UK: chicken pox and reunions

In Montpellier after a busy week in London.

So often I come here, get taken up with seeing family that there is suddenly no time to see friends. This trip was supposed to reverse the balance.
That was before Willow came down with chickenpox, the Gillies’ childminder was sick until Thursday, and Kate was having an exceptionally hard time, with a demanding client who emailed her 45 times in one day.

So I spent a chunk of the week looking after Willow. This was a real pleasure. It is so much easier to give one grandchild undivided attention when on his or her own.
Willow was past the worst, with only the odd moan about itchy spots. And she has become an intelligent, resourceful and friendly five year old. We spent a happy time rolling marbles round the groove in a breadboard, playing dominoes, doing and redoing her princess puzzles, discussing the funny spelling of words and the figures in her complex drawings.
It’s extraordinary seeing the impact of what is not yet a year at school. She is so much more forthcoming and confident. She is not so engrossed in imaginary stories as her seven year old cousin, Ella, but she shares her fascination with words and is enjoying the gymnastics of numbers (as well as her fearless climbing of high assault courses).
My sister, Deb, recounted a bath time last week:
“She’s still in bath and has moved on to writing words wrongly in one column – wos, wot, etc – and then was, what … and then to drawing a rope and pulling herself up by it, with giggles.”
Interestingly her route to learning to read has been by writing. She has remarkably good handwriting, enjoys writing messages, and demands that you spell out words she doesn’t know – and persists till the task is correct and finished.
All of this was tough on Otto, of course, who was meanwhile at school.

Old friends
I did manage to see two old friends.
I had a hasty lunch with Christine and her husband Roy. Christine and I go back through primary school, grammar school and university together. I had to rush all to soon, to be back with Willow. But I’m hoping Christine and Roy will be visiting me in France.
Then, after the two families had departed for their half term holiday in Sicily, I managed to see Sally and her husband, John. Our two families were great friends and Sally, like Christine, was at Tiffins with me. I try to see her at least once a year, and we still talk hard and at the same time, as we have done for 66 years.
We went to the Vanessa Bell exhibition at the Dulwich Art Gallery. Sally and I found it fascinating, John, I suspect, less so. Inevitably the exhibition was as much as anything a window into the life of the Bloomsbury set. But I also thoroughly enjoyed her paintings, especially her portraits of family, friends and lovers. There were a couple of deeply affectionate portraits of her sister, Virginia Woolf, that were particularly good. I also liked the less figurative more mystic ‘Studland Beach’, a study of women and children, their backs to the painter, on a beach.
We then had an excellent lunch at the Italian restaurant “Rocca” in Dulwich. Given it was Bank Holiday Sunday and the place was packed with children, a superbly professional Italian waiter found us a calm corner, turned off the music, and was discreetly attentive throughout the meal. Bravissimo.

Oxford Left Reunion
The timing of my visit had been so that I could attend a reunion of the Oxford Left of the Sixties.
A bizarre notion in many ways: how do you qualify? Is it by actions, beliefs, subsequent contribution to the though or actions of the Left? Well, actually, I think it was as much as anything, a list of friends and acquaintances of Rip Bulkeley, studying in Oxford for much of the decade.
The event was preceded by an extensive and exhausting exchange of emails, as Rip consulted on venue, menu, and invitees – and, true to form, everybody had their tuppence-worth to add.
Rip asked us to provide a biography, but giving no advice on form or content. The result was an excellently edited varied document which Rip circulated beforehand. It almost prevented me coming: the list was populated by incredibly prestigious professors (including Sally’s sister, Jane Caplan, an expert on fascism and nazism) plus people who had remained active and political all their lives. All a bit daunting, but I decided I was there to represent the foot soldiers, those who had attended and demonstrated, but not led.
There had been an interesting reflection in the emails why our generation of the Left had not gone into Parliament (with one exception), preferring academia or other forms of public service.
So, on a hot, sunny Friday I made my way, with some trepidation, to the flash Islington pub where the lunch was to take place.
I opened the wicker gate to the side section of the pub, and saw a group of INCREDIBLY OLD PEOPLE! Oh my god, it was not just me who was 50 years older. Some of the golden youths (and some less golden) of my time were now old men. I won’t mention their names. Just to note that those who had weathered better included Rip himself, Jane, Mary Kaldor (peace studies, international relations and security) and Hilary Wainwright (sociologist, peace studies, Ken Livingston adviser in GLC days, editor  ‘Red Pepper’).
My second impression was what an affable crowd they were. I expected this of my two closest friends there, Jane and Bob Liebenthal. But all those erstwhile stalwarts of international Socialism?
It was appropriate that the gathering was predominantly male and over represented by IS members rather than mainstream Fabian or even further right Labour supporters. This represented the Left at Oxford in the early Sixties. As Jane and others hinted at, to represent the decade more fully there needed to be a greater focus not just on the burgeoning women’s movement (first national conference in Oxford in 1968) but also what it was like being a woman in the extraordinarily male dominated society of Oxford University and its Left in the Sixties.
Rip, as a hard working conscientious organiser did a great job. We started by remembering those who were no longer with us. An early name was Chris’s and I did a too brief account of how I met him (after his principal years as a CP and anti-race activist), how his anti-racist position was important all his life, joined by (in advance of his time) shared family duties, as well as a career damaging contempt for stupid, pompous or small minded fellow academics.

What was strange was how little I heard people talking about today’s politics. I know from the emails that there was universal distress at Brexit.  Perhaps we were too emotionally exhausted to continue the rant. Instead, much reminiscing about those lost days of our youth.

Rip is thinking of an anniversary for 1968. I will be there.


Whoopee, my computer problems are sorted.

And as if to celebrate I had to drive slowly down the road from Serres while a whoopy (or hoopoe) walked in front of me, tucking into something delicious in the grass verge. It really is an amazing looking bird. I couldn’t take a photo, so I’ve grabbed a couple from the Internet. (Pity there is no agreement on how his named is spelt, but hoopoe seems the favourite.)

For those who know about these sort of things I had to deactivate cloud flare and my website host’s technical support changed the php version and deleted various security files. Et voilà,everything works again.

Repas du quartier

I live on a hill called Pied Méjean. Yesterday I was invited to the annual repas du quartier. It was a delightful evening, despite the chilly weather.

Most of the houses on the hill are quite new, very undistinguished architecturally but much more desirable than old stone village houses with their lack of mod cons or reasonable outdoor space. Indeed many of my neighbours have built their own houses.

The result is that almost everyone at the dinner was young – with a vast number of small children running around and competing to throw Poppy’s ball. At least the local primary school will not be at risk of closure through lack of pupils. What a contrast to the Serres fetes, whose elderly participants reflect the average age of its inhabitants

They were all very friendly and welcoming, treating me with a concerned respect which made me feel rather old. Several I already know well enough to exchange greetings, like the baker’s wife, a handsome and clearly intelligent woman, one of the organisers of the evening.

I noticed that very soon the men were standing around the drink table, pastis in hand., while most of the women were sitting in a circle a little further away.  I of course stood near the men and listened to their conversation. Lots of talk about who is building what, and whether there was any more land ‘constructible’ in the area.

One of those planning to build his house was a young man who rents a house just up the road from me. He turned out to be very pleasant and interesting. He manages all the computing at the big printers in le Vigan. We discussed my computing problems – he is not a big fan of JavaScript, used extensively by WordPress, and suggested there was highly likely to be an incompatibility between different bits of software used. He also told me with great excitement that he is taking his wife on a surprise visit to London next week, for their wedding anniversary.

I moved on to the women’s group, where they were in the middle of discussing some magic cure to smoking. We passed on to chicken pox (my grand daughter Willow is the latest victim) and whether to get the vaccination.

The food was good, albeit the timing chaotic, as always with communal barbecues. There were some delicious sausages, made with sanglier (wild boar), and served by a couple of hunters who had made them.

Even the snails (collected by the small boys) had a good time. Here is one who seems to want a sip of pastis.

Irises – and blog publishing

The strange weather we have had over the past month, with unusual cold nights and more rain than usual has played havoc with grape vines and fruit trees, but everything else seems to blossom as usual. Even in my garden.
I’ve always been an ignorant gardener and now I have to rely on plants that can look after themselves. Thank goodness the irises continue to flourish.
These are the ones in front of my house, so they give me daily pleasure. Further down by the pool I have lots of yellow irises too.

Well, I put up these photos partly to show at least one of my computing problems has been resolved. The company which hosts my website changed some security settings and the version of some software called php, and now Envira, which I use to publish photos, works again.
But my problems with the editor remain an annoying mystery which continues to obsess me.

Computing problems continue

So far I have had no luck from my postings on the wordpress forum or from the support service for the program I use to upload images (they are as baffled as I am). So, my images of my irises will have to wait. Very frustrating – I hate being defeated.

Postal and delivery services in the country

If you live over 50 miles from the nearest serious stores, inevitably you buy more on the internet. I am guilty of buying clothes, kitchen equipment, electronic gadgets, bed linen … … and that is just my list from the last few months. (I often buy from the UK, mainly John Lewis, as even with postage things are often cheaper than here).

Deliveries are a problem, as I have no neighbours who can take in parcels if I am out. One gets to know the timetable of the main services: UPS, for example, invariably reaches me just before midday. The DPD guy is erratic, but since he lives quite locally, he invariably tries again in the evening.

I’m beginning to favour Colissimo and Chronopost, both vague offshoots of La Poste. They used to be a problem, but I have just acquired a delightful new postman, Cédric. For years I was on the circuit for Denis, who knew if I wasn’t in or was on holiday, to take the parcel round to my friend, Margaret. Then, after years of delivering here, Denis was moved elsewhere, and the post was delivered by a series of young people on short-term contracts. Then, two days ago, Cédric appeared, remarked that I was often out (I explained about my busy rééducation schedule) and asked what I would like him to do with parcels. We agreed he should leave them on the terrace (not seen from the road) and then he added that if ever I needed anything, such as stamps, just to let him know, as he lives in the next village, Mars. I shook his hand, thanked him, and said how nice it was to have a regular postman again. We parted good new friends.

Actually La Poste has one very good requirement: unless you live in an ancient house which cannot be messed about, you are required to install a large, locked postbox. The postmen can open these and small parcels as well as the mail are left inside.

My only bad internet shopping experience happened this month, and I am embarassed to admit it, as it was my fault. I bought something from a site without checking things like its address. Apart from an email from another body saying the money had been transferred, I got no emails at all from the company. Luckily it was not a huge amount of money, but I am not optimistic about recuperating it. However, I am on the warpath. I have reported the firm to the CAB, who are passing on information to Trading Standards. I tracked down the person registered as the owner of the domain name to an address in Shrewsbury and have sent a registered letter demanding repayment as they are in breach of contract. I talked to the bank and I cannot get my money back from the bank, as I used a debit card, so I am now going to order a credit card, simply for internet purchases.

Computing headaches

Well, I may be feeling smug because, as a Mac owner, I am spared all these virus and spam problems – at least so far. But I have been wrestling with problems which have quite turned me against computers this week.

Suddenly, out of the blue, I have had problems with my blog, and my website generally. I use something called WordPress, which is a free open-source content management system. It uses something called ‘Visual Editor’, another bit of free software which allows you to format text and insert images how you want. It is not working. And nor is another bit of software, called Envira, which allows you to upload pictures and insert them in your blog or other pages.

I should add that none of these are problems with my Mac: my website and all associated software is on a server (host computer) somewhere in California, running a flavour of Unix.

Neither is crucial to my well being, but I hate being defeated and I have spent a good part of the last few days trying to work out what has happened. One visible sign is that I have changed the selected layout (known in wordpress or wp parlance as ‘themes’) to one that is more mainstream (not sure if I like it, but it is here for the time being). I’ve been ‘deactivating’ other bits of software (plugins) trying to find the culprit. And I have been googling like mad and roaming around forums (or fora??) trying to find the solution. All I have found so far is that there are quite a lot of people who have had the same problems as mine, but that the reasons for them are so varied there seems no magic solution. I have also strayed into a world whose level of computing expertise – or at least knowledge of the jargon – is way beyond mine.

Anyhow currently I’m waiting for Envira support to come back with suggestions, and I have been exchanging emails with a young (I assume…) Indian who started by answering my queries on a forum and then followed up with email offers of help. Would that I had someone nearer home to turn to!

All of this seems totally unimportant in comparison with the current global cyber attack. One thing I cannot understand about this is why on earth so many computers were running out of date versions of Windows. Were the computers too old to be upgraded, or was it laziness, overwork, ignorance or maladministration that left the NHS, for example, so appallingly vulnerable?

French friends

Sometimes, when I’m in a self-pitying mood, I reflect that my circle of French friends (as opposed to aimable acquaintances) is diminishing.
It is true, and no doubt inevitable at my age. Some, like Sylvia, who died last year and whom I still miss a lot, are gone forever. Others have aged and retreated to a less social life. The fact that I no longer (at least, for the time being) play music has dramatically cut back my social calendar. And of course it does not help at all that I am a useless cook and entertainer, given that French life revolves round meals.
At the same time, the flow of friends visiting from England and Scotland seems to have also reduced. Some are caught up with health problems, others with their life as grandparents.

Then suddenly I have two good days, as I have just done, and things look different. Yesterday – a glorious, sunny spring day – I had lunch with my Parisian-Cévenol friends, Francis and Mireille. Left to himself Francis would clearly like to live entirely in his big old family house here in the Cévennes. But Mireille is a Parisienne, who thrives on her cultural and social activities in Paris. So they have a complicated life with much travel between their two homes. Not so easy now that Francis, the driver, is 80.
It was a delightful lunch and as usual conversation was animated and wide-ranging. I think I can safely say that Mireille talks more than I do! My friend and tenant, Odile, joined us after lunch. Here is (some unflattering) evidence that I was not silent.

Obviously everyone was very preoccupied with the presidential election, and very relieved indeed that Macron had made it. All three would have liked somebody who was more on the Left, but there was a general sense of appreciation of the qualities that Macron has shown so far and a strong desire that he will manage to sort out some of the political mess.
They are all three lovers of the French language and I picked up some entertaining additions to my French:
“aller dans un panier à salade” = to be taken in a police van (to the police station)
“aller au violon” = to go to jail (the strings of the violin apparently representing the bars of a police cell
“poser un lapin” = to fail to turn up (for a meeting etc)
“perdre la boule” = become disoriontated, lose the way
mettre du beurre sur les épinards” = lit. put butter on the spinach. Improve things, in particular, financially.

Today lunch again dominated the day. This time Odile and another friend, Marie, came to me, bringing with them various courses of the meal. This really takes the pressure off a non-cook. It is very un-French, but I did appreciate it. I was not totally idle: I roasted an Italian style chicken, with leeks, yellow peppers and olives, and roast potatoes – and produced my favourite white wine, from Villa Dondona, near Montpeyroux.
I’ve known Marie (who is also the mother of my GP) for about 30 years. She is another strong woman with lots to say. Odile is also very good value – I’m so enjoying having her as my neighbour, albeit for a short time while she decides what to do with her life.
The only thing about my French friends is that they have more stamina than me. Marie and Odile left after nearly five hours.
Later Odile took Poppy for a walk – or rather, Poppy (in constant surveillance) spotted Odile setting off and rushed down to join her. Later Odile brought me up a bowl of delicious soup. I may not have many French friends, but I’m very lucky with those I have.

Still no cello playing

My physio has been encouraging me to try to play the cello again, if only to help with the shoulder recovery.  So last week I tried.  Sadly it is still not possible: it is too painful lifting my arm enough to pull the bow over the strings.

Just to complicate things I had to ask my friend Charles fpr help with my very out of tune cello – it is now nearly eight months since I have played.  Unfortunately the A string was broken in the process and I need to take my cello to the luthier in Montpellier for a general check.

I had thought it might not fit in my little car.  Amazingly, if I put down the passenger seat ad remove the shelf over the boot, it does!

Roadworks everywhere

This seems the season of roadworks and associated ‘déviations’ at the moment.

I’ve just come back from lunch with friends on the route to Montardier; the main road through the village of Avèze is being rebuilt and the deviation takes you along winding, very narrow back roads. Then there is the main road from le Vigan to Ganges where a whole row of old houses are being demolished, leaving a single narrow way controlled by traffic lights. In the next valley to us, the road between the villages of Aulas and Arphy has been closed for months – work does not seem to have even started on repairing a collapsing bridge.

Here, the road leading up the valley to Salagosse started to subside last year,  There was apparently no money left in the appropriate budget.  Then the road really collapsed – and another budget takes on responsibility.  The work is going to cost a huge amount as they are now having to rebuild foundations starting several terraces down at river level.  Much of the work is being done by hand: two builders are painstakingly building huge retaining walls using boulders delivered to them by a bulldozer.

Since the beginning of the year all traffic to Serres and Salagosse has had to use the narrow road on the other side of the valley from my house  – and it is now showing signs of falling apart with the heavy traffic of lorries and bulldozers.

Getting to my friends Hans and Margaret is now a tedious drive round the valley, so I can no longer do my morning one kilometre walk to their house.  For them life is infinitely more irritating: it is their garden whose gate and steps up are in the middle of the roadworks.  Margaret has not been able to plant or care for her flowers and vegetables or just sit enjoying her garden, and nobody knows when it will be finished.