Friday, September 30, 2005

English, unexpected grass, too bad

Hearing the rythms and intonations of English in the street after more than a week of Spanish and Catalan. There is a place for both but it is nice to come back to the familiar.

From the bridge that crosses the railway line at the station, I see grass growing in the gutter of the roof over platform 1. It is proper grass rather than a mixture of weeds. You don't often have the chance to look down on gutters.

I enjoy this tidy dismissal by Ambrose Bierce, the American writer and wit, in a book review in the San Francisco Chronicle. "The covers of this book," he wrote, "are too far apart."

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Beach walkers, babel, home

A typical sight on the beach at Sitges as we bid it au revoir this morning. A couple in swimsuits walk briskly up and down beside the sea. The beach is about 300 m wide and this seems to be a more popular form of exercise than swimming.

Behind us on the terrace where we have breakfast is a group of five business people. In the space of half an hour the same groups speaks Italian, Spanish German and English.

Returning home to familiar things, and, in particular, my own keyboard with which normal English punctuation is achievable

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

George Orewell, swallows, computer

In Barcelona, we are sitting outside a bar, in the area between the Cathedral and the port, which used to be disreputable, but which is now more respectable though still poor. We are drinking beer and have ordered a sandwich. There is a tall tennament in front of us, with washing hanging on every balcony. Suddenly we notice that the square is called Plaza George Orewell, and even one of the sandwich variations bears the name of the English writer. We recall Homage to Catalonia in which Orewell described his experiences, while supporting the Republican cause in the Civil War.

While swimming before breakfast this morning, we are joined by scores of swallows, which swoop and flutter and skim over the water.

One of the many pleasures of this holiday has been the computer for guests of the hotel to use at the reception desk. Although its version of Microsoft seems to make it difficult to punctuate in some instances, it has been wonderful to be able to complete this log for the last week.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Santa Maria del Mar, Fiduea, long way home

Inside the wonderful fourteenth century church of Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona, which is also called the people's church, there is a sad notice in English, which reads Keep a close eye on your belongings. Beware of flower sellers.

Fiduea is a Catalan dish which consists of very fine noodles which are cooked in a black sauce of octapus ink,with octapus in small slices, and prawns. It is prepared in a wide, shallow pan called a paellera, also used for paella, from which it is ceremoniously served. It is a treat, which we always look forward to.

In a bar I overhear a woman on a mobile phone. She says I want to go to Australia via China.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Massage, monster, storm

This is a friendly, intimate beach, a family beach. It is above all relaxed. A number of women, regardless of age or shape, go topless. Two girls, so attired, or unattired, were lying slowly cooking by the sea, turning from time to time to assure an even tan. We went for a swim. When we returned, they were attended by two uniformed masseuses, in striped shirts and shorts. These girls had produced bottles of unguents and creams, brushes and sponges from their bags, and were applying them vigorously. They pinched and pummelled, squeezed and stroked, and bent arms and legs up and down, taking, as it were, a body each. It was like the end of a production line for dolls.

There are two showers on the beach, one at each end. They are constructed of stainless steel and pressing a button releases solar heated fresh water. Coming out of the sea I find that a scuba diver, dressed from head to toe in black, has taken possession of the one I was making for. He has a black mask from which protrudes an elaborate breathing apparatus like a huge proboscis.

A majestic thunderstorm last night. We are dining with friends. Rolls of thunder and lightening recall the phrase shock and awe. The rain seems to fall in a solid sheet. The lights go out. Our friends light candles and we talk through the din. Later we are driven back to the hotel via streets sloping towards the sea, whic have become rivers and waterfalls. The water races through the culverts under the sea wall and carves channels on the beach. The next morning, everywhere the sand is pock marked by the rain.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Basset hound, pub Voramar, people watching

People who live here walk their dogs every morning. One of the dogs is called Otto. He is an enormous basset hound . It takes five minutes for him to walk past you. He is low slung, a few inches above the ground, with a vast head, powerful shoulders, and an aristocratic indifference to anyone who stops to talk to him. He looks straight ahead as though there is something more worthwhile in the future; and there probably is.

The Pub Voramar is not a pub: it is a traditional bar. All the menus are in Catalan. We watch the proprietor every morning putting out the tables and chairs. Always with great pride, he hangs up the pub sign - a painting of the outside of the bar, which is framed in a crude contraption made of old boards, perhaps salvaged from an old fishing boat.

People watching is part of every holiday. We watch a group of three Swedish couples. They are dead serious. Not a smile, not a laugh; they spend more than half an hour reading menus. Eventually they sit down at a table outside the restaurant, where we are eating. They order food and drink. The women have wine, the men beer. But when the beer arrives, the glasses are too small. The beer glasses are replaced by half litre tankards. Still there has been not sign of animation. The men take a couple of sips. Suddenly the table lights up. The long faces break into smiles; they begin to talk. They are having a good time; they are on holiday. The whole process has taken the best part of an hour.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Drums, small waves, date palms

The Fiesta de Santa Tecla is defined by drums, in addition to fire crackers. During the festivities, you hear them all day and most of the evening, and everyone, young or old, seems to be carrying them. The rhythm is insistent, rather like African drums in old fashioned movies. I see one drum strapped to the side of a motor scooter like a saddle bag.

The sea is calm and the small waves creep up the beach like lacy claws.

From a date palm, tresses of dates hang like locks of dark golden hair streaked with green.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Singing newsagent, fireworks, morning swim

Returning to the same place every year has many charms. One is meeting old acquaintances. The lady at the newsagent is an example. She sings in between selling papers and magazines. I don't know if she has a sad or happy life, but she has given the impression over the years of being the happiest person in the world.

It is the Fiesta of Santa Tecla and there is an amazing fireworks display from the plaza in front of the church.It begins at 11 pm. We watch it from the balustrade at the far end of the little bay called Playa San Sebastien. There are huge bursts of stars in the shape of flowers, hearts, palm trees, vast towers of sparks which flower and hang a long time in the sky before fading. The sky lights up behind the church on the promentary at the heart of the town and silouttes its baroque architecture. In the morning the ground is littered with spent fireworks cases like half smoked cigars.

The first swim in the morning, before breakfast. We have the beach to ourselves. But we must share the sea, for the sun joins us, throwing a golden path from the east.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

One palm tree, two bikes, dialogue

The lasting image of this small seaside town is the promentary where stand the church, the municipal buildings and a few of the houses of which the town originally consisted. From the beaches on either side, you can always see, standing up above the rooftops, just one palm tree.

On the small balcony of one of those tall, narrow, town houses, which you see in Mediterranean towns, there are two bicycles placed so that the two front wheels stick out above the railings on either side like ears.

It's hard to tell the nationalty of neighbours sitting at cafe tables. I overheard the following dialogue:

"You American?"
"English. You American?"
"English. We're from Manchester".

Mild jubilation.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Pyranees, cranes, stork

Flying over the foothills of the Pyranees and seeing green valleys borderd by dark woodland or shrubland. At the edge of the valleys, white villages and winding through the woods paths leading to the next valley and so on to the wide horizon.

Cranes gathered round the edge of Barcelona airport where they are building a new runway.

The Spanish for crane is grua, which as in English also refers to a bird. Amazingly as we taxied towards the airport buildings I saw a white bird with a long neck over the runway. Was it a stork, or a swan, or perhaps a crane

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Conkers, holiday, watching animals

Prickly green shells breaking open, to reveal the first conkers, "fresh-fire coal chestnut falls".

Anticipating a forthcoming holiday.

Watching squirrels, or almost any other animal. One of the attractions seems to be that we see human postures in, for example, the way a squirrel sits up to eat, holding a nut in its paws and nibbling it. Or is it that we see, reflected in an animal's behaviour, the animal buried within us?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Seed catalogues, moved on, dandelions again

Next year's seed catalogues have arrived in the post. If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

Walking through a town where I used to live and where I am glad I don't live anymore.

Dandelions always give pleasure. Today, I saw two dandelion clocks close together and a dandelion flower between them; and the shadow of one of the clocks on a white wall beyond: a picture to remember.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Football-playing dog, bics, a mistaken marriage

Sometimes we hear a sporardic rumbling noise from next door. It is Leo, the staffordhire bull terrier, who has invented a solo game of football, which he plays in the cellar he has to himself. He rolls his ball against the wall, stops it and knocks it back, again and again.

We tend to take ball point pens for granted. But they were invented only 75 or so years ago by a Hungarian called Biro. The rights to the name were acquired by the French company Bic. Last week, apparently, Bic sold its 100 billionth biro. The company says it is has sold the equivalent of 57 pens every second since its launch in 1950.

Rossini, appart from being a composer, was a noted gourmet. Escoffier named Tournedos Rossini after him - fillet steak surmounted by foie gras and a generous slice of truffle. I read, today, that the composer made the mistake of marrying his cook for fear that she would leave him. She didn't leave, but never cooked for him again.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Semicolons, Sammy Keen, pushchairs

I admit to a fondness for semicolons; they allow depth and delicacy in a sentence. My old friend David, who lives in Amsterdam, raised the topic the other day. I recommended Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss, which, like everyone else I know who has read it, he seemed to enjoy. Today, I found in the Financial Times magazine an entire article devoted to this item of of punctuation. It seems that Americans in general have a horror of it. One American writer, Donald Barthelme, goes so far as to say: "Let me be plain: the semi colon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog's belly, I pinch them out of my prose." As the article, by Trevor Butterworth, makes clear, we would have been robbed of some marvellous English writing by authors as different as Thomas Carlyle and Evelyn Waugh, to mention but two, if there were no semicolons. Butterworth quotes Fowler in support of semicolons: "A style that groups several complete sentences together by the use of semicolons, because they are closely connected by thought, is far more restful and easy for - the reader that is - than the style that leaves him to do the grouping for himself; and yet it is free of the formality of the period ..."

The inscription on a bench I sat on in Mount Pleasant reads: "In memory of Sammy Keen, a very special dog, affectionate and clever."

In the shoe shop, Russell and Bromley, there is a push chair park at the bottom of the stairs leading to the childrens's department. When I passed it, three identical push chairs were parked there.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Clever schoolgirl, Yorkshire terrier, shopping

Cleverness is not always appreciated in England, hence expressions like "smarty pants" and "too clever by half". But you have to hand it to the schoolgirl Tilly Smith, who spotted the sea behaving oddly, bubbling and beginning to recede, while on the beach at Phuket in Thailand; and, remembering a school lesson about tsunamis, persuaded her parents and other people near them, to leave. She got an award, a few days ago, from the Marine Society for saving a number of lives when the Asian Tsunami struck.

On a crowded pavement, a Yorkshire terrier runs ahead of its owners, then stops and runs back, then comes up behind them again, weaving in out of the other pedestrians.

At a table on the pavement outside Costa, I hear a young woman at a neighbouring table say: "I'm dreadful; I'll see something, and I'll buy it. Then I'll see something else..."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Quiche, magpies, bathroom taps

A quiche Lorraine is the archetypal quiche. Elizabeth David's recipe in French Provincial Cooking,, which I have always used, is as good as it gets. You need half a pint of double cream and six eggs (five yolks, one whole egg)for the filling. That, with thin slices of streaky bacon, is all that goes into the pastry case. The pastry, too, is basic short crust - - 2 oz butter, 4 oz flour and one egg. The quiche may sound rich, but it's as light as a summer breeze. We ate it with a green salad.

I saw three magpies on a roof top this afternoon. Curious, clumsy birds about which folklore abounds:

"One's for sorrow, two's mirth,
Three's a wedding, four's birth,
Five's a christening, six a dearth,
Seven's heaven, eight is hell,
And nine's the devil his ane sel".

In the bathroom shop in the London road is a shelf built like a wall. The narrow ledge on top displays all sorts of taps. They sit there looking like patients in a doctor's waiting room.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Acorn, dandelion clocks, figs

I picked up new acorn, brought it home and photographed it, mysterious and majestic in its simplicity. Most of the egg-shaped surface is a rich, fresh green, but towards the cup, creamy streaks appear, growing paler and becoming almost white under the cup. The cup, in which the nut sits, has spreading scales, which curl outwards like tonsured hair. I have made a postcard of it and called it "early autumn", early because it is too green to represent the season in its maturity.

A dandelion clock is a wonderful thing on its own, but a scattering of them in longish grass makes you think of chinese lanterns, for in certain lights they seem to glimmer; while in other lights, and from a distance, they look like white flowers rather than seed heads.

Figs! Big, fat figs: bluey purple skins, a thin white undergarment of pith and then the flesh, crimson with tiny yellow seeds. We peel them, cut them into segments and eat them with Parma ham, or better, with the more fully flavoured, Spanish, serrano ham.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Rooftop spectators, New Orleans, flying car

When I woke this morning I had a picture in my head of the extra-mural cricket spectators at the Oval yesterday; they sat astride rooftops, and crowded together at open windows. They were drawn, I was going to say, by one of the most civilised and civilising of sports. But the sentiment was spoilt for me by the answer to a question in the quiz in the Independent newspaper today. Who said: "Cricket civilizes and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen.?" Robert Mugabe.

"We saw New Orleans in the night ahead of us with joy. Dean rubbed his hands over the wheel. 'Now we're going to get our kicks.!' At dusk we were coming into the humming streets of New Orleans. 'Oh, smell the people!' yelled Dean with his face out of the window, sniffing. 'Ah! God! Life!.'" From On the Road by Jack Kerouac, published in 1957.

The hedge, which separates our little garden from the road, is about 8ft high. There is not a lot of traffic and the last thing you expect to pass is a car-transporter. So for a moment, as we sipped our lunch-time drinks, we were under the impression that a car had taken off and was skimming along at hedgetop level.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Monkshood, sheep, Petersen

Today, unlike in past years, Monkshood, also known as Wolf's-bane, is in full flower in the garden. Its beautiful, dark blue blooms, which hang from a central stem, are hood-shaped and mysterious. They are slightly sinister in the manner of all hooded things. And with good reason: they are poisonous. The botanical name aconitum comes from the Greek for dart, because the juice of the plant was used to poison arrow heads. It strikes me as a suitable plant for the garden of a beautiful witch.

The decorous way sheep arrange themselves in a field.

Watching Kevin Petersen, with a mixture of painstaking defensive play and some seemingly effortless hooks and drives, score 158 at the Oval cricket ground, to help secure the return of the Ashes trophy to England.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Martins, framed, the middle of the highway

Over the High Street, house martins wheel against the evening sky. It is hard to see one of the features - the white rump - which distinguish these birds from swallows, but you can identify them by their tails, where the fork is less pronounced than with swallows. The swifts, with their longer wings, which, a few weeks ago, in the same place, were swooping and screaming, have departed for warmer lands. I love the noise, which swifts make and their daredevil, agile flight.

In the upper room of a house, a couple are painting the inside of the window frame which frames them.

I'm still reading Jack Kerouac's great outburst of care-free, extravagant joy On the Road, which did so much to define post-World War 2 America.
Here's a typical image, as they drive through the night: " The white line in the middle of the highway hugged our left front tire as if glued to our groove. Dean huddled his muscular, t-shirted neck in the winter night, and blasted the car along".You get the feeling, as you do with so many American novels, of the vastness of the country and the hard-to-control energy, which fills it.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Cyberman, morning glory, scoreboard

In Mount Pleasant, a cyberman from Dr Who in his silver space-suit intoduces himself to a very small child, whom he shakes by the hand. The child is not in the least bit scared despite the nasty looking gun, which the cyberman holds in his other hand. BBC South East is having an open day. The child seems too small to know about promotions, but cybermen are clearly not strangers to him.

There have for several years now been morning glories growing in pots in the front garden of a house in Mountfield Road. This year there is but one pot, but the glories are glorious indeed, almost the size of saucers; and that blue, which reminds you of Mediterranean skies!

The traditional scoreboard at the Oval cricket ground. The television camera now regularly focuses on it to tell us the score and a lot more about the progress of the game. It is easy and pleasing to read and allows you to grasp the whole picture in a second, a brilliant piece of design.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Parsley and nasturtiums, the age of Aquarius, grey haired speedster

Picking a huge bunch of flat-leafed parsley, then of nasturtiums and not being able to get the green and pleasantly bitter smell of the one and the warm, spicey smell of the other out of my head.

I read this in a book review. It's from the musical Hair:
"When the Moon is in the Seventh House,
And Jupiter aligns with Mars,
Then Peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars".
Now wouldn't that be nice.

There is a steep slope coming down from the railway bridge beside the station, and leading to the station yard, where you cross the road to Safeways. I see, on the sloping pavement, a grey haired woman, one hand on the steering wheel of an electric invalid buggy, hurtling down at full speed. She turns left, negotiates the pavement ramp without stopping, mounts the ramp on the other side of the yard, and turns left following the slope into Vale Road. Not once does she stop or slow down. In her free hand is a cigarette, which she puffs with an aplomb to match her driving skill.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Cricket poem, cricket watcher, seasonal quote

On the Radio Four Today Programme, Sir John Major, the former prime minister, reads his poem Cricket Prayer:
Oh, Lord, if I must die today
Please make it after close of play.
For this I know, if nothing more,
I will not go without the score.

An alert cameraman at the Oval, on the first day of the fourth Test against Australia, catches a young spectator perched on a chimney stack at the edge of the ground.

Seasonal quote from John Donne, Elegy lX,
No spring, nor summer beauty hath such grace
As I have seen in an autumn face.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Musical vegetables, photographer, web

Caught part of the Radio Four programme, You and Yours, on which was featured a group of environmentalists from Austria. They had carved musical intruments from vegetables, such as carrots and celeriac. In particular, one mentioned a dried pumpkin, which, he said, sounded like a didgeridoo.

A tourist photographs the chalybeate spring in the Pantiles. He walks away and examines so posessively the image on the screen of his digital camera that you wonder whether the spring is still there in its entirety.

In the garden, this afternoon, a spider has spun a web, which seems to be perfectly symetrical. The wind blowing, through it, makes it billow like a sail despite the spaces between the threads. Right in the middle, sits the spider and waits, as spiders do.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Motto, mood music, roast tomatoes

The motto of Tunbridge Wells, the town where I live, is "Do well, Doubt Not". I'm not sure what it means and a google search hasn't enlightened me, although there are plenty of references to Tunbridge Wells and to mottos. It used to worry me that I didn't know. Now I simply ask: does it matter? I doubt not that it doesn't.

Tomatoes slow roasted and marinated in spices and herbs.

Indeterminate music drifting out of The Grove Tavern on a warm, humid afternoon could be the sound track of one of those French movies where very little happens, very slowly.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Snail, squidgets, redesigned shop

For the last week a snail has taken up residence on the sweetpeas. It used to reside on the cross bar of the bamboo frame. Now it has migrated several centimeters to a vertical pole.

Two very small schoolgirls with enormous rucksacks almost as big as themselves overtake me in the Grove. "Why do you call them squidgets?" says one. "I don't know, " says the other, "my Dad always calls squirrels squidgets."

The nearest branch of the health food store Holland and Barrett closed down for a week and has now reopened. It has a completely new layout. Everything, even the products look different, though they are almost certainly the same.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Fountain, goldfish, grand-daughter

Watching a powerful fountain sending up its single jet into the bright blue sky so that the droplets vanish into the light.

A goldfish in the big pond in the garden at Penshurst nibbles an apple that some one has thrown in.

Talking to grand-daughter Gigi who says she wants to be a photo-journalist and travel round the world.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Spitfire, beachcombing, rhyming slang

A roar overhead and very low over Tunbridge Wells, flies a spitfire - the fighter plane which helped to win the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Beachcombing is the best of pastimes. One trophy from yesterday is a slim piece of wood perhaps 4 inches long, smoothed by the sea, with its grain visible along its length and an indentation like a valley. One part is thicker than the other forming a curved hood like a bird's head or the cockpit of an aeroplane. The thinner projecting part could be a long, straight beak. The more I look at it, the more possibilites I see in it. It will prove a good companion.

In the Mind charity shop today I find an excellent dictionary of rhyming slang. If I had had it earlier this week I might not have been puzzled by the advertisment outside the Compasses for a Ruby evening. I might have learnt from it that ruby, short for Ruby Murry, means curry.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Bopeep, brambles, shingle

Outside West St Leonards station there is a signal box with a sign, which reads Bopeep Junction.

A recorded announcement on the train that the refreshment trolley is on the way strikes me as containing a particularly well rounded and mellifluous sentence: "Please ensure that the aisles are left clear of bags and luggage to allow the service to progress smoothly through the train."

I lie in the sun on the shingle beach, and the small, warm pebbles mould themselves comfortably round my body.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Booking tickets, couillonade, family trees

Booking tickets for a holiday on the internet.

A useful french word is couillonade, which can be translated as bullshit.

I wake up thinking about family trees. Why is it that they are usually in the shape of a triangle with one or two ancestors, back in time, at the apex, and their progeny seeming to poliferate beneath them? When you think about it, it should be the other way round, with just one person at the base, and a growing heap of people above broadening out into hundreds of thousands of ancestors. Do the sums: 2 grandparents, 4 great gandparents, 8 great, great grandparents, 16 great, great, great, grandparents, and so on. Given that it takes two to create a baby, you will find that, if you go back 20 generations, you will have 1,048,576 ancestors.