Saturday, April 20, 2013

Hedgehogs and flying rabbits.

Zebra crossings are not very popular in Brittany and almost unheard of in small villages in Central Finistere however in the neighbouring commune of Collorec Madame le Maire made sure she had one of everything on offer from the street furniture catalogue when European grants were abundant. I’ve never actually seen anyone use the pink and white zebra crossing over the past ten years but when driving through last week my eye was drawn to the squashed hedgehog smack in the middle and it struck me as particularly sad. One can only admire the hedgehog for having been so observant in spotting a human being actually crossing at this point on that rare occasion when a car was obliged to stop. To have then recognised that this was indeed a safe place to cross it then seemed a total tragedy that he or she had such a misfortune of bad timing. From the hedgehog’s point of view it must seem somewhat unjust in that having gone to the trouble to use the designated crossing place that somebody should in the middle of the village choose not to stop. It just goes to illustrate that one should never blindly trust human beings or zebra crossings. Personally I never use them unless they happen to be placed just where I planned to cross and I’ve never pressed that button on a traffic light controlled crossing, more often than not by the time the lights change and the little green man starts flashing whoever pressed it has long since gone, while the infuriated driver sits cursing and revving his motor.  I believe there is in France a law that requires drivers to remove wildlife killed to the side of the road so as not to cause a traffic hazard but perhaps hedgehogs don’t come under traffic hazard category. The poor old hedgehog had been flattened in full view of everyone for days and nobody had thought to do the descent thing. I suppose it would have required some sort of flat object to slip between spines and tarmac but there are several houses within yards that must have a spatula in the kitchen drawer.
In the Outer Hebrides Miss Tiggy Winkle has been seen as a likely cause of ground nesting birds loosing their eggs along with mink. A few years back we had an extra ordinarily heavy rain storm that brought torrents of water down off the moor overflowing the ditches within minutes, the road became a river and flooded the valley below my house. The following day I took a stroll along the beach and lost count of the number of drowned hedgehogs like little abandoned spiny hats entwined within the seaweed flotsam. Last year I found one struggling to keep afloat having fallen into the sump below the cattle grid and managing to fish it out using a plastic bag, I said not a word to a sole but none the less felt better than if I left it to die. Similarly I found myself unable to dispatch the tiny fluffy bunnies I dug from the vegetable garden but on seeing one return a few weeks later nearly fully grow I vowed never to make that mistake again. During mid summer when stacking the dried peats on a wooden pallet behind the house I spotted the same rabbit duck in underneath. Now was my opportunity and so grabbing the washing line pole I rammed it under the stack giving it a good waggle about. Nothing, so I proceeded to ram the stick in and out and the rabbit sprung forth a look of absolute terror on its face and ears pinned flat to its head as it flew past my own right ear. I must have put the fear of God into that flying rabbit as it never returned.
As I grab the chance to sow a few seeds during a rare rest bite from the April showers that seem to have decided to join forces and become constant rain I’m reminded that in my far flung gardens I often plant one for the mice, another for the slugs and what’s left after the neighbours help themselves will probably leave me with enough fresh seed for next year. This is known as the good life and similarly with my painting I do little more than keep framers in business and burn up the rest on diesel. I can see that there will soon come a time when I must make that choice as to where I dig my garden. Last year I left a little plot on Lewis packed with potatoes, onions, turnips and beetroot only to find that in France most had failed with potatoes the size of small marbles from lack of sun. This evening I turned to a different sort of sowing as I darned the holes in my hand knitted Harris wool socks and wondered if anyone out there still bothers to darn. Next will be two small worn areas on a pair of Harris tweed blankets but its the cleaning of my old Trangia camping stove that is guaranteed to turned my thoughts northward to the Highlands and Islands. Having completed the conversion work on the barn at New Tolsta I plan to open it as a seven bed bunkhouse this summer and with brochures being printed to distribute on my journey north I should hopefully receive a few visitors over the summer months.       

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

                      IT’S ALL DOWN TO TIMING.
Imagine the scene, a bitterly cold Good Friday morning and Carhaix is looking even bleaker than ever with the trees around the main square having received a rather severe pollarding the remaining straggly tirer-sèvre twigs remind me that I should perhaps trim the last few grey hairs from my own crâne chauve. With bonnet (one leg from a pair of army surplus long-johns) pulled down over my ears I made my way passed closed shops as the freezing rain tried to pretend it was really snow. I pressed the green button to gained entry into the Banque de Bretagne. Since last autumn it has been amalgamated into BNP PARISBAS, a far bigger bank and presumably more secure. My business was simple, to show then a piece of paper that proved that last year I was not eligible for tax and also to check if I needed to transfer money into my current account. I was greeted with a very pleasant smile from the young female cashier and then from around the corner appeared the lady manager. Kissing is the norm when greeting people here in Brittany but a peck on the bank managers cheek is perhaps taking familiarity a little too far so a more business like hand shake was proffered. As usual she wanted to know how long I’d been back from Australia and when would I be heading off again.
My life seems to have developed into somewhat of a triangular circuit from Australia to Scotland with touch downs between back home in Brittany. I told them I’d be heading north at the end of April having only come back to clear the vegetable garden, do my tax returns and sign for the sale of the house at Elphen. “Ah vous avez vendu”, yes sold, but between three the pickings were so little that we didn’t even fall into the tax category for capital gains. The subject then turned to the sad state of house prices in Central Finistere and why it is no longer worth even exhibiting my work here. Twenty years ago when people were moving into the area there was interest and I could sell my paintings locally but now many have returned home to England and those once well maintained houses stand empty the discoloured estate agents sign swinging in the wind from the garden gate attached by a single piece of rusting wire. Life has turned full circle and yet there seems a certain sadness in the knowledge that so many dreams of living in France did not work out.  
My bank was a very small one and thankfully even though it is now part of a much larger bank they still find that to count amongst their clients the celebrated artist Tom Hickman is of some interest. I was then asked if I would like a coffee which given the conditions outside was just what I needed. I joined the rest of the staff in a huddle around the machine and we discussed the comparative wealth of Western Australia. Then came a little something to go with the coffee, pain au chocolate or pain au raisin? I settled for the latter and the conversation continued. I suggested with the state of financial affairs was so bad in Central Finistere they should perhaps think of opening a café Bank, why not we have internet cafés and library cafés, over the past two years I had even hung my pictures in their bank. Timing is everything and particularly so during a time of recession. I’ve found myself having to give serious thought to what to paint rather than simply doing whatever pleases me.
The idea came to me last summer while discussing with Moy Mackay what sells in her gallery in Peebles. I’d shown her a few of my coastal seascapes from up on Lewis and I was struck how wonderfully empty they were but also how the general public might just require more in the way of life. There was no way I was going to paint human beings on the beach since in order to belong in that landscape they would need to be working, such was the beauty of Newlyn School paintings at the end of the 19th and early 20th century down in Cornwall. I recognise that I come from a generation and background whose work ethic is perhaps today not all that mainstream. Few people can be seen collecting seaweed on the beach and there are even fewer who use hand tools so if I painted people simply strolling along the beach they could only look like tourists in such remote spots and I didn’t want to paint surfers since there are artist covering that subject.
It felt almost too simple at first to combine the two subjects that I love to paint and yet on the Outer Hebrides as elsewhere in Scotland it is not uncommon to see livestock grazing perilously close to cliff edges as well as roaming the foreshore. I trawled through my sketchbooks and photographs for images and started the process of composing pictures. Just like a musician creating a choral work these conjured up images had to speak of the wild-west coast of Scotland while grabbing and keeping hold of the observer’s attention. So I return once again in my head to those informative years on our coastal farm on the Mull of Kintyre where animals and the sea were ever present. In early May I will head north with canvas and paint to continue my Hebridean dreaming along with paintings for the Morven Gallery on Lewis, Moy Mackay’s gallery in Peebles, Coastal Designs in Campbeltown and Henri’s delightful little gallery on the Isle of Gigha.  
Coffee and business over I made to leave but not before a small box of chocolates was offered. I said my goodbyes indicating I’d be back this afternoon for more of the same which brought laughter as I exited back into the gloomy street but now with a smile on my face. I had obviously timed my trip to Carhaix well but could this I wondered ever happen in the British Isles where bank managers are rarely even seen on the shop floor for fear of perhaps being a target of abuse?