Monday, 28 August 2023

Concrete, consumptives, and Coco in a convent

The winsome Post Office!

Two months have gone by since my last post! You may be forgiven for thinking I really had thrown in the blogging towel, but not so, or not yet. I was merely dormant, fielding various issues on both houses. For as with the kitchen renovations, being the only person involved in maintenance / repairs does take up that bit more time on top of the usual everyday chores. Why, I can easily spend an hour and a half preparing, eating and clearing away lunch. ;)

So anyway, Facebook friends may have seen an album of my holiday photos from France this summer - I use the word "holiday" advisedly, as there is always a substantial element of tradesmen liaison on every trip. Or attempted tradesmen liaison, and a lot of futile waiting around. I got more militant on this visit though - or do I mean more zen? After a couple of days of waiting for the non-appearing tradesman in question, I would just say: "Stuff it, I'm going out", and out I duly went. 

Thus it was that I did a lot more sightseeing this year, of everything from a slate quarry to an industrial forge, to a river gorge, to assorted picture book-pretty villages, to the convent where Coco Chanel lived as a little girl(!), to a place that looks as far removed architecturally from people's mental image of the Dordogne as it is possible to be...Clairvivre.

Designed by the architect Pierre Forestier, Clairvivre was built in the 1930s in the Brutalist style, specifically to house WW1 veterans with tuberculosis. Its unremittingly boxy buildings - with a slightly mitigating Art Deco nod here and there in the occasional curved line - assault the senses on arrival, jarring so starkly with the soft honeyed stone of the surrounding villages, such aGénis, where (in the absence of any public facilities) I popped to the loo in the town hall. 

I was the only British car in Clairvivre - the only tourist indeed - and one of only a handful of people out and about, period! Apparently some / many? of the current residents also have health issues, which may explain the dearth of pedestrians. It was a blisteringly hot day, and I wandered around the various levels, dazzled by the sunshine and incongruity of the buildings in equal measure: it was as though I had stumbled into the DDR or somewhere of that Soviet block ilk. 

Council offices!

And here is the town hall in nearby Génis, as a "Dordogne architectural control"...

Clairvivre managed to conjure up both the ambience of a sanatorium - with its attendant whiff of illness and worse - and that of a rather drab holiday camp. Think Butlin's in the early '60s, say. It was one of the most peculiar places I have ever been to, not least because of the sheer uniformity of the buildings, both domestic and commercial. The post office pictured at the top of this post reminded me of the secret headquarters of Thunderbirds on Tracy Island. ;) But fair play to the place, it dared to sell postcards, without a hint of irony. 

Another day, I drove to the furthest reaches of the nearest big town to my village, Brive-la-Gaillarde, on a quest to buy linen for a door curtain. My guest bedroom in the French house, though small, has no fewer than five doors(!); it is your Feng Shui nightmare, basically, and I thought if I got some fabric to make a curtain for the one that leads to the attic, that would at least take the edge off the room's "door intensiveness". 

One door down...!

My errand completed, I realised that I was only about 20 minutes' drive away from the Abbaye d'Aubazine, famous for being the childhood home of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel and two of her sisters, after the death of their mother and departure of their father to America, leaving the children effectively orphaned. Her two brothers arguably had a worse fate, being placed with local peasant farmers, and put straight to hard manual work despite their young age. 

Gabrielle was 11 at the time she entered the convent, and remained there for seven years, before moving to another convent(!), a sort of "finishing school" in a place called Moulins. If the cloistered life had been so intolerable, you would think Coco and her sisters would have struck out on their own instead, but maybe she was so institutionalised by this point that the transition was easily made. Her time with the sisters of Aubazine was a very regimented lifestyle, certainly, and not particularly academic; according to Lisa Chaney's biography, Chanel: An Intimate Life, which I review here, Coco escaped into romantic fiction, which she managed to squirrel away in her attic quarters. In later life she refers to being cared for during this period by "aunts", who turn out to be a deliberately vague conflation of actual aunts and the nuns at Aubazine. It was not a happy time, according to Chaney:

"Surrounded as she was by unloving authority figures, Gabrielle's early experience was one of consistent disharmony, repression and neglect."

Abbaye d'Aubazine

I would have liked to have gone on a tour of the abbey, but I arrived too late for the last entry time. Instead I contented myself with taking a good look inside the en suite church, which boasts some fine wood carvings. 

There is an impressive sarcophagus of Saint-Etienne (as in the actual saint, not the town, football team, or band of that name).

I also climbed up the hill to the Canal des Moines, a remarkable engineering feat fashioned by monks in the umpteenth century to supply the abbey with fresh water. (Okay, 12th C.) I only walked a short way along the path though, as I was due to collect a friend's son from the station in Brive. Still, it is nice to have a reason to come back there again when I have more time...

Wednesday, 21 June 2023

Back to brick: hardcore lessons from a kitchen makeover, and how I now identify as a tap

This too will pass..!

Goodness, well over a month has gone by since my last post...I have not had a relapse of my trapped nerves, as you might be forgiven for thinking, but rather have been consumed by a major domestic project, namely the renovation of my 30+ year old kitchen. Charitable observers have described it as "tired" - or, when feeling more generous, "vintage", or "quite atmospheric in artificial light" - while I would often apologise for it being "a bit minty". I never cared for the kitchen when I bought the house, but deferred the decision for the longest time for the twin reasons of a lack of funds and the requisite bravery, for work on this scale is hugely disruptive. A friend whom I had helped over the past few years with what you might call "a massive decluttering exercise" very kindly offered to take on the lion's share of the costs, which made the whole thing possible.

Old kitchen after the wallpaper was stripped off

It is funny looking back, as this radical venture started out with "light touch" thoughts of painting the chequerboard-style tiled splashback, wrapping the worktop, and maybe changing the cabinet I engaged the services of my local branch of The Kitchen Facelift Company, who offer a range of such services. However, after they had inspected the insides of my cupboards, it quickly became apparent that these were more than merely "tired" - exhausted, scratched, and on their last rusty hinges, more like - and realistically could not be saved. 

Appliances hogging the work surface

Then in the act of surveying the kitchen generally and poking around inside cupboards, myriad instances of dodgy wiring were uncovered, affecting both the appliances and the lighting. One particular stretch of molten cable (which had been cosying up with a central heating pipe in the joists) was pronounced by the electrician to be an imminent fire risk. All of which meant taking the wall back to brick (as the Amy Winehouse song doesn't quite go), and basically gutting the place. And thus it came about that a tentative plan to refresh the units ended up involving major electrical work as well as a new kitchen...

I was without a kitchen in the end for six weeks - and as things turned out, also without a washing machine for three, which was a further inconvenience. While undoubtedly stressful, this has also been an instructive experience - there's the management of the project itself in terms of choosing and sourcing all the different elements, and the adaptations you have to introduce to many day-to-day tasks. I have learnt lessons, and there will doubtless be more before the job is finally put to bed, and as with my bathroom renovation in 2016, I share some of them here. There is a lot of common ground indeed between the two. For anyone who has already put themselves through this process, they may ring a bell, and/or serve as a timely warning if you are about to embark on a similar venture.

Bonding before plastering

You will forcibly become a morning person

As some of you know, I am a night owl. I am the furthest thing from those A-type high achievers who accomplish a ridiculous amount between 5-9am, including a ton of work, some exercise, a meditation session, and a breakfast of overnight oats and blueberries. Left to my own devices, my wan, rumpled form is rarely vertical much before 9.30am or even later. During the course of the kitchen job, however, I have routinely had to be up and dressed (sometimes even washed!) by as early as 8am, because tradesmen are sadly larks.

Your input will be needed more than you would ever imagine

Because I am retired, I was able to be around as much as the various sets of tradesmen needed me to be, and looking back it was a mercy. There was so much more involved than merely making them drinks. I was often asked for my preference on a range of decisions I didn't even think I had a view on(!), such as where to position cupboard handles and door knobs, which cupboard was to become the integrated bin, how high the cooker hood should be, whether I wanted the wiring behind the dishwasher to be hoiked up a bit off the floor or not, whether the floorboards should go horizontally or vertically, what kind of socket covers I fancied (who knew there was even a choice?), and what material I favoured for the kitchen windowsills and splashback. I also received random and sudden requests to produce a variety of items, such as a "small flat piece of slate", a plastic bowl of specific proportions, a radiator bleed key, an Allen key to fit a small towel rail, and a 5p coin. I did ask the men how they get on if the householder is not there, and they said they would normally ring them up (though that doesn't always work with a more visual issue), whereupon the person may tell them to do what they think is best. "And how does that go?" I inquired. "Well, often it is fine where they genuinely don't mind, but occasionally they see something after it's been done and realise they don't like it that way after all." So just in case something comes up where you might have a preference, be there if you can.

Pop up sawmill on the drive

There will be Steinbeckian levels of dust

Ah, the dust...! Everyone I have ever spoken to who has had kitchen work done mentions the dust, and how much time they spent cleaning it up in between phases of the job, only for the cloud to descend again almost immediately afterwards. Even now my side path looks like the red rocks of Sedona, and does in fact remind me of a happy holiday there. The dust indoors is less welcome, and for weeks on end every single object was coated in a light patina of crud, despite multiple deep cleaning sessions. I spent six hours one day on a single room - the "high risk" dining room adjacent to the kitchen - but I might as well not have bothered, haha. So my advice would also be to surrender to the dust.

Making meals will take an eternity 

All the blog posts I had read before embarking on this project spoke of the importance of setting up a temporary kitchen, preferably well away from dust-landing range (which would have meant upstairs, which I thought might feel too weird). In the end, the utility room served as the sink and draining area for dishes, while the dining room took essential small appliances, cat food Tupperwares and ones of nuts and seeds. For as with rats and kitchen roll, I am never further than 6 feet from a container of nuts, on which I grazed on and off during the day, not least because of the sketchy access to the fridge (which remained in the kitchen, as was). Then all along the landing were bags of utensils and cookware, most of them temporarily redundant, though I did use a glass casserole dish for microwaving vegetables - a first for me! Meanwhile, the front room was rammed with yet more bags of kitchen equipment, plus the ambient food contents of the cupboards, mugs and cutlery, and items still to be installed. Every meal occasion therefore involved darting between different areas of the house to collect all the elements required to make even a cold dish like a salad. I had lots of salads. I would constantly forget where things were, then it would come to me...Oust descaler sachets...I know...under the sofa! (Okay, that wasn't part of a meal as such, but you get my drift.) It became a bit like a memory-based game show. 

Spot the tap...

Lighting is a shot in the dark

I was just about to embark on a ranty lament about the demise of incandescent and halogen bulbs (with their cosier, warmer ambience) when I realised that I had already had a similar rant as far back as my bathroom post (link above), so the problem was already with us back then. I endorse every word of my previous piece on the matter, and if anything, found that the current generation of LED lights for kitchens - whether for downlights or under pelmet lighting - are starker and brighter than ever before. Given how clinical and sterile their so-called "warm white" turned out to be, I never wish to be illuminated by anything calling itself "cool white" or - God forbid - "daylight". There is of course the fallback of squirrel cage bulbs, but they can veer too much the other way and be a bit dim, for all that they create a nice atmosphere and spark joy in themselves. I fear a genuinely warm "warm white" is a lost concept to lighting companies, and am rather missing my 30 year old halogen track lights that are in the skip outside...somewhere. I may have to go on the dark web (no pun intended) in a bid to procure some banned incandescent bulbs of yore. ;)

Research within reason (which this definitely wasn't!)

I find myself reprising yet another theme from the bathroom post, and my obsessive compulsive research disorder has clearly not improved since then, and may even have got worse! For my approach on this - and every - home improvement project is to think I have to scour the entire Internet and assess the merits of every fixture and fitting for sale anywhere in the world before making my choice, when in fact I only have to look until I find one that I like that isn't too expensive and has the correct measurements for where it is meant to go. It is a bit like thinking you have to assess the merits of every man in the world before deciding to go out with them (assuming they are willing), when you just have to get along with the one you happen to meet. So by the same token, the first handle / knob / hob / 1.5 bowl sink I saw and liked would probably have done just as well. And sometimes I did return to exactly that, because it was always there in the back of my mind as something I liked "well enough" from the off. A friend wisely told me that once I had settled on a particular item, the other possibilities would simply fall away, and I wouldn't give them a moment's thought again...and so it has proved:

That all said, shopping for items - even the humblest things - is a lot more complicated these days. There is far more choice and there are far more parameters to consider. Case in point...shelves made from scaffolding boards, which I am starting to look into. There is not just thickness and width and length and different colours of wood, but whether you want them hand sanded or machine sanded, oiled or unoiled, and with fixings that are either floating, propped or hanging(!). 

Never far from a tap image on my phone either

Hold out for what you want (assuming it exists!)

Another heading from my bathroom post...I stand by this sentiment still, for even though it may involve ludicrous amounts of research to find the obscure ideal thing you are after, you will feel it was worth the effort, and in a vanishingly small number of cases that effort is actually warranted! For example, I hankered after a tap which would be period in style, dual lever, not chrome (I fancied a change) and not have a cruciform part (the horizontal bit that looks like a straight croissant on which the levers sit) which overhangs the sink, but rather which lines up with the dimensions of the half sink. That meant a maximum width of 150mm, but almost all period-style dual lever taps are about 180mm wide, though it took weeks of looking to establish that fact, and two painstakingly packaged and returned taps. This is not a measurement that is typically included in a technical diagram online, and even when I rang up various manufacturers to ask the question, they often didn't know, and had to scurry to the warehouse to find a sample and measure it. But I got there in the end, and it felt like a real coup, as well as a market opportunity for the makers of taps - compact traditional models for small sinks. This one happens to be called "Belfast" (although the sink isn't that big, hence my dimensional conundrum). Then somewhere along the way as I was returning the reject taps I managed to write the word "Tap" in the customer name line, and Google has taken this and run with it, so that when I buy anything online now and use the address autofill facility, my name comes up as "Tap Musson". ;)

The winner!

You may not dare to use the new kitchen

I wasn't expecting this last phenomenon, though I do recognise it with birthday presents, which I often set aside and can't bring myself to use until long after I was given them. So it proved with the kitchen, which has had a working sink since 5th June, however it was only the other day that I stopped washing up in the utility. Maybe this is partly to do with force of habit - even an uncomfortable and awkward habit - a bit like the kitchen amenity equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome. I did christen the hob last Wednesday, mind, by steaming broccoli. I sense it may take me some weeks to work up to anything that spits, not least as I have yet to acquire a splashback. It may not even be legal to cook a stir fry with the current set up. ;) Meanwhile, the kettle, toaster and liquidiser are all still in the dining room, on the flimsy premise that they don't go with the kitchen now, while the microwave has been banished to the utility. So I am still operating in three rooms, haha, and it may be a while before I fully embrace the new kitchen I feel very fortunate to have acquired.

Truffle is happy to have a room back

Obligatory bowl featuring a single variety of fruit. One day I may even bake a cake! 

Appliances have yet to colonise the worktop

Finally, a big shout out to Paul and Dave of The Kitchen Facelift Company in Stoke-on-Trent, (which in my own case should perhaps be renamed: "The Kitchen Major Surgery Company"), who tackled every challenge that arose with unflappable calm and good humour - and also to Lorraine, Paul's wife, who metaphorically held my hand for the best part of a year since I first had the idea to do something to the kitchen, and who helped me through my worst episodes of option anxiety. I agree wholeheartedly with all their reviews in this link - not least the fact that Paul and Dave run on tea and biscuits, and that these are "necessary" - and I will be adding my own soon.

NB Perfume-themed posts will return! 


Sunday, 7 May 2023

More cats than people: an Easter "holiday" in France

Well, I don't know how two months have managed to go by without a is probably due to a mix of recurring trapped nerve bother and time-consuming house projects - both at home and in France indeed. Although it is a while ago now, I thought I would write up a few of the more noteworthy incidents from that trip. It went pretty well overall, not least because my neck behaved throughout, despite all the mauling of luggage on and off trains, followed by furniture moving and extreme cleaning at the other end. As usual, I will adopt my customary thematic format...;)

Paris pitstop, and a distinct lack of burning things

Because of the ongoing public sector strikes in France at the time of my visit (in protest at the planned raising of the pension age from 62 to 64 - hey, try 60 to 66!, would be my response), I had a somewhat fraught run up to my journey, waiting to see if the Eurostar or my onward train would be cancelled. On the day, the latter was indeed not running, so I had to bump my ticket to the next day and spend the night in Paris - at eye-watering expense compared to the little hotel I usually favour close to my destination. 

Anyway, needs must, so I based myself near the Gare d'Austerlitz, where I had to catch the train early the next morning, and spent the late afternoon wandering around some of my old haunts in the 5th arrondissement - from work trips, and also a memorable meet up with Undina and her vSO, which I see was ten years ago! I must say I felt a bit let down not to spy any rioters setting fire to anything remotely combustible in their path, which is the impression I had formed from the news, and contented myself with a host (or should that be a splinter group?) of broken windows and skips piled high with rubbish.

A royal substitution

The day I was in Paris King Charles had been due to make a state visit there, but it was called off at the last minute for security reasons, in case he became a target (as part of the general civil unrest, I presume). And though Charles could not be there, his second son stepped up to take his place, and was prominently on display in the bookshop at the Gare d'Austerlitz! After all, the French title of Harry's controversial memoir means "deputy", "alternate" - or of course, "spare"...

Scoring free drinks on trains

[Okay, so that heading is not strictly accurate, as two of the drinks were on trains, and one at a train station, but bear with me.]

While waiting at St Pancras on the way out, I nipped up to the concession of Pret a Manger to get a tea, but they didn't have any decaf. I offered the barista one of my own teabags (which I carry with me for just such eventualities), and told him to charge me anyway, but he demurred. "It's your tea! I am only adding water, and that is free." What a star, I thought...then, only half an hour later, the train had not long set off when the conductor approached me and asked if I was "with" the person sitting next to me. I said no, whereupon he asked if I would swap seats with a passenger who preferred to travel facing forwards. I said that was fine, and the woman in question was effusive in her thanks and went immediately to the bar to get me a drink as a thank you - she offered to buy me anything I fancied, but I asked for a water. Minutes after she returned with it, the conductor came over again and handed me a voucher for a drink at the bar, which he made a point of saying included alcoholic beverages. "But that lady just bought me a drink." "Well, you have really helped me out, so I want to too." Reader, I got a mini bottle of red wine this time, but didn't drink it till journey's end.


Buses coming along in tens

Given the distances involved in reaching the village in "not quite the Dordogne", it might surprise people to know that my outward travel date was entirely governed by the availability of public transport for the last leg of the journey from Brive-la-Gaillarde, a distance of 30 km. To take a taxi would cost in the region of 70 euros at a guess, whereas if you time it right, there is one regular bus a week at lunchtime on a Wednesday (during the school term), plus a "bus on demand" on a Saturday morning, which must be booked in advance. Both for the princely sum of 2.30 euros for a journey that takes about an hour and a quarter. I had once arrived on a Saturday, and turned out to be the only person who had "demanded" the bus, but I had yet to try the scheduled Wednesday one. I arrived at the bus stop with plenty of time, though was a bit concerned to see no timetable posted inside the shelter for that particular transport company, only ones for the network serving greater Brive. I popped into a newsagent's and confirmed that this was the only bus stop on the very large square, for I did not fancy lugging my stuff round every side to check there were no other locations where a bus could pull up, as  happens in big cities in the UK.


By way of back up, I also asked a taxi driver who was parked up the same question, but he professed not to know, possibly because public transport is of course his competition. ;) He did, however, gallantly offer to pick me up after his lunch if the bus didn't show. It was due at 13.10, and between 13.05 and 13.15 no fewer than ten buses appeared in very short order, which caused major parking problems for them, and caused me to scurry back and forth squinting at the destinations and company livery on the side of them all. I could so easily have missed my bus by not being able to scoot back down the procession of vehicles in time. Suddenly I spied one that was going to the village and spoke to the driver. "Ah, you can't get on this one", he replied, "I only take schoolchildren." Well, even though I once tried to pretend to be 12 to get a cheap ticket for London Zoo (when I was 18), trying to pretend to be 15 when you are knocking on 64 seemed a bit of a stretch, and the prospect of an expensive fare suddenly loomed... Perhaps they had tightened up their passenger criteria since I last travelled that way. Then after a moment's pause the driver added: "Oh, but there's one behind me who takes anyone", and sure enough, a few buses further along was the very one I needed with an inclusive admissions policy; I gleefully paid my 2.30 euros and enjoyed a scenic ride to within a couple of hundred yards of my house. So although the scouting for buses was stressful and chaotic, managing to do the last leg on public transport felt like a real win.

More cats than people

This visit was unusual in that it wasn't quite "the season", so none of my English-speaking neighbours were in residence. For two weeks I mostly only spoke to tradesmen, people in shops, passers by, and the lovely ladies in the knitting club, whose session I caught one Thursday afternoon. But I am quite self-contained, and had a lot of jobs to sort in that time, so I didn't feel lonely as such. That said, the relentless banging of the shutters during a two day storm tried my patience to breaking point, while the wind was so strong that one of the shutter hooks fell out of its fixing (never to be seen again), and for several days both pairs of shoes squelched slightly when I walked. But there was a surfeit of cats to make up for the wayward weather and human deficit, and I had fun trying to catch them on camera, including a rather lopsided cat fight. 

The big furry orange and white cat with five names who has featured in previous French posts was one of the combatants, along with a tabby and white tom, which I named "Bruiser Truffle" for reasons you may readily infer. "Hemming/Chirac/Leo/Marmalade/whatever he is really called" was very much in evidence during my stay, but his coat was much longer and in an even tattier state this time; I think he must have had a hard winter, and may even have been trying to grow his own furry bivouac.  He still trots over to any house he spots that is "live", as in occupied, and hangs around expectantly, waiting for food.

Accosting a stranger to use their phone

Five days into the trip, and my phone suddenly stopped working - or rather I could still receive incoming voice calls, but could not do anything else on it. By the evening of the Saturday when this happened (April Fool's Day, rather fittingly!), and after fruitlessly trying to troubleshoot the problem on the public computer in the post office, and firking about in the settings of the handset itself, I remembered that I needed to contact a builder, who was in theory coming the next day to remove some tins of woodworm chemicals from last summer. He would naturally have sent me a WhatsApp, which I would not have been able to receive, possibly saying: "Does two o'clock suit?", ie something requiring a response, so I knew I needed to head him off and let him know he had to actually ring me, as that was the only way to make an arrangement.

So there was nothing for it but to start walking around the village looking for somebody whose phone I could borrow to text him, but obviously that is a well-known scam to get people's phones off them and run away. ;) The first person I approached was sitting in a van outside the town hall reading the paper. I tapped on his window and explained the problem, and he said: "What kind of phone do you want to send a message to?" and I said: It's a French phone, but an English man", and he replied: "Well, I don't speak any English, so I can't type your message for you", the implication clearly being that he did not want to hand the phone over to me so I could type it myself - which is entirely understandable. So I said: "Okay, well you could write it in French, as that would not be a problem". By now the man probably thought that this was getting increasingly absurd - with some justification - and asked: "Who are you anyway? Where do you live?", so I said: "I have that little detached house down the hill that belonged to the such-and-such family", and he said "Ah yes, I knew them, and the house, but I don't know you. I tell you what - do you know my wife?"

So I said: "I don't know if I know your wife!". "Well, we'll see then...I'll give her a call - she's in the town hall". To which I replied "That's odd - it's seven o'clock on a Saturday night and I didn't think it was still open?"

"My wife is the mayor."


Ha! So we went in together and the mayor recognised me straight away, because I had approached her in the past for help with my damp issues. She called me into her office, dialled the builder's number and handed me the receiver; so he got a call from the town hall on a Saturday night, and sounded quite puzzled when he picked up the phone to find me on the other end, asking him to ring on Sunday when he was ready to come over!

Then at 6am on Sunday morning the penny finally dropped...the reason my phone had packed up was because I had set a £10 cap on extra charges (eg for overrunning my data allowance), and because my provider has now reapplied roaming charges in the EU, it took five days at £2 a day to use that £10 allowance up. As soon as I removed the cap (after firking about in the Three app), the phone sprang back to life with a rapturous clamour of beepings and pings.

I will finish this post with a photo of "a croissant in a fat suit"...many sweet treats were eaten over the fortnight, and that is another thing to bear in mind when planning a stay...not to coincide with the boulangerie's holidays, which luckily started on the day I left. ;)

Oh, and perhaps I should add photos of two of the prettiest cats in the village: 

The grey one has mesmerising eyes, but does not actively solicit food. ;)

Monday, 6 March 2023

"Here comes success": Katie Puckrik's Lust for Life Tour 2023 at The Cavern Club, Liverpool

How many strings are there to Katie Puckrik's professional bow? How many fingers does she have in artistic pies, and irons in media fires? I have frankly lost count, but she certainly pops up in more cultural guises than you can shake Clem Burke's drumstick at, of which more anon. I knew her "on the telly" as a presenter on The Word back in the '90s, and since then she has become a focal figure on our perfume scene, with her own blog and seminal YouTube channel "Katie Puckrik Smells", which is when I got to know her in person. And along the way I also clocked her incarnations as a DJ on Radio 6 Music, book reviewer on Radio 4, journalist for the broadsheets, published author, TV presenter on Channel 5, podcaster, talk show host on Times Radio...ooh, the far from exhaustive list goes on.

Thus it was no surprise to me to learn that Katie's next project was to form an Iggy Pop tribute band to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the release of his album, Lust for Life, with Katie as lead singer and demurely maniacal Iggy Pop stand-in. Her band comprises an all-star line up of session musicians including three who have previously played with Iggy: Glen Matlock on bass (Sex Pistols/IP), Clem Burke on drums (Blondie/IP) and Kevin Armstrong on guitar (Bowie/IP), plus a second guitarist, Luis Correia (Earl Slick), and a classical keyboard player, Florence Sabeva (Heaven 17).

On hearing her announce the tour, I remembered that Katie had also been a dancer with the Pet Shop Boys and sung in a Sparks opera, so she is basically the Renaissance woman of the performing arts, and there is literally nothing she couldn't give a whirl. As she puts it herself: "I'm a show pony from way back." A many trick show pony, you could say.

My somewhat worse for wear flyer

A quick glance at Katie's tour itinerary identified the nearest gig I could attend, namely The Cavern Club in Liverpool, famous for its association with The Beatles. I was interested to note how many of the venues they were playing were ones on The Monochrome Set's circuit, from Hebden Bridge to Colchester, and Edinburgh to both the venues in London.

In the run up to the day of the gig I was quite nervous, as this was my first trip away since October due to my trapped nerve pain, which has recently been making a comeback unfortunately, as I mentioned in my last post. Then on the train up to Liverpool I was expecting the highlight to be the usual "blink and it's over" glimpse of the famous Runcorn Bridge, with its distinctive pale green girders, but in the event this gracious semi-circular triumph of Victorian engineering was eclipsed by the sight of a man sporting a shock of tousled black hair wrangling his suitcase out from the rack under mine as the train pulled into Lime Street station. Even from the top of his head I recognised the drummer in the band, Clem Burke, but was too starstruck to quip: "Have you got your drum kit in there?" or: "Lust for Luggage?", or even the faintly cryptic: "See you later". I may have mustered an inscrutable smile at best, before legging it off the train in case I bumped into the rest of the band and inadvertently appeared to be stalking them, in transport terms, at least.

Leaf ~ Source:

After checking into my bargain £34 hotel right round the block from The Cavern Club - well, apart from the incredibly hard mattress and lumpy pillows, as I was to discover later - I headed out to Bold Street to meet up with Mike O'Shaughnessy for a cup of tea and a catch up on the prison perfume workshops. He told me a few more "inside" stories, and we also discussed the possibility of my supplying him with another vintage scent for the next phase of his project. He was wearing ELDO's Fat Electrician, which I had never smelt before, and which was not at all as I would have imagined, although I would definitely describe it as "fat", in a satisfyingly gourmand and not unduly sweaty workmanlike way.

The Cavern Club - confusingly cavernous

The showtime was 9.45pm, so after downing a tepid burrito in a fast food place, and instantly regretting the extra topping of guacamole (raw onion in green slurry), I turned up at a fashionably not too earlyish 9.30pm to be sure of wiggling my way insistently to the front. Katie had kindly put me on the guest list, and when I spoke to the security man at the entrance he said something like: "Go down the stairs to the bar and see the....about the...." I asked him to repeat himself but heard no more the next time, so decided to follow my nose instead. (Bad move.) I duly found the bar, and in the distance was a stage with a band already playing - Katie's support, I assumed. I saw no one who seemed in charge of anything resembling a door, as the downstairs was all open plan, so I bought myself a drink, made my way to the front, and started watching what turned out to be a Beatles tribute band. After about six numbers, they showed no signs of stopping, and I started to get a bit anxious. Had the main act been delayed? Eventually they did finish their set, only to announce a second one after a 15 minute break. At this point I knew I had made a mistake; I was definitely in the Cavern Club, but possibly not the right part of it, although it didn't look like the sort of place that might have multiple stages within its cavernous confines, Odeon Multiplex-style. It was now 10pm, so I backtracked to the bar and suddenly spied a man in a greatcoat standing by a red telephone kiosk, brandishing a piece of A4 paper that looked reassuringly like a list. I asked him where the Lust for Life gig was, and he gestured towards another room beyond the phone box. "So you caught some of the Beatles lot, did you? Well, that's all right, as they're good, you know, and only young lads." And they were, to be fair, and though it seemed I would now accidentally have a two-tribute band night, I was still rattled by my error.

Beatles Complete ~ Source: The Cavern Club

Having found the correct venue, I now I had to repeat my insistent wiggling trick and managed to get to the far corner of the stage in one seamless manoeuvre, albeit with an extremely tall man blocking most of my view. After about half an hour of staring at his back I tapped him on the shoulder and he kindly let me scoot in front of him so I was now at the very front next to his much shorter wife. I reckon I missed about five numbers from the Lust for Life album itself, including Passenger, sadly, though I definitely made it in time for Success, my favourite song of the night. The band performed the album in its entirety, followed by a medley of songs, featuring more from Iggy Pop, plus tracks from each of the band member's past careers with Blondie, Bowie, The Sex Pistols etc, including the tumultuous Pretty Vacant(!).

Katie described the set - a generous 105 minutes in all, or 90 for me, haha, due to my bonus Beatles band bother - as a "meaty beaty crashy thrashy project", and that is a very good summary of the night. I was standing so near the stage (and, I suspect, a speaker) that the sound was deafening, and was starting to wonder if I should have brought ear plugs like another man in the centre of the front row. For me though, the music, and whether I knew or liked all of it (I wouldn't have minded the odd ballad in the mix, but I appreciate it wasn't that kind of set) was roundly trumped by Katie's truly remarkable rendition of Iggy himself. For starters she is lithe and sinuous like him, with a long dark blonde mane, and is a lot easier on the eye. Her costumes also deserve special mention: there was a pink dress in the first half that I think may strictly speaking have been a petticoat, but which looked just the part under a spangly silver jacket, while in the second half she donned a slinky silver frock and lost the jacket, for that would of course have been a case of 'silvering the lily'.

Most importantly, Katie was constantly in motion, making it nigh on impossible to take a photo of her in focus on my phone, as I was jostled in the mosh pit by the enthusiastic crowd. Her dancing was a riveting mix of the ladylike, the raunchy, and the downright weird (in a Thriller-esque zombie way), and I can think of no better poster person for putting yourself out there and strutting your stuff whatever your age. (FYI, Katie is 60, and steadily aging backwards). I really don't have the words to convey her energy and the electrifying atmosphere she created on stage - except possibly "great balls of fire". This was consummate choreography, stagecraft on steroids...Katie out-Iggied Iggy for me, and I think he should be very afraid. ;)

Eventually, even the band's generous encore was over, and they were gone, but not before Clem Burke had lobbed a drumstick and a planter of plastic flowers into the crowd. I am sure there was a story behind one or both of these items, but I sense I missed that too.

Oh, I have a Twilight Zone-y, wiggly, Iggy-related titbit to relate...firstly, Katie's band is covering Iggy Pop, who in turn has covered the song "He's Frank" by The Monochrome Set (with The Brighton Port Authority). Katie has also been to a Monochrome Set gig herself, in Washington DC in 1980, the autumn of the year I first saw them in London. And The Monochrome Set's drummer (in another of his musical guises) is supporting Katie on the last two dates of her tour next weekend at The Lexington in London, which is where I last saw the band in September. Which is all by way of saying that the music biz is perhaps smaller and closer knit than we know...

I have yet to find out whether Katie is wearing a "perfume of the tour", or a different scent each night, but that is a final detail that would be of interest. 

And I know I said that she out-Iggied Iggy...well, I stand by that, though Iggy probably clocks up more running and jumping, not forgetting hopping like a frog, "lurches, stage dives, and craning torso arches". I think that would have been a stretch in a dress and ankle boots, mind. There wasn't really room for such extreme forms of gymnastics anyway without Katie crashing into her bandmates, and she more than made up for it with her general shimmying, jerking, flailing, and imperiously pointing arms. So, I'd say she was plenty athletic enough, and I honestly don't know where she gets her stamina from! Plus, there were gravity-defying moves like this...

PS I would link to the remaining dates of the tour, but apart from Dublin on 8th March, it is a sell out!

Did you catch any of Katie's gigs so far, or do you plan to?

Monday, 27 February 2023

L'Erbolario Meharees, a three-date perfume date, and a quick health update

St Mary's, Stafford ~ Source: Wikimapia

That's a rather date-heavy title, but the reason will become clear presently...!

I will have to keep this post fairly short, as unfortunately my trapped nerve pain is back, I hope only temporarily. I had to stop my nerve blocking medication recently, as one of its key side effects would have muddied the symptoms of another condition for which I was being tested, and it may be that the pain hadn't in fact gone away naturally as I had thought, but rather was being successfully controlled by the drug - and with a bit of luck will be again! 

In the spirit of getting on with things regardless, I have carried out a couple of "perfume consultations" lately - I will couch them in inverted commas as they sound too formal and grand without. The first was with a neighbour, K, who is my go-to mattress flipping partner, and also helped me chop vegetables and open tins when my neck and arm were at their worst. I was very grateful for her help and wanted to return the favour in some form. It turns out that she had been disappointed in a couple of her recent perfume purchases / gift requests, which were based on glowing Mumsnet recommendations. I do myself turn to Mumsnet extensively for views on everything from shades of wall paint that would match a specific colour of kitchen cabinet to menopausal supplements, foolproof ways to cook a turkey, and remedies for eczema and mould on windows; in the light of K's experience, however, I would counsel against being swept up by the collective fervour of mums about a particular fragrance. Anyway, we had a good session testing different combos of woody / spicy / ambery / orange-y / powdery scents, and K took away a dozen samples to test at her leisure, including Maison Kurkdjian APOM pour femme, DSH Nourouz, Armani She White, Penhaligon's Elixir, By Kilian Amber Oud, and Puredistance Sheiduna. We both hoped that if she fell in love with any of them, it wouldn't turn out to be one that was either discontinued or horrendously expensive, which as we all know is a lot to ask for these days.

Next up was a meeting with a crime writer friend, Maureen, who had asked me to put together a selection of perfumes with vanilla in them; she also wanted to try Prada Candy, the second of my trapped nerve comfort scents. We met up in a coffee shop in town that I hadn't been in since the 80s - no idea why not, as it was bright and cosy, with a good view of St Mary's church and grounds, and sported the fancy new name of French & Byrne, which to my mind rather evoked a top hair salon or a brand of toiletries you might find in the better class of B & B, when it is in fact a specialist in brunch. Maureen had a coffee and got a wholemeal date scone to take away, kindly buying me one as well, along with my pot of tea.

I can't recall exactly what I gave her to try, though quite a few of the samples I had brought were "straight up" vanillas that Maureen not unexpectedly found a tad simplistic, while Hermes Vanille Galante and L'Esprit d'Oscar were a little too oddball for her taste. Her top two scents that really hit the spot were firstly Bvlgari Jasmin Noir, which I included in the testing pack a) because it is in a similar vein to Candy, and b) because M likes Lancome La Vie est Belle and I thought this would be a less sweet variant of possible interest - and L'Erbolario Meharees. She also liked Mona di Orio Vanille (vanilla with a treacly twist), and Jo Malone Vanilla & Anise (vanilla with an aniseed twist, as you may readily infer).

As soon as Maureen expressed an interest in Meharees, I revealed that it had dates in it - or notes that conjured up the smell of dates, it might be more accurate to say - and she said that might be why she was subliminally drawn to it, citing the bagged date scone in evidence. She is a prodigious lover of dates, it transpires! At that point I thought to mention that I had (uncharacteristically) made flapjack with dates in it only the other day, and had I known I would have given her a few pieces to take home.

I later sent Maureen the exchange I had with the band when I presented Meharees to them to try in Berlin (almost nine years ago, wow!). Jane, the tour manager, had just brought it back from Bologna, where they had gigged the week before, so if nothing else it is a well travelled bottle. (Full post here.)

The Méharées handover, and the focus group in a kebab shop 

That first night in Berlin also saw the handover by Jane (who FYI rocked Gorilla Perfumes' heady floral, Sikkim Girls, all week) of the bottle of L'Erbolario Méharées, which they had kindly bought for me in Bologna the previous weekend.  Thus it was that when I adjourned with the band to the kebab shop near their digs, I still had the bottle of perfume in my hand, and it was ceremoniously plonked on the table, next to the condiments, before I had the idea to ask them what they made of it, and passed the bottle around, inviting them to sniff the nozzle.

Guitarist: 'It's quite sweet.'
Bass player: 'It's nice - is there really just myrrh and dates in there?'
Singer (in a slightly incredulous tone): 'Whoever thought to put myrrh in a perfume?!'

(Editor's Note: The singer has certainly seen fit to put references to the scent of myrrh in a fair few of his lyrics. ;) )

So that meeting in a brunch cafe had a satisfactory outcome - I am always pleased when friends find new scents to love. And when she got home, Maureen scored a partial bottle of Jasmin Noir on eBay (it has since been renamed "Splendida Jasmin Noir", but the formula hasn't changed), and a full bottle of Meharees on Amazon. She was even more pleased with her purchase of the latter when I lobbed in the fact that Meharees is generally considered to be the best dupe going of a scent called Musc Ravageur.

I mean what's not to like about a ravaging musk?

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Valentine's, Schmalentine's: aka tolling the bell for the rose with no smell?

Yesterday I paid a visit to a luxury hotel on the outskirts of town, which is well known locally as a venue for conferences and weddings. A friend had been at a work event there recently, and was singing the praises of the hotel's promotional pen that she had used on the day. It wrote so smoothly, apparently, and was lovely to hold. Although she had taken it away with her, it had since run out, as she had used it so much. "Aha, I said", quickly diagnosing the attraction. "I think I know exactly the pen quality you like - partly haptics in the hand, and partly glide performance", to which she replied: "Haptics and glide. Exactly so." 

Sensing a challenge to which I could rise, I first made a telephone inquiry to the hotel, to confirm the identity of the pen and check they still had some in stock, then called in and met the receptionist I had spoken to, who immediately handed me a pair of pens to give to my friend, and refused to take any money for them. "We can't even remember what they cost!"

On the desk at reception I couldn't help but notice two large boutique paper carrier bags with rope handles, each containing dozens and dozens of single stem red roses, individually wrapped in cellophane. It took me a moment to compute that they were probably going to be favours at place settings for romantic Valentine's Day meals the following day, rather than the unsolicited kind touted in armfuls from table to table by the rose-equivalent of a Big Issue seller, endlessly repeating the question: "Flower for the lady?"


I remembered how characterless and bland such roses are, with their tiny compact heads - and crucially no smell. Sour grapes you could say, hehe...

Mind you, there was an interesting poll about Valentine's Day reported on the radio yesterday, which found that only a third of couples were planning to mark the occasion "with a romantic interest", and of those, just under two thirds were going to stay in rather than have a special meal out, go to an event, or travel. Along with the Danes and the Spanish, we Brits are the most sceptical and bah humbug-ish nation in the world, with over 80% of us believing that the 14th February is not a "proper" special occasion, but one "celebrated more because of pressure from commercial entities". Perhaps surprisingly, the Chinese lead the table of considering Valentine's Day to be a genuine day for lovers (41%, compared to just 13% of Britons and a paltry 5% of Danes). I found those statistics quite revealing, for if you only based your judgment on the window displays of Clinton Cards and the M & S Food Hall you would get the impression that every woman in the land is going to cop for a bunch of of odourless roses, an oversized and disconcertingly squishy teddy bear, and a heart shaped box of truffles.

I was trying to remember the last time I received a mystery Valentine's card, and I fear it may be as far back as 1983. I eventually worked out who it was from - a boy on my college course in whom, sadly for us both, I had no interest. I am not sure I have ever received a secret card which did turn out to be sent by the person I hoped it would be from. This of course excludes "open exchanges" of cards from partners - and from cats indeed. For most of my time with ex-Mr Bonkers, four cards would change hands each year. I was always very impressed at the coherence of the writing. 

This morning I heard the thud of the post and scurried downstairs to find a pizza leaflet and two catalogues. One of these was called Owl and Barn, and featured a host of ornaments of questionable taste, including a pair of resin ducks dressed in gardening clothes, a Thoughts Tube Lamp (don't ask), a Special Friend Butterfly Tribute "with pink Austrian crystal elements", no less, an Angel's Blessing Music Box, an Illuminated Everlasting (= Faux) Orchids Terrarium, and a selection of the most depressingly mumsy fleecy sweatshirts with demure collars I have ever had the misfortune to lay my eyes on, in equally unflattering colours like Man City blue. Clearly I haven't been surfing right, to have been targeted with a catalogue of such arresting tweeness.

Now I was going to wear a rose perfume as a small concession to the day, but I accidentally sprayed on Miller Harris Fleurs de Sel before I remembered, haha - a more dissimilar scent to rose could hardly be imagined. There is at least a mini bottle of pink Prosecco in the fridge, although it is only Tuesday.  I will also launch a surgical strike on the supermarkets tomorrow, and buy myself some more flowers at a hopefully reduced rate. These cheery tulips are arguably beyond the pale now... 

Do you celebrate Valentine's Day with your significant other - or yourself, even, in the spirit of "self-care"? (Please feel free to shoot me for using that term)

How properly special vs commercial do you feel it is?

And do you also choose your SOTD with the occasion in mind?

If you would prefer to read a more romantic, "on-message" Valentine's post (well, that might still be a stretch in places), here is one from ten years ago today!