Tuesday, November 29, 2011

the last fly

A sure sign of the end of autumn, the beginning of winter is the disappearance of flies. But there is always one fly left. No-one knows for what he or she is looking but everyone knows that he – or she – is (insert favourite expletive) annoying, indestructible and buzzes without cease, especially at night. And this fly arrives just as the tidy housewife, (sorry 'house-person'), has removed all the hideous glue strips that wreaked such havoc on flies all summer.
This one fly is always to be found in the company of human beings, at breakfast, in the bathroom, or in the sitting room where the same human is peacefully getting irritated by the stupidities offered by television companies. Irritation piles upon annoyance when the daft, dazed insect drops into the soothing evening drink and adds frantic paddling to its insistent buzz. The squeamish will probably pour the whole drink down the sink, the more parsimonious will spend a few moments with a teaspoon saving the fly's life and the contents of their glass. Both will miss the best part of an episode of whatever they were watching. It is, of course, worse for those who are reading and absent mindedly reach for their drink. Since words are so much more absorbing than pictures they may not spot the fly until it touches their lips. Beurk.
But the most annoying habit of autumn's last fly is its insistence on exploring the darkening bedroom of humans trying to get to sleep. Like most flying insects it aims incessantly for any form of light, even an alarm clock with luminescent hands is not spared. Again and again it beats itself against this last sign of warmth. The irate human, sleepless with fury, attempts to swat it. But this is a dangerous activity for the fly cannot always be accurately located and hitting your best bedside lamp with a rolled up copy of some respectable newspaper will do more damage to lamp and paper than to the fly. Even if you do not fall over your slippers.
And what do you do when the fly has got stuck in one of those formerly fashionable sixties Japanese paper lantern lampshades? You can switch the light off but then the insect appears to use its buzz as an echo locator to find a way out. This can take an eternity, or so it seems. (Eternity is the length of time whose duration cannot be shortened by the person suffering it – my definition.)
The plastic fly swatters made in multitudinous hideous colours, probably in China, are more accurate instruments of death than rolled up newspapers or flicked napkins. The present ones that we have are hexagonal and have very flexible stems. The head, or killer end is decorated with a grinning face which may or may not terrify the fly in its last few moments of life – if you are accurate. But flies fly very fast and rest in places you do not wish to hit even with the most flexible of fly swatters. The best you can do is to chase the fly from the place it wishes to be to a place where you can safely – safely for you and your goods – swat it. Perhaps these latest fly killer models were designed with the encouragement of the late Chairman Mao who had very decided views on flies. He preferred them dead and enrolled the entire population of China in this ambition.
A fly swatter is, of course, very different to a fly whisk. The first, as I have just mentioned, comes in awful plastic colours. The latter can be a thing of beauty, an elegant weapon, used to distance the fly from the human face. The human in this case was often a very important person, especially in his (or her) own opinion. Somewhere in the attic we have a couple of antique fly whisks: carved ivory or bone handles garnished with white horse hair for use by the important person him or herself. They are very efficient at distancing flies. I have tried them, but they are not killer weapons at all. It is difficult to concentrate on a text whilst moving horse hair rhythmically before your face.
When houses are closed up for any length of time during the autumn to spring transition, it will be seen that the 'one fly' is a myth. There are actually numerous flies but they only show themselves individually. And humans cannot tell one fly from another. Hence the idea that there is 'one' fly all over the house. However, whilst they may manifest themselves singly, flies die collectively, usually on window sills. There is is a splendid piece of doggerel verse in the Penguin 'Verse and Worse' collection which – along with the fly whisk – is somewhere up in our attic, but unlike the fly whisk I could not find it. The rhyme, to the best of my memory, ends:
'but flies is wise,
when winter comes,
they dies.'

Except for that one keeping you awake at night.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

where is Agatha Christie when you need her?

As I was going down to St Astier the other day (- pls, no panic, this will not be a poem) I saw a pair of men's shoes in the road. Highly polished, seemingly new, black mens' moccasins were lying on their sides about a metre from the kerb, noticeably on the newly laid tarmac of the road. One shoe showed a protruding, equally black sock, the other had a sock quite near-by. It looked as though they had been thrown with some violence into the road but it was not evident whether it was from the near-by house or from some passing car.
The shoes gleamed, so obviously not a case of spontaneous combustion on the part of the wearer. An unoccupied mind can devise hundreds of stories about the provenance of these shoes, the reason for their place in the road. Had an irate lover thrown them from the house...but then why no clothes? Would a man limp, shoe-less, the five kilometres to St Astier, even if the rest of him was clothed? The same could be asked if they had been thrown from a car. Or perhaps he was wearing shoes but these were his favourites that were thrown after him...It intrigued me sufficiently to almost buy the local paper and see if there was any information, but self restraint won the day. Anyway, a nice line for all students of 'Creative Writing' 101.
The hamlet in which the shoes were abandoned is what might be described as 'dormitory' for St Astier were either to be any larger than they are. It comprises probably less than 20 houses, most of them post-war. One is a former animal/equipment shed that has been extended, modernised and prettified by its owner. It now has an extensive vegetable garden and the geese and chickens have their own salubrious dwellings. Across the road from this is a more dilapidated homestead. Obviously a former farm worker's cottage, with sufficient land for subsistence farming, its present owner has succumbed to a bad attack of self sufficiency. He appears to be trying to re-do the roof of the building, technically not very difficult but it takes time. Horses and donkeys succeed each other, trying to survive on the rapidly vanishing grass. Another owner but of a brand spanking new house has also succumbed to a degree of self sufficiency and is attempting to put up his own wire fencing. Results so far, fencing one, owner nil.
Lurking in the woods behind the hamlet, is a road that leads to the barracks above St Astier – a training ground for the various riot control police of EEC countries.
The trainees are never seen in the town and little is known about them. Except that one day I was shopping in my local supermarket in the quiet hour between twelve and two, Intermarche at Chancelade, when a near invasion force of local police, plus some national gendarmes, came swooping into the car-park. They escorted fifty or so embarrassed, youngish men, into the shop. The few shoppers and check-out girls were all agog. Girls gathered together and demanded information. Apparently these young men were future Afghan policemen on a training course in St Astier.
The hamlet's houses are all on the ridge of the hill leading down to St Astier. Driving in from La Chaise, we are reminded of the speed limit – one can only drive through at 70 kmph, a standard for all the hamlets on the road between Tocane St Apre and St Astier. I tried to have this limit applied to La Chaise, which is not actually a hamlet, but was officially informed that the traffic past our gates was insufficient and did not go above the approved speed limit. Once out of that hamlet above St Astier, the speed limit is lifted and those who wish, can take two hair pin bends at more than 70 kmph. Fortunately local residents, even when not totally sober, are reasonably sensible.
I darkly suspect the blanket, one size fits all, Napoleon thought of it first, administrative regulations here,for example, speed through hamlets should be restricted to 70 kmph, once the hamlet is passed, back to the overall road speed of 90 kpmh – regardless of bends. These preconceptions take a long time, some practical good sense, to change.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Of saints, summers and soldiers

The day after Remembrance Day, Saturday 12th November, we had lunch on the terrace. It was over 20ºC, brightly sunny, no wind. Perhaps it will be seen as the high point of St Martin's Little Summer, the days before had been bright, the days to come are promised to be sunny and dry. A vast skein of geese, perhaps the last, had noisily flown overhead, general direction North Africa, probably Morocco. French commercial radio was vaunting the attractions of the new foie gras, without specifying whether goose or duck. Oddly, there seemed to be no forwarning of Beaujolais Noveau, usually launched on the third Thursday of November.
And the locals were right: these last few sunny days produced a vast harvest of different kinds of fungi. There were the usual '40 kg of cepes in a hour' stories and even the lady who helps with my house came with photos of a mushroom (penny bun, of course) that she had found, it weighed 1.5 kg and was 20 cm across. But she did admit that most of it was inedible.
Our fields were polka dotted with field mushrooms and puff balls – the latter known more imaginatively as 'wolves' farts' in French, presumably because of the malodourous cloudlet that is released as children stamp on them. So even I succumbed and went mushroom picking. But, self restrained, I only managed 3 kg of the simple rosée des près, the standard 'mushroom' sometimes also known as the champignon de paris. In the latter case it probably grew in a cellar and never knew grass. One thing I have come to rely on over the years, and it is a useful safety guideline: fungi always come back in more or less the same place, if not always in the same quantity. If they are not in the same place, but look the same – be very, very careful. I collected a basket load of 'mushrooms' from a hitherto virgin patch of grassland, assuming that the spores had spread. Handling them at home, I noticed they went slightly yellow; on checking with my mushroom bible I discovered they were indeed the vomit inducing version of agarics.
As often in prolific fungi years, the witches' circle becomes more obvious. This year I observed that the mushrooms that were under the walnut trees circled around the tree, probably at just that point where its horizontal roots ended, certainly it was at the limit of the tree's branches. There is one edible toadstool which always comes up in the same place in good fungi years which – I think – is the shaggy ink cap. As it rises from the ground, in a semi-circle round a scrawny, possibly dying, walnut tree, it looks like a child's drawing of a phallic symbol. Then it opens flat and looks just like one of those hairy parasols set around a decaying seaside cafe. I am told it is edible but will leave it to others to try.
Remembrance Day, the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, is the official feast day of St Martin who brings us this brief autumn summer now Americanised as 'Indian' summer. St Martin was a soldier in the Roman army in the early 300's who cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar outside the town of Amiens. He eventually became Bishop of Tours – against his will, apparently, he was kidnapped from his hermitage and forcibly enthroned. Tours is a town reknowned for its fine wines, fine wood and excellent spoken French. Legend has it that St Martin encouraged the creation of vineyards. It may not be very religious but the symbols most often associated with him are the goose – a roast goose is eaten in his honour – a horse and sword as reminder of his military days. St Martin's day (or days) also marked the formal end of the medieval agricultural year. Livestock that could not be over wintered was slaughtered and conserved for the lean days ahead. I wonder whether St Martin was in the minds of those who settled the 'war to end all wars' on his feast day

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Rain! The Rain!

At last, at last, the rains have come! After all the drought ridden summer months wondering whether there would be enough early dew or scotch mist to dampen the fields and stimulate the grass, the daily chore of watering the ungrateful vegetable garden, the rains have fallen.
The arrival of the autumn rain is always a frighening moment in deepest rural South West France. It is the moment when the house owner discovers whether or not the roman tiles on his roof have slipped, allowing the water in either through the channels or through the cracked covering tiles. Foresighted owners have been up on their roofs, cleaning the gutters of dried leaves – only the long-lasting summer meant these fell in one go, unexpectedly, along with the rain. A blocked gutter means rain back-firing up under the tile channels and dripping through the plasterboard ceiling below – with a sleep-disturbing vengeance. Terra cotta roof tiles are slippery in the wet and it is recommended that only expert roofers walk on them – but with the rain, roofers (like London taxi drivers), dissolve into the mist and owners have to be patient and find last year's buckets.
This is the age old story of Dordogne roofs, delightful roman style terra-cotta tiles, provencal style, but unsuited to the higher pitch of local roofs, hence sliding and slipping and propping and generally getting too heavy. Somehow the locals do not seem to demand that their roofs keep out rain, unlike northern Europeans, there is an 'ah well' attitude. And just as a Dordogne male is not a man without his own chain saw and cement mixer, he must also be able to fiddle with his roof. Fortunately in the thirty odd years we have been year, improvements have been made to the basic tile concept, all aimed at attaching the tile in various ways to the underlying roof, with varying degrees of success.
But there is a joyous side to the advent of these downpours – going out in the rain to see what has happened. I clapped my long unused boots together to shoot out the spiders, millipedes, earwigs and any other univited insect that had taken up residence during the summer. I did the same with my long, green plastic, serious agricultural rain coat. Insects scuttled, grumbling, into the further reaches of the conservatory as I vainly searched for my hat. Then, armed with mobile phone (in case I slipped) a serious rain hat, the boots and rain coat and the standard plastic bag for collecting things, I set off to see what, if anything the rain had achieved.
The first day's answer was - not much. The earth was so hard baked, the rain had hardly penetrated. The soil of the vegetable garden did look fertile again and the comice pear tree, planted just last year, and sporadically watered since, looked as though it had decided to live. The carrots revived, as did the bugs in them. The courgettes were rotting and the aubergines were failing to colour. The odd chilli pepper strove to produce a red bean. Down the fields the hard marbles of sheep shit at long last began to dissolve and carry their goodness into the soil and there were signs of the faster intestinal transit of the wet grass.
The trees dripped, more fir-cones had fallen but closed, there were more acorns and chestnuts on the ground and the last of the walnuts were scattered under their trees. Most walnuts by now had been hollowed out by passing rodents but we were feeling generous. With the nuts down came the leaves, turned yellow brown in the course of a weekend, the maples still defiantly holding on to their own.
But the ponds, small and large, had hardly been affected. The duck pond nearest the Farmhouse, its bottom covered in lush grass, was barely wet, the solar powered fountain still disconnected for lack of water to spout. The Black Pond in the Woods, which is fed by the run off from the road, was doing better, but still the green growth of opportunistic grass and lentil weed showed. The pump lake, at the very lowest point of the land, has shown some intake of water but the reed and grass growth was hardly affected. We still keep it fenced off so that animals cannot get stuck in the mud.
But, oh the joy of the locals! The rain, the rain, if followed by warmth – which the local weather forecasters did not hesitate to predict (at times one would think weather forecasters were elected) would lead to another crop of champignons! Perhaps some 'trompettes de la mort' would show up (late because there was no rain on Halloween) or there would be more 'boletus edulis'....there were certainly a lot of agarics, rosée dès près, the simplest of field mushrooms. Sadly a considerable number turned yellow when handled, vomit inducing but not deadly.