Your Arse

I was walking with Bella, the dog, to West Ham Park for our daily constitutional. We passed a house from which we could clearly hear Fairytale of New York. This was not the recorded version. There were two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, exchanging the insults crafted all those years ago by Shane MacGowan when he wrote the song. They were accompanied by a piano. Their voices were live. From the street they sounded as if they might have originated in the Indian Subcontinent.

You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

they sang.

Then there was the peremptory sound of someone tapping on a hard surface to attract the singers’ attention, so that they stopped singing, and then there was the sound of a third voice, also I would guess from the Indian Subcontinent, possibly the pianist’s:

“Not ‘Happy Christmas your arse’. Not ‘your arse’. ‘Yer arse.’ ‘Yer’. Again!”

As we passed on up the street, Bella and I, and out of range, I could hear improvement, a distinct MacGowanesque sneer. I wondered in what context the finished performance would take place. Would we be allowed to hear it?

I told the story to our neighbour Maria. I had dropped in on my way home from the park to apologise that Augustus Sly, who had been despatched to Vienna to investigate possible links between her bottom and that of the model who sat (‘sat’ is of course is absolutely the wrong word for what she did in this instance, but there is no other one) for Egon Schiele, seemed to have disappeared. He had not reported to me and he was no longer picking up calls to his mobile. In fact I was rather worried, and also cross, since I had paid for him to go to Vienna in the first place.

“Has he got your credit card details, there in Vienna?”

“No, he hasn’t, and anyway I trust him to that extent, but he’s quite capable of getting bored with your bottom and going off on a wild goose chase. When I first met him, as a matter of fact, he had taken himself to Montenegro to travel the length and breadth of that country, tracing the tracks – so he told me at the time: the forced marches, the triumphal processions – of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman. We met by coincidence when I was uploading a post to my blog from a café in Montenegro that had WiFi.”

“Ah, Apa’tman. He is my country too,” said Maria.

“Apa’tman was in Romania too?”

“Great bloodshed.”

“A great man, I think, in the end.”

“Great bloodshed.”

Actually I know little of the detail of the career of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman, so I changed the subject and told her, as I have related, the story of the performance, overheard from the street, of Fairytale of New York.

“’Yer arse!’”, she exclaimed.

“That’s what I call multiculturalism,” I said, “a song about America, written and recorded by Irish people living in London and now being redone by Indian people living in London. What a great city we live in!”

“No, that’s not multiculturalism,” said Maria, frowning. “Multiculturalism is when people say that because I am Romanian I am prostitute and a thief and I can complain about this, which is hate crime. I am told this by a person from the Council.”

“Multiculturalism has different aspects,” I said. “It is a subtle business, this multiculturalism.”

“I am not prostitute and a thief.”

“It never occurred to me that you were.”

“My good friend Lavinia is both, but I am not prostitute and a thief.”

I wondered whether to return conversationally to Apa’tman or to call it a day, and decided on the latter.

“I’ll be on my way. I just thought that you might be curious about what Augustus Sly might have discovered about a link between you and the woman in the Schiele picture.”

She drew the different conversational strands together:

Yer want to see my arse?”

We escaped.

“Aren’t people difficult?” I said to Bella.

Obviously, being a dog, she neither understood nor replied, but I suspect that she sympathises. When we are in West Ham Park she avoids the company of other dogs. I believe that she regards this as a sensible precaution since she was bitten there by a liver-coloured bitch, but I don’t think that she warms to other dogs in principle. People too she will accept if we introduce them to her but they are of no interest otherwise. When we stand outside food shops, which the better half enters alone since Bella would be a health and safety issue, and people come up to us and try to engage her attention, she regards them with contempt.

“Does he bite?” they say, shivering deliciously and prodding at her from arm’s length.

“Seldom,” I say, wondering yet again why cynophobes are usually so incapable of sexing the objects of their fear.

Augustus Sly has sometimes accused me of having imaginary friends. He believes that Amy is a metaphor and has often said so, though not to her face. Bella certainly has imaginary friends. Her favourite is Dead Rabbit, a constant bed-fellow and companion whom she always gathers up into her mouth at times of excitement. He has a limp and vestigial physical existence but his friendship is entirely imaginary.

Lest this sound cute, she then shakes him vigorously so as to break his neck, again. She is a terrier, after all.

Some people have said recently that the Jesus and the Rabbit sequence, on the restricted access part of this blog, is rather running out of steam. Perhaps I should introduce Dead Rabbit into it. That would beef it up as bit.

Actually if I am going to do that I should continue this whole discussion on the restricted access section. I’ll do that now, if you’ll excuse me.


To Vienna, to Vienna

What would we do without the Austro-Hungarian Empire to reflect on?

I think of what then seemed, in an age of travel on horseback, its great expanse; of the good abbé, Ferenc Liszt, travelling from town to village to play his piano transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies to people to whom tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum tum’ ti tum would otherwise have always remained an unsavoured musical delight; to heroes of stories by Stefan Zweig racing by horse to Vienna to intrigue, marry or die; to Joseph Haydn on the Esterhazy estate, far from anywhere that a man of culture might find congenial, composing his opera The Farewell:

The Farewell, where in the last and most affecting scene the three sisters – all, daringly, cast as contraltos – sing, ‘To Vienna, to Vienna’.

I think of poor old Gustav Klimt ladling gold onto his clumsy paintings, little realising that in a hundred years’ time they would appeal precisely to the new rich of our age, who like all their appurtenances (or what they regard as their appurtenances) – jeans, pictures, food, women – covered with gold. I think of his talented friend Egon Schiele. I think of Dr Freud thinking the unthinkable and, worse, telling it to his couch-bound and corseted patients.

Given my experiences over the last week or so I also think of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These were racially and culturally diverse but as we now know remarkably similar. In the Twenty-First Century we commonly refer to certain bottoms, by way of shorthand, as being of the Austro-Hungarian type. But this similarity became known only towards the very end of the period of the Empire, possibly because of the earlier difficulty of access, in turn due to excessive corseting. Until, partly thanks to Dr. Freud, the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire became relatively uncorseted, the clinical similarity of their bottoms was a fact known only to a small number of Viennese libertines.

It is difficult to believe this nowadays.

I have never been able to verify the following story, although I was told it in Vienna. It is that the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef, when an old man, noticed a young girl working in his kitchen garden. She was bending over, just as my neighbour had. His majesty became inflamed by lust, and, used to having his imperial way, forced himself on the young gardener, who in due course gave birth to the future Frau Schönberg, the wife of the composer. I compared – to his disadvantage – the emperor’s goatish behaviour with my own, which had been cool and scholarly, as Amy and I approached my neighbour’s house intending to tackle the sensitive subject of her bottom, that of Egon Schiele’s model, and their uncanny similarity.

The initial stages of our discussion were made easier since Ijaz had sent her a link to the story on this blog. He sifts my posts with regard to which are most suitable for my various neighbours. Then he puts small notes bearing the appropriate links through their letter boxes. The comments on Anthony Powell he regards as suitable for all, but others he thinks are too smutty for women, for instance. The Jesus and the Rabbit series, on the restricted area of the blog, is embargoed for all. Given that my neighbour featured personally, he sent her the link, so that when we called she already knew what our visit was about. This was a relief.

My neighbour is called Maria, a name that is common throughout Europe, indeed throughout the World. She comes, she said, from Romania. This was discouraging, since Romania was never I believe in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There is, however, an intriguing connection as regards language. Because her English is weak we sought a way of conversing. She told us that in her family, for reasons now forgotten, they talked German when outsiders were not around. So we spoke in German and I summarised occasionally for Amy in Mandarin or English: the former if I wished to speak to her privately. As with many people who adopt a foreign language for family speech, Maria’s German was formal and old-fashioned. But at some point I asked her if she was aware of something or other.

Ichh waaas nit,” she replied.

I smiled to myself. ‘That’s not conventional German, which would probably have been ‘Ich weiss nicht‘. That’s pure Viennese,’ I thought to myself.

Cunningly, I did not say so.

“The time of reckoning is arrived,” said Amy. “Time for our comparison.”

Maria allowed herself to be led away into an adjoining room. I thought again how accommodating she was being about the whole business, which must have struck her as at best bizarre and at worst intrusive. I found the image on my iPad of the Schiele work and Amy took it with her. Thirty seconds passed.

There was a commotion as of something being knocked over. Amy rushed back into the room. I had never seen her so flustered. She was white.

“双胞胎!”she exclaimed.

Maria shuffled through the door, also flustered. Her trousers were around her ankles and she held my iPad in front of her to preserve her modesty.

“Ng?” she said.

Zwillinge,” I said. “Amy says that you could be twins.”

We all sat down, Maria adjusting her clothing first.

“Well,” I said. “We do have something. My gut feeling was right.”

“We have an adventure,” Amy said.

“Will I be famous?” Maria said.

“It’s a lot to take in,” I said, “all at once. Do you have any green tea? It always settles the emotions.”

“Only PG,” said Maria. “I’m sorry.”

“I have,” said Amy. “Emergency supply. About my person at all times.”

And from her jacket she produced an envelope full of the leaves. I found a teapot, cleansed it and brewed up. We were all silent and thoughtful.

“What next?” said Maria. “Will I be famous?”

A Second Bottom

“Mellow fruitfulness,” said Amy.

“I love the autumn,” I said.

It was all around us, even though we were in Chinatown rather than some gently deciduous forest.

“Mellow fruitfulness,” said Amy again, prodding absent-mindedly at a durian available for purchase at the side of the street. “Keats & Shelley.”

I had not seen Amy for too long, but it was apparent that her study of English literature had progressed from novels to the poets.

“Keats & Shelley my favourite English poet,” she said. “You know Blithe Spirit?”

I admitted that I did.

“I make a new translation, using iPhone translation ‘app’. You want to hear?”

She adopted a declamatory mode of delivery.

Hi Blithe Spirit!
Not a bird –
Small rough growth.

She looked at me expectantly.

“It’s very good,” I said. “An improvement, without a doubt, on Keats & Shelley’s rather limp phrasing. But what’s the small rough growth?”

“Wert,” she said. “The ‘app’ translates. ‘Bird thou never wert.’”

“I don’t think you need the small rough growth. I think you could lose the small rough growth.”

“No. ‘Wert’ is last word of the line. Emphasis. Very important. The lecturer said.”

“Trust me,” I said.

As soon as I’d said I knew it was a mistake. Like many women of my acquaintance Amy always knows best and trusting me simply doesn’t come in to it.

Her brow darkened.

“You’re probably right,” I said, and changed the subject.

Someone had offered me the chance to see the Egon Schiele show at the Courtauld before it opened and I invited Amy to come with me as I hadn’t seen her for too long. We talked instead about the Viennese Secession, about which, I am ashamed to record, Amy knew nothing and I knew little more.

This is no place to record my reactions to the extraordinary work by Egon Schiele on display at the Courtauld, except to say that you should see it. I shall stick to the point. Suddenly I found myself standing in front of a small watercolour: a female nude seen from behind. A shock of recognition coursed through me.

“It’s my neighbour’s bottom.”

Amy pretends to read this blog, but often she skims it. She had no idea what I was talking about.

“Your neighbour’s bottom,” she said. “How you know your neighbour’s bottom? Anyway, all European bottoms look the same. In China…”

I cut her short. I explained what I had inadvertently glimpsed from my window the other day.

“It’s exactly the same. It was only a moment, but I can’t be mistaken. It could be the very same woman.”

Amy, unsurprisingly, was sceptical.

“Characteristics of bottoms in the Austro-Hungarian Empire often remarked by scholars…”

“Of course. Of course. I’m not stupid. This goes beyond generalisation. Far beyond generalisation.”

I started to make little gestures at particular gluteal details, but these were lost on Amy, who had of course not seen the original.

“She have a name? Schiele’s woman?”

It was a good point. For reasons that will become apparent I will not identify the painting, but there was no personal name attached to it, nor did the catalogue give any further clues.

I was so shaken that my attention to the remaining rooms was perfunctory; I promised myself that I would come again. I asked if they had any postcards. They hadn’t been delivered yet, but I got permission to photograph the painting in question with my iPad. We left the gallery.

“I think strong drink is called for.”

We sat on the terrace by the river, one of the many delights of Somerset House. I had a miserly double whisky and Amy, who avoids alcohol, had an apple juice. There was no green tea, which of course is the best thing for those who have just sustained a shock.

“So,” she said. “What’s this nonsense? Egon Schiele’s woman not your neighbour. Egon Schiele’s woman very dead. Bottoms come, bottoms go. Dead bottoms decompose, new bottoms born. No big deal.”

“You don’t understand. It’s not just a resemblance, it’s uncanny. There is a connection. I have to follow it through.”

“And how,” said Amy, “are you going to do that? You going to [she actually said ‘gonna’ and I suspect that that is how, encouraged by her translation ‘app’, she thinks it’s spelt] take your photo to your neighbour and ask her take off her knickers? She send for police.”

“Good point, Amy. But I have special victim status, because of my mental frailty and my sexual encounter with the DJ in Shallow Assets. I’m in with the police.”

“Still not take off knickers. She think you a dirty old man. Mental frailty no help at all. Make it worse. She’s good Eastern European girl. She just happen to have typical bottom of Austro-Hungarian Empire. She never heard of Viennese Secession. She’s never heard of E. Schiele. She send you away with a flea. Good neighbourness in your street suffer terrible blow. Ijaz will have his face like a thunder cloud.”

I sighed.

“Everything you say is true, Amy. And you’re right: I couldn’t bear to upset Ijaz, whose good opinion I value…”


“So, I thought you could come with me. You can vouch for me. You can be my representative if need be during the all-important but sensitive business of the comparison of the bottoms.”

Amy sat over her apple juice with her face like a thunder cloud. I ordered her another.

“Very busy,” she said. “Great Secret Miss not run itself.”

“Of course. Of course.”

“Maybe comparison of bottoms not necessary…”

“Maybe. Certainly.”

“If she has things to tell you; family history.”

“Absolutely. Amy, what would I do without you.”

“I haven’t said yes,” she said, but she had.

She grinned. It had become an adventure.

“You know Chapman’s Homer? What that mean? Crap.”

I thought of telling a Keats & Chapman story, by Flann O’Brian, but decided against.

“You want to see my bottom?”

“Always, Amy.”

“Dream on!”

She laughed coarsely.

An Eyeful

Some weeks ago Ijaz was explaining to me about the restrictions placed on the devout during Ramadan. I had said that I understood that it was not just an injunction against food and drink passing the lips during daylight but anything doing so. I knew this because a friend of mine, living in an Arab country, had told me. Normally accommodating boys, he had said, ceased to be so during this time. It was one of those little pieces of information that one stores away in case it comes in useful. Sodomy, I suppose, would have been acceptable, but a man of taste and manners proceeds to sodomy only by stages.

Of course I did not mention any of this to Ijaz. He, however, took the point, almost with vigour.

“No, no; no sex,” he said. “But it’s more than the mouth, it’s the eyes too. During Ramadan we may not see anything impure with our eyes either.”

“See,” I said, “or dwell on?”

I had in mind the distinction observed by the poet Blake between having an unacted desire and ‘nursing’ it. But Ijaz dismissed this.

“We are men of will,” he said. “It is the same thing.”

I was glad that Ijaz lived across the road from me and therefore had had no chance, as he would have had, some days before, if he lived on our side of encountering a sight that he might well have regarded as impure. It was then still at the very end of the summer. I was idly looking out of an upstairs window. Some doors down there is a house occupied by eastern Europeans. Although we smile and say hello when we encounter each other in the street I have not really met them to talk to, but someone who was coming to see us once got directions from one of them at the nearest Tube station and they walked up the street together. Our neighbour informed our guest that the end of the world was imminent. They based this prediction on signs and portents and also written authority.

Anyway, my eye was caught by the sight of two of them, a young man and a young woman, walking in the garden. He was clad in a shell suit. She was wearing a loose and rather short dress. A flower took her attention and she bent over it and as she did so her dress rode up.

“Goodness,” I thought, “a naked bottom.”

It was round and flat and with all the unmistakeable features of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It could not have been a bottom of a member of what we are encouraged in the London Borough of Newham to call the UK host community. It was a bottom that one would not be surprised to encounter in a drawing by Egon Schiele; one could imagine such a bottom – seen, remembered or imagined – taking pride of place in feverish disclosures on Dr Freud’s couch in the Vienna of a hundred years ago. In those days, of course, it would have emerged from elaborate petticoating rather than, as now, out of something bought at Primark.

I looked for a moment in admiration. I then saw that it was not in fact naked. The merest piece of cloth disappeared between the cheeks and re-emerged below, preserving modesty. I moved back from the window. The entire incident had taken a couple of seconds.

I wondered what Ijaz would have done. As a man of will he probably just wouldn’t have seen it. But if it had been, as it were, thrust into his attention, what would his reaction have been?

I hope that it wouldn’t have been laddish. I don’t think so.

Would he have regarded it as no more impure than any other of the female attributes that he thinks it best to be covered up: hair, shoulders, bottoms – all much the same. Ijaz is no fundamentalist and he accepts that whilst he has certain standards he cannot insist on their being upheld by the non-believers among whom he happily lives. Perhaps he would regard the innocent flashing of a Bulgarian or Polish bottom as par for the course in a pluralistic society, to be faced and tolerated in others although spurned for oneself, just as he smiles indulgently when I take out the empty wine bottles as he stands across the road having a cigarette (except of course during Ramadan).

Would he have regarded it as one more innocent example of divine munificence, no more or less beautiful than the flower that our neighbour bent to look at? Again, no I don’t think so.

I suspect that as a man of will Ijaz would not have seen the bottom unless he had absolutely had to, and then he would have been at pains, like Blake, not to have nursed it, Ramadan or not.

And me? Well I suppose that writing about naked bottoms is nursing them if anything is, but then, no harm done, and anyway it isn’t Ramadan and moreover I’m not a Muslim.

Meanwhile, still on our side of the street but to the left rather than to the right, they have erected a tabernacle in the garden. Well, it’s a marquee, but it glows softly at night, and voices can be heard indistinctly like the songs of birds. I listen out for music but there isn’t any – yet. Maybe it is an early stage of some ceremony, a wedding probably, taking place over an extended period. They have hung the front of the house with what we in the UK host community might call Christmas lights, and thank goodness that Ijaz can see for himself, across the street, such a wholesome sight. Maybe on the appointed day people will arrive, magnificently dressed, in rented Bentleys and the sound of the oud will ring out in the autumn air. Maybe it will but I’ll miss it.

The things you see!

Bubble quibbles

I met my friend Paul for a late breakfast at the excellent Dalston Lane Cafe. I had corned beef hash and egg with added black pudding and so did he, but he had added beans too. I like beans but I don’t think that they should be eaten with anything except toast and butter – and then cold. If you warm them, either by heating them in a pan or by placing them on a hot plate in conjunction with, in the present case, corned beef hash, they lose that lovely shiny quality and become dull in colour, stodgy and regrettably sweet.

On a previous occasion Paul had attempted to order the corned beef hash with added bubble & squeak, but they said no. Their contention was that corned beef hash was no more than bubble with added corned beef, and they should be allowed to know: they saw what went into the pan.

Selling double bubble, they suggested, was more than their job was worth.

At one level I’m sure that they were right. But it is not that simple and it did not stop us arguing (between ourselves, not with the management of the Dalston Lane Café, who had better things to do) about labels, about whether the hash to which corned beef is added is ‘the same’ – before the corned beef is added – as bubble, even if it comes from the same pan. Plato, I remember asserting, would have had a thing or two to say on the subject. He would have reminded us of the pure forms taken, in his world view, by ideal corned beef hash and ideal bubble.

Actually of course, being Greek, he probably would have referred not to corned-beefless hash but to mince-free moussaka. The principle however remains.

The timing of these meetings is strictly regulated by the amount of time that the London Borough of Islington allows Paul to leave his car in one of its designated parking places without penalty. Afterwards I took the bus home. It had to be a Number 38 bus, and there are different varieties of these, so you can imagine my pleasure when the first Number 38 bus to come along was one of Boris’s faux Routemasters. These are clean, new and beautifully designed, a joy not only to travel in but to get on and off, and I have no truck with mean-spirited nostalgics who say that nothing is as good as a real heritage Routemaster, with smoking on the upper deck and backchat with a cheerful cockney clippie.

My pleasure was increased when a young woman of the Afro-Caribbean community got on. She was generously proportioned, with a bottom of which she was clearly and justly proud. You could tell that she was proud of it as it was covered merely by thin black leggings and although her top half was submerged in a variety of scarves and a bulky jacket, below the waist all was classical simplicity.

I looked at her with respect and admiration. This was made easier by the fact that she decided to remain standing, even though seats were available, and she stood looking away from me. Black leggings, as I say, were stretched tightly across her bottom. She was a young woman and free from any but the most anatomically essential wrinkles, but such as there were could be seen clearly.

She was wearing a thong. The whale-tail, as I believe they are called, appeared briefly at waist level before disappearing from view. That was not unexpected. What was surprising was that the thong had a label attached to it which was clearly visible beneath the leggings just at the point where the thong itself became submerged.

One was reminded of the cowboy hat left, in films of the traditional sort, on the surface of the quicksand that has just swallowed its owner.

Is it fanciful to report that the label announced that the thong was a thong, who made it, the size, its material and how to wash it? Of course it did. Labels do. Failing eyesight and residual good manners precluded my looking closely, so I cannot give you details. No gentleman, even with 20:20 vision, would. Probably no gentleman would have noticed in the first place. Of course you have no way of knowing whether I made her up altogether, in which case no impropriety took place.

The principle however remains.

I had as I say been preoccupied all morning with labels: when is bubble bubble and when is it hash? Indeed when do the vegetable leftovers become bubble in the first place? Is it when the keen eye of the chef identifies a potential plate-companion for his corned beef? Does it make a difference that the chemical constituency of the left-overs, before the intervention of the chef’s keen eye, is identical to that of the bubble?

Over our late breakfast at the Dalston Lane Café Paul and I had discussed the point in the Catholic mass at which the wafer becomes for believers the actual body of Christ. Had it always been the body of Christ, Paul mused. No, I said, with the knowledge derived from an Anglican upbringing, the priest has some special words to mutter and when he does, and only then, does the change take place.

Are the sacerdotal mutterings the equivalent of the chef’s eye’s falling on the pile of day-old cabbage, previously destined as organic waste but at that point determined to be rescued, and not only rescued but changed, utterly, into bubble?

Or as the case may be into corned beef hash.

Or by analogy into the body of Christ.

And so it was with the attractive young woman from the Afro-Caribbean community. What label had she adopted? What message had she decided to send to the world? The main one was simple, primal and did not need anything to spell it out: ‘I am here and I am amazing’. And this message was subtly undercut by another: ‘I am a product of La Senza. I am to be washed at a temperature of no more than forty degrees Centigrade’.

I have always set my face against semiotics (if that is the right word) but maybe there’s something in it after all.

Thread in the Bottoms of Babushkas

I wake up with the face of the better half only inches away.  Without the cares of the day, and without the calculating and distrustful face that she sometimes adopts to deal with them she looks very beautiful.  She wakes up soon after I do.  “You look very beautiful,” I say.  “No, I don’t,” she says, putting on a calculating and distrustful face.

Yesterday a strange thing happened.  On an earlier visit we went to a town where there was a huge and brutal Romanesque cathedral, which was shut.  We always wanted to go back and see inside.  The building looked from the outside as far as it is possible to imagine a monument to a god of love.  We remembered the town as Pezenas, because we bought the local pies there, which look so nice and taste so dull, and they are called Pezenas pies. So yesterday we went to Pezenas.  It’s quite nice, and full of cultural amenity, if you like candle shops.  But there is no huge and brutal Romanesque cathedral.

The French have a tradition involving the rapid removal of cathedrals.  One thinks of the Jacobins.  One thinks of Debussy’s cathedral engulfed by the waves.  Closer to home one thinks of Musrum, by Earnshaw and Thacker:

A torpedoed cathedral sinks rapidly into the ground.”

Or perhaps it wasn’t Pezonas but somewhere else, and the huge and brutal Romanesque cathedral endures yet.  Google may reveal.

The visit wasn’t wasted however.  On the way back we climbed the hill and looked down on the huge and wonderful dried etang at Montady, perfectly circular, a mile across and shaped just like a tart that has been sliced and is ready to eat.  See,21.00,70.0

I think that I may have maligned the younger Belgians.  They have become affable, to each other and to us.  Maybe it was a row that made them morose.  Anyway, they left today and are replaced by a family with two babies.

After breakfast, the older Belgian man and I have a conversation about food.  He refers to the reputation of English food as leaving something to be desired.  I say, as I always do on these occasions, that the food in restaurants in London is as good as anywhere, but that the food routinely available in England, such as in airports and in the high street, is still by and large dire.  I tell him about the great genius of Fergus Henderson and how the St John Restaurant is slowly changing the world.  The older Belgian man adopts the thoughtful look of one has long ago stopped listening to anyone else.

“I once – there is thirty years – ate a steak and kidney pie.  The taste was, er, not so bad, but – bouf!”

He gestured expressively, but what did he mean by ‘bouf’?  He put on a kilo?  He was most unwell?  His cultural integrity was fatally compromised?  Suddenly I feel squeamish and I change the subject.

The weather is hot and cloudless, so we go to the beach.  The French by and large stay away.  As Anthony Powell remarked, French people when in an expansive mood tend to inform you that the difference between the French and the English is that the French operate by logic; the English by experience.  Logic dictates that by September the winter has begun; experience that the temperature is in the high thirties, there is nota cloud in the sky, the little waves curl refreshingly about your ankles and it is all quite good.  Even better, last week, when it was not winter, there was a café on the beach with a ghetto blaster dispensing the sort of sound that reminds you that the French may have the best food and wine in the world and some estimable painters, but their pop music is crap – and now it is silent.

Three women of a certain age parade along the beach.  One is wearing a headdress appropriate to a closed order of nuns, and instead of a bikini bottom an arrangement in string.  It is as one imagines the dress code might dictate for an orgy.

“Russians,” says the better half.

“How do you know?”

“Because only Russian women wear string instead of bikini bottoms on the beach.”

She is prepared to leave it at that, but I can’t help wondering why that should be.  Is it something in their cultural history?    Were secret papers transmitted during Stalin’s terror entwined between the buttocks of babushkas?  Does it go further back than that?  Did Genghis Khan and his henchmen rage across the steppes, ever closer to the heart of Holy Russia, with string in their bottoms?  Probably speculation is useless.


The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner

Wylder’s Hand by Sheridan Le Fanu


Cold chicken, tomato and avocado salad

Domaine de la Mirande: Picpoul de Pinet (bought from the back door)