Thursday, 28 April 2011

Knocks 'James Bond' into a cocked hat

   I've just been lying, swathed in my counterpane, thinking, about me. Or more exactly, my name; S R Plant. I quite like its fuddy-duddyness. But my supine musings churned out a far better appellation, one more colourful, containing a hint of literary allusion (Henry James, I think) and whose rugged second half (so complimentary to its delicate first) culminates in a strident, confident syllable of infinite possibility – “Pleased to meet you, I'm Hyacinth Macaw!”!

   At least it got me out of bed.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The dove of revolution

   I recently worked on a pigeonnier. A dictionary translation of the French word pigeonnier gives 'dovecote', but for (English) me a dovecote is a wooden structure. The one I was working on was made of limestone;

   The roof collapsed many years ago, it was a stone roof, made of limestone split along natural fault lines, these roofing stones, some approaching a metre wide, are referred to here in Burgundy as laves;

   It's very expensive to replace a stone roof in the traditional manner – not only does it take great skill to interlock the stones (no mortar is used), but also the oak framework supporting the vast weight needs to be constructed by an expert.
   The pigeonnier is owned by my friend and neighbour, Didier. For reasons of economy he decided to build a flat, zinc roof which will be hidden by lave stones around its edges. I helped consolidate the tops of the walls with laves laid in a mortar of three parts sand and one part lime.

   Here in France dovecotes have political connotations. Before 1789 only the nobility and clergy had the right to have pigeonniers, some of which had over 2,000 nesting holes. It was illegal to prevent flocks of domesticated pigeons landing and feeding on one's crops – the effect on smallholdings must have often been devastating. I have read that this aristocratic privilege was one of the triggers for the French Revolution.
   The nesting holes are known in French (and sometimes English) as boulins, this is due to their appearance; the word boulin was used earlier to describe the square, scaffolding fixation hole left in a wall (and has become, by extension, the word for the section of scaffolding that is secured in the hole). The pigeonnier we worked on has 500 such boulins;

   Didier is a cellist and is going to use his pigeonnier as a music room - storing his CDs shouldn't prove too difficult. 

Sunday, 24 April 2011


   By taking photographic portraits of people using reflections in millponds and rock-pools Ginny Munden allows the subtle, ambiguous distortions of the water to give an oneiric dimension to her work.

   She has also photographed the interiors of oaken cubes, carved by Declan Field, tapping into the enduring psychological attraction of labyrinths. 

  Ginny Munden's unassuming and perceptive images gently remind us of the transcendental power of the commonplace. 

   Her exhibition can be seen at the L'ARC Scene Nationale, Le Creusot, France, until 7th May 2011.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Peep shows and fistic crises


Odd Nerdrum

   Many years ago in Blackpool, the garish seaside town in the north of England that is the holiday Mecca of the working classes, I converted a peep show venue into a labyrinth in which to play laser-gun war games. Happy days, as Beckett would say.

   Just as empty churches resonate with the ghosts of absent congregations so do derelict peep shows. When ripping down the wooden partitions that honeycombed the windowless, litter-strewn premises it was easy to imagine the venue's quotidian routine; naked women gyrating in hexagons whose facets had letter-boxes inserted at waist height through which crouched men in cubicles would mutter gruff commands and frantic pleas. When the clockwork timer had exhausted their last 50 pence coin and the guillotine occluded the carnal landscape, the enervated voyeurs would return to the daylight leaving behind their discarded tissues redolent with loneliness.

   The job took a week. In the evenings I'd drink beer in bars where people drank to get drunk then I'd go back to a third-floor room in one of the innumerable, indistinguishable hotels. One night in the early hours I was woken by staccato shouts from the street below. I leant on the window and saw a youth, accompanied by his girlfriend, berating a bouncer who had, it seemed, thrown him out of the nightclub that faced my hotel. Mid-sentence the big lunk of a bouncer punched the young man in the mouth. The blow was practiced, almost perfunctory, its casual nature shocking the recipient who, for a short while, continued to berate, his indignation and the humiliation of being hit making his voice crack. Then, suddenly spent, the young man fell silent and let his distraught girlfriend drag him homewards, the fistic crisis over, the leaden regret only beginning.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

What's on in Bordeaux

   If you're strolling around the Chartrons in Bordeaux and you fancy a glass of wine, a spot of poetry or anything else Omar Khayyam was keen on then you should swing by 'Paul's Place'. Unfortunately there's no taxidermy, but there are lots of books and Paul and his son Jack make for entertaining company. You can also eat there while you read, drink, be entertained etc..

   There are film nights and poetry readings in French and in English. It's worth noting that when Paul reads a poem he becomes so engrossed in the experience that a sort of literary osmosis occurs causing him to gradually morph into the poet being read. Here we see him perusing Ted Hughes, the jaw turning lantern, the nose putting on a spurt...  

   Watching him recite Marianne Moore is not for the faint-hearted.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Hark, my buskin tread

   Acting, as any non-actor who has watched television and film knows, is a piece of cake. I took to the boards many years ago in Cork, Ireland. I hadn't planned it, the limelight shone my way when a production of Joe Orton's 'Loot' was due to open in the Everyman Theatre on the Monday and the actor playing the small role of P. C. Meadows fell ill the Saturday before. News of his stricken police constable reached the director in the local theatre bar and in desperation he looked around for a tall man with an English accent who could serve as a replacement. I had moved to Cork some weeks previously, had found work as a stagehand, and was present the fateful evening when the director cast an anxious eye over the revellers. Being tall, and the only Englishman there, I was offered the job. It never occurred to me I couldn't do it; my degree of self-belief was as high as anyone else's in the bar at the time (11.45 pm).
   The bobby's helmet* transformed me from tall to towering. I had to crouch in order pass under the door lintel when entering the living room in which the play was set (I couldn't take off my headgear – it was part of my character, you see). I would erupt upon the action, straightening up to what seemed like double the height of the rest of the cast. It could be argued I had an immense stage presence.

   As P. C. Meadows, I arrested a man and kissed a lady upon the hand. Meadows seemed quite a gallant chap, or perhaps he acted in a gallant manner for unwholesome reasons, I'm really not sure – as you've probably gathered I wasn't a method actor, I was old-school, what mental preparation there was came in the form of Murphy's stout. As the performances went by more and more mental preparation took place making it ever more arbitrary as to who would be kissed and who would be arrested.

   A further complication was that once on stage I found myself unable to speak normally - and it wasn't the result of too much mental preparation, in fact the more mental preparation taken the less pronounced, as it were, the problem. When playing P. C. Meadows the vowels that didn't disappear altogether became distorted beyond recognition, thus rendering “This woman accosted me, sir, she insisted that I accompany her to the Catholic church” as “Ths wmn accstd meuseur, shinsistd tht Iaccmpny hurto thcuthlic chuch” followed by a pause while the actor whose line was next tried to ascertain whether I had finished – no easy task especially as sometimes, if I felt the line hadn't come across clearly enough, I'd give it another shot.

   Besides kissing and/or arresting I had nothing much else to do between lines and so would take the opportunity to peer around the auditorium. I noticed that the audience, after the desertion of the fickle, was composed of the same few people who would turn up each night. It was heartening to see such devotion to the arts.

   *My onkos

Friday, 8 April 2011

The artistic temperament

   I was in Paris recently, striding down the Boulevard St Germain, when I noticed an elderly gent tottering out of the “Café de Flore”, renowned hang-out of artist types at some point or other. And he really was tottering, I don't know why, whether it was his age or his habits, possibly both. He was making for a tree in the pavement and was carrying a charcoal sketch and a can of fixative with the obvious aim of spraying his creation in one of the few places where people weren't. I was keen to surreptitiously scrutinize his artwork so I deviated slightly from my path and swept by close to the delicate operation. I don't know whether the gentleman had his nozzle on incorrectly but my left trouser leg received a powerful blast of fixative the consequence of which was a stiffness about the knee. I'm not convinced this was completely the result of accident.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

A bridge too far

   Some years ago, when I first felt the insidious caress of middle-age transforming cheek into jowl and inquisitive glance into presbyopic leer, I realized that something had to be done to mitigate the cruel ravages of time. So, my existential yearning masquerading as desire, I set out, like many another anxious man in my chronological predicament, to find solace in the feminine company of someone significantly younger than myself.

   Through luck and low cunning I succeeded in my quest. The ensuing liaison involved, in fact mainly consisted of, a weekend in Paris during which I, we, found ourselves on the Pont des Arts, a footbridge that leads from the Louvre to St Germain.  

   Many of the grills that are fixed to the structure's railings are festooned with padlocks fastened there as declarations of undying infatuation by starry-eyed young people who congregate on the teak decking. My new friend seemed delighted with the ambience despite the difficulty crossing the bridge (it was very congested), whilst I, having seen off my existential what-ever-it-was, was keener than ever to slip down Rue de Bac and visit Deyrolle's taxidermy emporium.

   It was late afternoon and we'd got the sitting around in cafés out of the way, now the path was clear for a good hour's perusal of dead animals. Suddenly, just as I was explaining the importance of Deyrolle's in the history of naturalised zoomorphia, my friend sat down on the walkway, joining the dozens of other young people lolling around the bridge in little groups. It occurred to me I should do the same, but during the time it took to lower myself into a seated position (I eschewed offers of assistance) my companion had sprung up again in order to get a closer look at a juggler (a 'juggler' in this case defined as a young man who throws three balls in the air and catches most of them). I intended to point out to my friend the shameless saltimbanque's clumsiness, but by the time I'd struggled to my feet (the lock-bedecked grills provided useful purchase) butterfingers and herself were already engaged in animated conversation liberally interspersed with guffaws. Both parties, despite my pointed coughs and watch-tapping, seemed blissfully unaware of me and my shrinking opportunity of joining the denizens of Deyrolle's in their safe haven of the perpetual present.