Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Chance encounters

   A couple of years ago a friend gave me “Austerlitz” by W G Sebald. It is one of the few novels (if it can be classed as a novel) that I have read several times. Sebald has an unpretentious style and covers big themes as he meanders through time and thought.

   Last week my friend's husband, who has read more than I will ever read, suggested that I try “Rings of Saturn” also by Sebald. With that in mind, and seeing that I find second-hand books more agreeable than new ones, I wandered into “Books for Amnesty” in Hammersmith, London. It was during my first trip back to England in years. Despite generous assistance from one of the bookshop's volunteers I couldn't find “Rings of Saturn”, but found instead “Vertigo” the first volume of a trilogy that ends with “Rings of Saturn”. This chain of events – ordinary, multi-layered and somehow slightly unreal - seemed a fitting way to find a book by Sebald.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Silence is golden

   A friend of mine, Jack, when asked what he thought about a certain goldfish, pointed out that it was very quiet. The same can be said of another orange organism, the carrot. The American physicist Robert W. Wood (1868-1955) put it best when he compared the taciturn root vegetable to a garrulous bird in his flornithology, “How to tell the Birds from the Flowers”;

Monday, 4 July 2011


   I was recently in Lion-sur-mer in Normandy. In Rue Joseph Pasquet I came across a house, 'Villa Louis', decorated with beautiful ceramic scallops.  

   The French call the 'scallop' 'Coquille Saint-Jacques' due to its association with St. James and the pilgrimage to his shrine in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Pilgrims carried the shell as a food and drink scoop.

   In this case the scallop seems purely decorative reflecting the house's proximity to the sea.  

   The tiles were made by Alexandre Bigot (1862-1927), a ceramicist active during the Art Nouveau period.  

This is the view from the balcony of Villa Louis - Bigot got his colours right.  

   I walked along stretches of this coast, idly stuffing razor-shells and scallop shells into my pockets, and lapsing into the kind of existential reverie that we all do when beach-combing. But these were no ordinary beaches. They previously had names like 'Omaha' and 'Utah', and it was here, only 67 years ago, that the biggest amphibious invasion in history* took place. These blue-green waters once ran red.

   *For obvious reasons the preparations for D-Day were conducted in the greatest possible secrecy. Officers involved in the planning were never sent anywhere where there was a danger of their being captured. These men went under the codename “Bigot” (a reversal of “To Gib” - an abbreviation of “To Gibraltar” – which had been stamped on the passports of those officers involved in the North African Invasion of 1942).