February 2007 Archives

leeks and fishes



Two years ago and about three months Julian sat watching the baseball movie ‘Field of Dreams’, tears pouring down his face.

‘Build it and they will come’ he chanted softly over and over again. ‘That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to build it….and they will come.’ (He is still sure Kevin Kostner said ‘THEY will come’!)

Julian had been observing Duane Keiser , the very first and at that time the only ‘daily painter’, from his first painting of – ironically, a baseball - and was both impressed and inspired. For the next few months he hardly moved from the furry envelope of his bathrobe, nor from his paint splattered ibook at the kitchen table. He hardly heard me when I spoke to him and all he talked about was html this and font that. While all around him walls screamed to be plastered (they are still screaming, I’m afraid, but they may stop soon!) and floors to be lain (ditto) my wonderful dogged wild husband set to work building it.

In February 2005, Julian put up his first oyster. In April, with his mailing list finally breaking out of the confines of his family and friends, he dared to write to his hero and he swapped Rain and Sun , for Duane’s milkweed seedpod.

They are both still painting oysters and other fishes almost every day.

For the last year Julian has not only painted almost every day, but he has been making and packing prints, packing paintings, replying to emails, taking trips to see gruff Vincent (even gruffer when he sees the pile Julian or I bring in) in the post office, photographing, resizing and posting the image. A good nine to five (or more like 7-7) job and not badly paid either. However, in the evenings, just when we would sit down to dinner or to watch a film, the dreaded hour of selling came; of researching each of the twenty people who purchased in the first minute to see how many times they had tried, and how many paintings they already had, and trying to choose whose payment to accept. As a good catholic boy, this nightly decision was causing immense stress, as were the dissatisfied emails from people in Australia; people on dial-up in Texas; people at work in Wales; walking the dog in New England; people who typed slow or drove the children to school at that time every day…..

When we thought about the idea of adoption, it was clear we already had a very big baby that needed constant care.

Now, whilst dozens of artists are following suit, and building their own daily painting practice, making sites and guilds and of course daily paintings, Julian’s site has been completely redesigned (and yes I was partial to the snot green too but the paintings do look marvellous on white) and a brilliant innovative (sorry for gushing, Dean) in-site auction incorporated so that all the above folk have a chance. Yes, the paintings are going for more - sometimes a lot more sometimes not much, but this way people can actually choose the one they want and they have twenty four hours and not one second to decide. Julian (always the good catholic boy) is also going to try and do one a week and sell it in the old way and at the old price. With the changes, he has time to paint and to relax. (though our dear friends who are chefs - and by the way PLEASE buy their new book 'On Top of Spaghetti' it's brilliant - may shriek 'Relax? Film in the evening? baaah humbug'). I have seen him laugh more in the last two weeks than the last two years, and that has to be a good thing, and maybe even one day he will lay (or even better allow someone else to lay) the kitchen tiles that have been sitting outside the house for four months.

So, this is not a leak, it’s a leek . It’s official. The New Look Postcard From Provence is on your screens now. Go check it out!

Time for me to open the oysters, and a round of applause, I think, for Bilbo Baggins.





Obviously February is an auspicious month for us. Not only is it Julian’s birthday today, but it is two years since the first Postcard from Provence and a year since the New York Times article appeared and turned our lives inside out.

On Thursday evening I was out playing trio sonatas and Julian was supposed to write his letter of motivation for the adoption dossier. When I returned he was exactly where I had left him, at the computer at the kitchen table, his eyes straining from behind his ten euro imitation tortoiseshell glasses.
“Did you do it?” I asked as I scraped up the rest of the delicious pasta sauce he had made for himself.
“No. But I resized all my thumbnails.”

“My wife and I are very much in love..;” he dictated the next morning. My appointment with Mme Ferrer and her collection of plastic bottles was at 2pm. “Perhaps they don’t want to know that. Let’s start again. What have I said so far? Family is very important to me. I have eleven nephews and nieces. I feel I have a lot to offer a child. My wife and I are very much in love….”
A few tears and a lot of James Taylor songs later, and with the help of a dear bilingual friend, herself adopted, a long passionate missive from me, and a short touching one from him clicked through the printer. We had the doctor’s reports, the copies of birth and marriage certificates, the bulletins no 3 thingies (whatever they are) and it was time to take the photographs.

“That orange shirt of yours. You have to wear that.”
“But I thought you liked this shirt? I wore it specially…” I fingered the buttons of my Galeries Lafayette long sleeved vest.
“But you have to look smart, a bit more tailored, that one’s a bit hippy and floppy.”
I rummaged around in the wardrobe and found the crumpled CP Shades shirt in burnt umber of which Julian was particularly fond and which I bought when I was pregnant as part of my Big Belly Preparation Shopping Spree six years ago.
“That’s lovely. Relax. Say Mum.”
Julian, his corkscrew curls flying out every which way from behind the Nikon, touched the button on his camera thirty times in quick succession, capturing a streak of sunlight across my left breast as if to highlight my mothering instincts. The images were transferred to Photoshop. All of them looked like I had some strange skin rash, but hey, I thought. Most people just stick in a passport photo done during the weekly shop at Intermarché. Whatever. One was chosen and I was done, Next came Julian’s session. Just as there has been in his recent paintings, there was a light in his eyes I haven’t seen for many years. He was laughing just as he did all night in a small tent in Devon the night we met.
“You look beautiful, darling.” I said fumbling for the right button on the camera.

Closing the envelope of the dossier I realised I hadn’t seen Julian for about an hour.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Taking more pictures” I heard the click of the self-timer coming from the living room. “I want to look young and I’ve got chicken skin on my neck. I’ve got to look like a young father so they choose me.”

“And now?” I asked half an hour later.
“Airbrushing the chicken skin out of my neck.”

“Don’t forget the paper bag!” Julian called after me as I left for Avignon.
“What for?” I asked.
“To bring baby back in”

Mme Ferrer, her plastic bottles standing behind her, an allegorical display of all the discarded children waiting to be filled up with love, read our letters. Her eyebrows rose at the mention of our successful careers, lower lids squinted at our medical history, and eyes clouded at our obvious desire to share our lives and our love with a child.
“You have written a very beautiful letter” she said.“I admire you.”

Nine months (and a gruelling home study) from now we will hopefully have permission from the French authorities to be parents. February, it seems, is also the month where we became symbolically pregnant.





I have rattled down on the Paris metro to St Germain, given my euro to the homeless accordéon player to keep the chansonnier spirit alive, and now I am sitting in my favourite café – Café de Flore. To its left the café des Deux Magots stands brass shiny but half empty even of tourists and opposite, Brasserie Lip shuns anyone in a paclite Berghaus jacket. I move from a table next, I think, to the only English speakers and squeeze onto the plastic red bench at another. To my right two businesswomen in boxy wool coats discuss politics and to my left there lies a notebook and a nice looking pen waiting for its owner to return.

Last time we were here, Julian and I spotted Vincent Lindon, which knocked spots off being opposite Hugh – or Huge as they call him here – Grant in Brasserie du Nord last week. But I am not here to spy on film stars, I am here in the age old Paris café tradition, to write

‘Could I borrow your pen?’ I ask when my atmospheric neighbour returns.

“I will give you a stylo” he says, rummaging in the pocket of his black velvet jacket. “But not my fountain pen, because you know” he says, scratching at long grey sideburns. “Une plume c’est comme une femme…..” – A fountain pen is like a woman.

I am in Paris playing Mozart arias with an orchestra run by friends from the US who now live here. As the rehearsals progress it dawns on me that we all come from the same musical womb: Through Danny Phillips, Timothy Eddy, Isaac Stern, Julius Levine, Gil Kalish, Andras Schiff, Sandor Vegh, Johannes Goritzki and Steven Isserlis, via Cornwall, Salzburg, Budapest, Scotland, Long Island, Dusseldorf, Taos, Santa Fe, New York and London, we all go back to the great Grandfather of this musical tradition and the one who never gave up on gut strings to begin with, Pablo Casals.

I am home.

I am sitting next to a gentle giant and one of the best musicians I know, Joe. Joe and I studied together at Stony Brook and, on my first day wandering around the concrete and bagels of an American university campus, he succeeded in splitting open my English reserve: “HEY!!!! WHAT’S UP??” he said, slapping my back with his hulking great bass players arm. “I’m not sure we’ve been introduced” I replied. Later, playing the Trout quintet, he challenged every semiquaver of my tiny controlled approach to playing the cello: “HEY MAN YOU’VE REALLY GOTTA POP THAT RIFF MAN, IT’S LIKE BOBBY MCFERRIN!!!!!”. Joe played everything - jazz, folk, rock and baroque, and his ‘Take me to the River’ was one of the sexiest things I have ever heard. Now, here we are, a continent away and a decade and a half later, playing Mozart together.

The last time I played Figaro it saved my life. I had just come out of hospital after an ectopic pregnancy and had to be helped on to the continuo riser every night, and every night, for three hours, I forgot my rude emptiness. Now, wrapped up in Figaro again and in Joe’s sound, I feel like I am drinking mother’s milk with a fierce thirst.

Across the way I spy a violinist and I recognise her body language. I say hello. It turns out she was at the same Bach Aria Festival as me in Stony Brook – the one that changed both our lives - and that she studied with Danny Phillips who studied with Sandor Vegh and plays in my teacher Tim Eddy’s quartet (and that all of them, of course, go back to Casals)……

I am an alien who has finally landed on the right planet where people speak her language after all. I am bursting with so much love. Why, I wonder, can I not feel this love anywhere but in music? Why is one man and one woman not large enough to contain it?

In the break Joe and I have sushi and talk about home. Joe has taken over the job of his teacher Julius who died two years ago and who was his musical father. His students are his children, the spiritual children of a long musical tradition which Joe wants, passionately, to keep alive. To do it, he has to travel from Rouen to New York at least once a month, leaving his own wife and child behind.

“You know, I drove home to Rouen last night. It was a long drive, but it was worth it. I would sell all this” he waves an extra large freckled hand in the direction of his bass “to hear the patter of my daughter’s feet coming down the stairs in the morning, for hanging up her little coat in the school hall.”

And in that moment I know for certain that music is not the only place for the love that goes beyond husband and wife, and that Julian and my recent decision to try and adopt a child is possibly the most exciting one we have ever made.

I look up from the table at which I have been scribbling these thoughts and Ah, there, at the table across from me, is Vincent Lindon. Perhaps we can have it all...?





The woman at the goverrment office had bright cerise lipstick which reflected the fabric that clung to her fleshy hips and behind. We followed the latter as it waddled us along the corridor.

‘Nice display’ whispered Julian once we were seated in front of a wad of documents. On the mantelpiece, instead of flowers and pictures of smiling grandchildren, was a collection of eight well-spaced empty plastic bottles: A Squat yellow, a willowy blue, an angry red, a pink-topped, a plump green, a sucked in gold, a seethrough and a multi coloured one. It was sort of ugly, but its courage was beautiful. Each one had been rescued from the rubbish and placed lovingly, and the display was as bold and modern as the woman's smile.

(Painting by Clive Blackmore )




My bottom having left its place in order for me to mark the score with a new bowing, moved to sit back down and missed, as if someone had played a prank and moved the chair.

Luckily, I managed to save my cello from the crash by holding it high, though my ‘seat’ got a bit of a battering.

A few days later, as I admired the muscled arms of the winter plane trees reach out over the Salzach, I realised I had tears in my eyes. I craved sinewy limbs around me. I needed bunched tree-fists to protect and stand up for me. I could not get rid of the feeling that I was moving to sit but tumbling into emptiness.

During the concerts I had a desk partner around whose sound I could wrap mine like mace around nutmeg and she helped me climb back into the music. The music, in turn, acquired muscle, reached out and held me. Whatever bruises to the ego, lashes to pride, whatever sense of injustice and misunderstanding, amongst whatever untruths or jealousies, the music coiled up through me and undid the noose. Though I was in pieces, I realised yet again that the music was indestructible; that it was in fact, as I sat broken at the bottom of the wall like Humpty Dumpty, performing a stunning act of reconstructive surgery on me night after night.

Walking off stage, I could feel the wounds prizing me open again, and the old familiar cry welling up. Like a child in the corner of the playground who has not been picked, I wailed:

‘All I want to do is play’.

steven isserlis plays beethoven


For all of you lucky things in the UK you can listen to Steven Isserlis play all the Beethoven cello sonatas with Robert Levin on Radio 3 tonight at 19.00. I am planning an evening listening in on the computer.

Don't miss the man with the hair and an angel's wings for a bow arm.