Meaning and Nonsense in the British Library

The British Library is a beautiful modern building, an oasis in the city. The minute I turned the corner into the courtyard, the decibel level dropped. I went  immediately into the Sir John Ritblat Gallery to look at the permanent collection. It has been a while since I have had time to gaze lovingly at manuscripts. Another lifetime ago. I stared at pen strokes, brush strokes and tiny lines of decorations, and noticed that my hand was tracing the lines in the air. Books of Hours, with their gorgeous illuminations and flat quadrata feet. They mesmerize me, because they require so much pen manipulation. The Codex Sinaiticus, with its exquisitie and pure of Greek letters, written in the 4th century. Lettering that reflects purity of thought.

I came around a corner and was suddenly face to face with The Lindesfarne Gospels, one of the most important manuscripts ever created and one that I spent a great deal of time studying in my former life. It was like coming across an old friend in London.

The Lindesfarne Gospels. An old friend

I spent a good long time visiting. We had a lot of catching up to do.

After a reflective and solitary cup of tea, I went perusing. There were a couple of fabulous special exhibits. One was the Library’s holdings of manuscripts by the writer and artist, Mervyn Peake. Anyone who has read the Gormanghast Trilogy knows that it is filled with elaborate, eccentric characters. It is Gothic and weird and wonderful. Peake was a visual artist as well as a writer, and his manuscripts are filled with sketches of characters and settings for the books.

Peake's Gormenghast characters

Peake served in the Second World War. He was one of the first to go into the liberated concentration camp at Belsen, and he was tremendously affected by the experience. He wrote a poem called, “That Last Weak Cough”, and later, when the poem was published with his illustrations, he wrote about the importance of art to humanity.

“… (art) matters fundamentally … if man matters, then the highest flights of his mind and imagination matter. His wonder, his vitality matters. It gives the lie to the nihilists who cry “Woe” in the streets. For art is the voice of man, naked, militant and unashamed.” Mervyn Peake 1949

It never ceases to amaze me that if I open myself to ideas and experiences I find something that speaks to the questions I am asking. The combination of the Peake exhibit and the Manuscripts helped to remind me that every age, every generation, has a voice. Just because I am not “current” doesn’t mean I don’t have a perspective that is meaningful.

And then Peake spoke to me about nonsense:

“Nonsense can be gentle or riotous. It can clank like stones in the empty buckets of fatuity. It can take you by the hand and lead you nowhere. It’s magic – for to explain it, were that possible, would be to kill it. It swims, plunges, cavorts, and rises in its own element. It’s a favourable fowl. For non – sense is not the opposite of good sense. That would be “Bad Sense”. It’s something quite apart – and isn’t the opposite of anything. It’s far more rare.” Mervyn Peake.

So this is my watchword for the next little while, as I negotiate London. To plunge and cavort with a bit of nonsense, remembering that nonsense isn’t just silliness. It can be just as poignant and nostalgic and emotional as any meaningful artistic response.

SENSITIVE, SELDOM AND SAD By Mervyn Peake

Sensitive, Seldom and Sad are we,

As we wend our way to the sneezing sea,

With our hampers full of thistles and fronds

To plant round the edge of the dab-fish ponds;

Oh, so Sensitive, Seldom and Sad –

Oh, so Seldom and Sad.

In the shambling shades of the shelving shore,

We will sing us a song of the Long Before,

And light a red fire and warm our paws

For it’s chilly, it is, on the Desperate shores,

For those who are Sensitive, Seldom and Sad,

For those who are Seldom and Sad.

Goodbye to France, Hello to England

On our second to last night in France, Suzanne and Christian invited us over for dinner and I asked if I could make the dessert. I wanted to make a Tarte aux Mourres. Picking blackberries brings out an almost religious feeling in me. The deep purple, sun-warmed berries, bloated with juice, line all of the road verges. Such beauty. I love picking them with the sun at my back, hearing, just on the other side of the verge, the gentle snorting and snuffling of a large Charolaise cow.

However, there is a bit of treachery there. A bit of pain is part of the process. The thorns are sharp, and the roadsides are plagued with stinging nettles. These seem to thrive right beside the best berries. Tim says the experience is an important moral lesson –in order to receive this extraordinary gift, you will have to undergo a bit of pain. But it will be worth it in the end. And it is. We are just at the end of the blackberry season now, but Tim and I were still able to pick over a quart of blackberries.

To make the tarte, I approximated a recipe from memory that leaves most of the fruit uncooked – it is a great pie if you want your fruit to still taste really fresh. The recipe I have included works for any fresh fruit.

The meal at Suzanne & Christian’s was a true French feast – an extraordinary 5-course, 5-bottle meal. We began with some true Champagne, lovely tiny bubbles that whetted our appetites as we nibbled a local pastry and tiny tomatoes from Suzanne’s garden. Next was “Vin des Fossiles” from Saone-et-Loire. It is made from a grape I have never heard of – Auxerrois – and was crisp and light and lovely with our tomato tarte appetizer.  The François Pinte Aloxe-Corton was a gorgeous and rich Pinot to go with our thin Entrecot steaks. We fried these on a griddle at the table, with some shallots. Suzanne made a beautiful dish of aubergines, potatoes, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. The whole mixture brought out the pepper taste of the Pinot. For the cheese course, Bryan chose a special wine from his part of Christian’s wine cellar – a Givry Premiere Cru 2000. The way that this wine went with the cheese course is impossible for me to describe. The cheeses themselves were correctly eaten in an order – the soft Brie, followed by the dry chèvre and completed with the creamy St. Agur blue. My Tarte aux Mourres was about 3” high, solid with the blackberries that we had picked that morning. A great success, it went perfectly with the Cremant de Bourgogne, 2008, Veuve Ambal.

Christian admits that they don’t eat in this true French fashion very often! We felt very spoiled.

The next morning I had one final class with Suzanne. I am deeply grateful for the friendship that Suzanne and Christian have shown me. After the class they offered me an aperitif, a Vin Doux Naturel. It is a Vallée du Rhône Grenache that is 16% proof, a slightly sweet, thick wine, served chilled. Not sweet and viscous like an ice wine, but very smooth and very earthy. They gave me olives and dried pork from the same region as the wine to taste as well. Just a little nibble to share before I left. I don’t think I have advanced much with my French, but there are so many wonderful things I have learned!

Christian and Suzanne and our aperitif

It was a day of lasts. I walked up the hill past the chickens, past Claudette and Robert’s to a last lunch on the patio. Bryan’s special Frissé salad. It is a simple, filling country salad of Frissé lettuce, Lardons (bits of pork), Comte cheese, and topped with a fried egg. Bryan keeps a big jar of home made salad dressing in the cupboard to pour generously over the top of anything and everything. Of course you sop up all of the salad dressing with fresh baguette, and wash it all down with local Sauvignon Blanc.  How can we possibly leave this heaven?

But we do, on an early morning TGV (Tran Grand Vitesse), from Le Cruesot to Lille, Lille to London. Our gorgeous Maddy is at St. Pancras station to meet us, to guide us and help heft suitcases to Surbiton, Bryan and Peta’s wonderful London home. With loving family around, we get down to the business of making the transition to a new phase of the adventure.

Jo, Peta, Tim & Maddy in the garden at Tolworth

Starting, of course, with a large, welcoming, meal.

Family dinner at Tolworth. The eating continues!

Parlez-vous Français?

Suzanne has been very patient with me. Since our return from Switzerland, I have been walking down the hill to her house in the mornings, to try and grapple with passé compose, impératif, et futur.

The Road to Suzanne's. The biggest predator for the chickens is the occasional car

Because I did not have English grammar drilled into me at school, French has always been a nightmare. My great frustration is that I have no subtlety. No kindness. « Would you mind looking over my homework » becomes “Look at my homework”, which is abrasive of course. So we work on:« Est-ce que tu pourrais regarder mon devoirs ? » and I vow to try and remember (je me souviens) the verb pouvoir in its many forms. To find a kinder, gentler approach.

Suzanne has been giving me exercises from books for children. I know that her grandson Baptiste finds this hilarious. Baptiste is 7, with a lovely toothless grin. He tells me that he gets about 2 Euros for each tooth from la Petite Souris (the equivalent of the tooth fairy). On Monday he gave me a recipe for chocolate cookies. Not sure why, but perhaps he wanted me to improve upon the brownies I had made for the family (see « Une opération bilingue »). The recipe was from a children’s magazine, similar to “Highlight Magazine” in the US, with fun drawings of child chefs carrying mounds of chocolate, and smashing it with a hammer.

The gauntlet is thrown, and I decide to make a batch of cookies before heading over. This means I begin my day clattering around in the kitchen at 8:00 a.m. Measurements for recipes in the UK and Europe are all in weights. Unfortunately, there is not a set of kitchen scales here, and, being used to volume measurements, my approximations are pretty wonky. As I start to melt the butter, I can’t believe how good it smells. It is local, of course, and fills the kitchen with an irresistible, sweet, warmth. And the eggs! The yolks are orange.

I chop up the hunks of chocolate (I’ve been told that no one here uses chocolate chips, and I can see why – chocolate chunks are so much better!) The recipe is dead simple and scrumptious. I’ve included an English translation for “Baptiste’s Chocolate Chunk Cookies”, but you’ll have to figure out the weight measurements if that is the way you cook. That’s a translation I can’t do.

The lesson with Suzanne goes well, perhaps because of the cookies which are much appreciated by Baptiste and his sister. We get into a conversation about school lunches and Suzanne tells me that schools in France have cafeterias so that children can have a proper, 3-course lunch. She bemoans the fact that lunch is only an hour long for the children. Not nearly a long enough lunch for a Frenchman! When I try to explain that Canadian children have about 25 minutes, sitting at their desks, to eat whatever they have brought from home, she is justifiably appalled. She tells me that when she was at school, they regularly had 5-course lunches. And that for holiday lunches she was given Crémant! (Champagne). Have I mentioned that this is a civilized country?

On my way back from Suzanne’s Claudette stops me to give me 4 lovely courgettes. Claudette always greets me with a smile that melts my heart. I tell her that the lettuce that she gave me the day before (she calls it “salade”) became a wonderful Nicoise salad, and she and Robert are excited that I am able to rhyme off the ingredients in French. Les olives, les haricots verts, le thon, les pommes de terre, les tomates. That, at least, is easy from years of reading bilingual labels in Canada.

We manage a conversation about gardens, and I try to explain how my garden has very little earth, mostly rock, but that I live in a beautiful wood. She has barbed wire around her garden to protect it from les vaches. I try to explain the problem of deer, for which I have no word, and she teaches me “le cerf” et “la biche”. She speaks beautifully, explains how hard the garden and farm work is, how large the house is with just the two of them in it now. But as we look over the fields beyond, and breathe in the deep quiet of the countryside, we both know that we are standing in a privileged place. She asks if I will be back again and all I can say is j’espère. I hope.

Robert, Claudette and Albertino (from Portugal, he helps on the farm)