Vlad’s Vlog in Pre-Brexit London

Vlad spends Christmas in London without Marlowe. In this post, he wanders round East Sheen, his old stamping ground, and makes a few trivial comments about Brexit and the calamity he imagines lying just round the corner…  Click HERE to view the video.

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Vlad and Marlowe Go to Courçay

Vlad and Marlowe go to Courçay and explore an unusual ancient path snaking between a rock face and the Indre river.

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Discover Vlad’s Vlog. Short, rambling, incidental videos of negligible importance recording trivial details in the lives of Vlad, his dog Marlowe, and whatever unwitting extras happen to get in the way of the camera. The action and inaction take place in Touraine, central France.

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Marlowe in the Morning

Winter 2017. A typical morning in Marlowe’s life, marked by an encounter with two brothers who are considerably less fortunate than himself. Click HERE to view the video.

Discover Vlad’s Vlog. Short, rambling, incidental videos of negligible importance recording trivial details in the lives of Vlad, his dog Marlowe, and whatever unwitting extras happen to get in the way of the camera.

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Introducing Vlad’s Vlog

Vlad’s Vlog… Short, rambling, incidental videos of negligible importance recording trivial details in the lives of Vlad, his dog Marlowe, and whatever unwitting extras happen to get in the way of the camera.

Click HERE to view a Vlad’s Vlog video of a walk with Marlowe along the banks of the river Echandon, just outside Tauxigny in Touraine.

“What do you think’s over there?”

Steve Birkbeck and I were doing a 44km training ride on our bikes today, stopping at Chenonceaux for lunch. On the way, in the middle of the countryside, Steve said “Get off your bike and lean it on that telegraph pole over there.” I did as Badger Coach bade, according to the tacit laws of Badgerdom, and then he pointed to a square copse in the middle of a field, a short distance from the road, and said “What do you think’s over there?”

Well, I hadn’t got a clue, had I? So he took me over. There was an open space in the fencing around the copse and we went in, fighting through tangled undergrowth. Then suddenly, looking down, we saw an archway and a steep flight of stone steps descending into the darkness. It was very slippery, but we managed to pick our way along the perilous declivity. And there, deep below field level, was an amazing underground church, with a nave, an apse and four transepts, all beautifully carved out of the living rock. Steve knew it was there because the deputy mayor of Genillé had told his wife about it, but otherwise there was no indication – not even a little signpost beside the road.

When was it constructed and why should people want to build an underground church? The Catholics weren’t persecuted in France, though the Protestants were. But this came from another age. Was it palaeo-Christian, or even pagan?

An Internet search for ‘underground churches in France” comes up primarily with The St-Jean church at Aubeterre-sur-Dronne which  is the tallest underground church in Europe. It was discovered in 1961 when a passing truck collapsed through the roof of a pre-Christian necropolis and revealed the huge space used for sacrifices and burials since the 3rd century. It is said that in the 4th century people were inspired by Turkey’s Cappadocia where cave dwellers built homes and churches beneath the rock.

Touraine is very rich in troglodytic habitations and even underground refuges where entire villages and all their livestock hid for months on end from marauding enemies in the Middle Ages. But this church was unique in my experience, and a total mystery. There is no mention of it whatsoever on the Internet, and apparently no effort to preserve it – given the condition we found it in.

Though perhaps, ironically, the absence of signposting, the absence of even a path leading to it, and the absence of all mention of it in the conventional media will serve just that purpose – to preserve it from human degradation. And really it will be nobody’s loss, for what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over, does it?


Killing Fields

It is November and the landscapes are almost post-apocalyptic, shrouded in blue-grey fog, the fields damp and fallow. Yesterday, we took the dogs on a route that skirts a large forest. I like this walk because one often sees roe deer. It being the weekend, however, the huntsmen were out in fluorescent orange gilets, so that they could be seen by each other, and firing high calibre weapons, clearly targeting deer and wild boar. Their presence makes even the dogs nervous and their weapons are not innocuous. A stray bullet could kill. Also, they notoriously drink heavily in the morning and at lunchtimes, making accidents more likely to happen.

Towards the end of the walk we stopped to chat with a 90-year-old gentleman at the gate of his house. Monsieur Rossignol, it turned out, was born and brought up in our hamlet, so we could exchange a lot of information about what it was and what it had become. The main thing was that back then, in the 1930s when he was a little boy, it had been five independent farms and my house he seemed to recall had been the stables. He had fond memories of harvesting the corn by hand. Over the decades, the smallholdings closed one by one, giving way to large prairie farms, the destruction of copses and hedgerow, and increasing mechanisation. Today the tractors and combine harvesters that crisscross the fields are navigated automatically by GPS as they plough or reap.

In particular, Monsieur Rossignol bewailed the advent of potent pesticides, notably glysophate, and its entry into the food chain. As we know, the jury is out on whether glysophate is carcinogenic for farm workers who handle it and possibly for consumers of treated crops. Most of the people I know in the farming world here are convinced that it is. One farmer told me they had a worker who regularly sprayed glysophates on the fields and wore no mask or gloves, rolling his cigarettes right next to the operational sprays. He died of cancer at the age of 49. Or was it the smoking?

The use of glysophate is of course hotly debated at the moment but some of the repercussions of this chemical revolution are self-evident. It is a herbicide that kills all plants except for the crops it is protecting which have been genetically modified to resist its effects. This means monocultures, dependence on the agro-chemical industries that produce both the pesticides and the genetically modified crops, and the virtual disappearance of wild species of plants. The fields are big lunar plains now, and the roadsides boast very few wild flowers. This, combined with the obliteration of woodland, copses and hedgerow has a colossal impact on the wildlife.

Monsieur Rossignol looked out bleakly across the field in front of his house. “Thirty or forty years ago,” he said, “there was wild game everywhere you looked here. Rabbits, hares, pheasants, grouse, quails, guinea fowl. Today – almost nothing.” The insect populations have also been exterminated, creating an increasingly desolate eco-system. The plight of the bees is only the most publicised. 

And of course, what the farmers don’t kill, the hunters will. They are, after all, often the same people. The farmers I know are not proud of their use of pesticides. One of them, whom I’ve known for 43 years, once said to me “If you knew exactly what we put on these fields it would horrify you.” However, they defend their hunting rights aggressively and to the hilt. Why do you kill little animals? “Tradition!”

This afternoon I took Marlowe on his second walk of the day and at a certain point we passed four huntsmen, without dogs, positioning themselves strategically at the four corners of a thicket, clearly waiting to flush something out. I put Marlowe on his lead but he’d already taken an aversion to them, barking manically. When we’d gone past a giant haystack and they were almost out of sight I let him off the lead again. No sooner had I done so than a huge wild boar thundered past us, terrified for its life. The hunters couldn’t take aim and shoot because we would have been in their line of fire, which was considerate of them. Instead, they piled angrily into a white van and tore off in pursuit, racing past us. 

I watched as the wild boar stumbled into a ditch, climbed out, and headed for a spinney near a little hamlet. The van drew up, lights flashing, nearby. And for the remaining half hour of our walk I listened out for gunfire. None came. Presumably the wild boar had eluded them. 

In general these days, my dog walks involve avoiding hunters and tractors spraying pesticides that the wind can blow in our faces. It is all of course murder and desolation. Take the rich biodiversity of a relatively unspoilt nature and transform it into barrenness and aridity. Nothing is left untouched by the joyless industrialisation of modern life, and all for the sake of unnaturally high yields and money. Then, in the few havens of peace that wild animals can find, they are mercilessly stalked and killed.

It was very sad indeed listening to Monsieur Rossignol remembering the good old days and the abundance of fauna. Clearly it was another world.

What’s in my bag?

Empty your bag and I will tell you who you are…

In the 1980s a French sociologist set his students a homework project. It was for each of them to examine the contents of 10 people’s bin bags. A French photographer, Pascal Rostain, heard about this and thought it was rather a good idea. On a trip to photograph Serge Gainsbourg, he helped himself to Gainsbourg’s bin bags on the way out. It was, as one might expect, a snapshot of Gainsbourg himself – full of empty Ricard bottles and packets of Gitanes cigarettes. Rosin and his partner, Bruno Mouron, took the project one step further, filching the bin bags of the famous, spreading the contents out on the studio floor and photographing them. 

Paris Match suggested they go to Hollywood, and they did. Studying garbage collection schedules, they lurked outside the homes of famous film stars and pinched their trash – Jack Nicholson, Bruce Willis, Elizabeth Taylor, whoever – and took the bin bags back to Paris to photograph. Obviously, this practice is a gross intrusion on privacy – but, on the other hand, this is stuff that people didn’t want, that they were throwing away! Where was the harm? It does however raise certain ethical questions. What do you do if you find empty Viagra packets, or – as happened with Larry King’s garbage – used incontinence pads?

Their photographs enjoyed a brief vogue, then something called “Garbology” emerged. This is the academic discipline of studying modern refuse as a form of archeology. It is the case, after all, that archeologists sometimes come across the garbage of ancient civilisations and can learn a lot from studying it. And of course we are huge producers of rubbish. You may have read recently about plastic in the oceans and in particular a floating mass of plastic in the Pacific that is twice the size of Texas. Also, plastic has been found in the guts of marine creatures who live at the greatest depths of the oceans. For some reason, I am appalled by the fact that tea bags of all things contain plastic, and will shortly be making the transition back to leaf tea.

Being of the generation that remembers a time before the wholesale invasion of plastic, I find it extraordinary how suddenly omnipresent plastic has become in the world. After all, we used to do things correctly – our milk bottles, and fizzy drink bottles, were recycled, our meat and fish came wrapped in paper… and now! I live not far from a municipal landfill dump, on the outskirts of one of the prettiest villages in Touraine, and see the daily incursions of garbage trucks. If the wind is in a particular direction, I can smell it too. And as I write this I suddenly recall a little rural village near Tangiers in Morocco where there was no garbage collection and everywhere you looked were black plastic bags, littering the ground, flying through the air, the approach to garbage disposal in that village being to throw it out of the window. It was apocalyptic.

Garbology is also now a euphemistic term for waste management, and refuse workers in some countries are “garbologists”. It is also as a term for corporate espionage or law enforcement, when real rubbish bins – or the virtual computer’s trash can – can provide useful information.

Just recently, the bin-bag examination trip has taken a new twist, a twist in which the owner of the bag not only agrees – but volunteers – to reveal their bag’s contents. We are talking here not about the things people throw away but the things they would never throw away. This is the “What’s in my bag?” or “EDC” vogue. EDC is an acronym that means “Every Day Carry”. Basically, this involves opening up your “man bag” – or, for women, the handbag – and showing people what you carry around with you wherever you go. The forum for these revelations is YouTube. 

 I have to admit that it is quite fascinating. There are men who commute to work in New York and carry emergency blankets, tourniquets, face masks, sophisticated multi-tools, water purification tablets – you name it. In other words, accident or emergency kit or wilderness survival kit. Others have handguns, knives, tasers and pepper sprays. There is very often huge pride in having “the best” – for example, the best Leatherman Juice S2 multi-tool, or the best miniature flashlight money can buy. The word “tactical” crops up rather a lot, as if these individuals were in the war-torn Middle East or the Sahara desert rather than sitting in Starbucks in Manhattan.

The whole “man bag” phenomenon requires a comment on its own. If you look back at old photographs from the early 20th century, men do a lot of things that we no longer do. They wear hats, for one thing, and ties, and carry full-length umbrellas. But they do not often have man bags. Many of the American “What’s in my bag?” videos reveal that carrying a man bag can still be a sensitive matter. In other words, it looks “gay”. French men used to carry little leather purses with a shoulder strap which definitely looked like ladies’ handbags, but this vogue has also disappeared. In America, the answer to not looking gay is to buy a manly man bag, and the dominant brand is Nutsac. These are waxed canvas bags with leather trimmings, a bit like the British Barbour huntsman bags, and they cost a fortune. In the UK, it would be a bag from the excellent Troop London manufacturer.

My father would go nowhere without his bag, an unostentatious black nylon affair. In it there would be tissues, an umbrella, his notebook, and I can’t remember what else. I recall taking him to the barber’s in France and when the barber wanted to take his bag and hang it up in a cloakroom, Dad refused and insisted on it staying by his side.

I also use a bag, and in part I think this goes back to my days in the scouts and on the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, and the wish to “be prepared”, to use the scouts’ motto. If someone cuts themselves, you’re there – a sticking plaster! If someone’s trouser or skirt button pops off, you have a safety pin. If the cops stop you in the car, you have all your papers. And so on. 

I have two bags (see photo above), one urban – a Fred Perry black bag with cream piping, a style that was extremely popular some 10 years ago – and a canvas army-surplus bag which I found for 5 euros in a vide grenier and which is ideal for rural parts. When I walk the dog, I have my camera in it and a Contigo flask of tea. I also have a Troop London rucksack and a couple of traditional cycling musette bags which are essential for bike rides, being incredibly lightweight.

The Fred Perry bag is the “full kit” version, and I’m sorry to disappoint, but I have no intention of disclosing what I carry in it, except to say “a lot”. A total in fact of over 40 items. And yet it weighs next to nothing. A corollary of being a bag man is that you’re interested in miniaturisation. The smallest and lightest of everything. The Muji stores, in this respect, are Aladdin’s Caves of small portable items. But why, after getting this far, am I being so cagey? One reason that I cannot reveal the contents, apart from quite simply not wanting to, because it’s none of your business, is that they include magic tricks, and the Magic Circle would not thank me for giving the game away.

Be that as it may, go to YouTube and search for “What’s in my bag?” or “My EDC” and you’ll find the curious individuals who delight in letting the cat – and everything else – out of the bag.


A Van and a Plan…

The 2015 British film, The Lady in the Van, is the story of the writer Alan Bennett’s relationship with an elderly lady who lived in a Bedford van on his Camden Town driveway at his invitation for 15 years until her death. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings and the old lady by the consummate actress Maggie Smith. The film explores the mixed reactions of the middle-class residents of that street and Bennett’s burgeoning curiosity about the educated past of the cantankerous old biddy. Part of the fascination of the film is seeing just how someone can live half their life in a van. How do they wash, sleep, go to the toilet? What ploys do they use to make the most of such a minimal space? Is it safe? Can it be comfortable? And so on.

The idea of living in a van has a certain vagabond romanticism about it. Not a camper van, mind you, or even a caravan, or even a VW Dormobile – but a van. You live rent free and you can rev up and move on whenever you please, waking up to a new view whenever you want, and human encounters may well be more direct, as people express an interest in your maverick life-choice. Like the people who choose to cycle round the world with a minimum of gear, or other knights of the road.

The freedom of the open road first appealed to me when I saw the 1973 Granada TV adaptation of Howard Spring’s Shabby Tiger, the story of a millionaire’s son in 1930s Manchester who leaves home to become an artist, embracing a life of bohemian freedom, poverty and hardship. The lead role is played by John Nolan and I recall that he wears a rather fabulous green corduroy jacket – creating a mental bridge with one of my favourite books at the time, Adrian Bell’s Corduroy, a volume of autobiography in which the writer ups sticks from London to become an East Anglian farmer. The book is a cornerstone of the pre-war Back to the Land movement.

As teenagers, my friends and I would be off youth-hosteling or camping at weekends or in school holidays, walking many miles with heavy rucksacks on our backs and, I recall, singing “Heart of the Country” from Paul McCartney’s Ram album at the top of our voices. One of our favourite destinations was Tanner’s Hatch youth hostel, on the edge of the Polesden Lacey estate near Box Hill. The youth hostel was a real ramshackle cottage, every first weekend of the month would be an improvised folk festival, and we’d help the manager, Ian, with tasks like wood-chopping and pond dredging – pulling out Victorian ginger beer bottles and bits of old earthenware. This was our rural freedom, our “on the road”, which we grabbed at every available opportunity.

I’m also reminded of a French couple I met a few years back who were crossing the whole of France diagonally, from Brittany to the Italian frontier, on horseback, having mapped a route that was entirely on footpaths and bridleways. Their journey was to take them several months and they lived simply and happily in a little two-person tent.

But to return to vans, and plans…

Badgers Bike Squad has hit the road several times with the gifted musician and fixed-gear cyclist Kimwei McCarthy, who is also consequently an honorary Badger. Kimwei returned from France to the UK where she now manages to perform her duties as a university lecturer while, at the same time, living in and out of a van which she shares with her cat, her guitar and her bike. She describes herself as a “digital nomad” and blogs and vlogs on the ups and downs of this experience on Facebook and a dedicated site, Symphony for Happiness. Kimwei’s ongoing record of this life is fascinating, with its voluntary minimalism and everyday survival stratagems.

She teaches by Skype and in an Exeter college and occasionally “docks” at friends’ homes when the going gets too tough. She argues that she lives totally rent-free and that minimalism gives her more free time. So far she’s lived this life for nine months. No water tap, no fridge, no fold-out bed. “Why would you want to replicate a house in a van?”

Quod erat demonstrandum…

Kimwei is a modern wandering minstrel, a traveller, an “odd hippy in the corporate world”. You can follow her blog here. A YouTube version is on the way, and here is Kimwei explaining minimal packing for the nomad lifestyle on video. And below are a couple of pictures of her van.

(Curiously, in The Lady in the Van, the Maggie Smith character also paints her Bedford van – initially grey, as in the above photo – exactly the same shade of yellow!)


Normal Service Will Be Resumed As Soon As Possible

It’s early on Sunday morning, and I have nothing in particular to say, so I’d decided not to write a blog post today, but then I thought: hold on – does having nothing to say stop the BBC, the Daily Mail, The Guardian, Le Figaro or even our nearest and dearest from saying nothing all the same? Indeed, “making something out of nothing” is, one might say, not only the principal line of business for the world media, but also the paramount vocation of humankind. It is our bread and butter, both of which have to be made before we can butter our bread, know which side it is buttered and then watch helplessly as it falls on the buttered side, in accordance with universal by-laws and municipal regulations. 

There is the old Latin tag, ex nihilo nihil fit – “Nothing comes from nothing” or, in King Lear’s formulation, “Nothing will come of nothing” – yet the very existence of the universe would seem to contradict this pronouncement since before the Big Bang there was nothing, except possibly the infinitely dense “singularity” that then popped into the enormous bag of popcorn of the cosmos.  It’s a bit like Parkinson’s Law: things expand to fit the space allotted, so that probably includes nothing which, in the process of expansion, becomes something or other.  I hope I’m not getting too technical? Whether that cosmic popcorn is sweet or salty is a question of personal seasoning.

One legitimate alternative to making something out of nothing is making a mountain out of a molehill. This is normally decried as a foolish activity akin to blowing something out of all proportion but surely this comes down precisely to a question of proportion or scale. To a mole, after all,  a molehill is a mountain, or even to a gardener whose pristine lawn is being mined by these otherwise inoffensive creatures. 

As I was saying, it’s early on Sunday morning – 6.30 am, to be precise, since I am “up with the bark”, woken by a giant slobbering lick from Marlowe the dog, followed by me trying not to think about what he was licking just before. The sun has not yet come up and my plans for the day could fit inside a proton and still leave room for an echo. 

The other day, a childhood friend who has given up coffee because of high blood pressure sent me – all the way from Surbiton, and at considerable postal expense – his virtually unused La Pavoni Europiccola Italian coffee machine. For those in the know, this is the king – the best manual coffee machine in the world. Unfortunately, you need a PhD in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics to operate it.

After poring over several hours of mutually contradictory YouTube tutorials, for the first time this morning the “group head” did not explode in my face and the brew was good, though possibly wasted on me alone. It had a kick like a bionic mule on benzedrine. I think I should give it to God because, on the Day of Judgement, he could wake the dead with it. 

Anyway, I’ve understood how to make an espresso. The next step is cappuccino, but I’ll have to sign up for the Open University degree course first.

Today’s next micro-decision is where to walk the dog. 

There are several alternatives. The nearest is straight out of the house and into the open fields, otherwise known as The North by Northwest Walk. While on this walk a week ago, I was actually buzzed by a microlight aircraft, much as in the Hitchcock film. It was only my neighbour Olivier, though, out for an aerial spin (I have “eye in the sky” neighbours like that). Another neighbour and veteran dog-walker has likened this particular plateau landscape to Andrew Wyeth’s 1948 painting, Christina’s World, minus Christina alas. The Terence Malick film Days of Heaven also comes to mind. 

An alternative route is around the hamlet, a circuit that can vary in size – I have eight variants, three quadrilateral, one pentagonal and four polygonal – and be undertaken on foot or mountain bike. If the latter, I use the Trixie dog harness on the road sections of the walk (see previous blog posts on this invaluable contraption and on the art of “dog joring”).

But this morning I will break with tradition and drive Marlowe down to the village for the start of a new walk, and this for a quite specific reason: on Sunday mornings, the boulangerie is open and I can buy bread and croissants to accompany another cup of high-octane La Pavoni coffee. What to do with the rest of the day, is for the moment, largely beyond my ken.

Talking of coffee, it occurs to me that writing this blog and watching the coffee cup fill have something in common, though inversely. The coffee cup fills with black liquid from the bottom up. The screen fills with black characters from the top down. I have, in short, made something out of nothing. I shall call this the La Pavoni Europiccola Espresso blogging technique, for want of a better name, or indeed for want of anything further to say whatsoever. However, given the fact that nobody reads this blog, my conscience is clear, for I have wasted nobody’s time but my own.

In space, as they say, no-one can hear you scream.


© 2020 Adrian Mathews