(The photograph, courtesy of John Armstrong, shows Hily van Bladel and myself in Grasse, Provence.)

Prior to our visit to Provence in May of this year, it was some time since we had eaten in France, and though there are many things about the French one can deplore, one can always forgive them all their sins for the excellence of their food.

Sitting in the sun in the open central square of a town in Provence, little boys playing street tennis in the dusty space, drinking coffee – very strong – is nice.    Having a delicious white coffee in a narrow street in Grasse with shops full of embroidered linen all around us, and a meringue as big as my head, crisp and firm at the outside and chewy and melting in the middle, was even nicer.

In a street in St Raphael, (with tablecloths!)  over-looking the marina, I had Lobster Salad; the meat having been extracted and replaced in the shell for ease of consumption.   This was followed by Ils Flottants, its soft meringue floating in a sea of egg custard.   Nan, one of our Scottish friends who had come with her husband to meet us and our Belgian hosts for lunch, and I were comparing this pudding with one we had eaten in Vernon, near Giverney, when visiting Monet’s garden some years previously.   (I choose this whenever it’s on the menu!)

At a water mill in Montauraux, in very beautiful surroundings in the garden, we first had, courtesy of the house, little toasts with different pates.   Then a tiny cup with fragrant cream of asparagus soup, and only then what I had ordered – cooked rabbit with vegetables.   The meat was curled around a little twig and tasted rather like a game bird – stronger than chicken.   And for pudding, what the English menu the waiter had insisted on our having (I often find the English incomprehensible and prefer to take pot luck with the French) quaintly described as Different Things to do with a Pineapple.   (I could think of plenty of different things to do with a pineapple, none of which were suitable to put on a menu.)We had fried pineapple, grated pineapple, and pineapple sorbet.   Then coffee or tisane and dainty sweetmeats.

But I also saw surprisingly many obese people, so I conclude that the French have abandoned their divine cuisine and eat fast food these days, for the fat people cannot all have been visitors.

In the market places there were stalls piled high with wonderful fruit and vegetables, others filled with crusty loaves, and gloriously aromatic ones displaying herbs and spices…

After a period in France, you despair of their dangerous driving, their hauteur, their cumbersome bureaucracy, their lack of interest in plumbing – but even as these things irritate you, when you remember the food – well, what do these trifles matter?

La cuisine – c’est la gloire de la France.


Things To Do with a Pineapple:

1                     Lob it as a weapon

2                     Use it as a hat stand

3                     Use it for darts practice

4                     Display it as a still life

5                     Take the skin off, slice it, reassemble it, stick cheese on sticks in it

6                     Play football with it

7                     Give it as a gift

8                     Play boules with it

9                     Use it as ant bait.



I’ve been reflecting from time to time on issues arising over Scottish independence.     As readers of my blog will know, my view is that it would be better to remain together, the  four nations, but under a radically overhauled federal system under the crown.   The Scots should however I think vote YES because there is no hope of matters moving so radically without some mighty push to start things off.

I’ve been puzzling over the apparent stupidity of David Cameron who seems, in every move he makes, to damage his own case and irritate the Scots (a grumpy and volatile people, many of whom are easily offended and all of whom are of long memory).   Can he really be this stupid, I ask myself?   We all know  Alex Salmond is very clever, but prejudiced though I may be against an English, upper class Tory leader, I certainly don’t think him a fool.

When we were in America we had some interesting conversations on this topic with our hosts (themselves New Zealanders and therefore understanding of the difficulties of small countries standing as it were on the rim of the world).    They asked us some penetrating questions causing us to think again over some of the issues.

It has surprised us that these matters – which are highly significant for everyone living in the United Kingdom – are hardly being discussed in England at all.   What we are possibly facing is the dissolution of a union which has lasted for centuries.   Of course the Scots may vote NO, but who would put serious money on that?   The vote is an unknown quantity.

Now whereas the term Perfidious Albion may well apply to successive Westminster governments, the English nation themselves are a fine people – tolerant, fair minded, humorous, competent, decent.     They deserve an honest discussion of this issue.   And it’s not that the English people are uninterested either.   We get asked about the subject wherever we go (and we never introduce the topic).   The English listen with courtesy, and almost invariably respond with surprise – and wonder why no explanation of these issues and their implications is being offered them.    So we asked ourselves, well, why aren’t they?   And in discussion with our hosts a rather horrifying (to me anyway) possibility emerged.

Suppose, just suppose, that the Scots vote YES, and in due course they depart.   What would that mean for English politics?   There are 41 Labour Westminster MPs representing Scottish constituencies, and a solitary Tory.   It seems to be the view of pundits that under the present conditions we face endless years of coalition governments.    Neither Tory not Labour parties are comfortable in coalition.    The Lib Dems have profited in the sense that they have an influence on government, but it remains to be seen whether they are supported at future general elections by the Lib Dem voters.   But without those Scottish MPs?   The Tories, on present standing, would have a comfortable, workable majority, and without some sea change in English voting habits would probably continue to be in power for the foreseeable future.

Now Cameron is head of the Unionist party, and therefore he cannot come out and say, Be gone and good riddance to you – the Scots were ever troublesome.         So he has to say, Vote NO.   But maybe when he agrees younger Scots can vote;  when he insults the Scots and makes bullying remarks, and tries to intimidate them; when he provocatively brings the British army to within 20 miles of Bannockburn on the very day the Scots are celebrating the anniversary of their victory over the English; when he treats the issue with contempt as a parochial matter of little account, maybe he’s not so stupid.    If he manages to stick to a position of saying Vote NO, while doing everything he can to induce a YES vote, then either way he wins.   If the Scots vote YES, he’s looking at being in power in Westminster for as long as he can ride his turbulent party as its leader.   If they vote  NO, he’s the Prime Minister who saved the Union.

As for Labour, they must hope for a NO vote.   With a YES vote, they’d be facing perpetual opposition in England, and they’ve not done well in Scotland since devolution either.   But they are insecure in Scotland – it has come as a tremendous shock to them that they’ve lost out to the SNP and other parties.  Labour still has that air of disgruntled entitlement in Scotland that the Tories have in England.    Since potential Labour voters must be found in both the Yes and No camps, they may be nervous of coming out strongly for one or the other, but just hope that if they keep quiet the day of the vote will come and the Scots will lose their nerve.   There will be a No vote, and they can let it all slip by without too much attention.   They are also greatly handicapped by their present leader – as an Englishman, and a London Englishman as well, Milliband is not a figure calculated to appeal to Scots.

I can completely understand why the English would find the Scots position irritating.   But England should certainly be considering the implications for itself, and what would be in its best interests.   I don’t personally think unopposed Tory rule would be for the good of most of the English.

Finally, if the above speculation were true, (and there is no present proof whatsoever) I find myself quite distressed to think that a British Prime Minister would cynically make no genuine effort to save the union but be content to allow it to be dissolved, merely for the benefit of party politics.   I thought, if this were true, he would have abandoned his trust and be impeachable.   So I looked up what he swore, when he became prime minister to see, if these allegations were ever proven, could he be held to account?   But all he swore was to be a servant of the queen.   (And I had naively supposed he was there to act in our interests.)    He took no oath to defend the Union.   We need an overhaul of our system of government.

England, wake up!    This is not, as Cameron would have us believe, a provincial and parochial  matter of no great account.   Nor is it a trivial issue.

And in conclusion, you know how the Scots complain that Westminster is only concerned about England and English issues?   Well, if I’m right, turns out our suspicions were well founded.

The defence rests.




We’ve been in America, visiting the parents of our son-on-law at their beautiful home in Washington DC.   They were delightful hosts and we greatly enjoyed their company and hospitality.   As is often our good fortune, we were blessed with unexpectedly good weather – clear blue skies, warm days and in the north, an early Autumn with its lovely colours.   On our last day we had lunch by the seafront in Alexandra, in temperatures in the high eighties.

I had never been to Washington before (John had) and our host gave us a guided tour by car.   We also visited a museum on another day.   Washington is of course a rich and elegant city with many graceful monuments and a long axis similar to Canberra and Delhi.   Yet as with all capital ‘planned’ cities it smacks somehow of the  architects’ drawing and lacks – well, lacks city street cred somehow.   I thought Washington was like a pretty enough woman dressed in good enough clothes but somehow lacking in charm.   There is also the problem where many of the buildings are already well known to you, so sometimes in the flesh and lacking the legendary status its fame and your imagination have vested in it, it can appear somewhat prosaic.   Washington is a pleasant and attractive city, but it didn’t bowl me over.

We did visit some very pleasant smaller towns.  Annapolis could have been an English coastal town almost (say Falmouth) and was very charming, as was Alexandria on the Potomac.

Before the shut downs, we visited the Museum of Modern Art in Washington.   It was a very stylish building, with black marble pillars, a cupola, white marble statues, indoor gardens and fountains – elegant and lovely.   The Impressionist artists were well represented, if not always with the best examples of their work.       There were three fine paintings of the same London bridges by Monet, an arresting self portrait by Van Gogh, an unusual water reflection by Cezanne.   There was a portrait by Degas which showed the face in fine detail which, having seen his studies of ballerinas, we didn’t know he could do.   Turner and Whistler are always worth seeing, and there was a most elegant and beautiful painting of an elderly lady in black and white by the incomparable John Singer Sargent.   That was a lovely day.

We made an overnight trip north through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania to see the iconic Falling Waters, a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, through which a river runs.    The interior was very much his style as we have seen in others of his buildings – masculine, organic, the living rock came through the floor in places, stylish but not especially comfortable.    I would not have liked to live in it but it was beautiful and I was thrilled to see it.   Plus there was a wonderful shop!

Our hostess and I did some shopping – nothing much has changed  there.   But she took me to some quilting shops where there was a fabulous selection of cottons at very reasonable prices, and gorgeous quilts made up.    I bought some material for a modest attempt at the craft.

Among the loveliest things we saw were the Great Falls on the Potomac where the river (running fairly low at this time) falls over huge jagged edge ridges of rock and is very beautiful.   There we saw the elegant (in the air) turkey vulture, plus  the American robin and the bright cardinale.    We also drove down the stunning Shenandoah Valley.

While we were there, but not affecting us, government departments, museums and national parks were closing down owing to some political dispute about funding.   The passport officer apologised to us as we left.   There is the difficulty that many people do not really speak a competent English and I sat and listened to the woman who was pushing my wheelchair at the airport discuss with two colleagues where our own personal wheelchair would arrive in a language which I could only just recognise as a very debased form of English in which they could not really understand one another – John obviously reckoned they would never get anywhere, and went off and found it himself.   There is an ever present air of slight anxiety, and you are aware that anyone could be armed and if things should go wrong you are only a heartbeat away from being shot.   The Americans are far less confident and withdrawn into themselves and if I had to sum up their present mood in a single word, it would be apprehensive.

There are still many lovely things about  America.   Although the people are less ebullient, they are still welcoming and polite.   America itself is on a grand scale and of unsurpassing loveliness.   It is an odd thing that in the country of arguably the richest and most weapon infested people on earth, you get a powerful sense of the fragile and transient nature of what man pleases to regard as human advancement.   Man inhabits America and has flung a threadbare blanket of civilisation over it.   But underneath this veneer, you can feel the land that is America, wide and generous and beautiful, home of the bear and the eagle, the bison and the wolf.    This, the real, the beautiful America, bides its time.   It still lives.   God bless this America.

(The photograph of Falling Waters, Pennsylvania, by Frank Lloyd Wright, is courtesy of John M Armstrong.)