Monthly Archives: February 2015

It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world

Happy Monday to ya… here’s my third favourite song about straight men meeting transvestite guys for you to help you find a Monday groove.

This song was famously edited by the BBC because of the coca cola bit. Fun fact: the same thing happened to George Formby and his little stick of Blackpool Rock. If you ask me, that song is no less obscene than Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Relax. How Chuck Berry’s Ding-a-Ling flagged alarm bells but George Formby strolling along the promenade with his little stick of rock didn’t, I’ll never know. Any song with the lyrics “it may be sticky but I never complain” boasting of how it gets all the kids coming around to have a nibble is highly suspect in my opinion.

Banned lists always make me laugh. The Cure’s Killing an Arab has been banned by the Beeb. You can still buy The Stranger by Camus, though. Bit rich. You can also still buy 50 Shades of Grey even though I generally read better-written porn when marking exam scripts from foundation tier candidates at GCSE.

Anyhow… enough of the banning of stuff. I like coca cola. And I like cherry cola. Mondays should be about love and not banning stuff.

So what am I loving this Monday? It’s loosely the holidays for me. I’ve got four clients who are off on their holibobs, so I have a little more flexibility than normal weeks – though I have picked up a few extra who are making the most of the holidays to revise or prepare for things. I have Wednesday free and I’m having doggie love on Weds/Thursday afternoon instead of working. I’ve got a photography backlog at the refuge as well – so many dogs are shifting at the moment. So many new dogs in as well, including two little poppets found in a terrible state last week. Much love for Nicky and Jocelyn who are their first step on a way to a happier life. They have their work cut out grooming the dogs who have never known anything by way of care.

I’m also loving

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There are even other things thinking about blooming. Ahhhhhh!

Loving lovely presents from lovely friends

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This is a little paper punch that cuts out a doggie shape. Thanks Sylvie x

I also got something… well… not sure what to say.

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I asked for Pocky sticks – these biscuity little things I had an addiction to in Japan. And I got this. I know gift recipients should be grateful, so I’m going to try my best. Inside, there was a strange powdery stuff. I stuck my tongue in it. It’s hard to describe the texture except as to say ‘stale biscuit crumbs’. It was neither sweet nor savoury. Just a nondescript powder. I asked Rachel if she was sure it was edible. She told me to put it on my face. It made me worry that I might be eating something that really was a facepack or something. Thanks for that, Rachel.

Anyway, I unpacked it and put it on a little plate. There were three gelatinous lumps and then the powder, and a little pot of something that tasted like runny treacle, except not so sweet.

What the hell? In for a penny, in for a pound, right?

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They say don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. Well, I tried it. I would describe the gelatinous lumps as having a similar texture to dried sputum and the whole combination as ‘claggy, with a hint of uncooked squid.’

If it turns out I ate a facepack and some weird soap, I won’t be at all surprised.

Anyway, have a good Monday. Work, work, work for me today.

 

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The delights of a chemical smile

Today’s Much Love Monday is another Bernard Butler classic, this time with Suede and Animal Nitrate. 

He obviously likes singers who have got unusual voices. Brett Anderson has an amazing voice as well – some of his solo stuff and Youtube stuff is great – not just a weirdly androgynous and watered down version of Ziggy Stardust after all. Love is Dead is a great EP – another 2007 piece of genius. Told you it was a good year.

This week is the last week before the holidays. I’ve got a busy morning this Monday – I usually start the week with a little calm, but there were two last-minute contacts for adoptions via Dog::Links and thus Paulo and Calypso will be making their way to their new homes tomorrow. I hope. When they’ve all arrived and are all tucked up in bed, I’ll relax a bit. Paulo is a sweetheart. He is less stupid than Ralf but a little less handsome. That’s my opinion. It’s biased of course, because I love Ralf. He is stupid though. He ate a bag of sugar at the weekend. He’s like a small child in an old dog’s body. Even Heston has grown out of his desire to chew on things or rifle through the pantry for treats.

Calypso was one I could have adopted straight off. He’s off as well. Offers came in from Finland and the UK as well as France – not surprising. He is handsome. He’d been a stud farm dog and then seized because puppy farms are gruesome places. I don’t need you to see shocking photos – I guess you already know. Calypso was in a right filthy mess and had been living in the dark in a barn most of his life. Nicky, the refuge dog groomer, had her work cut out for her on that one. Jocelyn, her willing assistant, said Calypso just stood there and let them do it, gazing up at them in adoration. That’s what a love he is.

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Here’s his Black Pearls photo. He smiles a lot this dog – he’s very Hestony. He’s being coy here. His little mate Droopy is still left. I do hope his name is not a reflection of his stud farm prowess. I can’t explain why names that sound great to French people sound terrible to English speakers.

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Droopy does love cuddles.

This week, in between doggie duties and teaching duties, I shall be continuing to prune my vines. I did 60 or so last week. Only another 90 to go. I think I had a trapped nerve or something – my thigh hurt. I’ve had sciatica before and it wasn’t that (that was the mother of all pain!) but I think this was a trapped nerve. Anyway, it eased off by Friday, though no idea what brought it on. The joys of being old. If I can finish the vines before the week is out, it makes other pruning duties much easier. So far, it’s been a mixed February – miserable rain at points, but sunny too. I’ve done a lot of planting already – some peas and broad beans, a few cauliflower seeds, some tomatoes. I think I need to buy a bigger propagator because I always have things queuing up for it. I did put some flower seeds in as well – though nothing has broken through the soil yet.

Anyway, I’m off to go and see Paulo off on his expeditions and then do my Monday morning errands. Back to the refuge this afternoon for Calypso’s adoption, as well I hope. Keep your fingers crossed that today is a good day.

Black Dog Projects

A while ago, a guy named Fred Levy came to my attention. He’s a photographer in Massachusetts and started a photography series called the Black Dog Project. He has a tumblr blog dedicated to black dogs as well. There’s mixed and contradictory evidence about the adoption of black dogs from refuges. In some countries, like France, there is out-and-out superstition about black dogs. In others, it might be a whole load of other influencing factors. Are there more black dogs than any other colour? Are there lighting issues that mean black dogs are not as easy to see in the refuge? Do they look more aggressive? I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked past people with Heston and they’re giving him the evil eye for a bark or a grumble, ignoring Tilly who is yapping her head off.

What is not disputable, however, is how hard black dogs are to photograph. That’s especially true if you don’t have a camera where you can bracket for exposure. Their coats don’t often gleam the way they do in real-life, and those blacks are hard to vamp up, leaving them looking like a muddy brown or a miserable grey.

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It’s not always true, but they don’t always burst out of your screen like other dogs might. It’s also hard to mess with in post-processing. Okay. It’s not hard if you have a couple of hours to mess around with files in Photoshop and you don’t mind spending hours manually dodging and burning in bits of the image to make them crisp.

It wouldn’t have crossed my mind, therefore, to take photos against a black background. Photo shoots in the refuge are bad enough. For a start, there are cats who wander in and out at liberty and keeping dogs out of their enclosures a moment longer than you have to is a recipe for disaster. And you know cats. They’re all “well, hello, Dog. I think it’s about time you remembered who’s boss around here.” or they’re all shy and skittish. If they run, canine chase instinct kicks in.

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This is Felix, who sadly died recently. He’s sitting up on an electricity box and I’m literally right next to him trying desperately to keep the attention of the dogs who I’m trying to photograph for the Christmas advent calendar.

christmas toupieI’m trying to get a photo of Toupie and Felix is all, “yes, Dog?”

Toupie, of course is all “Cat… there’s a cat up there… there’s a cat… Cat…. Cat!”

All the while I’m trying to get her to sit still amid a pile of Christmas presents for a half-decent photo to get her adopted.

Plus, there are people. There are the refuge staff who walk past, as they are in the habit of doing. These are the primary care givers for the dogs and the dogs are all pleased to see them, as well you might expect.

Like this one of Azor, who’d seen Thomas. He’s going, “Thomas! Thomas! THOMAS! Where’s my dinner, mate? Why aren’t you coming to say hello to me? Thomas? Thomas mate? THOMAS!! Dude??!”

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Me trying to distract him with a biscuit and he’s like “who the hell are you? … THOMAS! Thomas, mate!”

Sometimes that works in my favour and I can lure the refuge staff to stand behind me for a great photo. I did that with Crista this week, a pointer who was abandoned with her six babies on Christmas Day. She just loves Robyn and it was the only way I could tempt her to look at the camera.

Other times, it’s members of the public who don’t realise how much they’re distracting the dogs. One lady was walking backward and forward behind me, a tentative grip on the lead of a tiny little dog she’s trying out and I’m trying to get a photo of Kayser. Kayser hates little dogs. He’s a rottie cross who’s trying to decide just how he’s going to rip the throat out of this little beast in front of him. I ask the lady to move away and she’s affronted. Oh well.

Then there’s the other crazy stuff that happens in refuges. Arrivals. For some reason, people who abandon dogs like to come in numbers. Maybe they feel safer. Takes five people to abandon two dogs on Friday. They’re standing at the gate and Elaine’s trying desperately to wrestle Elios into place.

Of course, then the wind picks up and rips my precariously-taped bit of black silk from the side of the cabin where I’m taking photos. When people offer me “advice” on taking photos, I smile. Professional animal portrait photographers have marvellous things called studios, complete with studio lighting. They have assistants. They have owners they can coax into helping get the dog’s attention. The dogs don’t have to be on the lead. They aren’t stressed. They aren’t surrounded by chaos. They can take a whole afternoon to get six or seven perfect shots of one or two dogs. They don’t have cats, other dogs, staff members, volunteers, leads, bits of tape, intermittent sunlight, arrivals, departures, barking and a dog that’s only had twenty minutes exercise that day.

I have a yard surrounded by three hundred animals, at least ten busy volunteers and staff members, and a crazy dog on the end of a lead who’d much rather be out on a walk. That’s the real world.

My real world is also one of an amateur photographer. I have an entry level Canon 1100D. I have a standard, entry-level Canon zoom – the one they supply with the camera. I also have a Sigma 70-300mm zoom. They say a poor photographer will blame their equipment and never use it to the edge of its capacity. I use mine to the edge of its capacity and realised I’d quite like a longer zoom so I didn’t have to get in the dogs’ faces. They don’t all like that. So I have the Sigma lens which is just wonderful. I can’t tell you though what I would give for a Canon 5D mk III body (£2299) or even a 7D body (£1135). What I couldn’t do with a Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens (£1089) or even a 50mm f/1.4 (£279). How wonderful it would be to have Photoshop and all its accoutrements. Still, I have a great basic camera, a polarising filter (my indispensible accessory) and picmonkey. It’s more than enough to take great shots. I did want to show you some of the world I work in and then how it ends up.

I started out by having a play around at home. Less stressful. No leads. Responsive dogs. I get a great shot of Heston and I know the black on black is going to work. His tongue’s a bit meaty-pink and that was difficult to get the exposure for, but I do this out of direct sunlight, under clouds and I know it’s going to work.

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I decide that tongue-free will be better than tongues if possible. Then it’s time to pack up kit. Both my lenses, lots of biscuits, black lead, masking tape. Basic but does the trick.

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Here you can see my ‘studio’ – the front of the pound reception, where stray dogs are dealt with. Just so you know, there was a giddy little shih-tzu about a metre away behind the door, doing his best to distract everyone. Notice the fact I took this at ISO 6400 – the fastest ISO it’ll do, so I don’t have to use flash. Even so, Kayser is moving and agitated! I love the fact the backdrop is being help up by a very willing volunteer’s leg. She’s trying desperately to stay out of the shot but it gives you an idea! Actually, my ‘failure’ rate for photos is quite low. I take about 200 and about 30 make it through to final cut. Sometimes that’s just because they are duplicates and I’ve gone for the best. Sometimes it’s because the dog yawned or blinked. But I’m used to working on film where it was costly to make mistakes. I get rid of a good number of shots that are okay. Very few are complete failures like that one above!

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This one, not only distracted but blurry too…

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This one, Thomas has just walked by to get something from the van.

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Then I get one where he’s kind of looking at me, but it’s not brilliant. Workable but not brilliant. Look at his tail. Gorgeous lad! I have to tell you that Eloy peed on the backdrop about half an hour before this shot as well. Now that’s hardcore animal photography!

Once I get the photos home, I then have up to 50 shots to edit, crop and improve. Sometimes I add names or the refuge details depending on the project. First thing in is a brutal cropping. Next up is a quick exposure adjustment, a little messing with the curves (techno-jargon a-hoy!) perhaps a little dodging and burning. No photo can take more than 10 minutes of my time, especially when I have 50 photos to get through. 5 mins is my usual time – and often more like 2 minutes. Crop. Adjust. Save.

I did get a perfect shot of Kayser, but as the project isn’t unrolling until March 1st, he’s staying behind doors.

Here is one instead of Rex, adopted on Friday following a short trial period with a lady I know. He is still bouncy and bonkers and lovely. I did one of him anyway, just for fun. I think you can probably see why I’m so pleased with this set of photos. I’ll, for once, let the image do the talking.

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Rex is a great example because he’s giddy and not keen on sitting still, especially when there are lots of distractions. Let’s just say that the black dogs project was tougher than the oldies. For a start, oldies don’t have crazy energy. There are a good few black dogs who have been a devil to photograph simply because they are so bouncy. Salma and Darius, Elios, Fidèle, Hoogy, Manix… mention these names to any number of volunteers and you’ll see involuntary muscle spasms as arms remember being pulled more than they were ever expected to be. I suspect this is exactly how Heston would be in the refuge. Out of it, he’s still lively on the lead, but he gets to let off steam. Darius is just looking for cuddles. He preferred to get in for a cuddle with a volunteer than pose for his close-up.

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It’s such a shame for this guy. Anyone who came to see him would think he’s insane. All he is, is a veteran refuge dog who has little by way of restraint and who just wants to be your friend. Super cuddly and super loveable. Look how happy he is to get a bit of love.

To finish, a few words for Darius.

Darius…. I hope this project works for you, because I love you and I know the other volunteers love you too. I hope the rest of the world gets to see how special you are. You really are a diamond in the rough. One day, someone’s going to see that, as soon as they get you home, you’re going to be an absolute darling.

 

I feel well enough to tell you

What Monday isn’t made a little more wonderful by Bernard Butler and David McAlmont? Not very many.

David McAlmont has just got the most amazing voice. It’s one of those big, powerful voices with a huge and immense range, which is good enough to thrill me anyway, but when he sings, like only a handful of singers, his voice reaches into the heart of you and gives your insides a squeeze. He’s got one of those voices that you can’t do anything else to when you hear him – you’ve just got to listen and that is that.

What’s not to love about that?

Besides, Bernard Butler is a god of the guitar. He’s no Johnny Marr but he’d get a silver medal in my Olympics of floppy-haired indie guitarists. It’s always hard, in the wake of great bands, to carve out something new and different. The 80s brought such an amazing wave of great music in so many forms that the mid-nineties just seemed to struggle a bit. If you don’t believe me, look back at the greatest albums of 1996 or 1997 and tell me how many of them are by bands who got to grow up, or bands who any staying power. If I tell you that Peter André’s ‘Mysterious Girl’ was the 9th biggest single of 1996, you can see how desperate things were. Happily, there was a lot of very mellow and lovely acid jazz that year and I think I spent most weekends at the Boardwalk in Manchester. I managed to avoid most of the nasty knock-off boy bands and girl bands. Ask me what the late nineties brought and I’ll tell you B*witched, Boyzone, 5ive, Cleopatra… ah, the heights of shite.

Luckily, Pulp, Suede, The Verve and Beck stepped into the breach for the Indie sound, but by and large, I’m yet to be argued into thinking the mid- to late nineties gave us shedloads of great musical moments. Some years are like that. Other years, you should just stop everything to just listen. 2006. Now that was a year in music. 

So apart from David McAlmont’s fine vocals, what am I loving this week?

♥ Cold is almost down to manageable proportions of snot. I know you wanted to know that.

♥ Friends who send you Vaseline lip balm. Lip balm is much less of a phenomenon in France, and Vaseline still has seedy connotations. I don’t know why. Anyone in a good sex education class knows Vaseline is not a good lubricant. Bad enough having chapped lips without being sniggered at. It beats putting chocolate-flavoured lip-balm on my nose.

♥ These three little guys. They arrived at the refuge as a pack of seven, found huddled up under their master’s bed after he’d died. Edge has found a lovely home in the Dordogne, Tino is with a wonderful refuge volunteer, Brigitte, and Usty has been taken to a foster home. All within two weeks. They’d all been at the refuge for over five years. There’s not a real reason for that. The trouble is they look like German Shepherds, but in reality, they are tiny. Anyone who saw them on the internet would expect a big dog. They are little, shy boys as well, so not so good at coming out and saying hello at the refuge to anyone who drops in looking for a dog.

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♥ knowing that warmer days and longer evenings are on the way. Not much going on by way of gardening last week, what with the temperatures not getting above 4° for most of the week. A little snow is alright when you know you have wood for the fire. Here’s hoping for a fine spring, rather than the wash-outs of former years.

♥ Seeing Ufo, the big black labrador adopted before Christmas. He’d been at the refuge for seven years. He looks absolutely magnificent now. He was on fine form. He might be old, but he’s still living like a puppy. Ralf’s like that too. He’s learned (well, learning!) recall and he’s all “Whooooooo! Look at me!!!! I’m coming back to you!!!!!” – not bad for the age of thirteen. There are just two dogs now who arrived in 2009 – Nichman and Paulo. Paulo is lovely. He’s my current love. He’s a huge, ancient labrador who always looks at you as if to say, “Yes, can I help you?” when you pass his enclosure. No reason he’s been there six years, either. Nichman, now that’ll be a rehoming and a half. No cats, no dogs, not bothered by people, snacks or treats. He’s not a looker either. Poor Nichman. I suspect I’m going to do a mahhoooooooseive Nichman campaign for Mr Unloveable.

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This is Paulo. Who wouldn’t love this cheery fellow?

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And this is Nichman. Coming up on twelve and six of those years at the refuge. Pulls like a team of huskies, loves playing catch, not at all interested in people, hates other dogs. Hmmmm. How to write an advert for this guy?

Wolf is off to Germany on 20th February. He’s got a lot of admirers. Mainly it’s because he’s a handsome honey who is actually a little shy. Hopefully there will be photos of his first nights – sure it will make a lot of staff and volunteers cry.

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Of the ten long-termers from before Christmas – Ufo, Dalton, Edge, Tino, Usty, Paulo, Nichman, Salma, Wolf and Cachou – there will be three remaining by February school holidays. I think that’s just fabulous. The Division 2 long termers will be tough to rehome too – lots of dogs who are not fans of other dogs or who need a special someone. Darius, Dusty, Douggy, Fidele, Elios, Noah. Mind you, I’m looking back at that Division Two list as well and can see a lot of happy rehomings. Young Tino (who was my favourite), Djibouti, Chupa, Anna, Artiste, Alaska, Fairbanks, RG, Charly, Skype, Fly… We’re talking some seriously difficult-to-rehome dogs here: bouncy, nippy, pully, energetic, suspicious, big, black – you name it, they had some reason they weren’t adopted as quickly. There are now 12 dogs who have been at the refuge since 2012. In September last year, there were 33.

Anyway, on that little reflection, I feel a lot more buoyant. Time to get busy and start my Monday for real.

French Friday Connection

031There is nothing in France like the hand-made sign, and that is as true of the high street in town as it is of the tiny village grocery. Out of the cities, it feels as though there are far fewer chain stores than there are in the UK.

In England, privately-owned bakeries have all but disappeared. Greggs, Hampsons and Greenhalgh’s bakers have largely taken over. I can’t say the British have the same love of tradition or bread – though most bakeries carry a good range of products. If you go to Greggs, it’s because you want a pasty or a pie, if you ask me. And why wouldn’t you want those things? You can be snobbish about Greggs if you like. I miss the cheese and onion pasties.

There aren’t that many people who buy bread outside of the supermarket. I do miss crumpets, especially a Warburton’s crumpet. I will never find a multi-seed brown sliced loaf that goes just perfectly with strong cheddar and Branston pickle. Is there anything like a Hovis loaf across the entire globe? I doubt it. I miss malt loaves, bagels, custard tarts and cream cakes too. Crème patissierie isn’t quite the same. Things in French bakeries don’t change much and they don’t take much on board by way of ‘foreign products’.

There is a weight of tradition behind French bakeries and the stock doesn’t change much. Cookies and muffins are still a novelty here. My most local bakery carries a small range of products: baguettes and ‘pain’, the large, thick baguettes. There are ‘boules’ and occasional products with different flours. If you want patisserie, there’s apple turnovers, croissants, pain aux raisins, pain au chocolat, Suisses and a handful of other occasional products. After a while, you get to know the best bakeries for particular products – the bakery in La Rochefoucauld does the best eclairs, and my local bakery does the best pain aux raisins.

You can buy a facsimile sliced loaf in the supermarkets. It has a two-month sell-by date. Most of them are entirely square and virtually crust-less. The brown version is tolerable if you absolutely have to. Sandwiches in packets have never taken off, and that is because they are utterly foul. I don’t know why but the French haven’t mastered putting sandwiches in packets. The bread disintegrates. I suspect it is everything to do with the fact the bread has to have a long shelf-life because they don’t have the same packet sandwich sales as the UK, and therefore the bread is worse quality than some of the pre-prepared packet sandwiches you can get in England. Eating in the streets is still not the done thing in rural France. I remember it being like that in the UK too, when I was young. You just didn’t eat and walk. It wasn’t done. Now you eat, walk and check the internet.

Rarely in rural France though.

And let’s face it. Why would you buy a cheap sandwich, a coke and packet of crisps, or a McDo or Quick when you can have a three-course sit-down two-hour meal for twice the price? It’s a no-brainer.

The bakery is the only place you can get stuff that is good to go. It’s for that you see so many baguettes with the end eaten off. French people are partial to snacking before they get home to eat, just like the rest of the world.

One Fine Day

Ah, a little throwback to my Sunday morning 60s extravaganza yesterday, with The Chiffons and One Fine Day

because The Chiffons, The Ronettes, The Crystals… there are just some things that should keep going through to Monday morning.

Truth be told, I spent most of yesterday feeling quite yuck. Wood fires and being too wrapped up, plus meeting lots of sickly students during the week left me suffering a little yesterday. I’d intended to start planting up seedlings but only got as far as getting the packets out and putting in some cabbage seeds. I started the yearly ‘taille’ of the vines – cutting the vines back. I’m not too fussed about frost damage to any of the vines up near the house, if there is snow this coming week. It didn’t take me long to realise that vines are quite like weeds – they grow everywhere and take a lot of damage.

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Feels like a long time til they’ll be looking like this again.

The snowdrops are beginning to make an appearance – every year I think they’ve given up and are not coming back, but they push up quickly and yesterday, some of them had burst into bloom. I was thinking I’d go to Angoulême on Sunday morning for the comic strip festival. It’s always in my memory as the most bitterly cold weekend of each year though, so it didn’t take much to persuade myself not to go. The town is split over the ‘vieux’ town up on the top of a promontory, and the old town which runs down to the river at the bottom. It’s not the best place to be when there are icy winds blasting up from the Atlantic coast. Plus, the festival is usually split between a couple of squares up at the top, and the museum down at the bottom – it’s not a walk for the faint-hearted in cold weather, let me tell you. There are buses, but with my current germ levels, I don’t think public transport is advisable.

This week will hopefully be the last busy one for a while. I need some of the quieter weeks again! Today, I’m running a self-assessment and reflection workshop in the morning and then a long, long evening of teaching. Hopefully the weather will hold up and I’ll be able to give the dogs a bit of a run in between so that they don’t end up stir crazy and picking fights with badgers again.

What is bringing me the love this week?

♥ Finishing a hat I was knitting and moving on to a pair of socks – they’re bright yellow and for a friend – if knitting in yellow doesn’t put a little cheer in your year, nothing will.

♥ Friends who drop everything to give you a morale boost when you need one. I don’t need one very often, but it’s nice to know there are people who share my moans and who can always bring me out the other side without me making some dramatic prima donna flounce.

♥ Just even being able to think about gardening. It might only be a thought, but it’s there. Getting my seed box out and locating my secateurs is joyous. Less joyous is putting on wellies and realising a mouse has probably been living in one. Luckily, he seems to have disappeared.

Not loving this sore throat and headache though, or the fact that when you’re self-employed, you just have to get on with it. No sick days for me! Yes, you’re right. I need to stop feeling sorry for myself and get busy!