Monday, 31 August 2009

Loose Threads on the Fringe

Loose Threads on a Bead Attached to a Frayed Loop on the Outermost Edge of the Fringe.

Travel from Cahors to home only took about 30 hours, with little waiting in between trains and buses. Train to Paris, overnight bus to London, then buses home to Scotland.
This is London in early morning light.

While I was away in France, flowers I planted in pots bloomed, and leeks and one glossy green courgette were waiting for me.... and the slugs hadn't eaten all the lettuces...hallo lovely plants I said...
Jane and Louise Wilson's installation at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Unfolding the Aryan Papers, stills from and commentary by the actress Johanna ter Steege who was to star in Stanley Kubrick's film, based on Louis Begley's novel, Wartime Lies. The film was never made, but it existed in the thoughts and imagination of both Kubrick and the actress, and now a film or installation has been made by J & L Wilson of her thoughts, of the archive stills, with their categories, which Johanna reads out in an even voice. 'Specific scenes' (we see A. Hitler with a child in a pushchair, a prisoner about to be shot by soldiers); 'civilian activities' ( people sitting having picnics beside vintage cars); 'Warsaw ghetto', 'slum interiors', 'interiors' – with huge bold- patterned wallpaper that looks vulnerable to me now, especially in these black and white photographs, no trace of real boldness, more a kind of patterned sensitivity, soaked with time and sadness.

When I come out of the exhibition, into the empty courtyard of the Old Quad, it is raining, and I feel I am still in a film set, the rain, the grey cobbles and Georgian architecture, the complete absence of any other human beings. I walk slowly, surrounded by these buildings that have been transposed to somewhere in mainland Europe in some place that I once knew so well, and again now, know so intimately, the camera of the Major Director tracking me, this moment, this empty courtyard in the rain.

Fatos Lubonja at the Book Festival, talking of his 17-year prison sentence in Albania, for 'agitation and propaganda'. A warm person, who smiles easily, he talks of the sense of the double self, the inner one that says – you can't say that or write that – because of the dictatorship. He says it is a daily struggle, even now, to be truthful, to say the truth. Invited to give a talk in Belgrade, he was going to give it on what he thought Danilo Kiš, the Serbian writer had said viz. that if you can't tell the truth, say nothing. But apparently Kiš said if you can't tell the truth, use metaphor, and so what he tried to do was bridge the gap between silence and metaphor.
He spoke of how the past in Albania has not really been confronted – none of the former regime have been held accountable for what they did, never mind put on trial. The people in political power now are the same as the ones in power in the Communist regime. In his book, Second Sentence, Fatos wrote about two writers and journalists, Fadil and Vangjel, who wrote a letter to Enver Hoxha suggesting a reconciliation with Russia (Albania was more Stalinist than Russia, after Stalin's death, and so broke off relations with Russia, making the country utterly isolated). For daring to write this letter they were put on trial and sentenced to death. No-one, he said, has looked for the bodies of Fadil and Vangjel and given them a proper grave.

R talks about the degree show at the Art College she went to. There was an installation consisting of a motor bike and beside it, the engine, and the artist was sitting beside the engine. She asked him what his work was about. Oh, I just love fixing motor bikes he says. Ah, so it's about love, says R. Uh – says the artist, who clearly hadn't thought of it in this way before - yeah, I suppose so. How wonderful I say to her, because of your question, he realised something about his work that he wasn't aware of before.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Cubertou - The Last Days

Cubertou – The Last Days

Peace and silence. In the kitchen, E whisks something in a bowl. His running commentary, sometimes to himself, sometimes to others.
I'm making mayonnaise. Put bread in the oven. Maximum. I'm going to slice it. There is – potato salad – salami – cheese – use up the lettuce as well. All you need to do is reheat the stew a little bit.
To me – the bread in the oven – check it in two minutes, press it – he gestures with thumb and finger - if it goes crik, crik, it's ready.

I drive to Bergerac airport to pick up some new arrivals. When we pass through Villeréal it's 36 degrees. But there's a pale and fuzzy wedge of cloud moving across the sky heading towards us. It has a pearly innocent glow to it. But then it grows thicker and thicker and overhead there are swirling patterns of shades of grey and silver. The first fast drops of rain fall, chilly and personal on the skin.

Driving back between Villeréal and Montflanquin the light gathers and swoops on the cut wheat fields, a blaze of burnt yellow, stinging the eyes. Over towards the horizon the sky is a haze of smoky purplish grey like a picture fading out, dissolving at the edges.

Back at the Cubertou kitchen E lines the plates up on the counter, lays fish on them, then spoons out vegetables and finally, the sauce. Then he points to them. Go, go! he says.
We carry them out across the courtyard. Thick drops of rain are falling. Last week the stars watched over us. Tonight the air is heavy with moisture, a clammy dusk. The candles flicker and struggle with the wet and drooping sky. New people and new weather.
OK, these are ready, go, go!

We come back to the kitchen, carry two more plates over to the barn where the tables are laid out, covered with the blue waxed cloths.
We'll hear this in our sleep I think, E's voice saying, Go, go!
That and the thunder following the forked lightning. And the monotonous drip drip outside the barn as rain splashes onto something metal.

Cubertou dramas:
Water shortage. Ja and I catch the last drops from a dribbling tap into carafes, so that at least people will not die of thirst before the supply runs out completely. (the water came on again the next day.)
H weeping in the courtyard in the middle of the night because there was a spider in her room, so I persuade her to come up to the spare bed in the large upper room.
An accident – a lorry running into M and Ir's car (but no-one hurt) the car a write-off, having to be towed away.
S falling ill with tonsillitis.
J-L's blackberry going missing.
A's plane from Southampton having to turn back because the rubber was coming away from the windscreen.
It's like a Guy de Maupassant story says B.

The next day is overcast, which means its cool enough for me to walk all day. I take the forest path to Chateau Bonaguil.

The following day it's hot again. I take the train (ie the SNCF bus) from Fumel to Puy l'Eveque. I'm the only passenger until Vire sur Lot. When the bus approaches I stick my hand out and it stops. The driver says I shouldn't have waited there but at the other side of the road, where there's a shelter. But that's going in the other direction I say. Doesn't matter apparently that's where I should have waited.

Sitting in the old streets of Puy L'Eveque, there's one of those moments when life feels like a reflection, with a burst of music from an open doorway, a memory, the sound of water trickling over stones, the tone of a church bell. The dry chirp of a bird.

Cahors, at the Musée Henri Martin. A neon sign says the temperature is 43 degrees. Henri Martin lived near Cahors and adopted the pointilliste style. His Toits Rouges is not on display there, but it was the photo of that painting, of the red roof-tiles against the blue water that made me want to go to the exhibition. The water reminded me of a lake near Shkodra in the north of Albania. A group of us went there on a Search and Rescue exercise. We left much too early in the morning, about 5, before it got too hot. The students had to find the location of a (simulated) downed plane, using compass and map references. Fortunately, I did not have to do this, I took photographs and wrote a report of the exercise. I took a short cut to the lake, where we were all going for a swim afterwards. Scrambling down a scree-covered hill I lost my footing and got covered in bramble scratches. I was glad I was on my own and there was no-one there to see my undignified fall.

Cahors was just as hot as that day in the north of Albania. But there were no mountains to climb. And the Musée was cool. And even though Les Toits Rouges was not on display, there were several landscapes of villages, hills and snaky long poplar and cypress trees.
Back at Cubertou, the thunderheads were climbing up in the sky again, muttering and deliberating about a forthcoming drama. But it didn't rain.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Cubertou, Too

Cubertou, Une Autre Vie

A butterfly swoops down over my head,
in the direction of the buddlea.
Their faded candle blossoms wave,
uncertain arrows
pointing to this part of sky, now to another,
with so much blue, who can decide
which blue way to waver or to point to,
which blue ripple to outline
with dark-blossom direction?

Sometimes I am waitress, bartender, translator. This morning, because S is ill and has been taken to the doctor, I am kitchen hand. Carry the food from E's car into the kitchen, put the baguettes into the wicker basket, take the cheeses downstairs into the cave. Peel the shallots. What knife shall I use? I ask E, the chef. You can use mine he says, and sharpens it. You're honoured, says Js, the other kitchen hand, the more permanent one, he never lets me use his knife. Js peels the onions and cries into the dish. E walks past me and straightens my shoulders. You must not hunch over like that he says. I peel two net bags of shallots. Shall I do the third one? No – hang it up over there. On the hooks are net bags of lemons and oranges. But I've already opened the third net bag so it won't hang up. I slip the bag of shallots in beside a solitary lemon.

It's coq au vin tonight and E pours the wine from plastic bottles into a vast tureen. JL comes into the kitchen, takes the empty plastic bottles and cuts them in half. Then he turns the top half with the narrow neck, upside down and replaces it in the lower half. Pours a little beer into the bottom, and his wasp trap is complete. Exits, to take it outside to the barn where they getting ready for the morning's music lesson.

Next I peel the cucumbers. The dark green peel comes away in long stripes, heap on the table like damp snakes. Then E hands me a grater. I grate the cucumbers into a yellow bowl.
We will have lunch in the open air, in the sloping field with trees at the far end, for shade. Blankets are put out for people to sit on. Two bamboo tables hold the salad, the bread, the lentil dish, the paté. Glasses, cutlery and plates are carried in the wicker trays.

E mixes lemon into the lentil dish. Is that enough? he asks me. Taste it. Get a spoon. From there – he points to the drawer. I fetch a spoon, I taste the lentils. A little more lemon, I say. He puts more in. Is that better? he asks me. Yes, I say.
Do you make pancakes? How many eggs do you put in?
He produces an enormous salmon. I've salted it he says. Try it. Is there too much salt? A little. Further up where it is thicker, it will not be so salty.
Can I go outside now, have a coffee break?
Yes, go. I am ahead of myself today.

Outside, at the table. In the courtyard, E's painting of the mandolin player. Earlier, I helped him bring the other paintings out of the sunlight, but this one is pinned up on an easel. I wonder if it too should be brought in. The shade moves and shifts across the table. Everybody interrupts me and I like their questions. E leans out of the kitchen window. Can you bring in the painting that's outside? I forgot about it. That's just what I was thinking of, I say. I unpin the painting and put it with the others.
Js joins me at the table. Do you have another pen?
Then he brings out his guitar. Which chord sounds better do you think?
Ella reads the paper. Oh, we have a good-looking man in the government she says, and shows me a picture of Muhammad Abdi. And he is smoking a cigarette too!