Thursday, September 29, 2005

to do list


This weekend J and I were supposed to go to Italy. We have been planning it for months - drifting down to the Ligurian coast for pesto, wine, porcini and, above all, the good vibe...

But the to do list took over: A an office to organise, a studio to clean up, tiles to clean, classical bows to try, French residency to establish, windows to finish, a stove to build and several hemp floors to lay, a large commission so nearly there and space to make for the next. That is, over and above the daily painting and posting...................

I felt disappointed until, shopping in Carpentras, I came across these:


Suddenly I felt rather smug.

At 6 o'clock Julian was still painting. I sat in the rattan chair and watched him - rosé glass hardly touched, a half peeled lemon on a gold rimmed saucer lit by the light from the new window and three brushes sprigged in his right hand. He curled the finger and thumb of his left hand up together and brought the circle to his eye to frame the image. Just above his shoulder the sun started to relax over the Ventoux and the mistral whispered urgent messages through the cracks still to fill. Behind him books quivered with inspiration - Chardin, Matisse, Cezanne, Surtel, Corot. At his feet a small grey cat nudged adoration into his ankle.

I'd cooked - Moroccan chicken high in cinnamon aromatics and swamped in harissa, but Julian was still in need of some creative release and so, inspired by the imminent visit from our chef friends, he marinaded lamb with juniper berries ('they grow partout' said our neighbour), and made Richard Olney's terrine of poultry livers. Cep soup and lemon pie are to be prepared tomorrow.....

There is too much to do and no time and yet....

There is nothing on our to do list, which is not the stuff of dreams.


Wednesday, September 28, 2005

muscat ruth


Carpentras was hot and jammed in the midday rush for lunch - Insurance salesmen and shop-owners alike screeching round the ring-road bent on getting a good hour of the wife's poulet basquais, cassoulet or lamb tagine, and wives rushing to prepare. I too had a mission. I was off to Leclerc to COMPLAIN.

A year ago Julian scraped along a concrete barrier in the newlook million euro facelift Leclerc petrol station. The barrier - haut comme trois pommes, as they say, (except in this case it was probably a little shorter but thank you gail for this delectable phrase)- was indicated by a white line and was impossible to see from the driver's seat. Judging by the rainbow of car-coloured graffiti we were clearly not the first victims.

I had pulled a superb provencal rant, ejecting the pasty 'responsable' out of her anonymous floral product-smelling office into the driver's seat of our car. Then I had asked her if she could see the white line. She had said no and, as if at last being able to confide in someone, had practically sobbed to me that the whole thing was a crap design.

The next day bright orange party bollards appeared on the concrete shoulders and a week later they were upgraded to white ones with silver stripes for extra vision. Clearly Messsrs Leclerc knew they had made a boo-boo.

...but would they admit it to the insurance? NO. We got sweet FA.

Six months later, our car still scarred to the tune of €500 (for who would want to give up twenty years no claims for that?), I wrote a letter. A really good one. I had had no response and I wanted one.

"C'est quoi, votre relation avec vos clients?" I hotly quizzed the new ginger directeur. "We haven't shopped here for a year and we never will again if you don't f...." etc etc, I ranted on. But then something weird happened. I realised he was listening to me and he seemed almost concerned.

Possibly, he might look into it. He was perhaps an exception.

This would never happen in America, where the customer is always right even if they're wrong, or in the UK where they're right if they're right ....what is it about France and customer relations? They haven't got a bloody clue.

Anyway. Point of story being:

All day I have been grappling with the SNCF, Grand Voyageur, Frequence Plus, Axa assurance, Assedic, the npu, the pmnu the punch me in the face, why don't you, and rob me too you f***ing arse cos you clearly couldn't give a damd.... and I have been breathing on the edge of rasping anger.

How to get back to Zen?

Lending my mobile phone to a woman in the post office who was in distress didn't help much. (I just thought how marvellous a person I was and how crap Leclerc were in comparison)

Giving a lift round the ring road to a shopper on foot who had to catch the last post and couldn't run fast enough. (ditto)

Coming home and walking the vine circuit, watching the pickers - brown of limb and bald of head - peeking here and there between the blueblack clusters; the crates full of muscat grapes ready to be loaded on to the little red truck, and feeling the sun sweeten my insides like a grape.....

Yep. That did it.

Muscat Ruth.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005



The final push to move out of the studio at Crillon-le-Brave saw me whiting out charcoaled telephone numbers - random symbols scratched next to clean squares where canvasses had been:

0044 208 ******** - Sally in South Norwood
00 44 1663 ******* - Dale in Whaley Bridge
00 44 1608 ******* - Kipper in Chipping Norton
and dear Anne and Clive tucked on a cliff almost beyond the network near St Ives.....

...And doing my accounts today I came across the receipts:

Smoothies, vegetarian breakfasts and nutty scrunchy salads from Bill's of Lewes for six weeks and then, essentially, for the next eight, pizza and curry - the only possibilities between 5.30-6.45 pm in Milton Keynes, Woking, Plymouth and Stoke on Trent.

Yesterday, for the first time in twelve years, the Glyndebourne tour started without me.

My girlfriend (the witness at our wedding and the principal cellist) called last night:

Me in the Vaucluse: "How's it going?"
She in Peckham: "Well, the conductor for the Mozart doesn't seem that inspired and that's just after a day..."

(We both fall silent remembering last year's Magic Flute:

Our conductor seemed to ride in from Oz on a surfboard and his very first words to us were: "Mozart's not really my thing". He continued: "....anyway he was in such a hurry he didn't really know what he was doing so let's change that crotchet to a quaver and that minim to a crotchet..."

- Spot the connection idiot: Quaver, quaver, quaver, crotchet/Comma, comma, comma, full-stop. Duh?

- and thus began a three month tour of sublime arias made nonsense by having their punctuation entirely pulled.

A said:
"Could you tell us what the text is here please?"
Surfbum Bruce replies: "Oh they're going through these trial thingies? - earth, fire, water?.... Nothing really")

She in Peckham: "We had our first continuo rehearsal today for Figaro. I got the choice of two parts: A clean one and yours. I chose yours, and God, you'd done all the translations of the texts! You were really prepared, girlfriend!"

(Another pause as I remember a pool in Beaumes de Venise: reclining under a fig tree in late August with the score of the Figaro and an Italian dictionary by my side, dipping into the wet cool every 20 minutes and discovering the meaning of the words I would wrap my sound around.

In my womb our child was growing and I was thrilled at the prospect of wrapping it in music for three months; of Mozart vibrating through the ribs of my cello in to it's emerging soul...)

Me in the Vaucluse:'"How's it going living in Spain?"
She in Peckham: "I saw a shaman there. He saw the wound I was carrying immediately....."

(Beneath our excited chatter there is a quiet space we now touch where there are no words; no need to say how every year, on the anniversary of her daughter's death, my heart sings a lullaby; no need to thank her for knowing, when the trumpeter proudly paraded his new-born around the pit, I would not be able to cope......)

As my first Vendage begins and I glimpse my first vines turning, the GTO cello section sail forth on the Sussex downs and, despite being thrilled to be home, there is a small part of me that really fancies sharing a pint, porky scratchings, a Mozart opera and a natter with my girlfriend.


Thursday, September 22, 2005

clocks through the arched window

Someone has de-lurked and given me this rare treat in my comments box which I would like to share with you all:

Go to windows 1979 and clock 1968 to remonisce (how do you spell that, miss?) with me.

I was 4.

And he was 9


How we've grown!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005



Yesterday we put in a window. We took out stones, found the original structure, mixed chaux and sand and dipped and relaid the stones with pieces of wet roof tile, and now what will one day be my room has a wonderful clear view of the vineyard.

Afterwards, I showered, plastered myself with beurre de karité, and went to a disused factory for Himalayan balsam which has been bought and is being bio-dynamically renovated by a baroque violinist. Apart from being her home, it is where she holds a yearly series of candlelit concerts.

Enclosed by long walls where ruined plastering and bare girders look, by fairy candlelight, like the most intricate of frescoes, we are given Beethoven string trios played by heart and, last night, a cellist-come-wordsmith debuting her offbeat poetry around a series of improvised, unresolved cadences on the clavichord.

Although I was aware that the performer was juxtaposing words in unfamiliar ways in order to give them a new flavour, despite understanding the meaning of most of the individual words, I lacked the cultural and linguistic experience in French to appreciate the whole. To me, with the fire crackling near and lounging on a tattered red velvet sofa, and with my romantic teenage associations, it was all blissfully autumn leaves and café-concert. Talking to her afterwards, however, I became aware that poetry can be a great challenge in the French language.

E grew up with a Russian father and an American mother in France. The language spoken at home was English and yet, from school on, her life was lived and her experience built in French. To find complete freedom within the form of a language; to experience a word as if for the first time which one has been hearing since childhood; to touch a new root or shed a different shard of light is one thing, but E clearly craves the breadth, not only in vocabulary but I'm sure in cultural references, of the English language which is her 'mother tongue' and yet is a language she feels is not hers. For her, writing poetry in French could perhaps be likened to trying to develop world cuisine with local produce and a few items from the Caribbean. Her writing seems to be her way to push the limits of a language which feels a size too small. She adds a clavichord, a phrase or two in English, silence, anything to roam the larger linguistic landscapes which are her birth-right. And thus she sheds light on the French language.

More and more we 'borrow' from other cultures to illuminate our own - we do it in music all the time: Musical modes which hung out in Gregorian chant but have been discarded and have been residing secretly in the East are brought back to illuminate the major scale; Western classical musicians go to Africa and sit in drum circles to learn about the rhythmic complexities dormant in their own musical culture; we learn the blues to live chord structures, jazz to appreciate ornamentation.....

I am borrowing by living here.

A colleague of mine, with whom I have been speaking French, and who I think may rather have rather fancied the French me, recently heard me speaking English with some friends. He recoiled immediately. He simply did not like the person I was in English. He found her (after all she was brought up in South London so she swears rather a lot and can talk sixteen to the dozen) "pas très douce".

Do I reside in France in order to shed light on my otherwise dormant douceur, I wonder; to see myself or be seen through another window?

I keep thinking about the British kids programme, Playschool, and the magic of it's opening sequence:

"Which window shall we look through today? Shall it be the square window, the arched window, or the round window?"


Monday, September 19, 2005

tomato salad


At seven o'clock there is an empty fridge and even the shops in southern France are closed.

"Pasta al pesto it is" one is wont to say, and it is of course a great thing, especially with a bonne bouteille, and it makes a perfect TV dinner.

However, the commune de Bedoin have come up with an alternative. Between 5 and 8 every evening, in a sun drenched plot at the foot of the Mont Ventoux, they hold their 'marché artisanal'. This consists of about four stalls grouped together mostly selling the same thing:

Three or four varieties of monster tomato - lopped and weighted over to one side by bulbous growths; bulging with great scarlet cleavages and green bum-cracks; yellow skin tattooed with black scars. The best.

Aubergines - small, tight and very erect.

A dry goats cheese, a wetter one soaked in beaumes de venise, mini ones bottled in oil, one free range hand plucked fowl, honey made from the garrigues which probably has enough propolis in it to cure a nation of snotty noses, hairy courgettes and some grubby pert lettuce.

We have various options: salade de chevre chaud with miel de garrigues dribbling all over it, roast fowl, ratatouille and tomato salad...

As we leave with three tomatoes (one red, one green striped and one white) and a bottle of petits chevres we watch the stall-holders clump together, the sunset and a day's work dropping behind them, and get out the large quiche and bonnes bouteilles which they will share for supper. Later, over pasta al pesto and an exquisite tomato salad I remember that of course pesto is not a convenience food to be consumed in front of episodes of the o.c, but rather a perfect artisanal dish.

"The fridge is empty, mama!"
"Well, we have basil in the garden, some pine nuts in the cupboard and I think there is some parmesan still in the fridge. I'll see what I can knock up."


Friday, September 16, 2005

cure de raisins


Julian has a knot of summer sadness in his gut; five months of keeping a business running solo tightening round his skeleton; a season of hot hermitage closing in on him. Now autumn is here, however, I am home and and the vines are bursting it is time to let go and re-emerge. It is time for the 'cure de raisins'......

.....except we can't quite manage that and so we have developed our own 'cure':

At seven we breakfast straight from the fig tree. I'm reaching for the pretty paintable ones.

"No! The dog's bollocky ones are the best" advises J.

We pick the scrawniest blackest fruit hanging from amongst the archetypal leaves. The cool of the night still on the skin encloses the hot jammy centre like an ice cream casing.

We walk into the dawn. Scalloped clouds clothe the distant mountains in pyjamas of pale sky as they blink their way into another day. A lid of shadow lifts lazily off the Ventoux as hot air spills like treacle onto the road. We glance back to see the sun lighting a small cat trotting towards us, wanting to come too. The other small cat emerges from his den (he has moved out of the family home to the smelly caravan opposite where he sleeps off the night's revelries) and follows suit.

The four of us wander for the hour between seven and eight. It is the first walk J has been on since I left.

"You have to promise me you will never hold me to this, but this is a far better way to start the day" he says. I bite my figgy tongue.

We watch the world go past over our coffee: Our local potter and his wife all in purple say hello on their morning cycle before opening shop; a Provencal jogger and some Dutch walkers; the shepherd and his sheep - down from the mountain where they have been since May - flock in and make a sweet smelling woollen carpet around us and I am glad not to be one of them at last.

Julian makes up boards, dries them in the sun, paints and posts. I organise car insurance, and make appointments with osteopaths and assedic sharks. Then, swimming in a neighbour's pool, I espy a young quince which looks like the golden snitch from Harry Potter. I pick it for the master knowing he will make it fly.

In the evening we share a bottle of 'cure de raisins' in it's more mature form.


Wednesday, September 14, 2005



Morning. I am lying in between the stripes of the vineyard, the bulbous black clusters sugar-frosted and glinting in the sun. The heat has a chilly autumnal gauze around it full of paradox - log fires and suntans, lunch al fresco and sledging, cotton skirts and boots. Our cats are twining themselves around gnarled trunks and posing for me under a shifting canopy of vine-light....


I am home.


It is evening. I go off to pick thyme for the chicken. Scrabbling up the red sandy rock I see ochre cloud-puffs in the deepening blue and a silver cat sitting proud on his pink throne. My fingers smell pungent from the herbs in the air rinsed clean with rain and pine.

I return to the house and my husband's eyes have welled up.

"I like having a wife" he splutters.
"Even a friend is nice".

We are together again.


Monday, September 12, 2005

last night

Gathered together on stage for the last Mitridate - a concert version in Madrid's Teatro Real - breaths taken and the baton raised, we were suddenly transported to a sort of Spanish Inquisition meets les Funambules. From the Gods came shouts of:

"No se oye"
"No se ve"

A simultaneous translation by a colleague revealed nothing other than full blooded complaints that Les Enfants du Paradis Espagnol could not see or hear and that they wanted their money back. Several discussions, entries and exits later we found ourselves. fuelled by a terror of eggs in our f-holes, attacking the first chord. Meanwhile, 150 happily refunded audience members spilled in to the nearby tavernas.

The performance was mesmerising, if somewhat faulty....

To be more precise, the men in the orchestra were profoundly distracted by the stage set-up. Instead of up a ladder behind them in a woollen Chanel suit, our delectable Swedish soprano was right in front of them, her buttock cheeks quivering with her vibrato through a thin layer of ice blue chiffon. In response, the accompanying quavers were being released prematurely and in all manner of inappropriate places.

Clap clap clap and it was all over.

After the performance we were painfully splintered off. A drinks invitation separated all the divas (plus our lovely continuo cellist but minus the continuo harpsichordist) from the arms, mouths, strings and reeds of the pit-folk and a bus waited to take us out of the centre of town back to the neutral bar of our hotel. 'Bugger that for the last night of a two month tour' thought a few of us and, dumping our instruments on our kind colleagues, headed to the Baja Alta for tapas.

Our search for the most littered floor (too busy to clear up this, apparently, is the sign of the best grub) led us to a beamed bar against which we squished to consume from the old wine racks and the well hung jamons and take a tour inventory. There, enveloped in the sensual charge of snogging couples, boletas, pimientos and light inebriation, I felt the weight of weeks of German and Austrian morality fall to the floor with the rest of life's debris, and a chord of home-bound sunshine sing through me.

Later still, four of us sat on a bench in the tiled oblong of a small flamenco bar. A guitar was handed round and people burst spontaneously in to the gutteral wailing of their music. Our flute player, still in his tight black concert trousers, chest hair sprouting around a gold chain from beneath his black shirt, found himself the subject of much excitement. Not Hollywood handsome, his thick protruding lips, hooked nose and back-brushed hair were dashing here and perfect for the part; so much so that every old walnut of a crooner that entered seemed convinced he was one of their tribe and begged him, in a torrent of drenched Spanish, to sing with them.

...And so it came about that this particular constellation of musical sheep baa-aaed itself to the Iberia counter for the last time, one group headed for Rome and the other for Paris. Two people with large white cello cases on their backs dove towards each other to say good-bye. Their heads didn't quite touch but their shells kissed and they flew home to graze with their loved ones.....

That evening, over a welcoming beef cheek and pig's ear stew in Provence, one of their names appeared from Rome on a worldpay statement. He had bought a small Provencal painting from the other's mate and thus a bridge was graciously laid between two pastures.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Heat wave

Meanwhile, there in France, the Bouche du Rhone is on flood alert and Julian has a dream about wandering around a swelling group of musicians far from home clutching a piece of road.

The crazed weather patterns have, apparently, to do with the warming of the deeper layer of the ocean, thus affecting it's inability to cool the water's surface and maintain equilibrium. A similar phenomenon seems to be affecting the orchestra as we draw near the end of this infernal tour: A hot pressure is descending on our sanity and tendencies are emerging for tempestuous outbreaks and floods of tears.

Violists sit icily at separate breakfast tables whilst in the bar at night oboists and flautists are starting to touch each-other. People are exchanging books, email addresses, lingering kisses and even fluids. We're all horny, lonely, desperate for home and partners, cats and kids, yet panic about the end seems to be breeding an almost unnatural warmth towards one-another as we prepare to amputate ourselves from this temporary family.

Crushes are ballooning out of control and I have discovered I have a fan:

Ever since the initial rehearsal period three eternal moons ago, one of the fourteen Mozarts has been boring his Vesuvioid eyes into me and last night, all whited and wigged up in his Amadeus costume, he plucked up the courage to talk to his Goddess:

"May I speak with you?" (he asked in his rolling Italian accent)

"Of course you may" (said the Goddess)

"Last night the concert was so beautiful...and you....YOU!!!!... To see you playing the cello" (and here I have to stop to tell how he lingered on the double l of cello like a surfer on a great wave) " you playing the cello is so beautiful! You are bringing me so much gioia!!!! Thank you, thank you so much for the 'appiness!"

"Silly willy" said Julian when, still in the flush of my star moment, I told him on the phone. "It's not real. Why do you need this adoration so much?".

"But I want it to be real, I like being adored" I protest inwardly, and suddenly I am overwhelmed with loneliness.

"I need it because I have been on the road and away from my love for almost five months. I miss him and I want to come home."

Monday, September 05, 2005

Anne-Sophie von Otter

Bremen has welcomed us, unlike the stingy waxwork Salzurg festival, with open arms and generous toasts in large crystal glasses (as opposed to plastic cups) of decent wine (as opposed to dirt cheap prosecco from Lidl) and it feels good to have our work acknowledged.

Our concert in Die Glocke on Saturday was explosive both on stage and in the audience: A triathlon of arias, serenades and symphonies; three delicious concerts between l'heure de l'apero and the pumpkin hour.There were standing ovations and cheers. I would say it was all for us, but of course we had to have a star and who more twinkling than Anne-Sophie von Otter?

The grande Swedish dame of song, now fifty, walked in as if she were going to teach us Alexander Technique not sing Gluck - all tall poise clothed in funky chic and sneakers - and when she sang 'Quel nouveau ciel' I melted into the first dawn and didn't really re-emerge into the night till she floated off after the concert sporting only slightly posher footwear, a lime green and orange flounce over white jeans and clutching pink roses.

Meeting our two Swedish sopranos from Mitridate by the river I asked them how it had felt to see her walk into our rehearsal the previous day. Was it like seeing Yo Yo or Steven or Pablo suddenly sitting there?

"Nah" they replied in thick clad Fjordlish "we have both worked with her and she is so supportive."

And in that moment it clicked: Anne-Sophie changed the course of it all. Rather than the Grande Dame she is more like the Women's Lib of song. Before her it was all blubber and wobble and frills. It was she who paired the Diva down, allowed her to be tall and slim and pregnant, to wear comfortable and offbeat clothes and, above all, to stop all that bloody vibrato and sing in time; it was she who made it possible to be a singer and a human being, but above all a singing musician.

This star shines on through her proteges and, sitting in the pit in a revamped electricity warehouse in Bremen's docks together with two generations of Swedish songstresses , I knew that, due to her, opera would never be the same again.

(Thank God, as I had had enough of holding my arm up at the end of a note for three hours thinking "Get a bloody move on" whilst the diva lurched between two pitches to her ego's content.)

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Cute Fish

"Frauen Tennis. Martina Navratilova!Blaff Blaff!" screams our chef.

He whacks his baton over his stand to indicate the fierce attack he is after. He wants rough, tough 'n muscle, he wants down bows....Playing for this particular chef is a real calorie-burner.

The scent of tiger balm wafts accross the stands as delicate fingers seek to treat burning tendons.


A plume of smoke rises from the gap where the 10 minute old E string of our ample Romanian leader used to be. This is the third. He is averaging one or two E-snaps a day so his fee should just about cover the replacements.

In the break the curtain of hammering quavers is rent in twain by a silent play as twenty musicans lay down, each going through their own private series of survival-asanas.

After the break we work on the other end of the spectrum - on a 'vrai pianissimo'. Our bows are likened, rather than to angry tennis rackets, to:

" Les plumes sur le foetus d'un poussin"

Unattractive though the simile is, it does the trick and silken lines finally start emerging to compliment the sounds of raging despair. That is, with the exception of the odd macho who will not give up the sound of leather.

I have located a duo of beating hearts on the other side of the orchestra to whom I look for conspiratorial inspiration. These men dare to reveal themselves and it is beautiful to see. One looks like Jesus, with soulful bowls of blue above a neatly trimmed beard and framed by shiny blonde tresses. He rips the chords out of his viola like the innards out of a hunted animal. The other looks like Rennaissance painter with Venetian gold curls drawn in at the nape of his pale neck. He wields his bow like a brush drawing the divine melodies out of the air.

(So what is it about the long hair, guys?)

The chef asks the chaps to eat a good rump steak before the next rehearsal, and for the ladies, a filet mignon. Our flute player translates this, for those who ask, as a 'cute fish' and so we go in search of steak and sushi.