Friday, 30 April 2010

Lucky Charms.

I'm not normally a superstitious person, but there are a few illogical things that I do adhere to. I was brought up never to cross knives; if one did (by accident) it was always the lower one that was removed. I was also brought up to say 'White rabbit, white rabbit' on the first day of every month. This has to be said before uttering any other words. I still do this, and shall tomorrow!

This key ring contains three of my favourite talismen. Firstly there is the Wild Boar tusk that I unearthed whilst digging at Haddock's. Could he have been dining on a predecessor's vegetables , when somehow he lost a tusk? In our fireplace we have a pair of mounted Boar tusks, that my late father-in-law shot in Turkey, and they are twice the size of the above. I presume therefore that he was a youngster. I liked it so much that I drilled a small hole and threaded it on for luck.

Secondly there is this small aluminium person that is one half of a 1980's set of earings. These belonged to my daughter, Tenpin, and when I think of her, I think of these. I don't know where it's twin is, but I like to think that my half is a bringer of luck.

Lastly there is the strange little brass 'personage'; this is 'Joan the Wad'. Joan is the Queen of the Pixies (or Piskies, as they say in Cornwall). She used to be with my car keys and I would always rub her stomach before setting off on long journeys; she's always looked after me. The only reason she was removed to this key ring (many years ago) is because my other one was becoming cumbersome.

Other than possessing these three 'lucky charms', I'm reasonably sensible. I do salute single magpies and say 'Bonjour monsieur pie', but otherwise I walk under ladders, have no fear of breaking mirrors, and I cock a snoop at Friday 13th.

I've lost all caring about what these keys were for; but that's pretty lucky in itself.

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Thursday, 29 April 2010

Quince in Flower.

Our Quince tree has three phases. Firstly she has these fabulous dog-rose type flowers that last for ages (this picture was taken nearly two weeks ago, and it's still the same). Then she settles down to a long period of clean, un-adulterated, leafiness. And finally she presents us with a bountiful crop of huge yellow pear-shaped fruits.

The variety we have is called Vranja; a really good 'doer'. My only gripe is that, every year, most of the fruits go to waste. When I was small I loved Quince Jelly, it was regarded as a real treat. Nowadays (if we do make it) it goes un-eaten. Tastes, I suppose, change.

Please, no recipes thank you. I've tried just about everything, and nothing grabs me. Lady Magnon makes a mean Tarte Tatin, and she makes a very good quince version. Otherwise I roast segments with pork or chicken. That's it.

I planted this tree about 10 years ago, and I've been pruning it rigorously ever since to form this classic lollypop shape. I'm now wondering if I shouldn't just leave it to its own devices....

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Wednesday, 28 April 2010

That view.

Tom. These two pictures join up. Top left, bottom right.

In the top one there are 3 horses; otherwise.... What do you think?
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Where to live?

I have often been asked why I choose to live in France. Well, I'll try to answer that; as much for myself, as for others.

France is a very beautiful country. Along with parts of the UK, it has some of the very best landscape and architecture in Europe. It is well positioned within the body of Europe, it has a good climate, and it's infrastructure is excellent.

One can drive from north to south within one day, the same as from west to east. From where I live (in the south west) I can be over the border into Spain by lunchtime, or even in Barcelona by late afternoon. I could be skiing in the morning in the Pyrenees, and swimming in the Bay of Biscay at teatime. On many occasions I have left my house in the early morning, and been sitting at our Brighton UK home before dinner. France is a reasonably compact country, and with its really superb road system one can be in any corner within about 12 hrs.

France is also a gourmet's delight, although this is less obvious now than 37 years ago when I first arrived. Really good quality markets and supermarkets are everywhere, and the tradition of superb small independent bakers lives on. Without doubt, the standard of every-day lunchtime restaurants has fallen. Not so long ago one was spoilt for choice; nowadays it's not so easy, but with a little searching one should always eat well.

The wine too is good. Maybe the French are a little behind the trend for 'flying winemakers' and their mass production methods for quaffable reds, but the great chateaux are still here and they still produce some of the world's finest.

On the more banal side of things; the education system is good, and the health system one of the best in the world. Of politics; I choose to ignore.

So, when the sun is shining (28 degrees C today), and I'm sitting up at Haddock's with Freddie the cat curled up at my feet, I have nothing to complain about. Add to that a glass of rustic red, a plate of simple charcuterie, and the shade of an old apple tree under which to snooze, and I'm in paradise.

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Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Esther Phillips.

Poor old Esther. Who could ever forget her version of 'What a Difference a Day Makes'.

Yet another junkie jazz singer. She died back in 1984 from the effects of heroin and alcohol, aged only 50.

But, I suppose that if any of us could leave behind a legacy as staggering as 'What a Difference...' we'd be pretty darned happy. So, well done Esther. Thanks for your voice. Thanks for enriching my life. Thanks for just being you.

If by some amazing gap in your life you don't know the above song; Google it NOW.
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Monday, 26 April 2010

The Brighton Falcon.

No, not that sort of Falcon, Cro. The Peregrine Falcon.... The bird type!

Tom Stephenson has posted his version. Here is mine.

Derby may have its Falcon nesting high above its cathedral, but Brighton's is atop an ugly high-rise block of flats with the best sea views on the south coast.

You can watch the Brighton spectacle LIVE by clicking on the link below.

Now then, lots of ooohs and aaahs....

Old glasses.

These are a couple of our 'every-day' old wine glasses. The one in front is (I think) English, and maybe called a 'rummer' (?). And the one behind is French, but I don't know if it has a special name ('wine glass', perhaps?).

The French one, which I use all the time, has a badly chipped foot and is generally a bit wonky, but the English one is perfect.

I'm posting this picture simply because I'm hoping that glass expert Mr Tom Stephenson will be able to elucidate, re the English one.

Both are serious drinking glasses. Personally I have nothing against a chip or two in an old glass, as long as the price I'd been asked to pay for it was rock-bottom. I just like the idea of a glass having history. I'm enjoying a glass of Pécharmant in the French glass, as I write.

I may post a picture of some of my collection of old French wine/absinthe glasses some time. They still turn up at 'boot sales', but sadly not always at prices that suit my pocket. CHEERS!

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Sunday, 25 April 2010

The Sunday Story: Dimitri Ogronov

It is no secret that Colonel Steve Tomson and I met, in 1970, whilst studying Mechanical Linguistics together, at Moscow's No 5524 School of Military Engineering.

The Head of the Department of Mechanical Linguistics, Dimitri Ogronov, was an interesting man. He ate and drank on 'even' dates only, so had never eaten a Christmas lunch/dinner, nor properly celebrated his own birthday (which fell on the 13 March). If a month ended on an 'odd' date, he would then not eat for two days. He was a man for whom self-flagellation would have been administered with relish.

Dimitri had two jobs. By day he lectured officer-cadets on the advantages of encouraged information, and by night he constructed the wherewithall to encourage such information. It was Dimitri who invented Ogronov's Chair; an electrical torture device of uncertain practicality.

Ogronov's greatest legacy, however (for which he was postumously awarded the Lenin Medal 3rd Class), was a method of twisting rope for naval usage. This was never adopted by the Russian Navy, but was much appreciated by Russian women who used the method to twist hair into large coils which were then pinned to each side of the head. This style of hair-dressing is still known in Russia today, as 'The Ogronov Coil'.

Colonel Tomson eventually ran off with Ogronov's 14 year old daughter Olga. For nearly a week they lived (outrageously happily) together near Murmansk, where they both worked at the Glorious No 17 cod-liver-oil processing factory. Olga sadly later exploded, and Steve Tomson returned, heartbroken, to his native country of Romania, where he opened a broken-biscuit factory.

As for me, I shall always be grateful to Dimitri Ogronov. He taught me how to perform certain Cossack style dances, and how to drink pints of Vodka without appearing to be drunk (this, incidently, is done with the aid of a coat hanger, and several drawing pins). Steve and I spent many happy days at the No 5524 School, not least of which were spent introducing winter Pantomimes to a bemused Russian public. We put on productions of 'Piss in Boots', 'Sin-derella', and 'Wittington's Dick'. The productions were cheap but wonderful. Happy Days!

Above is the only known picture of Dimitri Ogronov. It was taken on an 'odd' non-eating day; hence his lackluster expression.

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Saturday, 24 April 2010

No, not elvers.

We all know restaurants that have engraved their mark on our taste buds. Strangely, or maybe not so, mine all date from my early years.

My mother took me to the famous Indian restaurant Veeraswamy's, off Regent St, when I was about 8 (fan-bloody-tastic). My father always took us to Schmidt's, in Charlotte St, from the age of about 6 onwards (sumptuous German mixed-grill). But the restaurant that really stands out was an unknown, back-woods, shack, somewhere in the north west corner of France, when I was about 10.

I was staying with a family in Dieppe, and they decided to take a trip. I've no idea where we went; I was probably in the back of the car reading Tintin. We passed through towns, villages, and non-world. Then lunch-time; and we stopped at a suprisingly busy shack.

It was really half-shack/half woodland, with a small stream running through the middle; and frankly, it was chaotic. We had soup, an entrée, and then BANG. Tiny fish were netted from the stream in a large round scoop, presented to us 'wriggling' at the table, then dropped into boiling oil by our side. They frizzled for a few seconds then were 'fished' out again, and served on a huge platter. It was pure theatre.

I would like to think that they were elvers, but I'm sure they weren't. They were very much fish shape, like miniature fresh-water sprats.

How I would love to eat there again, with my 10 year old mind and palate intact. It was an experience never forgotten. I'm sure that my love of food comes from these few exceptional restaurants of my childhood.

p.s. Isn't this a great photo! Sadly not one of mine. Proof that one can take quality snaps of almost any subject; if one knows what one's doing, and has the right kit.

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Friday, 23 April 2010


In my 'Gnome' posting of April 10th, Tom Stephenson commented about antique 'Bowls Playing' Gnomes. It reminded me of the above.

About 20 years ago, this ridiculous jug caught my eye in a local newsagent/souvenir shop. I simply could not resist it.

It stands about 30cms high, lives tucked away on a crowded shelf, yet continues to make me laugh every time I handle it.

The south of France is filled with boules players who look exactly like this. The shirt, white trousers, hat and moustache, tell you at once that he's a 'pétanque' aficionado. If you ever met him, he would certainly have the same accent as Fernandel, and, if he wasn't throwing his arms about, would no doubt be drinking Pastis.

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Thursday, 22 April 2010

W B Yates.

I was properly introduced to Yates by the artist Simon Fletcher. At school I had read the obligatory poem or two from his early collection 'The Wanderings of Oisin' (which I remember having contained totally unpronouncable Irish names), but the main armoury of his work only came to my attention in the late 60's/early 70's.

His 'Mythologies' (a Macmillan collection of 'short stories' published in 1959) is one of those books that I read time and again. It contains the wonderful Red Hanrahan and The Secret Rose stories (both from 1897). I recommend it to anyone interested in Irish folklore. I expect it's still available SBN 333 06780 0.

I chose the above portrait by John Singer Sargent (as an illustration) for two reasons. Firstly it's a good drawing. And secondly it demonstrates quite succinctly how close to 'slickness' Sargent could become; even his signature in the top right hand corner is studied, and mannered, in its execution. Being a 'slick' draughtman can be extremely destructive for an artist; one can very easily fall into the fatal trap of 'illustration'. Sargent is still regarded as a good journeyman portrait painter, but, on account of this unfortunate capacity, will never be seen as a 'great' artist.

Sargent's WBY portrait is the frontispiece for 'Mythologies', and I always think of the two works as being inseparable.
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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

RIP Molly. 1997-2010.

Molly was not my dog; she was simply my niece, and I her uncle. When her owner, Terry, was away she always came to stay with me, and my home became hers. I like to think that she was almost as much at home here, as she was with Terry (but not quite).

Molly was born in Dubai. Terry found her wandering the streets, and took her in. Eventually she came to live in France in July 2001.

Luck was certainly on her side. Normally she would have remained simply a Dubai 'street dog'; a target for small local boys and their pockets filled with pebbles. But Terry saved her, and luckily she spent nearly all of her 13 years enjoying the best of conditions. Here in France she had the run of the most perfect countryside.

Yesterday she left us; she had been ill for some time.

So, off to dog-paradise with you Molly. You've had it pretty good, and maybe that's all that a stray can expect. We'll all miss you terribly, especially me; your faithful uncle Cro. xx

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Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Two horses.

I used to have one just like this! Mine had less dents and less rust, but otherwise it was pretty much the same.

I cannot tell you how wonderful it feels to be behind the wheel of a 2CV. Every moment is an adventure.

On several occasions I drove up to England in her. Before leaving, a friend would always say "You'll never make it", and she would laugh uncontrollably. I always did 'make it', and the car always behaved impeccably.

We've considered buying another one, but they now have serious rarity value; one in really good condition (unlike the above) would fetch quite a price.

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Monday, 19 April 2010

Tom's nightmare?

Sculptor Tom Stephenson will probably weep blood on seeing this, but as an ex-jobbing-sculptor myself, I do now occasionally give in to modern short-cuts, and abandon my hammer and chisel in favour of concrete mixer and trowel.

When our builder has time, he will start to construct our long-awaited 'tower', and I require a few 'features' to insert. I've already bought a very beautiful 'oeil de beouf' window; this is a local style horizontal oval window that usually goes above a doorway or window. And I've also just finished making a, 50 cms by 50 cms, medieval style 'arrow slit' opening (above).

I cast it in concrete, having used polystyrene for the mould, and then dug out all the unwanted polystyrene leaving what you see. A little stone-coloured mortar was brushed over, and a very small area of washed-on plaster finished the job. There is a square rebate, on the other side, to take a tiny glass window. It still needs a little more ageing, but a pot of yoghurt should fix that.

I know that Mr Stephenson would never agree with me, but concrete occasionally fits the bill. If I'd done the job in stone it would probably have taken me more than a week; and as we both know, on a job like this, one small slip......

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Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Sunday Story: The bells.

It must have been at least 34 years ago, when there was one hell of a storm. It was thundering (on amp mark 11), lightning was crashing all around at twenty flashes per minute (minimum), and the rain was falling in fist-sized lumps... Seriously.

I was quivering in bed, clinging on to Lady M with all my might (or maybe it was Lady M who was clinging onto me). Suddenly we heard the church bells start to ring (in those days they were still hand-rung; now, sadly, they are computerised). I immediately thought that something must be wrong, so, against my better judgement, I dressed, took to the wheel of my ageing blue 2CV and drove hot-tyre, through the appalling weather, the two kilometres to the village church.

When I arrived, I ran to the open door to find a man beneath the bell-tower, happily ringing the bells with a fag in his mouth. In my then rather rudimentary French, I asked what the panic was all about, only to be told that the sound of bells KEEPS HAIL AWAY.

There was no thunderbolt disaster, no elderly lady in distress, no child down a well. Just an old codger acting out some supersticious nonsense.

I have no idea if the sound of bells keeps hail at bay; but it didn't hail that night.... Maybe he was right, and it does really work!

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Saturday, 17 April 2010

Why Whine About Wine.

On returning from the supermarket yesterday morning, I screwed up my bill, and chucked it (as usual) in the bin.

Nothing odd about that, you might say. But then I thought I'd have a quick look at how much certain things had cost (I don't normally bother with such banalities).

I'd bought a 5 litre 'cubi' (plastic container) of red wine; made in the Aude region of France. It's not Pétrus; nor is it vinager. It's a perfectly good drinkable wine for which one would probably pay about £4 a bottle back in the UK.

You will notice on my bill that for 5 litres I paid €4.99; that's probably about £4 FOR FIVE LITRES. About 65p per bottle!

Can anyone beat that?
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Friday, 16 April 2010

Slug infested wall.

What's the connection between slugs, and old stone walls? Well, as every gardener knows, the two are synonymous.

This old wall up at Haddock's is full of the little blighters, and it's as much as I can do to stem their constant flow towards my seedlings. On a wet night it's like watching a well-equiped army advancing against a helpless foe.

Gardeners will always tell you of fool-proof slug traps involving beer, thorns, sawdust, wood ash, old socks, coffee grounds, rolled-up copies of 1950's Readers Digest, etc, etc. Believe me; none of them works.

As a so-called 'organic' gardener, it saddens me to have to admit that without slug-pellets I would have no veg'. So, all along the edge of the wall (well away from my crops) I sprinkle small blue pellets that save my blood from boiling. There's nothing more infuriating than to find that a whole row of fresh seedlings has been munched off by slugs.

I'm sorry you slugs; but you leave me no alternative!

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Thursday, 15 April 2010


They may well remind you of Bambi & Friends, but these Roe Deer are becoming a real pest.

Called 'Chevreuil' here in France, they wander about everywhere, eating whatever they find, and (the males) scratching great wealds onto the bark of young trees with their antlers.

Our local hunters do their best to thin the population between September and March, but there are still more than plenty about.

Most mornings I see 3 or 4 in the field outside my studio. Of course no-one wants them to completely disappear, but when they eat a whole row of my Swiss Chard overnight at Haddock's I'm less than happy.

I suppose my Swiss Chard is the least of the problem, and I can always put up a wire fence around Haddock's to keep the little devils out. It's the damage they do elsewhere that's the most important.

My late father used to say that, when vegetable gardening, you plant 75% for yourself, and 25% for the wildlife. He also used to add that unfortunately the wildlife tends to take 25% of each plant, and not form an orderly queue; eating their 25% from one end only. C'est la vie.

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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Freddie on a hot tiled roof.

It's not only what they get up to at night that's a mystery; it's also in the daytime.

How Freddie managed to get up on the roof I'm not too sure, how he got down again I'm even less so. Lady Magnon seems to think that he simply likes looking down on us.

If anyone knows of a feline ball-and-chain supplier, I'm in the market for one.

The little monkey!

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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Spike Milligan.

The name of Spike Milligan is known to every English and Irish man; but quite possibly not anywhere else; other than Australia. (This may not be so; see Comments. In fact he is quite possibly known absolutely everywhere!).

Milligan was a comic; he wrote a very successful war-time radio comedy show called 'The Goons'. He was also a good friend of Prince Charles.

Other than being a tad bonkers, he was also an erstwhile 'poet'....


Things that go bump in the night
should not really give one a fright.
It's the hole in each ear
that lets in the fear.
That, and the absence of light.

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Monday, 12 April 2010


When I was about 12, I had a teacher who owned an all-white English Bull Terrier, rather like the one above.

Every day he would bring his dog to class, and every day we would flick ink, or stick chewing gum, onto its back as it moved between the desks in the classroom.

The following morning the dog would re-appear totally ink-free and clean; a brand new canvas awaiting its aspiring junior Jackson Pollocks. The teacher never said a word.

Eventually we became tired of our little game and we left the dog un-decorated.

I've often wondered about the philosophy behind this particular teacher's attitude. Was it simply easier to wash the dog than to make enquiries? Was he teaching us a subtle lesson in patience? Or maybe he was demonstrating that to even notice such puerile japes was infra dignitatum. For whatever reason, he taught us an invaluable lesson, and I thank him.

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Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Sunday Story: Corbiere.

Yesterday was 'Grand National' day over in the UK.

I'm not a betting man, so if I pick a horse, it's because it's called Cro's Crawler, or Magnon the Moocher. Not because some pundit says it's a sure winner. Someone once said (probably Groucho Marx) that one should always bet on the fastest horse with the lightest jockey; but how one would know about these things, I have no idea.

In 1983 I was back in England for the Grand National; a horse-race that even rural-deans and mothers-superior place bets on.

I don't think I've ever been into a betting office in my life, so it was fortuitous that the landlord of my local pub', a sour-faced and pot-bellied character named Fred, took bets from favoured locals, and laid them off with his bookie in the nearby town.

The name CORBIERE jumped out at me from the morning's paper; it's the name of a French wine producing area, so the signs were good. At lunchtime I asked Fred if he'd place a bet for me; he said he would, so I put five quid 'on the nose' to win.

I knew most of the basic details. Jenny Pitman was the trainer, Ben de Haan was the pilot, and the starting price was 13 to 1.

Amazingly my horse won, and that evening Fred paid me SIXTY FIVE quid. He had a strangely tortured expression on his face as he counted out, and handed over, the money. I'm certain he'd taken on the bet himself, and NOT laid it off with his bookie. In which case it served him right, as I presume he'd been hoping to pocket my 'easy' fiver.

That was in 1983, and I've not had a bet since!

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Saturday, 10 April 2010

A home is not a home without a gnome.

Some gnomes are good; some gnomes are bad. The above pig-riding gnome was a Christmas present from my youngest son to Lady Magnon. I think he was about 6 at the time.

The poor old thing is now weather beaten and peeling. He has developed 'patina', and has changed from being your average pond-side fishing gnome, to being almost an antique.

Of course he has his detractors, but I like him; not so much because he's an ear-grabbing, pork-mounted, dwarf, but because he has history.

p.s. All plastic gnomes should be shot.

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Friday, 9 April 2010


I love both figs and fig trees; I have about six trees growing in the garden, and they are the only trees from which I can guarantee a crop EVERY YEAR.

The fig is a strange tree, seemingly having no springtime flowers like other trees. In fact what we think of as the fruit, is actually its flower and seeds combined. The Common Fig, which is the type I have, doesn't even require pollination; it seems to break all the rules. Bizarre.

We live in an area where late frosts can annihilate our fruit crop. But the fig cocks a snoop at frost, and will simply start again, finally fruiting at roughly the same time, as if it hadn't been touched at all.

Figs are best eaten fresh off the tree, but they can also be cooked, served in salads, or preserved in a Cognac flavoured syrup for the winter. They do have an unfortunate habit of absorbing water into the fruits after heavy rain, so one should always eat them in dry weather.

Lastly, nature has given them a staggered method of fruit production. Unlike most fruits, they don't all grow at the same time. The fig continues to produce over a long period, so fresh fruit can be eaten from the same tree for quite some while. Delicious.

p.s. My next door neighbour, an ex-banlieue-Parisian, was the proud owner of one of the most magnificent fig trees in the area. Since he purchased a chain-saw, nothing is safe, and his slash-n-burn policy has already cost the lives of nearly all of his garden's beautiful 'specimen-trees'. Sadly this last weekend the huge fig tree caught his attention, and is now no more. WIERD. It'll re-grow, they always do; so what was the point?

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