Tuesday 30 October 2012


Avenas, in the hills of Haut-Beaujolais, is never livelier than on an autumnal Sunday morning. Convoys of trail bikes thump past, riders as gaudily armoured and accoutred as  knights of old. Big 4x4s park up along the road, with corrugated kennels bolted onto the back for the hunting dogs. As I rootled about at the front of the house, the jingling of bells heralded the arrival, not of a herd of goats, but of a sedate beagle, in company with a weekend warrior, a stout gentleman in his sixties, clad in camouflage and webbing, puffing on his pipe and jauntily swinging his 12-bore shotgun.

 Fortunately, as I was not wearing a bell, I'd already taken my own walk up the hill on Friday. Harebells were still in flower, and there were berries all around; and lots of fungus, including this fine parasol mushroom that had evaded the hunter gatherers.

...and lots of Fly Agaric, looking rather beautiful. By the way, did you ever hear of a book called The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross? -Christ as a magic mushroom.... one of those culty books of the 70s.

"Anne's son was in Scotland, and he found lots and lots of mushrooms," said Marta. "He asked the locals if it was OK to pick them, and they said 'Go ahead! We never eat those things!' So he filled two rucksacks with them, hitched to Paris and sold them for lots and lots of money. Went back, every autumn. Paid his way through university with those mushrooms."

They do take their mushrooms far more seriously than we do. In Cluny, a hall was full of tables covered in loads and loads of different species, dutifully labelled and described.

...and the experts were on hand to pick through the offerings brought by visitors.

Sunday 28 October 2012

out of the river, always something new

On my little trip down through France last week, I packed the small binoculars just in case any accidental ornithology presented itself. They didn't get much use, though. Maybe the birds get shot more in France...

Although I saw no raptors up in the hills of Haut-Beaujolais, the autoroutes on the way there and back were attended by buzzards, regularly spaced on the deer-proof fence, like those little posts with numbers on that mark distance.

Oh look, a buzzard
Perched on the autoroute fence.
Oh. Another. And...

(haiku, whatever their literary merit, are a useful  and tweet-friendly way of keeping awake and marking events on a journey...)

I heard mostly nuthatches in the wooded hills, and lots of them, all around the village. Not a particularly cheerful note, but there you go. At dawn the wrens sang nicely, then the church rang the Angelus and the local dogs had a jolly good bark-along, in tenor, baritone and bass. They sounded like the sort of dog you wouldn't want to cross.

Coming back across the Channel, we were in thick fog all the way. I went up on deck an hour before arrival in Portsmouth, by which time we were probably somewhere off Bembridge, IOW. The upper deck was busy with chaffinches, blackbirds and thrushes; one thrush stood on the steps I was ascending, beak gaped wide open, unmoving even as I approached within a foot. Birds do seem more indifferent to people when they're encountered on a ship- my first close-up look at a chiffchaff was on the deck of the Pride of Bilbao, out in the Bay of Biscay. And my first ever view of a firecrest, come to think of it. Oh, and the woodcock on the back deck of the Karen Bravo; when I mentioned it in the mess, the Filipino messboy grabbed a knife and set off to find it....

...and up above all this (there for the warmth, perhaps)

crackling in the fog,
a great squabble of starlings
huddles the funnel
Were they migrating, or lost in the fog?

But best of all was the morning after arriving in Crickhowell. I went down to the river, and sat watching the dawn. And a sweet song started up, one I'd never heard before. As the light strengthened, I made out the bird on a rock in the river. Thanks to the camera, you can see it even more clearly here, though you can't hear it. The brown bird with the white breast. See?

the Usk rumbles past
this torrent of bubbling song-
dipper on a rock

If you want to hear one and don't have access to a river right now, you can do here on the RSPB website.

Saturday 27 October 2012

in the picture

 I'm featured artist in the new Bristol Review of Books photography section! Which makes me very happy. Their website allows you to read a copy online (Summer 2012 issue is there at the moment). The BRB is available free from all good places around Bristol- they don't have it? -then leave immediately! -for it is obviously not a good place. Or you can subscribe, and have it sent to you wherever you are.

Thinking photographs, here's an early morning shot on the Downs in Bristol. I rather liked the picture, but even so was taken aback when it got into Flickr's Explore, and rapidly became the most popular photograph in my photostream (and I've been on Flickr for seven years now). Goodness!

Popularity on Flickr is reckoned as a combination of number of views, comments and favourites. My next most popular is this fortunately-caught wildlife shot at Clevedon

..and then this balloon that flew past in the fog, a few years ago

In fourth place, this bit of agitprop from the 'Tesco riots'

...this chap in Aylesbury...

..and at last, in sixth place, one that is also a personal favourite. Katie on the Trav, down at East Prawle.


Thursday 25 October 2012


Getting out of the van at the Ouistreham seafront, I saw a bank of smoke roll across the road a few hundred yards away.
"Something's on fire!" I said.
A few moments later, we were engulfed in fog.
Marta beshawled herself with coats and scarves, and settled in to read Figaro Madame. I set off across a  boundless expanse of hard sand, following the scrunch of waves and the scream of black-headed gulls. "You'll get lost!" Marta called after me. "And then what will become of me, eh? I'll die of cold here and no-one will find me."

My world was a circle of twenty yards, with me at the centre. After a while, the circle contained a small pool of sea with waves coming into it and wheeling gulls. I picked up a cockle shell and set off back.

Presently we were seated in the Broche d'Argent, messily scooping mussels out of their shells and eating them. Outside, the ghosts of Normandy past loomed. A tall man in beret and pea jacket, a woman in large felt hat and cloak; evidently the skipper of a fishing boat and his wife, promenading. They seated themselves near to us, and shed their outer garments to reveal a homeward-bound British couple, who drank bright-coloured drinks through a straw and played questions-and-answers about their tour of the invasion beaches; she questioning, then, after a pause, she answering. I learned that I had been walking on Sword Beach, but not what the brightly-coloured drinks were.

I went on deck as we set sail. One man far below cast off the lines, another pushed the hydraulics button of the passenger ramp and lifted it away from the embarkation deck where I stood alone. As he and France together receded into the fog, I nodded a good night to him, which he quite properly ignored. It is only right that you should be surly if you are a docker, and even more so if you're a French one.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Pressure Cooker Bread

My canal trip last week revealed a disappointing shortfall in artisan bakers on the towpath of the Grand Union Canal. Nearby shops tended to be of the Spar persuasion; a neighbouring narrowboater at Cosgrove, an old canal hand, came by with an armful of tins of economy stew from the on-site shop of a caravan park; "...and they're open till seven," she said breezily. To be fair, my satnav, packed for just such an emergency, guided us next day to the Waitrose at Milton Keynes ("turn right when possible"), but such occasions are few and far between in the indifferent steppes of Mittelengland, where people little think of Elizabeth David.

So I've got thinking of ways of making decent bread in straitened circumstances. This was my first experiment.

Pressure cooker bread

12 fl oz warm water
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp dried yeast
20 oz plain strong flour
1 tsp salt

Put the sugar and yeast in the warm water (warm as in, comforatble to stick your finger in). Stir up and leave to froth.
Mix the salt into the flour. Make a hollow in the flour. Add the yeast mixture, stir and knead so that it's slightly bouncy to the hand. Roll it into a ball.

Put the dough into a cake tin, dust with flour (I use maize flour as it doesn't absorb so much into the dough)
Tie a piece of greaseproof paper over the tin and leave to rise. Or leave to rise and then tie the greaseproof paper over it, and then you can see it more clearly. As you please.

Put the trivet in the pressure cooker, add water to just cover it, and put the tin in.

Cook under pressure for ten minutes. Remove pressure cooker from heat and leave to cool and depressurise naturally. Rather than running cold water over it (or indeed, as I did the first time I used one, force it open. V dramatic, let me tell you).
in the pressure cooker

out of the tin
the first slice
Result: a fairly dense, bagel-like loaf, with an unearthly pallor. Daughter was v happy with it, as she hates crusts, and this loaf simply does not have one. It tastes OK, though I might add interesting things to the dough if I do it again.

PS: two days old, it makes terrific toast!

Saturday 6 October 2012

poets who lunch

Down to the Bristol Old Vic yesterday, for Poetry Can's monthly 'Can Openers' lunchtime event. The guest poet was Sally Jenkinson. She went down a storm, which was not surprising as she is really good. And it was nice to see a quote from Holly of The Lovely Eggs on the cover of Sally's book, Sweat-Borne Secrets. You can respect a band who get Richard Brautigan into one of their songs.

I read a squib I wrote a couple of weeks ago, when Deborah and Pameli were talking about the task that they'd been set in their workshop, of writing a metaphysical poem."That sounds like fun," I thought. Poetry as therapy....

To Her Once Mistress

Like unto a telly set was our life together,
And you it was th’remote control that wielded;
What now the programme we should watch, or whether
To the pub to go; and me the one who yielded.

But now, your batteries flat, the telly long since landfilled,
I fly, in spirit aerial, unlicensed and unchannelled.

Wednesday 3 October 2012

home is the sailor

Settled in after an epic voyage along the Grand Union Canal. I'll write it up presently; but it had high adventures, like almost conking out in a tunnel

...encountering cannibals in Leighton Buzzard

...rescuing shipwrecked sailors, and meeting friendly natives.

"You smell of oil" said Katie when I got home...