Monday, 30 January 2012

Magnatune dot com

I like Magnatune. They are an independent record label, releasing music across a broad specturm of styles. You can find their website here.   I got one of their emails this morning alerting me to a new web-based music player that plays their catalogue.  It's excellent, a good piece of programming.  This link takes you to a Jazz/Tango album that I partularly like.

I have always found the quality of their recordings and musicianship to be exceptional.  And if you take out a subscription, the ads disappear, you can stream the music at will from their website, and/or download "all you can eat" in the highest quality formats available.  The player below is a bit ordinary in style but it will show you what I mean.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Bonjour Line, et merci

If you can remember your own childhood, have ever observed children or even watched them playing with Furbies and learning Furbish, you will know that children have an extraordinary capacity for learning language.  The last time I read anything about the National Curriculum, it had been recognised that waiting until children reached the age of 12 before starting to teach them foreign languages was a bad idea.  I don't know if any change in practice has resulted, though.

I was lucky enough to go to an enlightened junior school, and was introduced to French at about age 8 or 9.  We were trundled into a special room kitted out with a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a projector.  The course consisted of pictures being projected onto a screen and the corresponding speech being played from the tape.  It was a graphic novel, with the speech bubbles replaced by audio.  We looked, listened and repeated.  The teacher explained the vocabulary and went into aspects of grammar as they arose, but as far as we were concerned, we were being told a story.  We didn't really realise that we were learning anything at the time.  The title of the course was "Bonjour Line"

My family moved house part-way through the course, I moved to a different junior school, and I didn't study French again until grammar school.  We started again with the same audio-visual concept, topping it off with two years of book-based French grammar, taking us to the "O" levels.

After "O" levels, I didn't make any effort to maintain my French skills.  But 33 years later, on moving to France, I was able to make myself understood, could talk reasonably fluently and had a vocabulary sufficient for ordinary purposes.  I put this entirely down entirely to the Bonjour Line course: the German that I also studied to "O" level has almost entirley disappeared.

I have never found anything better than the concept of listen and repeat for improving my French.  The nearest thing to the Bonjour Line course that I have found is the graphic novel, although the speech bubbles are witten rather than spoken.  I find that the combination of pictures, storyline and context mean that it is easier to remember new vocabulary as it is presented.

For speaking practice, there are various publications in which an audio version of the text is presented.  I used to use a publication "Champs Elisées" now no longer available, that offered commentary on French current affairs, culture, history, tourism and other things.  A free piece of software called Audacity allows you to slice the speech up into manageable pieces, and will replay them as often as you like while you practice repeating it correctly.

My enjoyment of the graphic novel has been rewarding in itself.  I am reading an excellent adaptation of the story "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Pilip K Dick, that was also the idea behind the film Blade Runner.  The book is much more profound and subtle than the film (as is often the case).  The graphic novels behind the film "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" are similarly fascinating, and I am delighted by my graphic bio of Jimi Hendrix.  I am now reading The Watchmen, in English this time.  And so the ripples spread.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Songs of the Auvergne

Up until last weekend, all that I knew about the Auvergne is that it's in France somewhere, and Canteloube notated and orchestrated some traditional songs from that area.  They are in the language of occitan, and quite exquisite; here's a couple.

The Auvergne is a Région of France, within the bounds of the massif central.  This is a volcanic area that has been active for over 65 milion years, with short, sometimes cataclysmic eruptions, lasting from a few weeks to a couple of years.  This leads to the curious fact that although the volcanoes have been, and remain, active over this period, they are usually, as today, dormant.  We went there last weekend, with the Harmonie of Ste Suzanne, on a long weekend break, to laze about, explore and ski.

We stayed at Super Besse, a purpose-built, modern ski resort arranged around a volcanic caldera and lake.  The weather wasn't ideal for skiing, being windy with a cloud base that could close in from time to time, and not much snow.  But there was plenty of skiing to be done, and there were more skiable pistes than we had time to explore while we were there. I came the traditional cropper, launched into the air on a corner by an unnoticed hummock: a small explosion of snow and skiing kit, then a slow face-first deceleration down the mountainside. Followed by the usual concerned enquiries and retrieval of equipment by passers-by.

We ate traditional local food that seems to be common to many places with long hard Winters and short Summers:  1,001 things to do with potatoes, cheese, preserved meats and sausages.  Still, the company and atmosphere were the main drivers: we ate mostly together and we had a good time.  There were shops selling all the traditional foodstuffs, and judging by rather doubtful-looking animal parts in jars, I don't think I want to know what's in the sausages.

Saturday was the pig festival in Besse, the main town a bit farther down the valley. We went as a group to see what was happening. Well, they celebrate the things you can do with a freshly-killed pig, with accompaniment from the local wind bands. They used to slit the throat of The Chosen One in the main square, but today the warm dead pig is wheeled in in a barrow, and turned into... well, anything you can make with pig. This is then consumed into the night.

Our impression of the area is that it is well worth a second visit in the Summer. The scenery is stunning; mountainous and volcanic, with plenty to see and do. There are lots of mountain walks, interesting towns and spectacular views. And assuming that you can find non-traditional restaurants, a week at a time should be do-able. We drove down, giving a lift to other Harmonie members. I'm sure that the smell of their souvenir cheese (St Nectaire) will soon be gone from the car.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Monday, 16 January 2012

Half a hole

Of late, I have been cutting down rather more trees than I have been planting.  Whilst I maintain that this is a good thing overall for the trees, I still need to think about replacing them with new ones.  This Winter I have invested in a small number of fruit trees that I hope will be productive.

I planted a nectarine and an apricot earlier in the season. Even though people tell me that the weather here is not quite up to what they need, I am banking on global warming to deliver a decent crop over the years.  Yesterday I planted one of two apples trees that I have bought.  Apples are not self-fertile, so you have to plant two different kinds to cross-pollinate, and I chose Granny Smith and Gala.  Granny Smith for cooking and Gala for eating.

It doesn't pay to be in a hurry when you plant a tree, especially here.  The soil is full of rocks and stones, and hitting a big one of these can mean you spend the rest of the afternoon trying to hoik it out of the ground.  I dedicated yesterday afternoon to planting, and it was the right amount of time.

First, fetch your tree, and decide where you're going to plant it.  Put a stake in the ground to mark the spot, and using a spade, clear the turf from around it in a circle of about 1m diameter.

Then dig out the hole to twice the depth of the root ball, and fill it back up with good compost until it is a little deeper than the root ball.  Plant the tree and refill the hole with a mix of compost and the soil you have dug out.  Make a crater out of the soil so that when you water the tree, the water flows towards, rather than away from, the roots.   Water it.

A maths teacher once pointed out to me that you can't have half a hole.  He had a good point, (though you can have half a whole, of course) but this hole is half as deep as it needs to be, so I claim disproof by counter-example.

Friday, 13 January 2012


Here we are, January 14th and I have Chaenomeles Japonica, Snowdrops, Primula and Christmas Rose, all out in the garden at the same time.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Care And Feeding of Young Trees

Back in the days when I had a proper job, I would drive into London's West End a couple of times a week, for meetings.  I would usually arrange to start at 9:00 so I would drive in early, park the car, and organise myself a leisurely breakfast and newspaper in one of the many cafés in the area.  I enjoyed watching London wake up and it meant that I was fresh and relaxed for the meetings, rather than fraught after a difficult rush-hour drive.

It had other benefits too, in that I learned to navigate around London and I also discovered the best parking places.  My favourite was just off Grosvenor Square, near the US embassy.  (Sweet revenge on the Americans, putting their embassy in a place they can never pronounce)  In the post-Christmas sales, we would drive in early, park there, hit the sales all day, and stagger home with our haul.  Despite the exhorbitant cost of parking, we figured to save enough to more than cover it.  I would typically find a decent pair of business brogues, perhaps some casual moccasins as well, maybe an everyday suit, and a few shirts to keep me going.  These alone would easily justify the trip but my wife would also gleefully add up how much she had "saved" on her outfits, to maximise the percieved benefits (and to persuade me that it really was worthwhile and that we really ought to go again next year).

The sales in France are generally anaemic.  The government dictates when they are allowed to happen, in case presumably, some dastardly shopkeeper wants to unfairly sell things that people want, at prices they find attractive, whenever they feel like it.  But as the newspapers point out, French people have been shopping online at the London sales since December 27th, some enterprising shops even offering free delivery to the EU.  Not fair!  We'll have to get the government to do something about that.

We went to the sales here yesterday.  Our catch?  One meat mincer, one electric grindstone for sharpening blades, a set of titanium screwdriver bits, a pair of gardening boots for me, a roll of chicken wire and a tree tie.   I think I've had a change of lifestyle.

The chicken wire is to protect the bottoms of my newly-planted trees from attack by rabbits and hares.  Definitely a change of lifestyle.

P.S.  I forgot the two pairs of gardening gloves.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Asparagus bed continued

The next stage in preparing the new bed for asparagus is to dig it out and generally improve the quality of the soil there. Normally I would just do a double-spit dig, but I have a secondary objective which is to get rid of this huge compost heap that has been lurking in the garden for a few years.

With a double-spit dig, you dig over the ground to two spade-depths, and incorporate compost and manure as you go. But the compost is coming from my heap, and all the good stuff is at the bottom. So if I incorporate it as I go along, the poor compost from the top of the heap will be at one end of the bed and the good stuff will be at the other. I need to spread it all evenly along the length of the bed, so I am digging the bed out as a trench.

Here it is, together with the compost heap that will be buried in it. It's about 2/3 done. I have put the topsoil on the right and the subsoil on the left. You can see that they are quite different colours: the topsoil contains much more organic matter and is a greyish colour, whereas the subsoil is reddish. To add organic matter to the subsoil, I will put the compost in the trench, shovel the subsoil on top and mix it all up with the rotovator. Hopefully this will make for a soil that is fertile to a much greater depth than before.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Fireside cat

I was given quite a few Christmas presents, and I am grateful for the thought, love and friendship they represent.  Without demeaning those other presents that I have recieved, here is a picture of a cast iron cat from my Mum.  It sits by the fire, and as well as being decorative, the hollow body neatly hides the matches and door handle for the stove.

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