support. Over the years, through literature, film, study and exhibitions, I have learned a lot about the world war. As events, I know about the German subs in the Atlantic, or the North Africa Campaign, or the bravery of the Normandy Landings, or the horror of the Polish invasion by Germany, but what this museum did was pull them all together and put them into context . They had young pretty male models modelling the uniforms from all the involved countries, (French, German, British, Italian, Japanese, American, Canadian, Arab, African etc, the none of the models were black), carrying the bags, the guns, smoking cigarettes, eating tinned meat, set in bunkers, on the field. There was all the general paraphernalia of war. It felt very real. I read about the Maginot line, the Vichy Government, all of which I had heard of, but this exhibition brought it all together displaying in detail the full horror, futility and appalling sadness of war.
Beauty, splendour, opulence, grief, obsession, and loneliness were the themes that rang through the glorious Musee Nissim de Camondo in Paris (8th arrondisement). It was originally the home of the wealthy Camondo family, but the house was redesigned and constructed in the late 19th century by Moise Camondo to assemble his eighteenth century collection of French paintings, furniture, carpets, tapestries, porcelain in the most perfect setting. https://madparis.fr/Musee-Nissim-de-Camondo-125. Do take a look at the photos on the website and if you get to Paris, do go and see it. Camondo left his house to the French State on condition that nothing was ever touched, moved or lent, so it’s set up exactly as it was lived in. I have never seen so many exquisite artefacts in one place. I discovered its existence after reading Edmund de Waal’s ‘Letters to Camondo’ which is a wonderful book and tells a very sad but true story. A highly recommended read too.
I had a wonderful time in Paris! I love the city’s boulevards and avenues, the bustle of the rues, the Seine, the parks, the ‘places’, the boulangeries, epiceries and patisseries, and the metro, not to mention the wine and food! Of course, the company was great too. I was travelling with Lesley Courcouf who had come to spend a few lovely days with us in Wimereux and on Thursday night after we TGV’d up to Paris, we met up with good friends of hers, Peter and Alison Kahn to celebrate Peter’s 75th birthday. I vaguely knew Peter 40 years ago (he was a councillor while I was worked at the Association of London Authorities back in the early 80s) but I had not heard of him since. However, as soon as I met them both, I felt a wonderful sense of ease and familiarity. I fitted in as neat as a puzzle piece into the conversation which ranged around politics, family, the state of the world etc. It was the day the queen (sadly) died. We raised a glass to the future of republicanism (not American, I hasten to add), and proceeded to eat scallops, tuna, swordfish and turbot in celebration of life. Delicious. Unfortunately, Lesley and I got a tad lost on a wildly busy Rue St Denis at midnight trying to get home, but eventually an Uber came to our rescue.
Talking of Queenie dying…she could do worse than to be buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery, an oddly glorious and extremely moving place. Wandering around the Pas de Calais and Paris, I’m struck by how much the French honour the dead of both of the world wars. In Pere Lachaise there is an avenue which marks all nineteen (I think) concentration camps built by the Nazis with amazing sculptures and monuments to memorialise the people who died in them. The wall of the cemetery lists the names of those who fought and died in the first world war, year by year. It is at least a kilometre long. I photographed the name Petitjean who were killed in action as that was the name of my French grandmother from Paris.
But life goes on, and the next morning, over coffee and croissant, we watched a wedding spill out of the Mairie where we were staying in the 18th arrondisment. A glamorous French bride, surrounded by excited children, and stylishly dressed grandparents, brothers, sisters and friends poured in and around the café in the weak sunshine. They illustrated perfectly the buzz and excitement of a Saturday morning in a ‘place’ de Paris and would have been a perfect subject for Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissaro, Seurat, Van Gough whom we went to see next at the Musee D’Orsay. Those paintings make my tummy twirl and I’m determined to try the post impressionist style with the oils I brought with me. Maybe there will be a pixilated painting of the view as I sit here (back in Wimereux) in the next rendition of this blog! You may hope not!
After Lesley flew off to Corsica on Sunday morning, I wandered around Montmartre in glorious sunshine, and had tartine and coffee. I thought about getting another Montmarte artist’s impression of me. I had one done ten years ago with Roisin, my daughter, which, rather delightfully, made me look younger than her! But, on reflection, I thought I didn’t want to see the comparison between now and then!
I wandered slowly down to the Gare de Nord, buying chilis and ginger en route as the local Intermarche in Wimereux never seems to have heard of fresh chilis and ginger. The station has been tarted up. I remembered it as a rather seedy, rundown area. I guess the arrival of the Eurostar prompted renovations. It’s light, airy and totally unthreatening now and it doesn’t have all the tacky commerce and glitz of the St Pancras, thank God. So, I clambered into the top floor of the TGV, and watched the French fields waltz by in the sunshine. Back to Jerry and Poppins…the latter who had been chasing rabbits and would you believe, is covered in burrs, again! She won’t let me touch her this time, and sadly is rather poorly. I think we have to find a vet. I hope my french is up to it!
On the first morning, I woke up in our wooden attic bedroom to sunlight squeezing its way through the veloux blind. I threw back the covers and stumbled downstairs. The house is full of light, sea, sky and rippling cloud. The working day had started; traffic was streaming up and down the boulevard Francois Mitterand outside. Across the road, not a large one is a small hilly, heath, is perfect for walking Pops last thing at night. My morning walk is across the (tiny) heath, and down to the beach while the tide is out.
I am trying to develop a routine to help me work. Most mornings, I do a little bit of writing with my tea sitting at the table with this fantastic view of the town and the sea, seeking inspiration from my Russian Earl Grey (I left my Barry’s somewhere en route). I sit…for a while, key in a few words and usually decide to have a shower instead and walk the dog.
The surrounding region is similar terrain to South England, but the cliff’s aren’t white, and there is a definite frenchinezzz about the place. There’s a cliff walk, full of grasses, sea, and rather large bottomed people walking with poles. Poppins is interested in the rabbit burrows, one in particular which seemed to have a very large family as Poppins was able to get halfway down, her deburred tail shaking with excitement. On that walk it’s better to keep her on the lead. Twelve kms away, on the far head, the small town of Ambleteuse is perched in the bay, its red and whites houses glistening in the sun. A visit for another day.
On our first day, after our first fresh baguette dipped in a bowl of coffee, we went to peruse Le Portel where the ma and pa had a little apartment back in the day when we lived in England, to which I often came. It’s an ordinary sort of town, not particularly pretty but with a lovely beach. They got it a little cheaper back then because between Le Portel and Boulogne was a factory which every so often belched out grim looking yellow smoke. That has gone now and wind turbines have been put up instead. The town has been gentrified a little. The cafes are no longer dingy bars, dark and smelling of a cross between wine and urine and the beach seems much more yellow and glossy than it ever used to be.
Then we continued to the Magic Forest which is still one of my most favourite places in the world. It turns out it is actually called the Foret d’Ecault but it is still magical: full of pines, and beeches, oaks, birches, sandy paths, cones, dunes, glittering shade, wonderful shaped trees, hillocks, just how I remembered it.
The tomatoes here are to die for. We have a ‘contact’ Intermarche right opposite which is a daily must visit for me. My first purchases were tomatoes, melon, anchovies, mustard, peaches, butter, nectarines, cheese, cornichons. I had to go back half an hour later for kitchen towel, toilet paper, milk, washing machine tabs. Supper was pate on petit pain grille which I gorged on while I cooked an onion, tomato and anchovy sauce with pasta. I had a couple of glasses of the most delicious Gerwertstraminer.
It turns out the Mairie Café in town is a nice spot for our aperitif, and being retired local government workers, it seems appropriate. We can wander down and back across the heath. It’s a bit of a climb back up, but builds the appetite for supper and I enjoy a Pastis or a beer and watching people. It turns out, the climb is too much and Jerry prefers to drive. Actually, it’s me who drives even though I prefer to walk because the choice is between Jerry driving and me, and I feel happier with me every time!!
Yesterday, we headed to Ambleteuse where Google had told us there was a market. French markets are my most favourite things in the world. After circling the pretty, tiny, village through the various one way system lanes, we came upon it under the church. Three tables, one cheese, one veg and one meat. Mon Dieu! What has the world come to. We bought an admittedly very delicious Pyrenean cheese and had a coffee to temper our disappointment and came back for Poppins to take her to the beach at the next town of Wissant. Driving in we came across a lovely, winding, traditional, market that took up all the streets at the top of the town. Joy of joys. But dogs were not allowed so I took a quick meander through the stalls while Jerry stayed outside with pops and put it in the diary for next week. I noticed some lovely angora wool jumpers.
What is the sport called which involves paraglides and boards and gorgeous, generally young, men streaking out on the wind, jumping waves to surf the sea and occasionally take off in the air? After the market and a windy walk on the beach which Poppins didn’t really seem to enjoy, we went to a café on the rocks and watched them paraglide, leap, sail, and crash. The tide was roaring in and so they came closer and closer (not, however, too much distraction from my big pot of moules frites which were totally delicious). Wissant is a lovely little town. There was an old mill, a mill pond with lots of quacky ducks, a gorgeous shady mill stream down to the beach, and it was a place frequented by artists in the 19th century. We will return.
I was exhausted after that and stretched out on the green deck chair in the backyard reading my Isabel Allende book, Ripper, which is quite bizarre. It seems to be a murder thriller set in California wrapped in magical fantasy. Kinda works for me at the moment.
And now, off for my morning walk across the heath and down to the beach with Pops. Today, the objective is to find a librarie de presse to buy an ordonnance survey map.
And we did that thing…and who knew…thirty kms away is a wetland area, full of narrow streams, big lakes, rolling forests. Funnily enough, driving around what seem to be long, dusty white roads, surrounded by squares and rectangles of harvested fields, you wouldn’t have thought there was a drop of water in sight, certainly never imagined that it was home to a very extensive wetlands.
The region is very Flemish looking, pointed red tiled roofs, very clean, tidy, and everything in its place. There are very few modern buildings, particularly in the countryside and each village is very discrete with its own name and character. There is no leaching from one village to the next. The region feels full of secrets. You can drive around these very pretty villages, along lanes running along pretty streams, but not see anything else. According to the map, there are lakes in the wetlands area, but you don’t see them. Jerry (he likes to keep his face buried in maps) kept saying, I think there’s a big lake behind these houses. They were tiny, pointy roofed homes with jolies gardens, climbing roses, cockleshells, and dwarfs…maybe that is it, I never trust a garden with dwarfs! No, there’s definitely something a little reticent about this region. It feels like it’s holding back. Maybe it’s something to do with crushed and smashed German pill boxes on the rocks.
In the end, we found a lovely, short, walk along a board walk around a steamy pond with bull rushes, olive trees, herons so we were happy. And changing the subject completely, we had our aperitif on the prom yesterday to watch the sun set instead of in the Mairie.
I’m still enjoying the Pyrenean cheese and the lovely fresh garden lettuce, anchovies, cornichons, tomatoes. We added a hard boiled egg into the mix last night. Maybe we’ll eat out tonight. Now, me and pops must be off. We’re checking out Wimereux market this morning and going to the woods South of Boulougne. The ordinance survey map shows a million of them!
Market was perfect! I got lovely raisins (tiny black grapes) plums, nectarines, smashing big scallions, more cheese…and, and, and…
We also had an adventure in the Foret de Boulogne. In advance of leaving, we identified the Parking on the map where we were to stop, find a walk and explore. Outings can be the cause of much marital anxst in our family, so it is important we try to agree in advance…though, of course, I am prone to sudden changes of mind mid route if I see something else!
Anyhow, we found the P, parked, noted the green route and set off, me and my 72 year old hubby who is not a great walker. There will be arrows all the way around, I assured him. At one junction, where there was a division of paths, we agreed we take the trail, (it looked like it was going in the direction of the car). Unfortunately, the trail disappeared into a track, and the track disappeared into woods, and the woods disappeared into a gorge, and the gorge disappeared into a raging river (they call it un ruisseau here) at the bottom of a steep ravine full of brambles and thorns. Like any mighty leader wanting to maintain troop morale, I confidently moved forth, identifying possible paths, and like any Scouts Brown Owl, would say loudly ‘This is Fun’ every so often. I think a more appropriate illustration would be the Pooh Bear story where Rabbit loses the expedition, except we lacked a piglet in Poppins who seemed to have no more idea of how to get back to the car than we did. Then I remembered the maps app on my phone and, like a magician, (forgive my mixed metaphors, I was very excited) pulled it triumphantly from my pocket.
‘This will show us how to get to where we parked the car.’
‘how do you know where we parked the car’
‘I’m pretty sure its here’
‘and why do you know that this way is the correct direction?’
‘those flares point to it. Come on we are very close.’
He looked down at the deep gorge, ravine and rushing river (ruisseau) further up from the same one we had just crossed.
‘We could turn back,’ He suggested
‘I could never find the way back. We’d be like that girl in the Netflix series Keep Breathing we watched who went round and round in circles, unless you’ve been scattering crumbs.’
He shook his head, and together we went forth, sharing my walking stick, stumbling, sliding and eventually arrived victorious, weary, proud back at the car.
We decided we deserved dinner out and found a very nice restaurant, Le Carnot, on the main st. At 7pm it was shut and 7.02 it was full! Lucky we were looking through the window at 7.01. I had delicious soupe de poisson and rumpsteak and Jerry had more salad! I will return to try the Tuna Cru.
Yesterday, we visited Hardelot Plage. I remembered it as a rather bizarre place but in the twenty five years since I’ve been here its matured into what could be described as a film set perfect for a horror zombie murder mystery. You slowly drive towards the centre (there is no centre) through wide boulevards or avenues with wide, white painted, cycle lanes past vast detached, wealthy, old fashioned homes stand on very green lawns behind luscious old oak trees. Every kilometre there is a roundabout and directions towards la plage, ou tennis, ou les chevals ou les jeux d’infants, ou l’hotel four star. It is how I imagine The Hamptons in America’s East Coast to look. Then finally we arrived at a silver and concrete strip of eight storey residences, which shimmered in the sun across a million miles of concrete and beach. It was deserted apart from an old woman and a café. We had coffee and left.
We decided to go and walk in the Massif du Mont St Frieux but the route was barred so we ended up on the beach by a rather moving war memorial to the aviators who were killed in WWII. Somehow, in the vast emptiness of sand and sea it was very easy to imagine the battles in the skies and the spinning plumes of smoke as the planes were shot down. The monument was a simple curved V shape with the quote from Churchill: Never was so much owed by so many to so few. I found it rather moving.