Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Dieppe in April 2007

A dead calm sea outside.
A clear blue sky above it.
Evening sunshine pouring on to us through large windows.
A picnic of paté and mixed cheeses carried to our seats from the canteen.
A bottle of fine South African red wine, brought from England.
What a lovely way to travel.
All right, there was an accident on the M25 in England that held us up, and road works near New Haven that did the same. But we had allowed plenty of time to drive to the coast from London. So a journey usually of 1 1/2 hours took 2. So What. We were on our way to eat, drink, and buy wine and food in La Belle France.
Before we docked in Dieppe, the orange sun sank slowly beneath the horizon, shortening its line of reflection on the calm, blue-to-purple sea as it went.
Then the evening sky, dark blue above, graded its colours downward through pale blue to pale mauve, to darker mauve, and finally to the deepest sea-blue beside the ferry.
Only shore lights, squeezing through delicately coloured haze, signalled that we were near to France. Then came the silhouette of cliffs, ship-guiding lights, the barely floodlit castle, and finally the harbour.
The boat was late in arriving – a not unusual case. So the town and its inhabitants had mostly settled in for the night. The brasserie Tout va Bien contained a few late diners, finishing their meal with crème brûlée and ice cream. We sat there briefly for a night-cap before retiring to our usual room in the Aguado.
For a short stay in Dieppe our actions seem to have become almost ritualistic. After morning coffee we buy French wine at the Auchan supermarket. The choice there is huge, so I aim for a wine of good value that has been aged in oak barrels (fut en chêne). If you can find an assistant to guide you, so much the quicker. We may buy food there, too. Then on we go to a Lidl supermarket. Being a German concern, they offer not just French wine but Australian, Chilean and South African as well. Their prices are remarkably modest, and the quality surprisingly high, when considering that much of their wine has been bulk-imported into Germany and bottled there.
Then, with our main job achieved, we may lunch at the Rouen, take a snooze, and dine at the Victoire. At the latter we always eat fish (carrelet – plaice) and shellfish (moules and scallops when in season). And their cidre bouchée is excellent.
Then, for the second night running we watched the red sun sink over the horizon of sea, but now through a little mist, or vapour, lying close above the surface of the water.
After a little shopping around the wonderful Saturday market we chose to eat (having already booked) at a new restaurant to us, Les Voiles d’Or, high on the cliffs above the port.
The route we mistakenly chose to climb turned out to be more suitable for mountain goats, when steps were available close by.
We arrived early, so were able to investigate that most visible of churches perched high above the harbour and looking almost as it might fall down into the water beneath. Some brightly-coloured brickwork outside indicated that it might have been built around the turn of the 19th to 20th century. And there inside were splendid art deco stained glass windows allowing masses of coloured light to enter and illuminate lots of small stone plaques commemorating sailors and civilians lost at sea.
Food at the restaurant was certainly a cut above our normal fare, with a set menu consisting of what was good and available at the time, with wine thrown in. The scallops. grilled and still attached to their shells were memorable. But a hot fruit salad swimming in zabaglione, topped with raspberry sorbet-filled ginger-snaps was a little over doing the dessert.
I think that a pastis is a good aperitif with which to stimulate the appetite. And so did six rather rotund French men and women who came to sit next to us at the Victoire.
Pastis is fairly high in alcohol, and is offered in generous measure by the patron of the restaurant. So, after the first round, we were quite surprised to see him arrive at their table to pour them all another good measure. We had never noticed others ever starting with a second glass of pastis. So we were even more surprised when the owner appeared a third time with the pastis bottle. The now jolly diners might well have consumed almost a litre of the stuff before their food started to arrive.
Our break over, we returned to England over a calm sea, and to a country where the custom of enjoying even one aperitif is fairly unusual.

Friday, April 06, 2007


Small boys generally like military matters. So, as a youngster travelling in Germany before the Second World War, I was most interested in Nazi German fortifications and the way in which they were camouflaged. I had no idea whatsoever that I was witnessing part of a frightful military build-up with the aim of European if not world conquest. Soldiers and guns were for fun.
Then came the war. I joined the RAF. My introduction to British ideas of camouflage was in the form of painted aircraft and airfield hangars.
As a trainee and then pilot, my more intimate contact with this form of art was simply camouflage-decorated aircraft, with bombers, such as the Lancaster, being adorned in flowing patterns of brown and green. Being so large, these aircraft could hardly be hidden, but were well dispersed around the airfields. I flew. The war ended.
After an abandoned medical training due to TB, which was then incurable, I made my life in the arts.
When I did make money, I would buy some work with the proceeds from several exhibitions of paintings and sculpture. In fact, after making a profit, these purchases, of a work by an admired artist, were enjoyed not only for what they were, but also as a reminder of past success.
With cash in hand after such a show, I saw that a wood block print of a dazzle-camouflaged 1918 ship scene in Liverpool docks, by Edward Wadsworth, was about to be sold in a well-known West End gallery.
I rushed along to try and buy it, only to find that the exhibition would not be open to the public for another three days. I was told that if I wanted the print it would be a matter of first come first served.
So I arrived at the gallery door an hour before the exhibition opened. I was first in, and the print was mine.
It was a magical work of art for me, being a Vorticist work, the kind that helped English artists to encompass the new ideas of abstraction and cubism from the continent.
This little print, one that gave me much pleasure for some 30 years, was clearly rising in value. But that was of no note.
Then along came a Christie’s specialist in 20th century art who stopped in his tracks when he saw the Wadsworth hanging on my wall among the odds and ends that I valued just as highly. Might he please take it back to the saleroom for assessment by their print specialist?
I suppose that I was curious about its value, its provenance being without dispute. But I should not have agreed. The last time that I did much the same thing I had to part with a favourite painting or pay a fortune in insurance and fortify my house against thieves.
The new situation was to be exactly the same. My print turned out to be of such great value that I would have been foolish to keep it and possibly see the house go up in smoke and my print with it. In such a case, neither I, nor anyone else, would ever see it again. Moreover, my modest collection of paintings, both large and small, was only insured as house contents, and for a minimum amount. I was not going to change that. So away went my Wadsworth.
But I still had many other treasures, probably valueless, but enjoyed just as much.
And I was able at the time to visit the Imperial War Museum where another Wadsworth print of the same subject, and done at the same time, was on display for all to see.
So, in parting with my little masterpiece, was I being just practical about my insurance position and thieves? Was I being altruistic in possibly allowing many others to enjoy the print? Or was it monetary motivation? Probably a bit of each.