Sunday 26 November 2023

"The nearest grande dame of literary fiction may be behind you!" Meeting Madame Antonia, aka the late A S Byatt

1999 was a challenging year for me. Have you noticed how "challenging" has come to mean everything from "bloody awful" to "damn near impossible", as well as its primary meanings of "inviting competition" and "testing one's abilities"? The word has become the go-to euphemism (especially in government circles) for "much harder than we care to say". In 1999 of course the world was bracing itself for technical malfunctions on an apocalyptic scale, as we approached Y2K -  preppers hunkered down in bunkers in anticipation, stocked to the gunwhales with candles and several years' worth of baked beans - yet when the date rolled round it was all a bit of a damp squib. I saw the millennium in in a smoke-filled pub in Stoke, and absolutely nothing happened, except for a lot of kissing. 

No, 1999 was challenging for me on account of a back to back series of challenging(!) work projects, and the death of my mother in January. So tight were the deadlines on the job I was on at the time, that I was on the phone to Switzerland and Germany making appointments the day after I registered her death, with my sister-in-law sitting quietly at my side, choosing hymns for the funeral and exuding a generally comforting presence.

In June of that year I carried out a study in France on the market for ladies' hosiery, on behalf of a company that made nylon yarn. By chance, several of the manufacturing centres for ladies' tights coincide with famous wine growing regions, so I was able to do some memorable tasting along the way. Examples of this happy crossover were Troyes (champagne, plus a bonus hosiery museum!), and Pouilly Fuisse (wine and town neatly combined in one name), but there were others along my route south. Eventually I ended up in a fairly obscure part of the Gard in South West France. My meeting was at the hosiery factory in Le Vigan, but I stayed in a pretty auberge in the nearby village of Aveze, which served food on its shady terrace. 


After my meeting, I was unpacking my briefcase when the chambermaid stuck her head round the door, asking if I would like my room to be made up. She immediately clocked the dictaphone on the bed and inquired gaily: "Oh, have you come to interview Madame Antonia?!" I said no, while wondering who this person was to cause her to jump to that conclusion. I set about transcribing my recording for the rest of the afternoon, and thought no more about it. That evening I wandered down to the garden restaurant, ordered some food and a glass of wine, and carried on reading one of the books I had brought with me on the trip.

I had just started my main course when I heard a very well-spoken English voice address me from a table diagonally behind me (centre left vs bottom right in the photo below):

"So how are you finding the McEwan?"

I nearly jumped out of  my chair, as I hadn't heard any English for a good week or so. I turned round and instantly recognised the late middle-aged lady as A S Byatt, and also made the connection with the chambermaid's question earlier - I hadn't even known her Christian name was Antonia, as she is so often referred to by her initials. As luck would have it, I had noticed a review by her on the back of Amsterdam, the book in question, and was able to reply, quick as a flash:

"I'm enjoying it. And there is actually a review by you on the back cover!"

"Oh jolly good, what did I say?"

"'Full of gusto, straightforward, and delivers blows to the gut...shocking.'"


I sensed that A S Byatt couldn't quite remember saying those very words, but that she trusted and stood by her earlier judgement - the book had come out the previous year. There followed a stimulating conversation about our favourite novels, and the role of literary criticism. I told her my mother had recently died, and that she was proud of the fact that she had never read a book of literary criticism, which made her laugh. She asked me who my favourite author was, which put me on the spot, and I blurted out Barbara Trapido, whom A S Byatt also liked. Given more time, I am sure I would have come up with a more heavyweight writer like E M Forster, say, but I was caught completely off-guard. A S Byatt explained that she came here every summer to write, staying at a house she owned nearby, and eating her evening meals in the auberge. Her son was over at the moment, which was a bit of luck, as she was suffering from a cold and relied on him to do the shopping. She talked about having to read a lot of books in her capacity as judge for literary awards, and how much of an effort that could be, on account of the sheer volume of pages involved. She recommended I read "Black Dogs" by Ian McEwan (which I duly did later - what a dark tale that was!), and she was just about to recommend ice cream flavours for my dessert when the heavens opened, thunder clapped, and lightning streaked the sky. A full-on electrical storm erupted, scattering the guests in all directions in search of shelter. As I ducked into the hotel, I looked towards A S Byatt's table, but she had vanished, and the garden was sodden and deserted. Up in my room listening to the clamorous patter of the rain, the whole encounter had a dreamlike quality, adding to its charge, which is undimmed by the passing years.

Here is a photo of her, rather fittingly speaking at an event in Amsterdam!

Source: Wikimedia Commons ~ Fred Ernst

Then as you may have heard on the news, A S Byatt died earlier this month, aged 87.  After the deaths of Helen Dunmore and Hilary Mantel, I found myself suddenly wanting to read their work again. In the case of A S Byatt, I now have an urge to read her work for the first time, hehe, because although I own a quartet of her books, to my shame I  have never quite got round to reading them... This didn't stop me dining out on my meeting with this literary luminary for years afterwards, for which I was teased mercilessly by friends, whom it amused to contract her name to the even more succinctly familiar "A". They would find any opportunity to say: "And of course you have met A, haven't you?", and it became something of a running joke. It was one such friend who messaged me in fact to tell me the news of her death. I did feel genuinely sad, for quite apart from A S Byatt's great talent as a writer, she was a warm and approachable person who happened to appear - however fleetingly and mysteriously! - at a time when I was feeling the lack of a maternal figure, and our brief encounter has had a greater resonance as a result. 

Oh, and I quite forgot to ask her what denier and shade of tights she wore!

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Serge Lutens Santal Majuscule for a Minuscule price! - sampling the sample sites as Bonkers turns 14


Well, that's unusual...I am writing this post on my actual blog anniversary as opposed to a few days or weeks later, or not at all. I shan't make a big deal of it, as it doesn't seem warranted now I am only posting once a month or so, and I am sure I have lost some of my regular readers and commenters because of this sparse frequency. But people I will never know are still finding their way to the archives with their 756 posts - not necessarily meaning to, mind, as I suggested in this piece about blogging 11 years ago (see the full thing here):

'And the other important point to mention – and the final reason for keeping a sense of perspective - is that, crucially, many of your readers will land on your blog by mistake… Some of the more peculiar search terms that have directed people to Bonkers include: “leopard fantasy”, “Bo Derek naked”, “Anne Hathaway’s cottage opal flash parfum”, “Slovakian hobbits biscuits”, “swingos hotel Cleveland”, “card nuisance call boss telling her to do some work”, “kidnapping lillies” (sic), “what is the landform of Ohio”, “avocado” and “slime”.'

The weird thing is that we get tourists fetching up in Stafford by mistake who are also looking for Anne Hathaway's cottage, albeit not its associated perfume, if there even is one? Traffic is still traffic though, so I will cheerfully take all-comers. 

And though I am not posting often, I have been doing quite a few perfume "consultations" for friends or even friends of friends behind the scenes - one chap bought a bottle of L'Air du Desert Marocain on the back of his epiphany at my house - so fragrance is very much an ongoing interest. I have, however, largely lost any curiosity about new releases, as my tolerance for plethoras is much reduced these days. Plus I am only dimly aware of the latest crop of perfume blogs, because I still cling to those of my "generation" of 10-15 years ago. My blog roll is a frozen tribute to them, even though some of the titles are dormant now, and a few of the links may not work. I am even a bit out of touch with my cherished clutch of perfume friends - the aftermath of Covid and the chaos in the world generally may have played a role in that.

Despite this backdrop of drifting in my own becalmed backwater, and having more to do with fragrance wearers "in the wild" than the personalities in the blogosphere, occasionally, very occasionally, a new scent hits me in the solar plexus that I come across by some other route than a tip off from a fellow blogger, my usual source of information in recent years ever since I fell off a cliff as far as the brands / perfume houses were concerned, and they stopped sending me things to try.

To explain how this discovery came about, I need firstly to mention that I have recently joined a Qigong and a Mindfulness class. There is a bit of meditation tacked on at the end of the Qigong class and a bit of Qigong incorporated into the Mindfulness one. I didn't get on with Tai Chi which I also dabbled in - it was like a slo-mo version of Pan's People, with choreography that far exceeded my powers of coordination, but Qigong I can do, and it does wonderful things to me in return. "Postural diazepam" I called it. As things have turned out, this post from 2010 was eerily prescient, as the class I now attend is indeed under the auspices of the u3a (University of the Third Age).

Anyway, at the end of a recent Mindfulness class the leader started reminiscing about the smell of pure sandalwood oil from Mysore, and asked me if it was still used in modern perfumery, and whether I knew of current perfumes with a goodly dose of quality sandalwood of whatever provenance, so I said I would go away and have a think. I consulted a few blogs and YouTubers who had done their "Top 10 sandalwood fragrances" - there was quite a bit of crossover with the ones I had thought of, such as Guerlain Samsara, Diptyque Tam Dao, Hermes Santal Massoia, Le Labo Santal 33 etc - but several by Serge Lutens were not on my radar, including the one that most piqued my curiosity, Santal Majuscule. What's not to like about sandalwood being "writ large", in capital letters? ;) I had a sudden urge to try this apparent behemoth, and checked its availability on the sampling sites. 

Source: pinterest

First off, I bought a 1ml sample from Fragrance Samples came promptly, and knocked me sideways. I immediately rushed to run Santal Majuscule through the Boisdejasmin-ometer, as my taste in perfume is spookily aligned with Victoria's. Sure enough, she gives it four stars, and I will leave her to parse this beautiful rose and sandalwood scent, with its creamy, dusty base and meditative quality, making it the perfect accompaniment to a Mindfulness class!

Notes: sandalwood, rose, cocoa, tonka bean

Serge Lutens Santal Majuscule : Perfume Review - Bois de Jasmin

I quite agree with her use of the word "tender", which is exactly how it reads to me - a gentle murmur, a dreamy romantic scent, not shouty or scratchy or majuscule at all! I expect I am drawn to it because I love PG Brulure de Rose, which also has a powdery rose and chocolate accord. But Santal Majuscule is quieter and more refined somehow, much as I love Brulure.

I knew I needed more of the stuff, but the price of a 10ml decant on Fragrance Samples UK was £27.50 approx, so I googled some more suppliers (there are loads here these days, unlike the old days when you had to send off to The Perfumed Court or Luckyscent in the States!). Next up I landed on Scent Samples UK, who were offering the same amount for a mere £15, including p & p. Well, that seemed too good to be true, given that 50ml of this perfume retails for £125, which should work out at £25 per 10ml, much closer to the Fragrance Samples UK price. I googled reviews of Scent Samples UK on Trustpilot, and they were a bit mixed, but not worryingly so - or rather not to the point where I didn't dare risk an outlay of £15...

The decant also arrived very quickly, but on my first spray I couldn't detect the lovely dusty base - it was thin and very topnote-y - like a designer take on Santal Majuscule for a younger audience, if you can imagine that. I was disappointed and couldn't decide whether to send the perfume back or keep it for "casual spraying", with it being so relatively cheap. Then I had the idea to buy one more small decant from a private seller in a Facebook group, to help me figure out which was the true version, "best of three"-style. I was sure this person's bottle would be kosher, as the culture of that group is very straight and honest.

I also wrote to Scent Samples UK, explaining what had happened, and how I was going to wait till I had a third sample to test before taking a final view, and they were fine about it, saying I could send the decant back for a full refund if I wasn't happy after doing that comparison, whilst also drawing my attention to the possibility of natural variation between batches. The bit about the fragrance being crafted by skilled artisans amused me for some reason.

"It's essential to note that variations in the scent and colour of Santal Majuscule may occur due to its unique composition and craftsmanship. Each batch is carefully blended and crafted by skilled artisans, which can lead to subtle differences between batches."

So sample No 3 duly arrived, which smelt close to No 1 from Fragrance Samples UK...but meanwhile, I kept spraying the decant from Scent Samples UK, and lo and behold I suddenly got the full dusty, powdery experience! I think that very first spray must not have had all the ingredients in it, a bit like a vinaigrette bottle that you need to shake first, haha. Then I remembered that I had covered this very topic in an old post somewhere, which took some finding, but here it is:

Bonkers about Perfume: A Probably Preposterous Notion - The Unrepresentative Squirt

I do believe that I may have been experiencing the same phenomenon of "the unrepresentative squirt", and wrote back to Scent Samples UK accordingly, thanking them for their offer of a refund but saying it wouldn't be necessary after all. How they manage to sell 10ml for £15 is still a mystery though...did they get a bulk discount from Serge Lutens, or acquire some old stock on the grey market, or a job lot of testers, or are they having a fire sale prior to shutting up shop? Maybe Santal Majuscule is their loss leader, but if so it seems an odd one to choose. 

So there you have it...I am delighted to have enough Santal Majuscule to be going on with, and to have discovered a scent to which I have the same visceral attachment as I do to Brulure de Rose, yet which is softer and more "Mindfulness class-appropriate".

Monday 2 October 2023

My interview on Olfactoria's Travels revisited, ten years on...

2013 me

Another month has passed - I am taking the notion of slow blogging to the most leisurely extremes, I know, but I do feel I should only post when the muse moves me, and it seems to be on a bit of a go-slow these days, for the reasons I mentioned last time, topped off with another round of health investigations. Though as I can testify, a degree of slowing down is probably normal for most aging organisms! I certainly won't post more frequently simply to placate the cyberbots that measure that sort of thing. On a whim I put my URL into one of those Google page rank checker sites, and my ranking has in fact gone up a point to 4(!), so maybe less is more after all. I honestly don't mind if I slip all the way down the SEO snake to zero though, like the way I lost my Superhost status on Airbnb by taking time out with my neck last year.

The unexpected trigger for this post, which jump-started my mojo, was a recent Facebook message from a US friend (not a perfumista):

"Sooooo, I was looking you up thinking I was on my email and not general Google search and this came up. Fun read. Anytime you want to see the sea, come visit us in Ireland."

She had copied the link to an interview I did with Birgit of Olfactoria's Travels ten years ago today(!), so I decided to make this the subject of my current post, and to reflect on how far my answers would be the same now. I shan't reproduce B's interview in full, obviously, as that would infringe her copyright, so if you didn't see this first time round - or can't remember what I said (I only remembered fragments myself!) - may I trouble you to take a look so that what follows below makes sense?

People in Perfumeland - Vanessa Musson of Bonkers about Perfume

There are 20 questions (I never noticed that before), and I shall confine myself to commenting on whatever caught my eye, either because I am the same, or have changed in some way...

First up then...sleep. Ah dear, I am still that intermittently insomniac soldier, though my sleep difficulties tend to come in waves (like sadly elusive sleep itself!). I was thinking of writing a piece specifically on this topic in fact, as I have tried everything under the sun (and moon!) to address the issue, and am having some success with melatonin at the moment, especially the kind that is bundled in with soporific herbal ingredients like valerian, lemon balm, and Californian poppy. Do let me know in the comments if a post on sleep would be of interest - I even came up with a title already: "Chasing Morpheus". I could always shoehorn lavender into it somewhere to meet the "minimum perfume content threshold", hehe.

As for my morning cup of tea, it is exclusively decaffeinated now, following the advice of an A & E doctor two years ago, though I have no idea if that was really necessary for the organs he was trying to placate at the time. I figured that reducing my caffeine intake right down might at least help me sleep. I have no idea if that worked either, haha. But I persist with decaf tea. Having tried half a dozen brands, I can unequivocally recommend Yorkshire Tea (with the blue stripe on the box). Some of the rest taste like insipid dish water, with or without a disagreeable metal tang, giving the variant a bad rap.

Moving on, I still have key-related anxiety, which is if anything worse than ever. I must go back and lock my car three times if I lock it once. I am still in a committed relationship with kitchen towel, or "roll" if you prefer, and I still feel good when sitting in the sun, though the pleasure is more ambivalent these days: I didn't sunbathe once this year for the first time ever, and probably only once or twice in previous summers - as opposed to every time the sun came out when I was younger. ;) I am much more conscious of the harmful effects of UV rays, and can feel my skin getting drier and acquiring more and more brown spots and other examples of "hyperpigmentation". Recently, I have also come out in a startlingly scarlet smattering of cherry angiomas, though they are nothing to do with the weather. 

Then I do still love Germany, but haven't been there for years, and now I have a house in France I am going there instead every opportunity I get! I am mindful that while my French is coming on by leaps and bounds, notably  in terms of vocabulary to do with woodworm, roof repairs, and steel struts in masonry for hoiking up wisteria, my German is withering on the vine (or "Rebe", should that be?). I probably could still describe my dress style as "preppy grunge", and the French charity shop in the village where my house is is a treasure trove of quirky examples of the style...perhaps more grungy than preppy in the main.

As for my favourite perfume, I do still love Guerlain Plus Que Jamais, and wore it only the other day indeed, but as time goes by I find it more difficult to declare any perfume my absolute favourite. 

I still spend way too much time on social media, which I think is partly responsible for my fragmented attention span and sapping of creative juices - as well as being quite depressing after a while. On days when I notice my phone battery dipping below 50% I definitely feel more flat and listless than when I engage in low tech activities like going for walks - or even hoovering!

What else? I still do lots of research favours for people - most recently identifying companies specialising in bathroom renovations for an elderly (and increasingly immobile) friend; it has become a substitute for my old job, which I quit when I was 60. Well, it quit me, more like, as the work dried up, and by the time it appeared again post-Covid, I wasn't in the right headspace to carry on.

Then I still have tottering piles of books everywhere - the front room in particular is Tsundoku Central! 

Lastly, I drink much less than I did ten years ago - I only have one drink twice a week, or maybe three times (except when on holiday, of course). I can't say I feel any better for it, but my bones or other organs may tell a different story. I do still take to my bed in the afternoon if I am having a really bad day (or a migraine, which is grounds for a bad day in itself). 

Coincidentally, at a mindfulness class I now attend once a week, we were talking about the "continuity of the self" throughout one's life, and the same day I happened to spot this quote in a post by Maria Popova in The Marginalian, talking about the poet Mary Oliver:

'She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.'

So yes, although ten years is not a big time difference to chart one's own changes, I can see a strong thread of continuity between the 64-year old me and the 54-year old one, and confidently predict that the child I was will be with me in the grave, wrapped like a mummy in kitchen towel.

Editor's note: I'd also like to say a big thank you to Birgit for including me in her Perfumeland series. It was a rare treat for me to be on the other side of the interviewing process...;)

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. ;)