FOOD!




Among the very many excellent reasons for spending half our year in France, is the food. The French are very demanding about the quality of what they eat, so if you shop – as we do – in the huge Leclerc hypermarket in Fontenay, you just have to put up with the excellent range and quality of food the French demand.  Anything from bargains like fresh sardines, to luxury meats like veal or pintade, can be had pretty well year-round. And things are sold by their exact variety. In the UK we buy (and enjoy) venison – but in France you must specify the species and sex of the forest meat you’re buying: cerf, or biche, chevreuil … all are precisely named. And of course, different.
Similarly, the humble potato is never just ‘white’ or ‘red’ (as if it mattered what colour the skin was!) but Amandine or Noirmoutier.
Which brings me to strawberries. The hypermarket at the moment will sell you Charlottes or Gariguettes, of which the latter are the more richly nectared. And right now Margaret’s garden, over the road, is providing us with enormous quantities of the latter. They are crimson and luscious berries, that cry out for marinading in a little Pineau des Charentes (a sweet liqueur very popular hereabouts). We’ve eaten vast quantities for a week now, and yesterday, having picked 4kg, made outr first batch of jam of the season. Pleasure to come.
(And again, note, that the hypermarkets have put vast displays of jamming equipment on display at their entrances – beautiful jamming pans in copper or steel, assorted jars, labels, and an amazing range of devices for stirring, measuring, pulping etc. The French really do take food seriously!)


And no blog from here would be complete without a homage to our newly reopened restaurant next door but two. For the last dozen years it has limped on with a variety of proprietors (including, implausibly, a French-American family who couldn’t cook at all!). But this year, after a long period of closure, La Maison des Amis de la Foret is open again. The building is wooden, and built around an amazing, huge open hearth where logs blaze all winter. Its walls are festooned with ancient agricultural and forestry artefacts, and its bar is, amazingly, one rough-hewn horizontal oak-tree from the forest.
Today we fancied a meal there, and were treated to three courses. We started with a plate of charcuterie – six types of cold meats with a salad. Next was an enormous sweet-cured slice of Vendéen ham, served with a honeyed sauce and haricots verts. Then a slice of beautiful tarte au citron for dessert. Oh and the wine, of course- ½ litre of good red. The cost? Well, would you believe 11€? No – I mean for both of us? That’s £9.40!
I ought to confess that this was half-price, because they run a clever little loyalty card which gets you every fifth meal at half price, and every tenth , free. But that in itself is amazing.
Oh, and last Friday, when (as a concession to the English) they serve fish and chips (good stuff, too, I’m told) they recalled a chance comment of mine to the effect that I don’t eat fish ‘n chips – and insisted on serving me a whole duck breast, cooked ‘saignant’ as I like it, with haricots verts. Not on the menu – just offered for the same price!
You may imagine that we deeply hope these lovely people make a go of La Maison. They can certainly count on our custom!


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Block – Unblock




I guess everyone who has ever had a go at writing continuously and at length knows that feeling that, somehow, you can’t get going again. There’s that last page, staring at you, and for whatever reason, you can’t seem to start the next. If you write as I do, following the story where it leads you rather than planning the narrative out in detail before you start, then the block can be particularly intractable.
Some time in the late 1970’s I wrote a kind of adventure story, The Boy and the Mountain, which pleased me greatly at the time (but didn’t attract the interest of any publisher!) In fact it pleased so much that I started a sequel – but after 19,000 words, I laid it aside. I was busy being a husband, father to a growing family,  and heading up a teaching department of thirteen at the time – and it seemed to me that the camel’s back might give way entirely if I stole several hours a week for writing as well. So I laid it aside.
I’ll come back to it sometime, I thought. Later. Later …
So later, I came back to it.  Thirty-several years later, to be exact! Margaret nobly rendered both the finished and the partial book into Word documents (the originals were, of course, typed clunkily on an Olympus typewriter, vintage 1963: no word-processing in those days) and after a lot of stuttering false starts, the time has finally come when I can declare the book finished.
La Palma, the western-most of the Canaries, is a wonderfully tranquil place – and we have found the perfect idyll there. Visit www.costaparaiso-lapalma.com if you want to see it – highly recommended for total, beautiful, chilling out. And in that wonderfully restful and uncluttered place, I managed to knock out the remaining 40,000 words of The Boy Among the Islands.
Finished! After a third of a century gestating! Is this a record?
Getting both books ready to become  Kindle e-books, now – watch this space!

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Testing, testing, testing ...

... so finally the blog renews itself - after much less than a century. Watch this space!
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... and then, suddenly, very quick ...


Did I say that “Slow Furies” was to be published on 23rd September? It seems that Amazon know better! Though Waterstones website is “taking advance orders”, Amazon is assuring visitors that they can have the book by next day delivery - and several good friends have already placed their orders.
Wow!
In addition (by an irony that anyone who reads the book will discover!) the local daily paper, The Doncaster Star, has rushed out to take my pic - with the book, of course - and should print it tomorrow. Waterstones in Doncaster (yes, these days Doncaster has a real bookshop) have indicated that they’ll carry it, and happily accepted a poster - as has my dear old Foulstone School, where a former colleague is networking news of its arrival around all the other former colleagues still in post, or in touch. And The excellent Jim, self-appointed liaison officer for the class of ’66 at York University, has patched an email about it around his circulation list. Oh, and the Alumni website is already featuring it.
A positive welter of publicity!
Bound to be in the bestseller list soon!
 
(Oh, and Amazon are advertising the book at £6.29 instead of £6.99 - how do they do that?)
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Very, Very Slow




... in fact so slow, you can’t detect any motion at all. An observation which might be applied to many things. A dead sheep for example ...
 


(This old lady hasn’t moved for two years, since I first saw her in a pine wood on Alonissos)
 
... or a dead Blog (this one hasn’t moved for 18 months, I’m afraid: ain’t been a lot to say, perhaps)
 
... or a book.
 
Ah, yes - a book. A book with a very slow title. Slow Furies, which I wrote originally four years ago, and have revised at intervals ever since - most recently inspired by the lovely online writing community called Youwriteon - finally found a publisher last October; and now a mere 11 months later, is about to burst upon the world. Which, by comparison with my blog (not to mention the dead sheep) is remarkably swift.
 
I am, of course, terribly excited. I have pre-production copies already, and they look, with Patrick’s really elegant cover design and a generally very professional job by Olympia Publishers, tremendous. Now I have to hope that they sell. Not that I’m bothered about the income (always nice, though!) - but like everyone else who ever wrote a book, I want it to be read. And appreciated.
 
Launch date is 23rd September - so watch this space!
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Winter Things




I imagine that four months’ silence is long enough for any reasonable person to have supposed that this Blog is dead - but just in case anyone is still curious enough to look ... another entry.
Winter - always bad, but this year intolerable. I suspect that, like many people, I quasi-hibernate as a means of getting through the short, dark, cold, wet days - and the long nights. Suspended animation. System just ticking over. Waiting for sun and spring. There are, of course, those wonderful days when the sun shines and the grass looks almost green, and the catkins hang like coloured ribbons on the hazel branches, promises of good times coming. Then the spirits lift again. But then winter bites again. Brrrrh!
We’re just back from a couple of weeks in France - sandwiched between a fortnight on Fuerteventura and a fortnight (still to come - hurray) on Lanzarote. France was - as ever - lovely of course. But it’s still northern Europe - and the snow in Brittany made every effort to prevent our reaching our wee house, which when we miraculously arrived was deep in fresh snow, too. The moorhen whose passing left these tracks had been usurped by a frozen pond, and later on I watched as a big, black-bottomed, white-whiskered Coypu skated desperately over its frozen lake. Ice and snow are rare enough in the southern Vendee for both these animals never to have experience it before. Wonder what they thought?
We solved the winter by nipping out for une petite Balade whenever weather allowed - and staying indoors by a log fire for the rest. Nice. Cosy. Oh - and twice in the past week the blessed sunshine warmed our courtyard up for us to lunch en plein air. So perhaps this interminable winter will eventually lose its grip. Can hope.
Oh - and for the first time in some months I see that my book has had a sale! See, Alan, the future is full of hope whichever way you look.
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Pensées Françaises




Time  to introduce La Belle France to these pages. For those who don’t know, Margaret and I have the good fortune to own a small (very small!) house in the rural Vendée. Our year is pleasantly divided between France and the UK, therefore - the best of two worlds. We may get back to France in another blog. The reason for introducing it here, is the picture above, La Tour de L’Octroi, Fontenay-le-Comte. Now Fontenay (our nearest town when in France) is an astonishingly beautiful little Renaissance town of real dignity. L’Octroi (which doesn’t really lean like this) is a minor 19C addition to its architectural gems and sits beside the lovely Vendée river. Very pretty, I hear you comment: and, under your breath, so what?
Well, for the time being, L’Octroi is a bookshop, specialising in second-hand and rare English books and MS and run by the excellent Cid Jackson. Don’t ask why. I don’t know why a 19C monument in the middle of France should be an English bookshop run by a West-Yorkshireman. It just is so. Take my word.
Back to those words: book shop. Now I know that my novel is neither second hand (in spite of Amazon’s peculiar listing of it!) nor rare. But there’s just an outside chance that I might persuade Cid to carry a few copies - just to see if it sells. So how about this for an ironic oddity. My book, which I could not publish in the UK, is published in America. I can’t persuade any S.Yorkshire shops to carry it - but maybe - just maybe - the first shop into which you can walk and buy it will be 600 miles away in mid France.
Funny the way things turn out.
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Anybody out there?


The abiding question, of course - for everyone. But especially important to those who commit their thoughts to blogs. Or to books.
And today I have a good feeling. There is someone out there. Books first of all: at long last my publisher has updated its website, and I can discover that people have been buying my book. OK, only twelve of them so far (so far = the first month) but that’s twelve people now reading my book. Which is what publishing is all about. We are under way.
And the Blog? Well, my email this morning brings a really warm mail from a former pupil who has caught up with me via the website and wants to tell me so. Wonderful! Google’s clever algorithm bridges the decades, and I have a voice from the past at breakfast time.
All good stuff.
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The Blue Aegean Sea




... on, beside, in or under which is where we’ve spent the last fortnight. These two, mother and babe, were amongst some 30 or 40 dolphins that came to say hello as we cruised the Marine Conservation park, in the northern Aegean, about 10 days ago. They, and the staggeringly beautiful lesser Sporades, are the abiding and as yet unfaded memories of a beautiful holiday on Alonissos. The Marine Park was set up primarily to protect the remaining 300 Mediterranean Monk Seals - which we caught no glimpse of. They breed, the last few of them, on a tiny, remote island called Piperi, near which no boats at all are allowed. But we did get to cruise among the dolphins, to swim on the beaches of deserted islands, to see the delicate, rare white marine lilies that bloom in profusion on the beach of Psathoura - and generally to appreciate what a rare and fragile place we had fetched up in.
I sat, one morning after swimming, for an hour or more with my feet in the rocky water of the busy harbour at Patitiri, just gazing at the miniature wildlife garden around me. Those empty whelk shells, lying on the rock - surely they move? Of course they do - every one contains a tiny hermit crab, creeping around the crevices, fossicking for food. And the blue-black disks on that rock side? Little crabs, feeding with the delicate, almost fussy precision of a gourmet, on invisible water-born scraps - pincers as fine and polite as silver cutlery. Oh - and there’s a Blenny, stripe-camouflaged, easing its way across the bottom on elbowed fins between the glass-like shrimps. And around that rock wave, like medusa-hair, the water-woven tendrils of some sea-anemone. And these, only the animals whose names I know. Itinerant fish flash in and out of the scene, multicoloured tordepoes, or quivering, pale disks. All wonderful.
I never cease to be fascinated by the rich diversity of the world we inhabit - and I hope I never will.
In the harbour one day we saw the grim, black-robed, bearded form of an orthodox monk, waiting for his motor-boat to be fixed - presumably the solitary monk who lives, the only inhabitant, on Kyra Panagia over the strait. I felt sorry for him, stuck in a world that is not enough for him but only second best to some imaginary alternative. This one will do me.
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A good week



OK - so who are these children got up in fancy dress?
This week saw our 43rd wedding anniversary, which we celebrated with a trip up the Yorkshire Dales for the day and then on to my brother and sister-in-law near Kendal, for an evening meal. Lovely day - but impossible to believe that it’s the forty-third such. Only when you dig out (as I just did) an image from the past do you understand quite how remote 1966 has become - we were what we looked, in those far off days. Children.
But what a fantastic journey into maturity it has been, and in what company! Margaret and I have spent getting on for 16,000 days together now, and they just get better ...
Love, as I am fond of saying, is not something you fall in. It is something you make - hour by hour, day by day, year by year, crafting it and changing it and growing with it. Wonderful.
We took a bottle of Chateau les Rigalets 2002 with us to Kendal. “Cuvée exceptionnelle, sur des fruits noir, trés suave en bouche, rondeur et finesse caractéristique du Château les Rigalets,” says one reviewer. We’d go along with that. It was one of a hoard of six dozen assorted Cahors and Bergeracs we brought back from our last foray into the Lot valley, and it was a fitting wine with which to celebrate the passing of one more very good year. Not, perhaps quite in the same league as the 1966 Pomerol our family bought us for our 40th celebration, but pretty fine.
Wine and marriage seem good partners: the more you discover about them, the better they are.
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