The Art of Cicatrisation

   So, I've just spent a few days swanning around Montpellier, very pleasant. It's one of those shrinking cities, in the psychological sense; it's a city when you get there, but within hours becomes a town, and even, during your evening stroll, a crowded village.

   The Magnolia shrub takes its name from Pierre Magnol (1638-1715), professor of botany and director of Montpellier's Jardin des Plantes. I was keen to see these gardens, but was advised against doing so as it's not the best time of year to visit. I ignored this advice as there's never a bad time to visit a botanical garden - even if frost or blight or both have reduced everything to a rotten stump there are still the labels, dense with information and mystery, to look at and ponder over;

There were other writings too, glyphs of devotion, etched into bamboo;

   Giant bamboos sexually reproduce just the once and then only after several decades of life (thirteen in the case of Phyllostachys bambusoides) after which they expire. One day, its date known only to the plant, the bamboo of the Montpellier garden will flower and then die “on the promise of the fruit”, its brittle stems scarred with love's testaments.

Black Dennis

   I've been trying to think of a word recently, I'm sure I once knew it. It's a term for a sub-category of epithet, a way of summarising character – it describes the 'Bold' in 'Charles the Bold' - a sort of permanent adjective that can forever remind us just how completely unprepared Ethelred was.


   As a boy I was dismayed to discover that my royal namesake, a king of England who ruled from 1135 to 1154, is known to history as Stephen the Irresolute. The John Player cigarette card in my dad's “The Kings and Queens of England” album twisted the knife; “the so-called reign of Stephen was one of the most miserable in English history”. Hmph.

   Kings and notorious criminals (sometimes one and the same) seem to attract this kind of epithet. I suppose for most of us our anonymity outweighs our notoriety, at least historically, so our character traits don't become permanently attached to our name. I remember, in a factory I once worked in, being mystified as to why a pasty-faced fellow was known as Black Dennis. One lunch-break, not so much out of curiosity or altruism as due to a shortage of seating, I joined him at his otherwise deserted table. Without preamble and with a practised deliberation Black Dennis shared with me his bleak reflections on man's lot - and, in a canteen bathed elsewhere in florescent light, I was soon enveloped in an inky gloom so opaque that only the smell of congealing grease betrayed the whereabouts of my bacon sandwich.

Expressing Dissent in Morse Code

 Female walrus and calf, Greenland

   One evening, many years ago, I visited SeaWorld in Florida (earlier that day I was given my 'free' SeaWorld ticket in return for sitting in front of a psychotically enthusiastic time-share salesman and saying “no” for two hours. As I behave like this in most social situations it wasn't too onerous a task. There was even a slap-up breakfast – much appreciated after all that socialising).

   There were Californian sea-lions bouncing balls on their noses and the usual Delphinidae leaping through hoops, derisory activities (literally) for such intelligent animals. I was herded with the other visitors from exhibit to exhibit while people with microphones strapped to their heads educated us (by telling us about the animals' environment - not the fish tank they lived in, somewhere else) and entertained us (by coaxing the inmates to exhibit aberrant behaviour in return for food). After a while I decided to see what the animals did when they weren't performing. I retraced my steps and quickly found myself in near darkness as only the area where a particular presentation was being made was illuminated. A concerned member of staff came trotting after me, he'd assumed I was looking for a lavatory or deranged, when I explained my mission he seemed at a loss as to what to do as my breach of SeaWorld etiquette wasn't quite enough to warrant arrest. Eventually he returned to the spectacle (he had grown agitated when the light show began to move away) and I was able to carry on stumbling through the herbaceous borders. I found a couple of tanks but, in the gloom, it was impossible to ascertain what was going on within. Reluctantly, I decided to rejoin my fellow visitors. It wasn't difficult to locate them; an oasis of laughter and light surrounded a magnificent walrus that was proving to be refreshingly unbiddable. The massive pinniped just floated in the eerily lit water like a slug in a lava lamp while its 'trainer' tried in vain to get it to do something. And then, in apparent response and much to the delight of the children and myself, its bowels moved. A brown cloud suffused the neon blue of the aquarium, swirling and expanding and causing a man with a microphone strapped to his head to hurriedly switch off the lights and suggest we see the stingrays. It occurred to me that the walrus's performance was the only natural behaviour I'd seen since I'd entered the place.

This be the missing verse...


                               The Scholar,  by Rembrandt

'The Scholars' by W. B. Yeats

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love's despair
To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

   I'd always assumed Yeats was a young man when he wrote this - it turns out he rattled it off when he was 54. But then you never know with Yeats, at 69 he experienced what he referred to as 'a strange second puberty' (due to a 'Steinbach vasoligature') which gave his poetry, and his behaviour, a renewed vigour.

   Predictably, over the years, my sympathies shifted from those 'tossing on their beds' to those 'forgetful of their sins', but lately something else has happened; I keep thinking about the missing, third, verse. Ideally it would have been written by Phillip Larkin who would, for obvious reasons, have had sympathy for the 'bald heads' even if they were respectable. He would have also brought humour and, I think, a greater insight into how we all, whether 'tossing' or 'bald' or neither, cope with love's despair.


Miroslav Tichý - a lucid obscurity

Dark slides

   I found this collection of wooden articles in a junk shop recently. They're beautifully crafted, out of beech, I think. At first I thought they were for making contact prints, but when I got home and googled around I found that one was a 'changing box' and the others 'dark slides' (frames that held one or two negatives) that could be slid onto the back of a plate camera. It's odd now to think of a carpenter making a camera.
   My digital camera can take over a hundred pictures at a time and mine is a basic model, I presume there are others that can take thousands of photographs at one sitting. I suppose this is good for future historians, but for present needs it seems excessive – like having thousands of anything. Of course having innumerable examples of taxidermy is a very different matter, not the same at all.
   A digital camera is like a computer, or a modern car engine, in that it is impossible for a layperson to fix if it goes wrong. In fact the manufacturers have shown great ingenuity in ensuring that we cannot repair what we have bought. This advanced technology has not only helped us do more, it has also wrested power from our hands. I think this is why I was relieved, as well as impressed, to read about Miroslav Tichý and his approach to photography.

   When taking photographs Miroslav Tichý (born 1926) was often mistaken for a tramp due to his habit of creating his own clothes from remnants of those of others. He also created his own cameras using such items as cardboard toilet-roll tubes and bottle-tops.

From 1972 to 1985 he would take up to a hundred photographs a day of people in his home town of Kyjov in the Czech Republic. His subjects were usually female and often to be found at the local swimming pool. His unusual attire and devotion to his art occasionally got him into trouble with the authorities.

    He was able to achieve some remarkable results as many of his subjects clearly thought his photographic equipment to be fake and would sometimes strike poses as a result. He never exhibited his work and pursued an isolated existence. In recent years someone discovered his cache of photographs and they have since appeared in many prestigious galleries, a development that Mr Tichý seems uncomfortable with. He now concentrates on drawing and painting, and continues to ignore the crude trappings of success.




   Given the beautiful feel and aspect of the hamster-lined coat I talked about in my last post, I was wondering why more coats like that are not still around. When that coat was made hamsters were being slaughtered en masse due to their being an agricultural pest. This was before Syrian hamsters (Mesocricetus auratus) had become familiar as a living toy, so the associated taboos would not have been in operation (all domesticated hamsters are descended from a pregnant female captured in 1930, they were first of all used as laboratory animals). Maybe hamster fur simply went out of fashion, as has happened with rabbit. I remember the almost unbelievably soft rabbit fur that lined my father's motor cycle gloves. He had worn them years previously when roaring around sinuous English lanes on his Triumph Thunderbird. This was in the days before fatherhood obliged him to cram himself into the driving seat of a Ford Prefect, his gloves condemned to the ignominy of the sock drawer.

   But the rabbits – Rabbit fur may be out of fashion but rabbit farms still exist, certainly here in France where it's mainly older people who eat rabbit meat. I read in an English newspaper that people who keep cats don't mind feeding them cat-food made from chicken or lamb or cow, but baulk at rabbit – they find the last option immoral. I suppose it's because rabbits are kept as pets. It would be a bit like feeding one's cat to one's dog, or indeed, eating one's dog, an exercise which would assuage hunger but increase loneliness – and which could explain Fido's slavering eagerness to be our best friend.

   Of course when times are hard everything gets eaten. I read that during World War II flayed cat torsos could be found hanging in London butchers' shops where they were euphemistically referred to as “Roof Rabbit” (the German equivalent being Dachhase - 'roof-hare'), the article stated that only an expert could differentiate between a skinned, decapitated and dismembered cat and a skinned, decapitated and dismembered rabbit – apparently the shoulder blades give the game away.

   Christian Gonzenbach has an exhibition at the moment that eloquently illustrates some of the absurdities inherent in our relationship with, among other animals, the rabbit. It can be seen in Roubaix, near Lille, in the north of France, and is called “ZOOnomia, de la nature humaine”.

   Gonzenbach made this 5 metre high rabbit from 650 rabbit skins discarded by a rabbit farm;

  'Great Stuffed Rabbit' 

These lambs, bound for the abattoir, have had their lives extended for the duration of the exhibition;

 Le Sursis' - The Stay of Execution (This is a preparatory image - the actual fenxce is, unfortunately, higher)

These tragicomic ostrich boots are made of ostrich leather;




   Alice Thomas Ellis opined that “There is no reciprocity. Men love women. Women love children. Children love hamsters. Hamsters don't love anyone”.
   Hamsters are right to be circumspect, a life in a cage whose only entertainment is a treadmill leaves a lot to be desired. And that's not all...

   Tom Higgs was a friend of mine who died last year after having lived a long and full life. His son Bill, similarly a friend, has a beautiful chess set carved by Tom during the years he was incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, a period he talked about only when pressed and then without rancour.

   A taciturn man with a dry wit, Tom was an accomplished accordion player who would enliven a social gathering with impromptu performances. He was also very dapper with an eye for the unusual, for instance, his overcoat was lined with hamster. Bill kindly gave me Tom's coat which, despite being several sizes too small for me, takes pride of place on my coat rack.

     The 28 hamster pelts that line Tom's coat are those of the European hamster (Cricetus cricetus), a large hamster species under threat of extinction here in France. When Tom first had his coat they were being enthusiastically eradicated from the French countryside as they were considered an agricultural pest (they are fond of root crops). Unusually for a hamster they readily take to water, using their inflated cheek pouches as an aid to buoyancy.

     Speaking of inflated quadrupeds; I recently came across a video clip of a man called Risto Todoroski. Risto's musical ability, combined with his unusual choice of instrument (a form of 'gaida'), reminded me of Tom. I think he would have enjoyed this;


Nearing perfection


   I found the remnants of a card album in a local antique shop. This mouflon sheep card was a loose one. There was no cover so I don't know what kind of cards they are. They seem too big (9.5 by 13.5 cms/ 3 ¾" by 5 ¼") to be cigarette cards. A French friend tells me she remembers how similar cards were given out as rewards at school (the pages have no printed information and could well be those of a simple cahier).

   Each illustration has an art deco border incorporating plants from the relevant environment, in the mouflon's case the flowers, leaves and pods of the carob tree. I think the composition and execution are exquisite. I've no idea who the artist is. The text on the reverse side is by Eugene Muller.


Half a lion is still a lion...

  The gorilla illustration is not too lifelike; I think it is of a museum specimen prepared in the days when stuffed gorillas were made to look maniacal.

A rare elegance.



   It's raining here in France; il pleut. Rainfall; pluviosité. The French for 'rain' derives from the Latin pluvius. If the French republican calendar were still in operation we would now be in the month of Pluviôse (a three week month, each week ten days long, extending from late January to mid February). The National Convention that oversaw the creation of the calendar decreed that a circumflex should not be used on the 'o', but that directive was generally ignored - which makes sense as the 'o' would need a hat in the rainy month.

This is my Peewit or Lapwing or Green Plover (Vanellus vanellus)

  This plover has several common names (and many more regional ones) as it is a striking, widespread bird that feeds in a variety of habitats.

   'Peewit' derives from its call.

Until recently I'd assumed that the 'wing' in 'Lapwing' was there as a direct result of the bird's lolloping flight (I'm sure I'm not alone in this, which is no doubt the reason the term has remained current), but Francesca Greenoak, a reputable etymologist, says, in 'All the Birds of the Air';

   “... the word Lapwing comes from the Old English Hleapewince which has the quite beautiful meaning of a 'leap with a waver in it' which conveys so well the tremulous power of the Lapwing's flight. The autumn and winter group flights are particularly 'hleapewince', a flock surging and turning, showing first the green-black upperside of the wide wing, then the brilliant white of the underside, moving together like a flickering chequerboard.”

   The French term for a plover is pluvier, which used to be plovier and was Anglicised as such when the Normans invaded England. I imagine the word would have quickly spread, along with the other French-inspired gastronomic replacement words (mutton/sheep, beef/cow, Pork/swine), as Lapwing eggs were a popular dish. In various dictionaries there is much talk of the plover/pluvier/pluvius/rain connection (the German for plover, Regenpfeifer, means 'rain-piper'), but, according to 'The Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names' by W B Lockwood, these associations are erroneous;

   “The name is basically imitative of the clear, far-reaching call, in this case heard as plō (the Norsemen heard it as lō), but associated by folk etymology with plovere (Classical pluere) to rain, imparting a meaning something like rain bird. It is needless now to add that the many attempts to find a rational connection between the Plover and the rain, by writers ancient and modern, have necessarily been in vain.”

   Another plover association comes to mind, one beautifully surmised by Robert Williams Wood in 'How to tell the Birds from the Flowers' (1917);