Well I've been away but I haven't been idle - at least not all the time. A curious effect of my new identity is that suddenly I'm expected to be much more knowledgeable about plants than I am - 'I wonder if you know what this is, Kate?' Usually the answer is no, although I think I'm learning. One delicious favourite that seemed to be flourishing everywhere on my trip to Brittany and which we struggled to identify is out in force in Cambridge now I'm back and I'm still none the wiser. Help, someone, please!
This was my first visit this year to Nick and Di's lovely Landroannec home and it was great to see how their garden is coming on. The wonderfully blowsy blue hydrangeas so popular in northern France rub shoulders with fuchsia and camellia and wisteria (building up to a second flowering, as here) and walnut trees that seem to grow like weeds. The air is scented with roses and the last of the stocks, and Nick sent me up the drive to soak up the smell of the pines in the heat of the day - gorgeous. I managed a tiny bit of weeding on my last day. Mostly, though, I had the tough job of deciding between sun or shade, the grassy knoll under the apple tree or at the table just outside the house where we dawdled over breakfasts (wild blackberries and whitecurrants and windfall plums) that slid into coffee and, on the hottest, laziest days into lunch. On other days our pre-breakfast swim was augmented by a bike ride along the track into Mur for coffee and croissants in the local 'Rockwell' bar, and maybe a glass of wine before we wobbled home. The house martins nesting in the garage seem pretty comfortable there too, although Nick's bald head became a target of some rather frenzied ducking and diving if he strayed too close - why didn't Di and I suffer the same treatment? The babies were busy with flying lessons - we came upon our first, a velvety rabbit's paw of stripes and fluff on the path at our feet as we walked down to the lake early one morning. And oh that lake..!
A couple of kilometres along the road towards St Brieuc we found the delightful Jardins du Botrain, tucked away down a tiny back road. It's one of those gardens that's full of surprises - a modest little Japanese garden leads into mixed beds of mallows and daisies, roses and cosmos and loads of those fabulous purple things, hydrangeas of course, wonderful old trees and shady grassy bits, a pergola, a roseraie (a shame we don't have such a pretty English term for a rose garden), a wood and, just when you think you must have reached the boundary, a lake, bordered by gunnera, a tree fern, even a banana tree. It's rather overgrown in places, and full of quirks. Walking round felt more akin to sharing a private pleasure than sampling a public space. My favourite flight of fancy? - A woven willow frame for a view, at eye level in a thick hedge, a perfect circle, looking out from the darkness of the wood over open fields and farmland. We didn't investigate the history of the garden although it seems to be the product of a husband-and-wife team, who were very excited by the comment in the visitors' book from their latest English visitors, that Botrain was 'better than Sissinghurst'. And guess what we bought to take home to Landroannec? - an ajuga reptans. Sorry, Nancy.
On one of the sunniest days we drove to Etel, a small town on the south coast: coffee at the bar, a picnic lunch on the beach, many swims in the silky sea, a cold beer on the harbour. Then we joined 500 or so other customers at the long rows of trestle tables in the huge hangar of the criée, the fish market, to sample the grilled sardines that this area is famous for. It's an annual charity event, apparently, a week-long celebration, where the fishermen grill the fish outside in racks of about 100 I guess and their wives (!) serve at table. Very traditional, very noisy, very Breton - and very tasty. I cleared my plate, tails and all, unlike my neighbour who had more bones than fish by the end of her meal. There was far - a heavy Breton custard-type cake, sweetened with prunes - for pudding. I emerged, of course, with my new frock covered in grease spots. Thanks to Nick's internet research, a thick layer of cornflour left on for a few hours before washing did the trick.
This was my fifth visit, we reckon, though the details of the various stays proved impossible to recall clearly. We agonised at length over dates and times and possibilities. I'm not sure quite why it seemed so important to get the record straight, except that an absolutely crystal clear memory I have of an earlier visit to La Trinité-sur-Mer simply could not have happened. So I'm left wondering: did I dream this? Or are we capable of believing elaborate inventions of our own making? It's relevant partly because Di and I, as artist and writer, are engaged in what is, to us, a fascinating exploration of our own overlapping memories and how we might represent these. Does it matter if what we 'remember' simply isn't true..?
Whilst I was away I also spent a bit of time most days in Argentina - not literally, of course, not this time. But I'd gone away determined to finish editing a novel I began over four years ago and have been fiddling with off and on ever since. It's set entirely in Argentina, and deals with the 'Dirty War' of the 1970s and those who were 'disappeared' by the authorities. It hinges on memory, on the importance for a healthy society of being open about what is past. It was inspired I suppose by the various groups in Argentina today who are working to reclaim the memory of those terrible times in the search for truth and justice. When I was in Córdoba three years ago, I visited one of the secret detention centres which had recently been turned into a memorial. At the entrance, a huge thumbprint, a proof of identity, is made up of hundreds of names of the disappeared. So in Brittany, each morning before the rest of the house was awake, I returned to the other side of the world, in the hope that the novel will eventually be able to make some sort of contribution to restoring what was lost.
In any case, of course it isn't possible, or even desirable, to escape completely. I'm not sure how much any of us can do to change things in Syria or the Congo, but I've promised myself that at least I'll keep myself better informed now that I'm back. I'm feeling energised by progress with the novel, and full of that back-to-school verve that typifies September. I plan to eat lots of vegetables, work regular hours, make space for rest. Now that I've cleared a bit of space (and have new bookshelves!) I'm excited rather than daunted by the prospect of the garden residency and keen to explore the possibilities of the journal. And I'll be swimming regularly, of course, though sadly there's no lake here to cross before breakfast. Thank you Landroannec - already looking forward to next time.