Thursday, November 30, 2006

My brother, the sun-kissed Californian Playboy, rings from eight time zones away to swap notes. He's had an altercation with our father, who art not in heaven, but on his smallholding in France.

Readers of old will be aware of the strained relationship that exists between one's father and...pretty much anybody, really, but especially his children. Now, since my brother and I left home at pretty much the same time- me to go to university, my little brother to go to boarding school, I have not seen him interact with my father since he was 12 years old.

So I was mildly amused when my brother rang up to consult me about my father's latest communication with him, which began ill and rapidly disintegrated to advice from my father to my brother that he was "just the same as the rest of us, only calling when he wanted something, and should effing well eff off and eff himself".

I don't know if I related recently how my father managed to transfer responsibility for his decision in October 2005 not to help Persephone through her recent trials away from himself and Overachieving Girlfriend, and onto me (I apparently advised him not to get involved), whilst at the same berating my sister in a London pub in such a manner that nearby lunchers began staring at him throughout the hour-long ordeal. I have now. It is almost amusing in its madness, this utter weirdness of his.

I am not entirely certain however that any of us could be blamed for failing to ring him for a while if this is the response (and trust me, it is). I personally have not rung him since...October 2005. The last time I spoke to him was around six months when he rang, wanting something, and his opening words were: "Nice to hear from you". "I was busy", I answered, "helping someone who needed help", although why I bother with oblique comments I don't know, since he never picks up on them.

So I chuckled inwardly and horribly when Playboy related his latest encounter, and wondered that he could not have noticed that this is always how our father treats his mightily disappointing daughters.

And here is an unsolicited nugget of advice for abusive parents: your criticism will sit on your children's shoulders throughout their entire lives like a little devil, whispering viciously at inopportune moments, waking them up at 2am in a cold sweat with nasty comments. If you want to pass the devil down, criticise away. I have to watch myself with Sim, a lot.

Playboy wanted to blame it on drink, and whilst I could agree that drink certainly played a part, I could only wonder that my father had never in 31 years made his true colours known to my brother. I had no useful advice for him- how to stop the unstoppable object?- only coping strategies aka ignoring him until he behaved better.

"I'm only sorry", I told him lamely, "that it's taken 31 years for him to start treating you like this. At least if you'd grown up with it, you might be prepared" whilst at the same time being glad that he didn't grow up with it.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

We had chili con carne last night, made with lamb.

The lamb came from my friend's smallholding, from which she sells very small quantities.

She keeps the sheep as a hobby. They are organically reared, and treated with homeopathy. They never receive antibiotics. Their grass is never sprayed, and they are never dipped. She has been rearing them for five years in such a way.

Yet she is not allowed to call them "organic" when selling them.

This is because she chooses to accompany them, two by two in the trailer behind her car, to our nearest abattoir ten miles away, where they are slaughtered as kindly as is possible and returned in freezer packs the next day. Total food miles from farm to my freezer- fewer than 20. The nearest organic abattoir is a two-hour drive from here.

The abattoir is not an "organic" abattoir, ergo, no organic certification for the meat coming out of the process. The owner of the abattoir, whilst sympathetic to the plight of my friend and the other animal rearers with whom he deals, cannot face the extra paperwork involved in gaining organic abattoir accreditation.

My friend has offered to add him to their farm certification, but he would have to negotiate a bureaucratic trail so intense that he would rather lose business than go through it.

I understand the need for proper accreditation- to prevent rogues from passing off their battery-farmed, antibiotic-packed meat units as genuinely happy animals, but I feel that the various government departments involved forget that they are not forcing these regulations onto bureaucrats, but onto people with very different and time-consuming jobs.

Surely there must be a way to enable people to gain the necessary accreditation to produce good food in a humane way without this punitive registration process? Unless, shock horror! the powers that be do not actually care about food production in this country, and would rather import it all from the new Eastern European EU members? Surely not?

Monday, November 27, 2006

Season shift 

Autumn this year did not creep in apologetically, as it does usually, shedding almost imperceptibly as it goes until it stands in its bare bones, silently slid into senescence*. Rather, it donned its glitziest, most fiery garments, arrived late and flamboyant to the party, and, cooking up storm after storm, has thrown them all off again in a few days. More of a fall than an autumn.

* I can't believe I just typed that appallingly hackneyed alliteration. Sorry...

Friday, November 24, 2006

On uncontrolled controlling rules 

Difficult phone call to Hen and Sim's school today, to enquire, without seeming to be on the legal warpath, why no-one saw fit to either a) administer pain relief as she paled to paper-white, started shaking and becoming drowsy, or b) took her off to the local Okehampton hospital where same could have been achieved.

Head of Sports rings back and tells me that although the school nurse is allowed to administer on-site the medication, including paracetamol, that we, the parents, signed the permission slip for at the start of the year, once the children are off-site, they are as bound as any other school in what they may carry with them in the first aid kit and administer: essentially ice packs, bandages and plasters (bandaids).

Since it took two hours from the accident for poor Hen to get any pain relief, I have to question whether her teachers acted truly in loco parentis. God, if I'd been there, I would have done exactly what my friend did when Hen broke her arm in August- take her straight to the nearest hospital for some adequate pain relief, even if they did not have X-ray facilities. I could just as easily have picked her up from that hospital as from the college.

Actually the school did everything it was legally empowered to do, but no more. The host school did everything it was legally empowered to do. The doctor parent present did everything he was legally empowered to do.

It just all added up to a lot of uncontrolled pain and minor shock, for poor Hen.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Today I got the phone call I least wanted to get from Hen's games teacher, from 30 miles away on Dartmoor. She'd fallen at the start of a cross-country competition.

Yes, she's broken the arm again. In the same places. They might have to operate properly this time.

I drove to pick her up from the school hosting the competition, which took 45 minutes, arriving over an hour after the accident, to discover that they had not yet given her any pain relief. "It's political correctness gone mad", said the A & E doctor. It's sheer over-regulated stupidity and lack of common sense, I say.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


A plump sea bass glints incongruously in the autumn sun, at the edge of a muddy roadside puddle- closer inspection reveals it to be a clear plastic bag, landed eight miles inland by the overnight storm.

Monday, November 20, 2006

My deceased father-in-law was 14 at the start of the war. Since both his parents worked in a highly sensitive government research establishment, and feared bombing in their area of London, my father-in-law and his brother, younger by one year, were dispatched to the relative safety of Tonbridge School for the duration.

My father-in-law was, thankfully, a dutiful letter writer. His brother cannot have been, for only three or four of his survive, against a stack ten inches high of my father-in-law's. For the most part, the letters are fairly mundane.

I only knew my father-in-law as a relatively old man. Although he was only 66 when he died, years of institutional food and lack of interest in things material had taken their toll on his health. He was a very good amateur clarinettist, and an exceptional mathematician.

When he went to Tonbridge at 14, he was thankfully able to continue to a certain extent, and despite the disruptions of the war and his own poor health (roughly half the letters report a new illness or disease, or consignment to the sanatorium) the maths at the level to which he was accustomed, which is to say Sixth form and degree level.

Much as these letters provide a fascinating insight into a boy's world in the 40s, the one that interested me the most however was the one he sent to his parents aged around 16; the one in which he respectfully and shyly requests the money to purchase a clarinet.

My father-in-law did not touch a clarinet until he was 16 years of age. This may seem unremarkable, unless viewed against the frenzied backdrop of modern parenting. Ever-pervasive seems to be the notion that unless you start at 3 years old, your ability will somehow disappear and the chance will be lost.

I fell for this frenzy for a couple of years. Sim and Hen both had piano lessons at age 5. Neither was either big enough or mature enough to invest enough into the learning process.

I learnt *my* lesson, and moved on, vowing never again to force them into any extra-curricular activity, particularly one that will involve a considerable amount of expense, time on their part, and commitment on our part, until they were ready to make that commitment themselves. And so there were no music lessons for a few years.

Sim eventually began the clarinet at the age of nearly 9. He'd bugged us for a while, and eventually we let him. He still needs reminding to practise, and I really can't pretend he's the next Acker Bilk, but he thoroughly enjoys it.

Hen, for her part, bleated on and on for about 18 months before we caved into her demands to take up the piano again. And she started again in September. Her teacher gave her easier left hand work while she still had the cast on her arm, and I firmly believe that playing the piano helped her arm regain mobility quickly. She has made tremendous progress very quickly, and practises very willingly by herself. And she thoroughly enjoys it.

Dill, meanwhile, had resisted all suggestions of any instruments (we were becoming acutely aware, by her ninth birthday, that she could not even read music on a treble clef), and steadfastly turned down all of them.

Until Saturday, that is, when we dropped in on our lovely neighbours Mary and Colin. He is a French horn player who also teaches, and he wanted to try out his new Kinder horn on a real small person.

So we had an impromptu group lesson/ jamming session- Dill, Hen, Mary and I, during which Colin took us out into the yard and let us bounce big noise off Ken's hillside. It sounded like a herd of cows calling their young at times, but Dill thoroughly enjoyed it, managing some simple tunes and some really loud noises, and has decided she'd like lessons.

Dill is not given to changing her mind easily, so I don't think we need to wait it out for too long. We explained about the practise and tedium of scales- she accepted them. We explained about the cost involved- she promised that she understood (besides, we can resell a Kinderhorn pretty easily for roughly what we'll pay for it*).

So Dill is going to take up the French Horn, just as soon as we can find her an instrument.

*No, I've no intention of paying that much for it.

Friday, November 17, 2006


Yay! One horribly overdue translation out the door, -or rather down the telephone wires.

Only one freeby to go, and well, if you're getting something for free, you can't moan too much if it's not very punctual, can you?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

We kind of diddled a mad old lady in Florence.

It was like this, you see. We turned up at the hotel we had in mind, only to dicsover that they had no room for all 8 of us- my sister Henna having joined us from France for a day or two, with her sons Carrot and Wizard.

The hotel receptionist very kindly rang his chum, a woman who although seemingly plausible and pleasant at first, turned out to have the worst case of brushed under the carpet senility I've ever seen.

Obviously she knew how to run a hotel. Obviously she had very loyal staff. Obviously her hotel had once been quite something.

Alas, the last time this hotel had deserved its two stars was probably some time in the 70s, during which intervening time one her children must have grown up and joined whichever tourist board awards stars.

For a start, there was her bizarre decision to place us in rooms directly above a traffic light, on what turned out to be a very busy street at night. The hotel was virtually empty (just us and an Italian couple), so she could easily have put us in rooms on the inward-facing side. Our night was, to put it mildly, disturbed (I don't think I slept more than 30 minutes at a stretch).

Then there was the appalling breakfast, the strange stench in my sister's bathroom, only marginally covered when morning came by the subtle aroma of exhaust fumes; the owner's Bichon Frise that insisted on trying to hump Dill; her inabilty to work out which children were with whom, and trying to count several of them twice, and therefore charge us more.

Lastly, there was Signora Proprietress' announcement, out of the blue as we checked out, that contrary to the sign at reception, she did not take Visa: "Fiscale, fiscale", she wailed sorrowfully at Henna. In the end, she was forced to take what cash we had- this resulted in a discount for we five of 20 euros- from 120 to 100; and for Henna and her sons a whopping 32 euros discount, from 100 to 68.

Do we feel guilty in the slightest? After that night's sleep- no!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

You might think that nothing ever happens in the countryside, and for the most part, you're right, but I bet you've never had fifteen flighty heifers stampeding around your garden in the gloaming, closely chased by an irate Young Farmer.

Julian felt so guilty that he came down to apologise twice, and, I suspect, returned later to pick up the pile of wood that had collapsed several days before the invasion, thinking his beasts were to blame.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

It's no use- I still can't force my head around work. Things are a little better in my head than before the miscarriage, but the blockage vis a vis work still continues. I am plagued by irrational fears that it was the working from bed with a laptop perched on Vlad that caused his her/her possible anencephaly.

Rationally, I know that anencephaly is ia neural tube defect more likely to be due to low folic acid (viz my Marmite obsession for the first month of that pregnancy), and highly unlikely to be caused by wireless broadband, X Rays, ibuprofen taken once, or anything else I seize upon as cause du jour, but unfortunately my brain is not ruled by rationality on this topic at present.

So I decided to attempt Phase 1 of Operation Revamp Old School Floorboards. Phase One invoves beginning the stripping back of the floor coverings, starting with the oatmeal coloured carpet that reeked so very much of dirty dog throughout those 13 weeks of pregnancy. The dog has since unpleasantly added to his customising of the environment, leading me to clamour every evening for a weekend's carpet shampooer rental.

Or the speeding up of Plan A- which is restoration of the original pitch pine boards.

Firstly, I must remove the carpet and underlay, exposing the hardboard used to even out the surface and exclude draughts. This can be done in stages, by pulling back the carpet during the day, and removing the nails and staples used to puncture said floorboards in multiple places.

This is what I started today. It's going to be a long job, involving one of those bent screwdriver-like forked widgets you use to prise nails out of the floor, followed up by pincers (no idea what they're really called). I think the hardboard must have been nailed down whilst still alive- I've completed nail removal on the first 3 by 2 foot piece of board, and removed 27 nails and 5 staples. It looks like somebody wanted their handiwork to last. They hadn't counted on a bored translator not in her right mind, armed with bent forked screwdriver and pincers.

Now I've achieved that, I must do some of the translation I have promised my very patient and understanding client for some time soon -originally 4 weeks ago.

And another thing... 

Why the hell do the bloody supermarkets insist on buying tasteless, leathery Dutch peppers when they could have deliciously sweet and tender Italian ones instead? Also, how come they are 1 euro 39 a kilo there, but 69p each here? I am so effing fed up with having* to buy underripe and overpriced fruit in this country.

*Because there is nothing else available, apart from the occasional Spanish Ramiro at 1 pound 79 for two.

All's quiet again on the South-Western front 

The only sound is the gentle tick of the clock, the threat of toddlers has receded.

Peace at last.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Neapolitans have a very *different* way of driving. In fact, their whole attitude to life is very other. Going to Naples was a culture shock, even for someone who spent her early life in south western France in the 70s.

We were amazed to note that despite a blithe ignorance of modern European traffic regulations, a legal system that presupposes that anything not specifically banned is by default permitted (unlike the UK, where one dares only do what is expressly permitted...or is that just me?) and roads width, surface and gradient can vary by several degrees of magnitude within the same kilometre, we saw surprisingly few damaged cars or accidents (we saw none in fact).

The thing is that their way of driving seems to work, in Italy, with Italians implementing it. Which is it say that I imagine it would be a total disaster if Englishers began driving like that, because frankly, guys, we just don't drink quite enough espresso for reflexes like that. At least quite a few more of us would have to be a little less phlegmatic to make it work.

We saw traffic jams that would be completely heart-sinking in the UK clear in a matter of minutes there, because they very sensibly use all the available road space to get to where they want to be, and thereby take themselves and their vehicle out of the equation.

They appear to drive on their nerves. And their nerves have to be of steel, or titanium, or immodium or something.

Either that, or they have a very strong faith. Driving ability, and likelihood of wearing a seat belt in Naples certainly seemed to be inversely proportional to the number of crucifixes obscuring the rear view mirror.

For example, we were one afternoon stuck in stop-start traffic coming away from Pompei towards the autostrada. The Boff saw a car overtaking us on the outside, in the opposite lane, into oncoming traffic, which though slowish, happened not to be stationary.

As the car plled alongside ours -bearing in mind that most Italians drive vehicles roughly the size and consistency of a Coke can, but powered by Boeing- we observed that its driver was a lady, a cigarette with an inch of ash hanging on the end clamped between her lips. She had forgotten to knock off the ash because she was busy nursing a tiny baby in her lap.

As she slowed alongside us, she bundled the infant back into its car seat and turned abruptly onto the autostrada slip-road as a tiny space appeared in the traffic heading for her. A car swerved around hers, and as we watched, mesmerised, we saw that she had two other children in the car with her. One stood between the two front seats, the other was but a pair of grubby feet waving in the rear window.

"There", I quipped, "goes a woman who's had too many espressos today."

The point is that you cannot be too Northern-European puritanical risk-averse about this. These people are not unaware of risk. They choose to live on the side of a volcano that could incinerate them spectacularly at any time. I just think that maybe it colours their attitude to risk and to their own lives and their own mortality. And for the most part, lawlessness seems to work for them on the roads.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Just asking, but does anybody else's dog sleep like this when it's hot?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I killed a chicken the other day, just to complete your picture of the absolute country person. No running up to Julian this time, oh no. This time I hated the little bastard so much that I wanted him to die.

Remember those two cute little black chicks from last spring? Well, they turned into equally gorgeous but utterly testosterone-crazed lunatic birds from hell, pecking at anything that moved, crowing through the night, fighting each other, escaping, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. So I shut them both in the shed, the better to fatten them up.

On Tuesday I observed that Rhodie the Rhode Island Red was moulting again. Last year she got so bald at such an unsuitable time of year that she nearly died, and we had to nurse her tenderly back to health near the woodburner.

This year, I decided that the shed with a heat lamp was good enough for her, the only problem being the resident cockerel (we were down to one in the shed by then since of the little bastards had flown over Sim's head when he went to feed them). So I grabbed the little sod, and eyed him levelly, and killed him. It was horrible, but what a relief not to have to hate my little feathered nemesis any more! He didn't taste too bad either.

Rhodie is now warmly ensconced in the shed, with a companion hen, and the little bastard esapee is cunningly roosting about 25 feet up in the tree every night, and running away squawing whenever he sees me in the daytime- he has my number. I lie in bed at 3am listening to his bumptious crowing and dreaming of how to bump him off. I just need someone with a pellet gun...

I seem to have opened up a Flickr account accidentally whilst trying to leave a comment on someone else's, so I put a picture up on it. I might put more on.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

If you were ever planning a trip to Florence to see the pictures at the Uffizi gallery, may I recommend that you do it sooner rather later?

If I'd walked blindfolded into the rooms housing various globally reknowned pictures such as Botticelli's Birth of Venus, I could easily have been convinced that I'd just walked into a locker room. It was hot, muggy, and smelled of sweaty humans.

The thermometer and hygrometer on the wall about nine feet off the ground, roughly at the height of the tops of most of the pictures, read 29C and 79% humidity. Throughout our visit, the air conditioning clicked on and off continually. Some rooms were icy and so dry you could feel the nasal pasages deseccating in the first two breaths (down to 18% near some Titians). Some, like the Botticelli room, were like walking into a tropical rain forest. The only place where climate control seemed to be adequate was the bar area.

The pong was possibly, as evidenced by Carrot's comment that it smelt of papier mache (linseedy, really, I thought), due to the oil paints deteriorating. *Luckily*, most of the paintings are oils on wooden panels, many of them having once been decorations in churches; I can't imagine that many paintings on paper would survive such inadequate storage conditions for more than a few weeks.

I refuse to believe that a relatively modern country like Italy is incapable of managing climate control, surely on eof the most crucial parts of a museum's business. My sister said that there is some ongoing political battle regarding the conservation of these paintings and the air management in the gallery, but surely the authorities would just send the paintings out on long-term loan if they wished to save both face and the paintings? My impression was that they were being held to ransom, and we all know how far wrong things can go in ransom cases...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Maria Rosa apologises, miming mopping with her expressive arms, but she is unable to offer any discount on her high season price. She still has to clean and wash the sheets, even if we stay only one night.

What Maria Rosa lacks in discount, she makes up in patience at our halting (OK, non-existent) Italian, in courteousness, and in her spontaneous gifts of the fruits of her labours. She takes us to see the bread oven, handing out slices of her best wholemeal to the children as we go. "It runs on wood, so much better than gas", she chirps enthusiastically.

She is about 60, but could be any age between 40 and 80- tiny in height, slightly stooped, wily. She farms her land between guests, growing vegetables, lemons, grapes for wine -we tried to imagine whether the wine she brought to us had originally been fruit trampled by her own fair foot ("Drink it if you like it, chuck it down the sink if you don't", she ordered). She masquerades as a simple country person, yet unsurprisingly has a website in four languages.

The countryside is breathtaking: both in its steepness, yet farmed to the very height of the ridges, every escarpment dotted with neat rows of olive trees, underlaid at this time of the year with orange nets to catch the olives, and also in its beauty. It is kempt and wild at once. It is hard to believe that anyone can make a living out of this rocky, dry land, yet everywhere are signs of industry and life.

It is also cold in the winter, as we discover on our return trip along the vertiginous motorway ("a feat of engineering!", The Boff quotes happily from the guidebook as he laps decrepit Polish lorries at 140 km an hour. "The stuff of nightmares", I whimper weakly from the passenger seat. An overactive imagination is definitely an impediment to life). From 28C in the daytime in Naples, the temperature gauge in the car registers 5C around Cinque Terre at 8 in the evening. That was before we got back to the UK and discovered that the Arctic Circle had just engulfed Devon.

I admire the way Maria Rosa has stayed put for her entire life, doing the same things, year in, year out. It must take a particularly settled spirit to feel bound to a place, without ever wondering what lies just beyond the horizon.


I have been called in to give blood again. I ring the Blood Donor Service, to ask how long I should leave it before donating again after the miscarriage, and also whether having had anti-D three times in three months affects my ability to donate.

"What's anti-D?", asks the young man on the phone.

Lucky they employ medically qualified staff, then...

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Jamais deux sans trois 

When we set off for our holiday, I was in what would have been described 50 years ago as a blue funk. A thick and wet blanket hung heavy over my head, dripping into my eyes and making them close involuntarily. I never sleep on car journeys (throwback to teenage car journeys with my evil father), so the fact that I spent three out the four hours we took to reach the airport should give some insights into the blueness of my mood.

I was not surprised at all therefore, when in a layby halfway there, I bit into the sandwich prepared by my husband, and my tooth veneer fell off again.

Nor was I surprised later, when shortly after take-off, Hen clinging to my arm sobbing quietly (she is a rather nervous flyer), our plane was struck by lightning and a purple flash filled the cabin.


The next morning, lifting my eyes to the sunny rock-strewn hillside opposite our hotel, I inhaled deeply and the smell of rosemary and thyme filled my nose. Suddenly, for the first time in weeks, I felt well again. I think I may have been born in the wrong part of the world. I am actually Mediterranean to the core, as evidenced by a blood group that should have destined me to a lifetime of sacking Mongolia, and instead sentences me to a lifetime of wintertime downheartedness.

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