Thursday, 31 October 2013

Hopeland (Notes From Corsica) 13: Christmas Beach

13: Christmas Beach

I always wave at trains.
People in trains nearly always wave back.
There’s a little red and yellow wagon, Le Trinighellu, which chugs up and down the coast between Calvi and Isle Rouse, like some continental cousin of Thomas the Tank Engine. We call it ‘Pierre the Put-Put’. On request it stops with a ‘parp’ at any beach en route to pick up and deliver folk to and from their chosen haven. As the engine slows to a stop, ghostly faces peering out to sea, reign themselves in and focus on the beach life. If you can catch an eye, the traveller always seems to relish the connection. Most are genial, some downright rude. I could compile a lexicon on international sign language. Italians and Germans are the easiest to spot, comedians and straight men. As the train pulls away they resume positions and refix their gaze; some leaning forward hopefully towards an uncertain future, others peering back wistfully from whence they came. 

It was Christmas morning and, after a breakfast of croissants, coffee and chocolate, Di, Gregg, Suzie and I made our way down to a deserted Bodri, now re-christened ‘Christmas Beach’. With the sands to ourselves we set up on the decking of ‘Sinbad’s’ bar, which would be closed until the spring. Although nothing could compete with Sinbad’s legendary cheese and mushroom omelette, a festive spread of chacuterie, cheese and cheap champagne was laid out and we tucked in, occasionally pausing for a game of charades and a magic trick or two. The food brought forth a family of cats; four scruffy wide-eyed kittens with their protective parents, nervous but hungry. We fed them scraps and gave them names. As the pallid sun struggled to fuel a pale, empty sky, we juggled with ashen driftwood and later a boule tournament somehow descended into beach cricket, girls against boys. After taking a brilliantly athletic catch in the slips I was suddenly overcome with a desperate need to dump. Coffee and chocolate! Although we had packed three bottle openers and two lemons, not one piece of toilet paper was at hand. Napkins anyone? In increasing desperation I scoured the scrub for scrap. Where’s ‘The Sun’ when it’s needed? I was eventually blessed with a sun-bleached copy of ‘Corse Matin’ and retired to a convenient dune to crouch like a canine. On cue every dog walker in the Balagne descended for his or her Christmas constitutional. As I steadied for evacuation I found myself the focus of a sniffing Shitzu, closely attended by its scowling owner. Both man and dog looked at me down long noses that
tested the air with an odd mixture of empathy and contempt. I eventually managed to disengage from these conspiratorial inquisitors by throwing a stick and moved higher up the dunes, away from the beach. Dropping my trousers I re-assumed that ‘L’ shaped position and pointed myself with great
precision down hill towards the sea. Relief, short lived: I nearly re-shat myself as that red and yellow train rolled leisurely by not ten feet from where I strained. All passengers previously gazing out to sea, dutifully reigned themselves in and caught my eye. Registering their sympathy and horror I could think of nothing better to do but salute like a trainee squady. If my earlier Christmas charade had been ‘Sir John Mills Shitting like a Shivering Dog’ I’d have won hands down.
Moving away with an indecent lack of haste, ‘Pierre the Put-Put’ parped.
I parped back and my salute became a wave.
I always wave at trains.


Ocean bound 

And the father holds the daughter on the beach
Knowing that he’ll never forget
And that she’ll never remember

She moves to the rocks
Just out of reach
He thinks of sunsets and of late November
Hearing the words
Ocean bound:
“I will be nice, I will be kind
I will hold other folk in mind”

Is her song for him? 

She has already forgotten that he’s there 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Hopeland (Notes from Corsica) 12: Chez Diane

12: ‘Chez Diane’

Later that autumn we returned to Montemaggiore, to the house. Our house. It was a dim dull morning, a savage wind buffeted us as we struggled towards the top of the village, lugging heavy bags emblazoned with ‘Fragile’ stickers. We had emptied our English attic of the bric-a-brac that now seemed perfect for our French folly; mainly things left to me by my granny Molly Jones; lace table cloths, vases, tumblers, delicate wine glasses. A few locals, anonymous in hooded overcoats, eyed us from a distance. We made our way under that ancient archway, past the ‘1593’ graffiti that heralded our arrival A Cima. As we rounded the bend the house came into view and the wind died. We stood in the sudden silence, winded for a beat, hearts heavy with the gravity of the
moment. Marie’s jasmine gave off an intoxicating smell. “Just love the house like we’ve done” she had said as we parted after the signing in Calanzana “and please, tend to the jasmine.”
A dog barked and the spell was broken.
We climbed the stairs to the front door. Out of her rucksack Di pulled a bronze sign that she’d had made up in London and stuck it squarely and surely on the door. The house was claimed, ‘Chez Diane’. She then took out a set of keys attached to a blue metal key ring fashioned in the shape of the island, a closed hand with its thumb up. She slid her key into her door and pushed. Thick voiced and shiny eyed she whispered, “This is the start of something. Welcome to Chez Diane” and made a game and ungainly attempt to carry me over the threshold. Inside there was darkness and the smell of damp. I reached for the light switch. Nothing.
“Both the electricity and water are turned on from the downstairs shower room below”, said Di squinting at notes that Don and Marie had left us. As I made my way back down to the street level Titin was tapping his way up the path towards his house next door. He smiled and greeted me with a heavy accent and a firm handshake, his salty French was peppered with Corsican phrases and I struggled to understand anything but his benevolence. Behind him was a diminutive lady laden with brown paper bags; Titin introduced her to me as Lucie, his wife. She peered up at me through thick glasses and quacked like a duck before proceeding to her front door.
I put a shiny new key into the shower room door, turned it and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. I tried again. Titin put down his walking stick and gently pushed me aside. He crouched and yanked, to no avail. A scratch of his head, a slight change of angle, an indecipherable curse, was he pushing or pulling? Eventually he sat defeated on the step and looked around for inspiration. ‘Robert’ he shouted up at an open window. A face appeared covered in shaving foam. Seconds later a shirtless Robert was wiping the foam from his chin and shaking my hand.
“I live opposite with Valarie my wife and our son Vincent Antoine.” As we spoke an overweight black Labrador came trundling up the pathway smiling; it seemed as if her tail was wagging her, so happy was she to see us. She licked our fingers in turn before rolling on her back to reveal a soft pink under belly.
“This is Diane”, said Robert “she loves to be stroked. Diane is the guard dog of Marie Lucie, Valerie’s mother, who lives next door to us. As you can see she is ferocious.” A young woman emerged from his house holding a child in her arms, around her feet a yapping Yorkshire terrier seemed hell-bent on destruction. My sandaled ankles were exposed. I didn’t mean it as a kick, it just came across that way. Eyebrows were raised and I apologized. I wasn’t creating a very good first impression.
‘Wendy, tais tois!” shouted Valarie, glowering at me as she dragged the furious mutt back into her house.
“What’s all the noise?” barked a voice from behind. I turned to see a handsome middle-aged woman approaching.
“Ah, Marie Lucie” said Robert, “meet our new English neighbour. We are trying to open the door that I varnished two weeks ago.” Robert explained that he had recently modernized the shower room for Don and Marie. “I think I made a mistake” he continued to heave at the door, “It was perfect in the summer when Don and I fitted it. Perhaps since then, with the rain, maybe it has swollen.”
By now quite a crowd had gathered and soon everyone had chanced a tug at the unbudging door.
“It’s a bit like King Arthur and the sword in the stone isn’t it?” I chuckled. Robert looked at me quizzically. There was a quacking behind me; Lucie approached. She sternly eyeballed us all before quizzing Titin noisily.
“They are both quite deaf” whispered Marie Lucie “it sounds like they are fighting but, no, theirs is a love story.”
Again I was brushed aside as Lucie hitched up her heavy skirt, crouching low, like a weightlifter. One sharp tug, one quiet ‘quack’ and the door gave, to loud applause.
“Voila” said Lucie smiling bashfully.
“Excalibur” I said pointing to the door.
‘Quoi?” said our new neighbours in unison.
“Arthur” I pointed at Lucie.
“Quoi?” quacked Lucie.
A babbling explanation of English folklore and history was wasted on a bemused audience who, I’m sure, thought this prattling Englishman a prat.
Titin sighed and looked at his shoes.
At that moment Di appeared at the top of our stairs.
“Ah, and this is my Di, another Diane, but not a dog, as you can see”, I gibbered pitifully to Robert who was petting Di’s namesake “although, she too likes her tummy tickled…”

There was work to be done on the house. I am my father’s son and don’t have a practical bone in my
body. Luckily we know a man who does. Gregg Etches is one of our oldest friends. If I were ever stuck in a plane without a pilot or instruction manual, I would radio Gregg to get me down safely. He’s not a pilot, he’s just that kind of a bloke, and actually, he’s terrified of flying. We invited he and his girlfriend Suzie to visit that Christmas. Together we stripped crusty wallpaper and painted rusty radiators. Fuelled by Pastis and pasta, we worked the day and feasted long into the night, gradually, imperceptibly; ‘Chez Diane’ became us.
On Christmas Eve we ate a ragout of sanglier, wild boar gifted to us by Alain the owner of Bar de Golfe, who we’d invited up to the house, with Patricia, his Irish wife and their three bemused children. Wearing party crowns and red plastic noses, we crowded around our tiny dinner table and peered at each other through the dim candlelight. Maurice was there too, and was dipping his bread into the last remaining juices of the stew, a compliment indeed. Without cue or introduction Gregg stood and danced with a chair, solemnly spinning it while we watched in delighted silence. Later we joined the villagers of Montemaggiore in the square where the wood fire would be burning deep into the New Year. There we ate chestnut polenta and ‘figatelle’, a regional blood sausage, which we washed down with rough local wine, a delicious red, served to us in plastic cups. We sat around the fire in a drunken daze, getting smoked like kippers, exhausted and elated, our new life full of possibility. Someone offered up a guitar with five strings and asked me to sing some of my songs. Reluctantly I cleared my throat and a respectful hush descended. As I started into my song Robert took out his lighter and held it in the air and one by one the folk of the village followed suit. I felt like Lynyrd Skynyrd. I finished my mournful song with appropriately knitted eyebrows and a dramatic flourish. Silence, polite applause and then, over on the dark side of the fire, someone coughed and asked, “Do you know any Simon and Garfunkel?”
The smell of that fire is still with me.
I cannot remember being happier.

That Night the Wine was the Colour of Blood

That night the wine was the colour of blood
I held my glass to a candle
To catch the purity of the mundane
You were so happy
That you danced with a chair
Twirling it until we were all giddy

At midnight by the fire in ‘La Place’
We dipped our tongues into plastic cups
Filled to the brim with wine from a box
And swore that next year would be better

Later we feasted on figatelle
And chestnut polenta
Gifted by proud villagers
Who knew that we would soon be gone

We returned, sanguine
But, never was appetite so sated
Drunk on cheap wine and friendship
Blessed, on Christ’s day

Monday, 28 October 2013

Lou Reed: When You're All Alone and Lonely

Sad but kind of predictable.
Brace yourselves for the inevitable gushing tributes and covers, probably featuring Sting, Bono, Elton etc.
Only Cale and perhaps Bowie have the right...
And 'Perfect Day' as Xmas No 1 anyone?

Meanwhile, let's remember the albums and songs.
The Guardian have a nice feature on 6 of Lou's best songs here.
Seamus over on Vapour Trails is typically perceptive and succinct about his favorite pieces of Reed...

I'll personally will be digging out:

Songs for Drella
New York

Walk on the Wild Side
Satellite of Love
Perfect Day
Pale Blue Eyes
Caroline Says 11
And listen now to the sublime Coney Island Baby.
"When you're all alone and lonely..."
Who says that Lou couldn't sing?

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Hopeland (Notes from Corsica) 11: Termites

11: Termites

“Termites? Termites? There’s no bloody termites in that house. If they find any termites in that bloody house I’ll eat my bloody foot.”
Don wasn’t happy.
“Don love, it’s all part of the process” soothed Marie “it’s simply like having a survey done in the UK. Here in Corsica they’re hot on termites and asbestos…”
“Asbestos?” spluttered Don.
We had made an offer to buy the house and, though it was accepted there were the obligatory legal hoops of fire to jump through.
Marie stroked Don’s forearm “As it’s Brit to Brit there are non of the usual local complications; there’s often a cross eyed cousin who opposes the sale of a family pile out of ignorance or spite. The only one who’s cross eyed here seems to be Don.”
‘Termites!” tutted Don, shaking his head.
We shared a local lawyer with the Adams family, a ‘Notaire’, to oversee the process, which seemed surprisingly straightforward. Once the checks had been made we arranged to meet the Notaire in nearby Calenzana with Jacques Levy, the father of a local friend, who would translate for us and act as benefactor. We’d met him only once but he was happy to help.
We arranged a rendezvous with Jacques and Don and Marie in Calenzana, from there we would go on to our meeting and hopefully the signing. We’d arrived in the Piazza Communa shortly before Don and Marie. There was grumbling as they approached.
“I told you there were no bloody termites in…”
“Don, you promised!” interrupted Marie.
We sat beneath burgeoning bourgenvilla in the luster of early morning, at a café overlooking the church
of Saint Blaise, admiring its Baroque bell tower.
“They reckon there’s five hundred Germans buried beneath that tower”, said Don
“Austrians actually Don,” interrupted Marie “although it is referred to as the ‘Cimetiere des Allemands’. The story goes that the then Austrian king, Charles V1, sent troops to help his Genoese allies quell an uprising here in the 1730s, although some say they were not regular troops but mercenaries, which might account for their rough treatment.”
Don pushed his glasses atop his pate, eyebrows raised, obviously impressed by his eloquent wife’s local knowledge.
“And rough treatment’s what they got my dear” he chuckled, “German, Austrian whatever, these villagers had no weapons but still saw ‘em off. They set their own cattle on fire, blocked off the streets with the blazing beasts, then chucked boiling oil and beehives from the rooftops at the cornered krauts. When they were out of oil and bees they threw the bloody rooftops at them; literally ripped the tiles up and bombarded the bastards.”
Marie stared deep into her coffee cup “Shortly afterwards the Genoese withdrew from the area, retreating to Corte. Although it took another three hundred years, the locals still regard that day as a massive step towards their independence. Only about a hundred survived the massacre. The five hundred unlucky ones ended up here buried top to tail. There are many similar stories around the island” she continued wistfully “all that pride, blood and thunder resolving itself as nowt but food for the worms.”
‘And termites” added Don, deadpan.
“Bonjour!” a smiling face was at Marie’s shoulder.
“Ah Jacques” I jumped to my feet “Don, Marie please meet Jacques Levy our very good friend who will act for us with the Notaire.
“Trev” whispered Di.
“Jacques is the father of Sandrine, the first friend we made on the island”
“Trev”. Di again.
“Jacques, please meet Don and Marie Adams.”
“Enchanted”, said the still smiling face “but my name is not Jacques. I am Xavier your waiter. A coffee maybe?”
Di rolled her eyes, Marie eyed me with pity while Don roared himself cross eyed. All talk of termites was forgotten as Xavier plied us with tar black espressos. Within minutes the real Jacques Levy arrived and we strolled to our meeting, Don giggling at my reddening neck.


After the Rain

After the rain
The sun makes a jewel of every leaf
Necks craned
We walk in drenched silence
Unsure of the elements
But sure of ourselves
Sure of relief

These moments, serene and plain
Unburdened by the possibility of advancement
Bereft of disappointment and regret
These moments are life
Shaped by the simple mechanics of a day
The ‘dear ordinary’, the wasting away

Later I peer through trembling glass
Towards the mountain
To that place where the land meets the sky
To the village beneath and
Reflected in candle light, you and I
In uncertain times there are always
Certain comforts
The wine is flowing free and
Joni is singing for us
Scratching and a wailing
To conjure that magic she does
“Songs are like tattoos,” she says
And we are coloured blue
Hearts are bruised and broken
Marked ‘forever true’

Beneath us the house clings to the granite
And we wait, breathless
For the storm to pass

Friday, 25 October 2013

Hopeland (Notes From Corsica) 10: Don and Marie

10. Don and Marie

Two days later, we headed inland towards Calanzana. After a quarter of a mile we looked for a signpost that Pat told us had been used for target practice by the local hunters, a common practice apparently. We found the peppered sign whose death rattle proclaimed ‘Monte Grosso 9’ and, turning left onto a rough tarmac road, we started our gradual ascent. Montemaggiore lay before us, draped over a modest summit but dwarfed by a massive mount that rose up behind the village like a pantomime villain. As we ascended the white lines in the centre of the road disappeared and the route steepened suddenly into a series of sharp hairpin bends that challenged our budget Renault’s first gear. The clutch burned as the village beckoned. Its most striking feature, the church, seemed to perch like a sleepy owl atop the haphazard dwellings, rugged blocks of grey and white.

One last bend, the most challenging, and we entered the village pulling up directly outside the church. It was here that we had agreed to rendezvous with the vendors, Don and Marie Adams. Stepping out of the car the clouds parted to reveal a breathtaking view of Calvi and the bay, sun kissed and glorious. Our spirits lifted.
“Not bad eh?” came a voice from behind us, “a sight for sore eyes eh?” We turned towards a tall sinewy man in his late sixties, dressed in jeans and a ‘Tetley’s’ t-shirt.
“Now then, I’m Don, Don Adams. You must be Trevor and Di” he beamed, squeezing our hands a little too firmly. “Marie’s waiting for us in the house. She gets a bit knackered with all the upping and downing.”
He led us up past the church into a modest square.
‘This is ‘La Place’’ he continued in his broad Lancashire accent “the heart of ‘Monty’ where the village holds its celebrations, fetes, a fire at Christmas, the nerve centre if you like.” The nerve centre currently comprised of a nervous one eared tabby and a shitting dog arching its trembling back and offering an embarrassed stare that begged us to look away. I waited for some tumbleweed to roll through the mordent scene; that would have brightened things up a bit.
‘It’s like ‘Angela’s Ashes’’ whispered Di.
As we continued our climb the village revealed itself in a series of narrow streets and grim fronted houses with no apparent character or style; function was everything. Climbing ancient steps we approached an archway beyond which we glimpsed a sunlit view of the hills behind the village. I felt a little shudder on the back of my neck. Don paused as we walked under the archway, “This is the old entrance to what was the fort, what the locals call ‘A Cima’,” he pointed at a date etched into the brickwork: 1593. “There used to be a bloody big door here that they’d slam shut on all the Romans and Vikings and such when them came up to rape and pillage.” Don’s history was as bad as my golf. “All the villagers would leg it up here until the invaders got bored and buggered off.”
Rounding a corner we climbed some steep stone stairs to a wooden door that Don opened with a flourish and entered a small living room, pink predominated. We were ushered up a rickety wooden staircase, through a small dining room and up another set of wooden stairs.
“Watch your step but whatever you do don’t bloody count ‘em.” said Don. As we stepped out onto a roof terrace the hairs on my neck twitched again. Never before or since have I been so immediately smitten with a view. Over the rooftops we looked towards the now familiar scoop of the bay where the Citadel was perfectly framed against the luxuriant azure of the Lagurian Sea, currently calm as a duck pond. Above and beyond Calvi was the Gulf of Revellata with its lighthouse just visible. My eye worked its way back up the valley following the road that had brought us here and came to rest on the back of the church. Behind its owl like facade a circular red tiled roof rose to a windowed turret. Alongside, twittering swifts frantically circled an elegant bell tower. I turned my back to the now cobalt sea. Three small villages nestled into the hillside. To our right the mountain rose above us, miles away but seemingly close enough to touch. Dominant yet somehow protective, the pantomime villain was in fact a benevolent presence. Beyond were the silhouettes of other distant peaks. I looked back across the valley towards the three villages.
“They form the rest of our commune which is known as ‘Monte Grosso’, named after that mountain”, said Don following my gaze.
“The villages are Luginan, Casane and the biggest there is Zilia. See that long green shed there, just below and to the right, that’s where all the local bottled water comes from. And if you don’t like the taste of the water, just beyond is the vineyard of Alzipratu.”
I could just make out the blue, uniform shadow of vines.
“Good drinking that is, especially the red. Speaking of which, how about a Gin and Tonic?”
Don shuffled back down the stairs whilst Di and I sat at a bench avoiding eye contact and breathing deep.
“Pink’s nice”
“Needs decoration”
“You haven’t seen it all yet”
“OK, let’s go gently”
There was the clink of ice on glass and Don reappeared balancing a tray, a lemon under each armpit and a small ivory handled knife clenched, pirate like, between his teeth.
“It’s the Vikings, leg it!” I laughed. Di kicked me under the table. An elegant lady caressing a bottle of Gordon’s gin followed Don out onto the terrace.
“This is my better half, Marie”, said Don putting a heavy arm around her delicate shoulder. “Actually, as she’s half Lancs and half French I’m not sure which is indeed the better half.”
Marie was half his size. She disentangled herself to slice lemons and mix drinks.
“Welcome to our little house, ” she smiled. “Strong, weak or medium?”
We learnt that she and Don had owned the house for fourteen years and stayed every summer for three months during which time their extended family visited at will.
“We’ve had as many as twelve folk sleeping at any one time. We do love it here but the steep stairs are getting too much for us. Don’s nearly seventy and not as fit as he’d have you believe. He gets easily knackered with all the upping and downing.”
Don bristled “I could stay here forever me, it just seems like time for something else. As the wise man said ‘change is good, even if it is from bad to worse,”
Marie chuckled at her husband “Don won’t mind me telling you that he had major heart surgery last year. We need to slow down and simplify.”
“Slow down and simplify! Slow down and simplify!” bellowed Don “you’re a long time bloody dead I say. Slow down and simplify, phfuf!”

As the late afternoon drifted towards early evening, the gun metal sea became an impossible silver. A thin strip of grey suggested the horizon towards which the sun descended for what would surely be a memorable sunset. I found myself entranced by the less obvious view out back. The snow peaked Monte Grosso rose above us, miles away but seemingly close enough to touch. Flowing down from the icy cone of the summit were tiny slivers of light, rivers fed by the snow, which reminded me of one of those lace doilies that my Granny would drape over the sugar bowl, to ward off flies and sticky fingers.
The light was ever changing; liquid hills swelled, shuddered and shifted in texture and hue; bleached orange to bronze, burnt ochre to broccoli green. Rusty reds and woozy purples briefly predominated before somehow, magically, all was golden again. There was no palette could do justice to this delicate cacophony.
“Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patterns of bright gold.” I knew that my ‘O’ level Shakespeare would one day resonate but was unaware that I’d spoken out loud. Don gave me a sideways glance.
‘Ay lad, not too shabby,’
Shapes and shadows revealed themselves in fine detail and would just as suddenly melt back into the balmy canvas. There were sure signs of the years of pastoral endeavour: lazy lines of terracing and stonewalling, the occasional suggestion of old foundations. High on the hill a cemetery beckoned. Beneath shimmering olive trees orange nets blanketed the ground, ready to receive a harvest that would be six months in the coming. A donkey brayed. I could hear the whistling of shepherds as they guided their herds along ancient routes that criss-crossed the hills, down past neglected bergeries, down towards pastures new. The smell was intoxicating; the peppery pungency of the maquis mixed with the earthy odour of the goats and sheep made for a heady combination. Nearby a neighbour was frying onions. I looked across at Di, glowing in the pale pink of a bourbon sky, and I knew. We hadn’t even seen the house properly yet.
We shared the sunset. As that molten orb kissed the horizon a divine half-light descended and the landscape fell into a deep, sonorous silence. We sat blissfully suspended until a dog’s bark broke the spell.
“Like a ref’s whistle,” chortled Don refreshing our glasses, “that dog’s as reliable as the sunset”.
We talked long into the night before agreeing that, as it was too dark, too late and we were too pickled to see straight, we should meet again for breakfast the next day ‘for a right proper viewing’.
As we made our way back down the cobbled stones towards the church, tentative and tipsy in the inky black, Di was strangely silent.

We arrived early the next morning to get a good view of the house’s exterior. What Don had described as ‘A Cima’ was in fact the highest point of the village, a huge outcrop of rock that was home to four privileged dwellings. With our backs to Calvi, the Adams’ house was to the lower left. On three levels, the ground floor remained a mystery, but we could make out the familiar stairway that led up to the front door and the main body of the house, which, in keeping with the character of the village, was grey, square and characterless. Brown shuttered windows mapped out the two upper levels beneath the flat roof terrace where we’d sat the previous evening. Attached and to the right, a small two story house which was itself connected to a taller building made from a type of stone walling known locally as ‘Pierre’. On the highest point of the outcrop was a handsome detached property, modern in design but again made from ‘Pierre’.
“That’s the Parisians’ place. Don’t see ‘em, don’t know ‘em” Don had snuck up on us. “I’ve just been to the local bakery for croissants. Always bloody burnt. Luckily we don’t need bread; Marie bakes it fresh every day. The other tall house belongs to Jean-Jacques, ‘King of the Castle’. Nice enough chap, he does our insurance for us, but never stops tinkering. We were once the tallest house here, a full 360-degree view from the top terrace. He asked me if we minded him building up ‘un petit peu’. Next thing I know we’re living next to a bloody lighthouse,” he jutted his jaw at the recently completed fourth floor. “That little house between him and us belongs to Titin and Lucy. Titin’s a bit of a local celebrity, a sculptor he is, though he’s never sold ‘owt as far as I know. Says he does it for himself; art for arts sake if you like. He keeps his work where he makes it and where he can see it, right outside his front door. Come and have a look.”
We shuffled down from the rock to an open area that served as an outdoor gallery for Titin. There were grim faces everywhere, austere character studies with an almost religious simplicity that was oddly compelling and absolutely in tune with the environs. Some stood alone whilst others were carved into the rock itself. One study bore the title ‘Pasco Pauoli’; only Titin knew the identity of the others.
“The locals call these figures ‘menhirs’, they remind me of gargoyles”, muttered Don, looking over his shoulder.
It did feel like the ancients were leering us at; you could almost hear their voices whispering, “Bugger off and leave us alone.”
Entering the house Don turned on us.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking, home made bread and freshly ground coffee; we’re an Estate Agent’s dream. But this isn’t the ‘hard sell’, honest. This is just us, everyday.”
“You’re a lucky man Don,” I ventured.
“Every bloody day” he beamed, putting both thumbs in the air.
“Now then, let me show you around. This is the lounge with two rooms off. This, a bedroom,” he opened a door onto a small room, functionally decorated, “and here’s the bathroom”, pink again.
“And this is where we spend our mornings” he said throwing open French windows. We stepped onto a lower terrace that looked upon the mountains. I strolled to the edge of the terrace. Through the branches of a fig tree I could see a tiny chapel below. Directly to our right was another terrace.
“Neighbours. Never used,”
To our left jasmine grew over scrubland and a tiny old ruin that sat above an archway, the one that had kept the Vikings at bay.
“They say that one of Napoleon’s big knobs used to live there, a General I think,” said Don eyeing the meager pile. “Must’ve all been short arses. That jasmine is Marie’s pride and joy. She planted it when we moved in and tends to it like it was one of her grandchildren. That’s a whiff of heaven.”
Marie drifted out, all chiffon and cheese clothe, bearing a laden tray.
“Come on now, try the bread, Don bakes it fresh every day.”
Next to me Don shifted in obvious embarrassment.
“It’s the only thing he cooks, besides the fish he catches,” that lovely chuckle again.
“Alright, it’s a fair cop, I’m a baker of bread” confessed Don “it’s not bloody easy either. Corsican flour knackers my machine, don’t know why. We have to bring flour in from Lancashire when we drive over. Confuses the hell out of French customs. They’re convinced I’m smuggling some illicit powdered drug. They all get ‘Mothers Pride’ stuck up their know it all noses. Cocaine my arse!”
“Language Don” chided Marie, pouring coffee that looked as strong as her Gin and Tonics. “I’m sure it won’t surprise you that a lot of the flour here is made from chestnuts.”
We glanced up at a pair of squawking hawks that swooped playfully above us.
“Go on my son” shouted Don as one dive-bombed the other.
“I love those birds. Could watch ‘em all day. Go on my son!”
“It’s a quiet life up here,” explained Marie.
After breakfast she gave us the grand tour.
“As Don’s already shown you this floor, I’ll take you up”
In single file we scaled those rickety steps again and walked into the dining room.
“We tend to spend our evenings up here. There’s always a nice breeze” she said opening more French windows that overlooked the lower terrace and that view, again. She pushed herself through swinging galley doors that led onto a tiny but well ordered kitchen.
“Corsicans spend more time eating than cooking, so kitchens tend to be bottom of the totem pole, space wise.”
Back in the dining room a door led into another bedroom, the exact size of the one directly below.
“You’ve seen the top terrace already so why don’t I show you what’s on the ground level.”
We walked out of the front door and down to the street. Marie fumbled with her keys and opened a heavy padlocked door.
“This is cellar number one. We use it for storage; chairs, tables, all our beach stuff and, as you can see, we’ve got another fridge in here for wine and beer”
It was a vaulted ‘Cave’ about ten meters square with a tiny cobwebbed window that looked out onto the street. At the far end a tiny archway led into an even smaller room. “You could just about swing a cat in here” said Marie looking up. “I’ve never worked out what that is” she said pointing to a grisly looking object hanging like a limp dick from a hook on the low ceiling “but it’s been there for at least fourteen years. I refuse to touch it.”
“It’s a bloody sausage!” Don had rejoined us. “Chacuterie. It’s what they put in Corsican ‘Caves’. That and wine.” He swiped out with a handy tennis racket causing the object to swing back and forth causing me to wonder whether they had jock straps in Napoleonic times. Maybe that was their undoing, their ‘Waterloo’. Where we had wellingtons and sandwiches, they didn’t have jockstraps. There must have been quite a bit of chaffing en route to Moscow.
“Are you all right lad?” Don was watching me watching the dangling gristle.
“Hypnotic, isn’t it?” I blushed.
“It’s a bloody sausage! Come on now, we’ve lost the girls.”
Out onto the street again and down to another door that opened onto a shower room.
“I’ve just put this in myself. It’s where we wash the sand off from the beach; useful to have an extra toilet as well.”
Again, we exited onto the street and approached a glass door behind which the ladies rattled like a bag of bones.
“There’s not many can out talk Marie.” Don was impressed.
“We call this room ‘Cell Block H”. It’s a bit grim but sleeps two, comes in useful when the whole clan descends on us at once. It’s also where we send the naughty grandchildren. A bit like room 101, the threat’s enough.” Marie and Di appeared.
“Last and very definitely least, this is cellar number two,” said Marie who led us under an archway bordered by that jasmine. Its dirt floor made me think of it as a stable. There was no electricity.
“Watch your feet.” Don pointed down at scattered margarine tubs. “Rat poison!”
Marie gave him a withering look and continued, “I always thought that, if we did up cellar number one, this would become our storage room. As you can see, our neighbours have had the same idea.”
The cellar seemed to have become a dumping ground for all local bric-a-brac: unused tiles, a sewing machine, a tailor’s dummy, the tireless frame of a bike, a big red plastic fire engine, an old printer and a punch bag, enough to consume anyone on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Back up on the lower terrace Don wrestled with a bottle of rose.
“We’ve softened you up with coffee and cakes, now we’re going to get you legless again”.
Their plan was to sell up in Corsica and throw in with their children on a larger property “somewhere in the south-west of France, Perpignon way. It’s lovely down there.” enthused Marie.
“You get a lot of brick for your buck there” interrupted Don; “we want somewhere where we can spread outwards, not upwards. I must admit Marie’s got me sussed; the upping and downing around here is starting to do for me. Also by throwing our money at a place for our children we can avoid the government’s grabbing mits when we pop our clogs. There’s some good rivers to fish there as well. I love me fishing, want to get back to it, after all this ticker trouble” he tapped his chest. “I loved the early mornings on the river or out on the lake but found it harder and harder to get up and go. My GP had some tests done and the next thing I know I’m in for a bypass.”
“Here we go”, sighed Marie.
“I’m lying on my back with all these masked men and women looking down at me, doctors, nurses, an atheist telling me to count backwards.”
“Anesthetist” interrupted Marie.
“Anyway” he continued “there’s an anesthetist telling me to count backwards. I counted them instead. Eleven of the buggers. I said ‘if you lot get me through this, I’m catching you all a trout’. As you can see I survived and sure enough, when I was up to it... I went fishing.” He took a long sip of his wine.
“I stayed on the river until I’d caught eleven good ‘uns, one of ‘em a corker. I gutted them, froze them overnight, stuck ‘em in a black bin liner the next day and went round to the hospital. Marched into reception and asked to see the surgeon. They made me go round to the back door, but sure enough the doctor came. I shook his hand and thanked him for saving my life, told him I was a man of my word and shoved the bag at him. Should have seen his face; mask askew on his forehead, stethoscope around his neck, dressed up in green robes, his rubber gloves clutching my plastic bag,” he laughed, “I think he was grateful but he didn’t say much. I told that the big ‘un was for him, and to pass the rest on to his team, with thanks from Don Adams, then I turned on my heels and walked away. One of the best things I’ve ever done,” his voice cracked. Marie gently squeezed his knee.
“So” he coughed, “what do you think of our little house?”


Jesus Shirt

I watch you iron my shirts
Wishing that I could give
Such care to my labour
Not a perfect job
But a job well done
Done for the right reasons
Done for love
Done for the love of it
Done for the love of me

When you are done with love
I will be creased and crumpled
You have just finished my Jesus shirt
I love that shirt like no other
Yet I’m fearful of offending
By the wearing of it

And yet
When I wear it I am fearless
Out of myself
Above myself
Like no other

I know it’s there
Immodesty awaits
On a hanger in the wardrobe
The face of Christ
Smelling of mothballs
And promising everything

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Happy Birthday Di!

You wouldn't believe if I told you how old.
She's bonkers, beautiful and lovely!
Oh, and very clean...
Happy Birthday Babe.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Hopeland (Notes From Corsica) 9: Madame Souris

9: Madame Souris

The next day we stepped out of the mid morning heat into the icy interior of the property bureau. A shapely blond had her back to us, head shrouded in cigarette smoke.
‘Madame Souris?” I offered. She turned to reveal a magnificent chest that was responding spectacularly to the air conditioning. The air around her cleared like theatrical dry ice to reveal a withered face. Could this be the Marlborough Man’s mother? It was hard not to stare. She looked like she’d invested heavily in cosmetic surgery from the ground up and had run out of funding after pumping everything into those amazing breasts. From the neck upward, all was not well. Blazing defiantly, stage centre in this aridity, were a pair of beautiful emerald green eyes that squinted at us inquisitively.
“We’d like to see some properties. Do you have properties? Of course you have properties. You do have some properties, don’t you? Perhaps?” Di was nervously caught in the steely stare.
“What is it that you desire?” The squint became a glare and the emeralds blinked; here was the face of excess. Was she sun tanned or nicotine stained?
“We have new developments in Calvi, Lumio, Isle Rouse or you might like a villa in or around one of the nearby villages. You will of course want to be near the sea and have a pool.”
Our hopes were high but our budget rock bottom, a fact revealed as we pointed apologetically to a browning crumpled ad positioned lowly in the window display, just above the dead flies. “Ah, no pool then?” The smell of ash and disappointment was intoxicating. She lit up again as we crammed ourselves into the back of her agency’s tiny Citroen and she proceeded to introduce us to the ‘bargains’ of Calvi. Dump after derelict dump were paraded with indifference, eventually forcing Di and I to doubly exaggerate our budget. Things looked up; we visited the Citadel, wandering the narrow streets until an ancient red wooden door was opened to reveal an opulent hallway leading on to a stone staircase that guided us into the cold, dank grandeur of a lavish living room.
“The walls must be a meter thick. It would be like living in a castle,” muttered Di as Madame Souris eyed her watch.
“It is a castle” I replied, “The whole Citadel is a labyrinth, connected, if not physically, then by its history. There’s been no new development here for centuries. This is as authentic as it gets and Di, and look at the view” I added peering through a slit that was obviously designed for firing arrows out of. I was picturing myself in Noel Coward’s dressing gown, drinking Almanac from a frosted goblet whilst a suckling pig roasted on the open fire. “Four million francs” barked Madame Souris. We left shortly afterwards.
Our next port of call was a pristine, two bedroomed apartment built high above Calvi, a new development with views over the bay. Madame Souris pulled up white plastic shutters and slid back the patio windows.
“Bloodless” whispered Di and asked weakly “Do you have anything with character?”
Lighting another cigarette I could swear I heard the insides of Madame S’s cheeks smacking together as she drew on her latest coffin nail.
“I think with your budget that maybe you should look to the mountains,” she gestured beyond the bay towards white smudges that nestled in the pulsing purple backdrop.

As we drove in silence back towards the agency Madame Souris’ phone rang.
“Good news. I have one last small proposition for you, a charming property has just met the market” she brightened and led us upwards into Calvi’s environs, finally pulling into a communal car park overshadowed by what looked like budget skiing chalets. We were led up a small flight of stairs to meet the owner who waited for us by his front door. It was Smelly Man. Di squeezed my hand, fish cold and clammy. Our buttocks clenched, our hearts sank.
“Ah my friend Tresure” he wheezed, as surprised as us. “Come see my home, entrez vous.”
They say that on its return from that first moon landing, the Apollo 11 was effectively a lunar latrine due to Neil and Buzz’s dubious diet and also as a result, I’m sure, of re-entering the earth’s atmosphere at 24,000 miles an hour with nothing but a ten ton toilet strapped to their arses; the smell of fear indeed. The frogman who opened the hatch was met by a stench so overwhelming, that he apparently threw up in his mask. As Smelly Man threw back his door I was that frogman. Entering the dark dank ripe interior our weeping eyes gradually became accustomed to the creeping light and we took in the view. Cats. Everywhere, cats. Maybe this was where the scent of the maquis originated. Old furniture, heavy velvet curtains and the whiff of decay was everywhere. The cats crouched territorially over plastic bowls containing their morsels. In one corner a kitchenette added the odour of thrice burnt oil to the heady mixture. Next to a tiny fridge was an occupied, heaving litter tray. Di started to convulse. There was a solitary bed in the corner of what was basically a bedsit. From the foot of the bed Tresoire grinned grimly at us, whilst tucked up in the bed was a sleeping woman.
“My Mama” explained Smelly Man. “Don’t worry, she is dead,” he added nonchalantly.
“He means ‘deaf’” interrupted Madame Souris tersely. We weren’t so sure. Breathing through tight lips we asked to see the garden. Stepping down at a pace from the concrete terrace onto a patchy lawn we realized, too late, that we were in a minefield of Tresoire’s turds. Our momentum kept us moving forwards in a blind panic but, where to? The only escape would be back into that house. We proceeded to strut around the walled garden, a couple of horny roosters at a dance off in a chicken farm, until inevitably my foot came down squarely on a sun dried crispy log that readily revealed it’s liquid interior. Di’s shoulders shuddered, her cheeks filled and I started giggling uncontrollably like a nervous nephew at a funeral. With dog do on my shoe, my ‘Randy Rooster’ became that wedding dance done exclusively by middle-aged men; the one that involves pointing your pointy fingers to the sky whilst imagining that you’ve got chewing gum stuck to the bottom of one foot. In a combination of revulsion, hysteria and terror, Di blew a fountain of snot from her nose while Madame Souris, Smelly Man and Tresoir looked down at us from the terrace in bemusement.
“We’d like time to consider” I lied.
Later, back at the hotel we both took long hot showers.

We returned in early September and resumed our search, but there was so little on the market that suited us; it was an expensive little island. Early one gleaming evening, after another fruitless day spent admiring other people’s peeling wallpaper, we fell into Bar de Golfe with knitted brows and heavy hearts. Maurice lightened our load. The sequined pineapple on his purple shirt shimmered in the half-light as he introduced us to a group gathered around the bar’s pool table.
“This is ‘Killer’ night.” He glanced nervously over his shoulder “Do you want to play’?
Holding court was Ben, a handsome dreadlocked midget who explained the rules:
‘Fifty francs to play. After the break we play in order. One shot at a time. If you miss, you are out. Dead! Last man alive wins everything.’
Di was chosen to break and one by one the players fell by the wayside until eventually Ben and I battled it out for the sizeable pot. We were down to the last ball, the black, and it was agreed that whoever potted it would win. I crouched over my shot and caught Ben’s eye just visible over the other end of the table. What’s the difference was between a midget and a dwarf, I wondered. Ben’s eyes narrowed. Had I spoken out loud? Flustered, I pulled my shot. Ben guffawed and stood on tippy toe to attempt an extravagant triple, an impossible shot that he nearly made, the black rattling the jaws of the pocket. We were so amazed by his ambition that we failed to notice that the white roll gently into a corner pocket.
“Yeeees!” bellowed Di “Foul on the black, Yorkshire rules. You win Trev!”
“Yorkshire rules?” said Ben.
“Ah oui, workshy rules” echoed Maurice.
I counted my winnings. 650 francs.
“That’s seventy quid ” crowed Di.
As I stuffed the notes and coins into my pockets I caught Ben’s eye again and he pulled himself up onto a bar stool next to me.
‘Ah, the pool room hustler is now a puppy dog” I laughed “Ok Ben, drinks are on me. A beer or would you prefer a short?”
More narrowing of eyes. Forty minutes later I was penniless.
As Maurice lined up one last drink ‘with the house’ Di’s mobile rang. It was Pat from ‘Cuccarella’.
“There’s an English couple who own a house in one of the nearby villages. Had it years. Seems they want to sell. Interested?’
Having lost enthusiasm for Calvi we were open to suggestion.
“Where are you?” asked Pat.
“Calvi, in Bar de Golfe” Di answered.
“Traitors!’ she barked. ‘OK, go outside and point towards Lumio.”
We both followed her instruction, “Now move your finger a foot and a half to the right.”
We both now pointed at a group of twinkling lights just below the horizon that formed the shape of a ladies necklace.
‘That’ said Pat, ‘is Montemaggiore’.



Entering Speloncato
The gentle mid-morning chatter
Is bestilled by a sonorous singular voice
Its chant repeated roughly by many

We push ourselves back against the ancient walls
As a coffee black procession advances like lava
Down narrow streets
Relentlessly, towards the cemetery
The priest bows his head as he incants

Her face is buried in the same virgin linen
That surely shaped her wedding veil
Flanked by rough faces
Male kith and kin
In black t-shirts and working boots
Their calloused hands gently guide her
Behind the modest coffin

Within minutes the same rude faces
Return with the baritone priest
To delicately embrace tiny cups of scalding espresso
As they make ready for the afternoon’s hunt

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Hopeland (Notes From Corsica): 8: Smelly Man

8: Smelly Man

So, we had decided to buy a place in Corsica.
That’s the royal ‘we’ of course. All of my spare cash had disappeared into the bottomless pit formally known as ‘my musical career’. Di however had a tidy sum to invest. Not only had she been a canny saver and investor, she had also recently come into money. When we first met she was making a successful career as a professional dancer. Her main work came with ‘The Brian Rogers Dancers’ who breathed life into the death throws of variety television in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. If you happen to be watching an obscure satellite channel in the early hours and see an old edition of Ted Rogers’ ‘321’ our a Russ Abbot ‘Seaside Special’ that’ll be Di mincing away behind him, kicking her leg high, happy as the proverbial pig. She would have danced for nothing; it had been her passion since she was seven. She’d been rehearsing for ‘The Royal Variety Show’ and had been partnered with a fumbling student. I think he’d been more concerned with his mistakes than Di’s safety and she came down from a lift unsupported. Her cruciate ligament exploded. The knee was reconstructed by the same surgeon who had saved Paul Gascoigne’s career, and after thrice weekly rehab it was deemed to be ‘stronger than ever’. All would have been well if she’d been a central defender, unfortunately Di the dancer had
lost grace of movement and, crucially, confidence. Pirouettes became impossible; the joy was gone and Di the dancer was done. She was heartbroken and removed herself from that lifestyle and protected environment, a circle of friends that had been her family. I know that there are worse tragedies happening everywhere, everyday, but this was one of the saddest things I’ve ever been close to. Even now I sometimes I catch her unawares, dancing in the kitchen to the stereo, or some other music inside her head. At those moments, if I could love her more, I would.
Di did however receive substantial compensation for the accident, and determined to invest it wisely. She’d been searching for something to replace that lost passion and she had found ‘Isle de Beaute’.

Early the next year we took an Easter flight to Nice and caught a local connection to St Catherine’s airport, Calvi. Di was intoxicated with the bustle of the tiny port and that’s where we’d start looking at property. That Sunday morning we parked in the pine forest behind the long stretch of luxuriant sand that is Calvi bay, and with sandals in hand, walked the happy half-mile into town. There we pressed our noses up against the dusty windows of a few estate agencies. Not much was on offer, the odd villa beyond our budget and wildest dreams, an old mill that needed care and conversion, a pile of ancient bricks in one of the outlying villages, a picture perfect plan of a palmed development that Ken and Barbie might occupy in a year or two. On the back of my hand I scribbled the contact mobile number displayed in the window of what seemed the most substantial office, ‘Agence Souris’, also the only place that seemed to offer anything for under a million francs. Heavy hearted we tramped to a sea front bar on the port, ‘Cuccarella’ and ordered coffee. We were served by a sparrow like lady who relayed our order into the darkness of the bar in cockney Franglais. Using Di’s mobile phone I rang the number on my wrist.
“Oui?” a pause. I filled the silence with an ill prepared monologue about our wish “to see some properties, you do have properties, have you any properties, perhaps?”
A sigh and then the response came in clipped English.
“Your price range?”
“Flexible” I parried.
“Nine o’clock. Tomorrow morning. Ask for me, Madame Souris” and the line went dead.
“Souris” I echoed, adding her name to the scrawl on my wrist. The sparrow hovered with cappuccinos.
“Hello there. You’re English yeah? My name’s Pat. Been living here for so long I’ve lost count. That’s my boy Jean Michel,” she pointed proudly to a pale youth serving at a nearby table. “My husband Jean’s inside in the shade. Corsican. We’ve been running this place into the ground for… so long I’ve lost bleeding count!” she laughed showing an ill-fitting set of perfect dentures. “I couldn’t help but hear you talking to Madame S. You looking to buy local?” Di enthused while I ventured into the darkness in search of the toilets. Leaning on the bar was a chunky man in his sixties, reading a newspaper. He glanced up over his thick glasses and nodded towards a door half hidden behind a stack of lemon boxes. “Le Crapper” he said smiling, and went back to his journal. As I returned, Pat was waxing lyrical, cigarette in one hand, French fry in the other.
“Not easy buying here love. The locals keep the best properties to themselves; keep it in the family see. There’s so little new development, pushes the prices right up. How much have you got to spend?” she waved ketchup coated chip at me.
“We’re, ah, fairly flexible”, I said, admiring the way she effortlessly alternated between cig ‘n’ chip.
“Well, I’ll keep these little ears open to the ground for you duck. Not much gets by me” she winked and disappeared inside.
“Does it have to be Calvi?” I asked Di as we walked back up the beach towards our car. “It all seems so expensive. And do we really want a new apartment? I thought the whole appeal of this place was its authenticity.”
Di wasn’t sure what she wanted. “All I know is that I love it here. I don’t want to be a visitor, I want to be part of it; I want it to become part of me, part of us. Look at it Trev.” She waved her hand through the panorama and put her camera to her eye. To our left lay the port, its tiny marina fronted by sleepy bars and restaurants, overseen, like an ancient nanny, by the Citadel. To our right the bay stretched lazily into the distance towards the village of Lumio. It seemed that we had the whole beach to ourselves until a yelping dog careered sideways out of the pines behind us and made for the water, closely followed by a scruffy man in baggy beige pants and a tight anorak. As he passed us he eyed Di’s camera.
“Ah, photo, photo. You will take me and my dog please?”
“Of course, no problem” replied Di. “Please to meet you”, said the man reaching for my hand.
“Trevor” I offered as we shook.
“Tresoir” he countered and beckoned his side-winding pet.
“Tre…vor” I corrected him.
“Tre..soir” he replied grabbing at his dog’s collar.
“Vuh, vuh” I corrected like a stuttering bee. The man eyed me uneasily and lifted his dog to his chest before striking a pose. “My Tresoir” he whispered defensively.
“Oh, the dog’s name is Tresoir?” All became clear. “Yes, and me, I’m Trevor”
“No, Tre…soir” he replied wearily.
Tresior was no pedigree; in fact he looked more like a hyena than any dog I knew. Leering towards the camera I could swear he was smiling through a hair lip.
“After three” directed Di. The man puckered up and Tresoir French kissed him.
“You see, he loves me,” he roared, revealing a mouthful of rotting teeth that Tresoir seemed keen to clean. I could see that Di was in trouble; her shoulders heaved as she pressed the camera hard into her face. She has never been good with body smells, give her a dodgy toilet or a sweaty sock and she goes into uncontrollable convulsions, her upper body rocks and her cheeks fill like a bull frog doing a Dizzy Gillespie impression. I tried to distract the man who was becoming puzzled by this strange body language.
“Are you Corsican?” I asked.
“No. French. Toulouse. But I learn my English good in America. I was a sailor. I jump the ship in Baltimore and wash dishes all the way to New York, New York. It’s a wonderful town”, he added brightly.
“Off to Buffalo!” quipped Di as the dog flew past us with that peculiar sideways gate. The man eyed her nervously and took a step backwards.
“Now I am here with my family because my doctor tells me Corsican air is good for my bad health.” He pointed to his head. Di pointed to an outcrop of rocks that formed a natural pier jutting a good thirty yards out to sea.
“How about a shot of the two of you, er, at a distance, on the rocks, right at the far end of the pier, looking out to sea.” As her subjects shuffled away and into position, Di buried her face in my neck.
“That smell. Is it man or dog?”
“A bit of both” I replied.
“Pretty gruesome. Three dimensional” whimpered Di as she framed the noxious gruesome twosome.
Later the man pressed a piece of paper into my hand “Call me when you have photographs. A frame would be nice.” and with that he made off down the beach in search of a now long lost Tresoir.
I unfolded the paper. An indecipherable telephone number.
“No name” I muttered.
“Smelly Man” replied Di.



The walls are still standing
Not barriers built to claim
Just signs of life

That signify ‘we were here’

Their rough integrity
Promises nothing but endurance
And that endurance keeps the promise
Made by happy men
Shirtless and sure
That they would be remembered

Friday, 18 October 2013

Hopeland (Notes From Corsica): 7: Life. Always Life

Life. Always Life

Back in England, Wooburn Green remained relatively untouched by world events. One Friday evening we sat chatting with neighbours outside our local, ‘The Steps’.
“So tell me Trev, was anyone at your school involved, the twin towers and all that malarkey?” asked a familiar with a raggedy red nose whose reputation as a drinker had earned him the tag of ‘Duncan Disorderly’.
“I’m not sure Dunc.” I replied, “Considering the size of the school, twelve hundred kids, with all their high flying extended families, it seems that we got off lightly. We think that someone lost an uncle. It’s early days of course.”
We had returned to an uncertain world. The reaction in Corsica to the horrors of 9/11 had been one of sympathetic disinterest. World politics were for the French and other foreigners and if this was how the world behaved, they wanted none of it. Truly a race apart, they were relieved to be floating free, buffered by protecting seas.
In London everyone expected the worse. A bullish Bush would surely retaliate and, as Blair had long since placed us in George’s pocket, we were fated to follow his lead. Another terrorist attack was anticipated with London the expert’s favoured target. The security at my school was doubled; our frontline, black suited Israelites toughened by national service, all seemed to develop bulges under their left armpits. The anxiety was palpable; suicide bombers were everywhere. I only had to sit on a bus or the tube to feel the tension. I felt myself being dragged down into the bug eyed paranoia and decided to start driving to work instead, in the balmy company of ‘Classic FM’.
“I hate it, I want to be anywhere but London.” said Di who worked in Baker Street and had to suffer public transport every day. “Where people were once simply discourteous, they’re now terrified too. ‘Scary rude’ isn’t very pleasant. There’s a lot of flatulence.”

Meanwhile there remained a unanimous admiration of the way that the community of New York had responded to the catastrophe. Their resilient dignity seemed to mute Bush; in place of the expected rhetoric there came odd conciliatory mumblings instead. I suspect that George was as scared and bewildered as the rest of us. Gradually, we stopped holding our breath. Things could never be the same again, but the worst had surely happened, and we were through it. There would be bluer skies than these.
Later that week I spent the day in the studio with Marcus, a fruitful session spent mixing a new song ‘The Falling Man’, composed as a reaction to the events in New York. Even after battling with the usual mid-evening trials of the M25 I felt revitalized after the recent soul bashing. The mix sounded great.
Pulling into our drive I caught sight of Di in the lounge of our neighbours’ house. Louise held her at arms length and looked out at my car. Di turned, as if underwater, and held a halting hand out towards me, pressing her palm against the window, before slowly floating back into the shadows.
She had left a perfect print, a lovely map of lifelines.
Kerry, my older sister had hung herself. Her creeping depression had been chemical. A doctor had prescribed new medication that threatened an initial dip in form before things improved. No one had thought to tell her husband Graham. She went to our parents’ house to do it. Home. Mum found her in the garage. There was surprisingly little wailing and moaning. There was a lot of cold hard sadness.

That sorry September endorsed the fact that tragedy galvanizes the survivors and that we are all connected by our unravellings.
It certainly changed the way that I approached my songwriting.
I resolved to become master of the bleeding obvious. I simplified. I craved a good and generous life; ‘the other life’ where nature ruled, where there was room for the honest mistake and time for tenderness. More than ever I was aware of the small dramas that sustain or break us. It was all too easy to turn away from discomfort and surrender to cold compromise. Why wait for things to get better? Everyday wonders revealed themselves haphazardly; if we took the time to notice them they would enrich us and help us to go on. I would try and catch the essence of those plain fleeting moments and place them in my songs. The trick would be to make the mundane interesting and universal, life to language, language to life. Tom Waits once observed “the obsession’s in the chasing and not the apprehending.” Accordingly, Di and I resolved to take our world and squeeze it gently. While our focus was still very much on the ‘everyday’, our attention was definitely being distracted by a distant horizon. We both wanted to be elsewhere.


The Cackle of Crows 

They stand in black
Indifferent, disinterested, smoking
Oddly sated, like roadside crows
Stepping foot to foot
Their dancing brows parade
From one posie to the next

Flowers, why flowers?
Still sunshine
Still birdsong
The cackle of crows
And the lilies lean back
Towards the earth
That will shortly reclaim them 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Macwood Fleet (Nick Baker): New Blog

There are certain folk that you 'meet' on the internet that you kind of know would be grand in the 'flesh'
The kind of folk you know you could share a beer with and not worry about them noticing that booger up your left nostril.
The kind of of mate that would offer you the last sweet and sour pork ball.
The kind of mate that you'd dust off the special malt for...
The kind of mate who would put you in the last taxi home...
Israel Phil
COS Dave
Seamus at Vapour Trails
A few others...
I hope that we will all raise a glass some day.

Nick Baker is 'Macwood Fleet' on Facebook.
Go on, search him out.
He's good company.
He has a good ear.
He's put me onto many a fine album that I'd never heard of.
He's always good for a chat too.
He is however Welsh.
Every cloud...
(Speaking as a 1/8th Welshman. Trevor Lewis Jones for Christ's sake)
Nick has a new blog page.
He's currently waxing lyrical (welsh!) about his favourite albums of the year.
He's currently responsible for my overdraft but...
Trust him.
He knows his stuff...

Hopeland (Notes From Corsica): 6: Fish to Fry

6: Fish to Fry

It was a beautiful day, not a cloud. We sat outside La Chariot in Algajola and ordered pizza with anchovies, served with a piquant olive oil and vinegar combination that wasn’t for the meek. We had stopped for a quick lunch and then it was to be a beach day; we had books to finish. Protected from the sun by silver birches that sheltered the restaurant’s garden, we shared a carafe of rose and waited for the earth to turn. We loved the odd duality of this calm, bustling haven; the patron Patrick was the double of Di’s brother Steve so, for her, it also had an illogical fraternal pull. Upon finishing our demi we began to wonder where our food was. The service here was usually great but, there was no service; everyone was crammed into the tiny bar watching television. I tried to catch an eye, but to no avail. Maybe it was a racing day; I knew that the old boys inside loved their horses, hacking and slapping their thighs as they wagered and lost centime after centime. I stumbled into the smoky darkness and peered at the throbbing silver glow. No horses, but what seemed like an American blockbuster; all sirens, explosions and an overactive NYPD. The hushed reverence with which this action was viewed confused me. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” I asked the barman. “This” he announced, “is World War Three.” I leant towards the screen at the very moment that the second tower was hit. There was a collective throaty gasp as the shadow of a plane buried itself deep and indelibly into the consciousness of all who witnessed that devastating moment. The coverage was CNN but with an excitable French commentary that I couldn’t decipher. “An accident?” I asked the room. “Terrorists! New York is burning” a strangled voice replied. I held on to the bar, light headed with the gravity of the moment and caught myself, a stranger, in the long mirror above the bar. I wasn’t acting, this was momentous, America under attack on its own soil; things could never be the same again. I looked out of the bar into the absurd sunshine and beckoned Di in. Ahead of her waded a willowy man dressed in the traditional bleu de Chien, a faded blue cotton fishing jacket, and bright red rubber boots, with a simple fishing rod over his shoulder and the handle of a green plastic bucket in his hand. What hair remained was oiled and middle parted. Atop a prominent elegant nose he wore round tortoise shell spectacles, beneath, his luxuriant moustache was the stuff of legend. Oblivious to the unfolding drama he made his way lugubriously to the bar and ordered a glass of Pastis, which he held for an age beneath that long nose before downing it in one. Wiping his moustache with the back of a hand, he took off his glasses and scanned the room, his bleary eyes eventually resting on mine. He nodded down at his bucket with a shrug. “Up since dawn, for one fish. Merde!” I looked into the slopping container. A lonely mullet was doing laps, fishing for company, or a way out. Ordering another drink the man’s squinting gaze followed mine to the TV screen. The twin towers smoked and blazed. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” he asked, indifferently, scratching his peeling pate. “This,” I replied “is World War Three. Terrorists!” He arched his eyebrows and scowled down at his catch. “Terrible, a disaster” I muttered. “Terrible yes, but not a disaster” he gently kicked his bucket, “for tonight there will be fish soup”.

Later, back in England I would see a TV documentary on 'The Falling Man', about the efforts to identify a poor soul captured on film that day, falling to his death from World Trade Centre. Since its publication the now iconic photograph, taken by Richard Drew, has been invested with many layers of meaning. Some thought that the image should be airbrushed from history, that to view it was voyeuristic. Others saw it as a symbol, a new flag for a now outward looking America. There seems to be a calm about the man's descent that defies the horrors surrounding him, he's caught in a brief moment of apparent grace. Of course, the images before and after that frame tell the true tale of this prelude to extinction; he hurtles at 130mph, limbs akimbo, towards certain death. I was struck by the idea of this being the man's last choice. He could accept the fate thrust upon him by the terrorists, or he could choose to control his own destiny, albeit a limited choice, but still an empowering moment; not suicide, but choosing his own time of departure. Is there not a dignity in that, and should we not recognise that dignity? To look away would seem to deny the fact that he made a choice, should we not honour him by bearing witness? I wrestled with the subject. There was something in the way that people reacted to the photo that intrigued me. Eventually it came to me; we all wanted to see his face, his expression, to know how he felt, to see ourselves in his place. There but for the grace of God indeed, he is ‘all of us’! I then heard an interview with a man who had spoken to his wife on a cell phone just before she jumped. He spoke calmly about her making the ultimate choice, and the comfort taken from knowing that she was thinking of him and their children as she leapt and, he was sure, that for her it was a kind of homecoming. She was able to breathe freely and for one last moment be under a beautiful blue sky. He said something like "to be out of the smoke and into fresh air, she must have felt like she was flying", an endorsement of the human spirit too profound to ignore. The idea that, as this horror unravelled, I was under the same blue sky, looking into a green bucket, sharing a Corsican fisherman’s disappointment, remains a constant reminder to me of the vagaries and vulnerabilities of any life, the transience and resilience of the human condition and the profundity of the mundane. As strangers bequeath their chosen Heaven or Hell upon us all, no man truly controls his own destiny. Whilst individually we all live where compromise leads us, collectively we must learn to control our politicians and to own our religions. We empower them to provide protection and comfort, not perpetuate the terrors that seem to feed them. At a distance the world might tear itself apart, but meanwhile on this peculiar island, there were other fish to fry.



We are all connected by our unravellings
But don’t always feel the tug
The line will tighten
Leave a mark
Draw blood even
Then relax and all will seem normal again

Limbo. It’s sorrow’s way
A gentle rising and falling
Towards oblivion
We mark the journey
And then leave without a destination
The rest is hazard
With joyful detours and interludes
Still the path remains sorrow’s way 

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Hopeland (Notes From Corsica) 5: Antoine and Janet

5. Antoine and Janet

"We cannot tell the precise moment when a friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindness there is at last one which makes the heart run over." James Boswell

A good friend of Pascal Paoli, writer and diarist James Boswell knew a thing or two about the isle. Nick-named ‘Mr. Corsica’ he composed his ‘Account of Corsica’ in 1768, on the islanders’ struggle for liberty against the republic of Genoa. He also clearly knew a thing or two about the value of friendship.

I sat outside Bar Rex on Boulevard Wilson in Calvi, with the perfect breakfast: cappuccino stiffened with an extra shot of espresso, croissant, slightly burnt, served with cold butter and fig jam, and a fresh crisp Sunday Times, opened, of course, to the sports page. I was suddenly aware of the smell of fresh bread and Old Spice after-shave lotion.
“Ah, Topingdon Hopsters. Magnifique!” I turned towards the source of this heady odour, a diminutive man in his early sixties holding a dozen baguettes under each arm.
“I know Hopsters well, my wife is from Hopsters”, he explained nodding at the headline of my back page, ‘Spurs Win Big’.
“Her Papa was the patron of Topingdon.” It was the love child of Bilbo Baggins and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Ordering an espresso, he placed his loaves and feet under my table and, sitting down, introduced himself as Antoine Albertini, entrepreneur. In halting English he explained that he had married an English woman whose father was a founding father of Tottenham Hotspurs.
“Janet is now mother to my three children.” A skilled inquisitor, within five minutes he knew my life story and had invited Di and I to dinner that evening.
“Aperitifs at seven thirty. Now, excusez moi Johneee, I must complete my bread delivery” and with that, he was off.

The Albertinis’ house nestled in luxuriant foliage in the hills above Calvi. I rattled the heavy knocker twice and stood back. A shuffling of feet, that familiar ‘Eau de Antoine’ and the door creaked open.
“Ah, Johneee, welcome” I shook his hand and he kissed me. Twice.
“This is Di”, I offered. Antoine swaggered forwards
“Ah, my lurve, bella, bella, bella” he kissed both of her cheeks, several times. A silhouette loomed behind him and Antoine’s head ducked turtle like, into the collar of his shirt.
“And you would be?” purred the shadowy figure stepping out of the darkness. A cigarette in one hand and a cocktail glass in the other only added to a startling resemblance to Lauren Bacall. Antoine had forgotten to inform his beloved the she would be having dinner guests.
“Maybe I should introduce myself” she glowered as Antoine’s head withdrew further still “I am Janet, your host’s wife.”
She regally beckoned us into the dimly lit house and beyond, again into blinding sunlight, onto a garden terrace that revealed a magnificent view of the bay.
“Johneeee, a drink?’ asked Antoine with a bottle in hand.
“Why does he call you ‘Johnny’?” whispered Di.
“Because he cannot pronounce ‘Trevor’ or indeed most rudimentary English words”, answered Janet, “and ‘Johnny’, as in Haliday, the aging French rock star”, she added, eyeing my ripped Levis. Antoine hugged his bottle at a safe distance. “Please excuse my terrible English, but my teacher, she is no good.” His nervous gaze rested affectionately upon Janet who rolled her eyes and groaned. The supper that ensued was a boozy banquet of reheated morsels, presented in no apparent order and quite delicious. As he opened yet another bottle I caught sight of a tattoo on Antoine’s arm.
“That is the mark of my regiment, ‘Le Premier Parachutiste d’Infanterie de Marine.” No wonder it dominated his bicep.
“As a marine commando I fought in the Algerian war, killed many men and lost many friends. I myself was injured. See here.” Taking off a flimsy tennis shoe and Scooby doo sock he revealed a vivid purple scar across the top of his instep.
“Shrapnel, and here also”, he added, pointing to a crease in his forehead.
“Scars fade, the madness remains”, sighed Janet, “mind you, he never was normal.” She proceeded to relate the story of their meeting. Janet had first visited Calvi as a twenty-year-old tourist and fell for Antoine’s dashing good looks and playful twinkle. They courted and, smitten, she took him home to London to meet her father. The first indication of his maverick character came when Antoine, as with most Corsicans, an avid hunter, was invited to a hunt with Frank, one of Janet’s relations who also happened to be a policemen. The two agreed to separate then rendezvous to compare their ‘kills’. Two hours later, at an agreed spot, Frank proudly displayed a rabbit, a grouse and a brace of pheasant. Antoine himself paraded some small game but beckoned excitedly for Frank to follow him. There in a nearby clearing lay two white swans, dead as dodos. The proud hunter stood over his quarry confused at his comrade’s reaction. “Frank was spitting feathers” laughed Janet “killing the Queen’s swans is worth up to six months in jail. Lucky for Antoine that Frank had a spade in his van!”
“A waste of good meat” muttered Antoine as he left the room. Janet talked affectionately about the rest of her family; Vicki the local tennis coach, Juliette who had married Jose, a Venezuelan, their son Joseph who worked as an air steward for Air France “he looks just like his father did before he became…” the door opened, she paused, glancing over my shoulder “before he became… that.” I turned around and nearly hit the deck. From boots to balaclava Antoine was dressed in full combat gear. Over his shoulder was the biggest rifle I’d ever seen. He carried in his hands a delicate tarte tatin that he proceeded to slice with no mention of his outfit.
“Crème Anglais Johneee?” inquired our deadpan host, sneaking me a wink.
“Ignore him,” growled Janet “but be warned, this is just the beginning.” It was indeed a beginning. There would be many such nights at the Albertinis’, most of them ending with Antoine and I in some form of fancy dress or dishevelment, serenading the moon, howling ‘Nostrovia’ and hurling spent shot glasses into an empty pool. Di always drove home.


All of Us

Don’t give up
Shift the twitching curtain of indifference
Keep eyeing the beckoning horizon
That promises too much
There will be a reckoning
But long after you’re gone

And what will they say?
Absence makes saints of us all

And what would you say of yourself?
Here was a common fool
Fueled by coffee and stars
Or, that was a life well ordered
Held in balance
By the weight of life
A furrowed brow
In search of release
A trained mind in constant remorse
At the loss of wonder

Then, a keening rush of regret
As the untrained eye of a child
Fixes on the delicate relief
Of a salty shell