Nostalgie du Pays

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, after the success of the hard right parties in the European elections in France in May this year.

Even if you don’t normally watch videos, even if politics leave you cold, even if you don’t understand French, please take the time and have the patience to look at this – a man visibly moved by what is happening to his country.

 

Va, la France. Va, ma belle patrie. Allez les travailleurs, ressaisissez-vous, ne laissez pas que tout ça soit fait en votre nom. Ne permettez pas… Ne permettez pas que la France soit autre chose que ce qu’elle est dans le coeur du monde entier…

 

Forward, France, Onward , my beautiful country. Workers, organise; do not permit all this to be done in your name. Do not allow…Do not allow France to be any other than that which she is in the hearts of the whole world.

 

This came back to me in the wake of the murder of the young  Canadian soldier guarding the war memorial in Ottawa….we can know our country is not perfect, but we can love it despite – and sometimes because.

The corpse of that young man travelled the 310 miles of the Highway of Heroes – named as such when the dead from the war in Afghanistan were brought home  -with, it seems, every inch lined by people wishing to express solidarity with his family and solidarity with the values of the country in whose service he died.

Because the people of Canada have not reacted with hatred, but with sorrow, not by instigating witch hunts, but by expressing their love for a young man whose life was needlessly lost – and by setting up a trust find for his young son.

Practical, kindly, level headed people.

 

So why should this remind me of the words of a defeated French politician?

 

Because the love of country is a strange and unfathomable beast.

 

You can loathe  a system yet love the people who live under it….

You can live under oppression yet find relief in the memory of ancient freedom…

You can experience nostalgia for a way of life that once you knew, that you know to be gone, but whose memory lingers like the scent of lavender in your grandmother’s handkerchief drawer.
A scent which comes to you, softly, faintly, when you least expect it and rouses memories of times past.

Apollinaire in his ‘Cors de Chasse’ says that memories are like the calls of the hunting horn, dying away in the wind…but for me those calls bring the past vividly to life…while you live and remember, these things are real.

And the love of country seems to me to be to be a love of your memories…not the abstract ideals trumpeted by politicians who defile the very ideals of which they speak.

Much as I, a Scot, loathe ‘Flower of Scotland’, that dirge now sung on all national occasions…the lines ‘fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen’ conjure up for me my grandfather’s farm…the cattle in the byre, the sheep on the hill, someone cursing the reaper binder and all its works …and although I know that all that world has passed its memory still attaches me to Scotland.

I might know of the Declaration of Arbroath and all the tarradiddles about its real intention; the Wars of Independence, the Darien scheme which brought the country to its knees …but Scotland to me is my own small world when young; the neighbours – ‘canty and couthy and kindly, the best’…the soldiers of my father’s regiment, so kind to me when a child….my grandmother – the terror of the family – explaining to me that every stranger who knocked at the door was the Christ and was to be received with respect and assisted if in need…not that that prevented her from asking the Christ to chop a few logs…

I never really took to England…formed too early in Scotland, I suppose. Perhaps had I grown up in Edinburgh and gone to the right schools…but I had not.
I lived there, I worked there, but despite knowing a number of good kind people, overall life there confirmed my father’s view of the English.

The English? They’re like kippers. No guts and two faces…
Unfair, I know and untrue in private life, but all too evident in the public sphere.

I remember the miners’ strike in the Thatcher years…and how glad were the other union bosses that Scargill would not take the – by then – legally obligatory ballot for strike action…those yellow bellies sold out their own movement and now we have unemployment…people working zero hours contracts…and tax evaders ruling the roost.

I enjoyed the county shows…the magnificent animals and their proud owners…but no landscape held me, no one place anchored me.

But I came to England as an outsider..as a child…

When I moved to France it was as an adult, eyes wide open.

I had made the move as, at that point, property was much cheaper, as was the cost of living and I could still work by fax….without the commuting, without the hassle. Less money, more time.

I was lucky…the neighbours were decent, welcoming people…I made friends with them and, through the man who ran the library in the local town, met others of a more literary bent.
I began to get to know the place through their eyes….

And what a place it was!

I felt at home as I had not since childhood…there was a real inclusion in local life, an expectation that I would participate.
And participate I did, in the Maison Pour Tous – the local centre for activities for all, young or old – in the walking group, in the gardening club, and the Am Dram, playing Feydeau farces under the manic direction of the local dentist.
Unfortunately I wasn’t then eligible for the Old Age Pensioners meetings…a real den of iniquity under the guise of cards and knitting.

Walking the dogs in the evening I would be invited to join the game of boules in front of Jules’ farmhouse, or get hijacked by Papy into helping him fix the window of his little Renault van..Edith would pile us all into her ancient 2CV and we would visit Alice in the next hamlet, her garage full of the implements invented by her husband, who had been a surgical instrument maker…

These people let me into their world and gave me a great love for France – not the France of the caste of vain, incompetent buffoons who run the place, nor the France of the colour supplements where people sit at cafe terraces inhaling vehicle emisssions, nor yet the France of culture and architecture – but the France of ordinary people getting on with their lives as best they can and what those lives bring forth.

I love to keep in touch with it all…I can still see in my mind’s eye the woods at the back of my first house where the flowers of the sweet chestnut trees burst in yellow fireworks against the soft green foliage….I can still ‘hear’ the town band on its erratic way round the commune on July 13th.

Costa Rica has proved to be an amazingly happy place in which to have landed and has conquered me hook, line and sinker…

But, from time to time, I have nostalgie du pays.

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Lilac Time

lilac-flower-2Night falls early here, so indoor things I would do in the daytime when in France I now leave until after dark….jam making, or, as last night, making spiced vinegar and peeling and salting onions for pickling.
And, just as when in the kitchen in France, I listen to BBC radio.

The iPlayer is a godsend, despite its new format which drives me up the wall as I want to know what the Book at Bedtime is before undertaking two processes to get to it only to find it is codswallop.
I shall never understand why people let IT specialists tinker with something that works well to turn it into a means of frustration to the user.

Despite the desperately unfunny comedies and the plodding trendy dramas there is much gold still to be mined on BBC radio and I turned up a little nugget last night which not only gave me pleasure in itself, but which turned back the years to when I was a child visiting my mother’s mother.

The programme was one called ‘My Kind of Country’, broadcast in 1968 by John Arlott, talking about his native county of Hampshire.

A brief description of the career of John Arlott would read: clerk in a mental institution, policeman, poet, wine lover and cricket commentator, but that list gives nothing of the reality of the man – a deeply liberal man in every sense of the word with a poet’s economy and exactitude of style and a warrior’s heart for a worthy cause.

His voice is unique…a southern English accent such as you no longer hear among the blare of the north and midlands favoured by broadcasters who think that only something north of Watford can tick the box marked ‘regional’.
If you are quick you can catch it on the BBC iPlayer…if not, here is a link to him talking about how he became a cricket commentator.

Just listening to him brought me into the world he was describing….peeling off the layers of the outliers of the county to come to what he considered its heart…then he recounted an interview with a shepherd who gave a rendering of that old song ‘Buttercup Joe’ and instantly I was back in the past, in a garden in Surrey, while another old boy sang the very same song.

My mother’s mother came from an Oxfordshire farming family…but there had been a tremendous bust up when she married her Australian husband and they had upped sticks and settled in Surrey in a quiet house on the outskirts of a town that was then half country.
By the time I knew that house it was well within the purlieus of the town – the only ‘country’ aspect remaining being the stables of the Co-op milk delivery horses some distance away.
I was taken to visit when we moved from Scotland to England and was usually, with my cousins, banished to the garden while the mother and daughters got down to gossip.
It was a garden divided between grass and flowers and a huge veg plot…but in spring, when it was warm enough to sit out, we used to gather round the creosoted cable bobbin that served as both table and chair in the shade of the lilacs, purple, mauve and white, behind the rabbit hutches.

The purple and mauve lilacs graced the house with their scent, but the white were never taken indoors. Bad luck.
My father thought it was by way of regarding them like the white hawthorn that you would pick when you went maying…but which should never cross the threshold…white was the colour of death…and was the colour of the mourning clothes worn by the queens of France.
There was also – as he pointed out when I was older – the sexual connotations of plucking the flower, the relief after the sexual drought…listen to Morley’s madrigal ‘Now is the Month of Maying’…where playing at ‘barley break’ means a sex romp. Eat your heart out ‘The Sun’.

But all this was hidden from us as we drank our R. White’s lemonade…
Goes off pop.
A penny on the bottle when you take it to the shop.

One of my mother’s sisters was married to a director of R.White – but I don’t remember any cut price bottles of dandelion and burdock or cream soda darkening our doorsteps.

So, engaged in cousinly wrangling, we were surprised to hear the creak of the hinges of the back gate, followed by the appearance of a total stranger.
An elderly man in a brown suit, the jacket buttoned high as in photographs from the Edwardian period, a face well tanned by the weather and the whole crowned by a brown bowler, or, as we used to call it, a billycock hat.
He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him, but soon recovered himself.

I’d forgotten the gals was visiting.

The ‘gals’ being our mothers.

I’d just slipped out for a bit…you know how it is..’

Fascinated, we nodded as he seated himself on the bobbin. We knew how it was when the coven got together.

Yer grandad is still in the Rose and Crown…

We nodded again: this was par for the course.

But I thought I’d just take a few bottles home; the rounds was getting heavy.

We might not be too sure about rounds and heavy but the sense of unwelcome financial burden was clear to us.

He produced a bottle and crown cork opener and took possession of a glass, throwing the remains of the lemonade on the ground.

This, he said, is brown ale…take a sip.

We did. It was not what we were accustomed to…but we weren’t going to miss out.

He took a draught.

Now. I suppose you’ll be wondering who I am.

We nodded.

Well! I’m a cousin of your grandmother Ellen and I’m the dirty dish in the family!
But you don’t want to know about all thaat.

We did. Oh, how we did, but the rules of our upbringing forbade us to ask what a grown up said we should not know.

So while we’re out here and they’re in there – jerk of the head – I’ll sing you a song or two to pass the time.

He sang us Buttercup Joe…then The Fly be on the Turmut….

And was well launched on the next, which started promisingly with

Be I Berkshire,
Be I buggery,
I comes up from Wareham
Where the gals wears calico drawers
And we knows how to tear ’em

At which point the female posse emerged and put a stop to it all…I don’t know what happened to the old boy but we children were pushed inside and fed seed cake.

On the bus going home I asked my mother about our visitor..

She told me that his own parents had fallen on hard times and had farmed the children out to various relatives.
He had gone to her mother who was a superb plain cook, but, thanks to his circumstances, he was not used to cooked food but rather to the stale cakes sold off by the baker….
So every home cooked meal from roast to shepherd’s pie via pig’s fry on Saturday was greeted with a cry of

I doan’t waant none of thaat…..

Brown ale might have been the answer…..

Shopping with Mother

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No, not shopping with mother as of recently…the scythes on the hubs of the wheelchair, the walking device held in rest as if pricking into the lists and the purse providing a safe environment for elderly moths…..

Shopping with mother when I was a child and we had just moved to Surrey.
We moved further into Surrey a little later, but this is the period I remember – perhaps because it was all different.
Different accents, different houses, different schools.

We could go in two directions.

To the right it was a long walk along the ribbon development of thirties houses, detached or semi behind their gates and hedges – privet much in evidence with the sharp smell of its flowers in summer; old man’s beard showing its feathery heads in autumn.

We would pass the unmade up lane with the wooden weatherboard houses one of which was home to an elderly maiden lady who would give me moss roses in season while she and mother drank tea under the trees….
We would pass the house on the corner with the monkey puzzle tree – home to a cantankerous and incompetent doctor who is responsible for the damage to my middle ear (I have a long and unforgiving memory when it comes to health professionals)…
Further on there was the house ruled by the whims of an African Grey parrot, companion of an old Scottish lady – relict of a minister – who used to give me Beauty of Bath apples from her tree while my father tidied up her garden…
Then to the parade of shops near the church to which I was despatched for Sunday School on the dominical afternoon to allow my parents time to dispute the nature and availability of marital rights.
For some little time I suffered a confusion between marital rights and Marian rites – probably due to the High nature of worship on offer at said church as commented upon by the minister’s relict – but kept my confusion and subsequent enlightenment to myself.

The fish and chip shop…working up for its lunchtime trade…the sweet shop next door, beautifully positioned opposite the zebra crossing serving the children from the school opposite.
I remember the dragon of a crossing keeper who would shout at children who crossed the road to visit the sweet shop only to want to cross back again with their booty once selection had been made among the pear drops, wine gums and chocolate bars.
I used to wonder whether she was responsible for the accidents to children on the sharp bend by the church back down the road…but, again, kept my thoughts to myself.

Past the photographer with wedding pictures in the window where mother would drop in rolls of film to be developed or collect the results in heavy paper envelopes, strips of negatives tucked into the special pocket.

The pet shop opposite was not on my mother’s rounds…my father would take me there to buy biscuits for my dog,Sandy; large ones of different colours…I remember beige, red and green…and black, charcoal ones, said to counteract the flatulent effect of the green ones.
Clearly, no one had told Sandy. I learnt to take cover whenever he would stir, heave himself up from his rug and take a stroll down the hall; seconds later the lungs would be overwhelmed by a smell so virulent that you would think that thirty school canteens had simultaneously decided to boil cabbage to death.
Silent but deadly…that was Sandy.
The pet shop was a delight as its owner had a mynah bird which could imitate …as I recall…every regular customer and I was thrilled when I in turn had the mark of its recognition as it gave forth what was evidently my standard cry…’There’s the mynah bird…’

But, back on mother’s path, the road began to run downhill into the main shopping area…butchers, bakers, grocers and – to me the high point – the Co-op.
The Co-op did not stock food…but it seemed to have everything else and above all it had those wonderful change machines…little metal tubs on wires which would whizz at ceiling height between the wooden counters and the cash desk.

There was a Marks and Spencer but we did not darken its doors. Mother objected to their prices and to that fact that they had no changing rooms, so that if something did not fit you were obliged to make a special trip to return it.
I wonder if they were placing their money on the markets overnight even then…
If so they made nothing from mother.

British Home Stores on the other hand, did have changing rooms and their quality was every bit as high as that of M and S so while knickers and liberty bodices – was there anything so ill named – were bought at the Co-op, dresses blouses and skirts were bought at BHS.

This was as far as we went, unless taking the train to London, or when, occasionally, my father would walk us all down to the old fashioned pub near the station where we would sit in the beer gardens – lush borders worthy of a country house garden – while Sandy would eat crisps – the twist of blue paper containing salt having been removed and added to my bag – and I would sip at my sharp, fizzy lemonade.

If we turned left when leaving the house then the walk was shorter…but steeply uphill. We knew no one on that stretch and clearly did not enter The Cock Inn which had no beer garden but did have a door mysteriously labelled Snug.

At the crossroads at the top of the hill was a large pub….white, with car parking space in front. Going straight ahead led to the swimming baths to which schoolchildren would be bussed to have their heads held under chlorinated water in a laughable attempt to teach swimming. Luckily I contracted what was unblushingly known at that time as African Foot Rot which released me from that particular torment.

On the right was the wool shop. I dreaded mother turning that corner as it meant sitting on a chair for a long time while she and the owner discussed exactly what sort of wool would be suitable for yet another knitted skirt and jumper set to make my life unbearable. To this day mention of ‘heather mixture’ can depress my spirits and make me start to itch.

On the corner itself was a butcher’s shop. A proper one. Poultry with ruffs of feathers hung head down; rabbits swung by their hinds, blood at the nose. No turkeys…it was before turkey time…but geese, yes. What were called ‘green’ geese in the autumn, fresh from feeding on grass, and ordinary geese at Christmas.
No meat on display…everything was kept in the cold rooms behind and I used to position myself to catch the waft of cold acrid air as the door was opened.

To the right was the row of shops leading to the cinema.
I remember the Home and Colonial Stores with its gold lettering on a black ground, where mother bought tea and bacon – often, all too often, the ultra salty Ulster for boiling – and J. Sainsbury, all marble topped counters and white tiled walls, where she bought breakfast sausage…a liver based delight which I would gladly meet with again.

On that road too was the bus stop where the chocolate and yellow coaches of Surrey Motors would pick up passengers for day or afternoon trips in the good weather.
Mother and her sisters would sometimes book tickets for themselves and their children; cream teas figured largely as did historic houses, though I also remember a trip to the Cheddar Gorge notable for one young dare devil standing on a cliff edge shouting
Look, Mum…no hands!

No, not one of us.

And on the same road was the ironmongers, delighting in the name of Sprange, which I used to think might be the name of one of the utensils sold there…for it sold everything from buckets to mouse traps via sink plungers and tools.
Crowded shelves lined the walls; there was a wooden counter in the middle; items hung from the ceiling and the men in brown warehouse coats who served knew where everything was.

They might have been traditional, but they were not behind the times.
At a time when aerosol cans were a novelty they stocked them, bearing a product for disseminating scent for use in the loo, which came in colours supposedly appropriate to the smell of the contents….pink for roses, blue for lavender….
Several ladies were interested in these delights to the detriment of their family budget and they were selling fast on a day when I followed mother inside.

What was to happen next would confirm for me that the British – at that time – were a very self controlled race.

One of the brown coated gentlemen approached the elderly lady at the head of the queue.

Yes, madam. how may I help you?

I want an arsehole.

Not a twitch from the man at the counter. Not a sound from the customers.

Certainly madam. Which colour would you like?

A blue one.

Certainly, madam…I’ll just have it wrapped for you.

No comment was made, no knowing looks were exchanged even after she left, purchase tucked in her shopping basket.

Once mother had bought the steel wool she had come to buy we too, left the shop.

Did that lady say….

Yes she did.

And then we both had to sit on the seat by the traffic lights, laughing until our stomachs were sore.