Saturday, June 30, 2007

Djenné is gripped with election fever, and the youth has taken to the streets in support of their candidates- an excuse for a big street party really, and there are good vibes in the air, and no real animosity between the different camps. The election for the regional representative at the Assemblé Nationale will take place on July the 1st, and it is a five-yearly event. This time around it is particularly exciting, because the present representative has held his office for thirty years and although he is standing again, it is more or less a forgone conclusion that he will not be voted in- not only is he ancient, he is generally known to be losing his marbles.
Although there are a plethora of candidates, many of them independent, the battle proper seems to be between two candidates representing two rival parties. It is hard to see quite the difference between them. The election campaigns are both promising improved water supply in Djenne, better education opportunities, sport facilities, improved infrastructure - roads etc. There are no ideological differences - no left or right-( in fact just like modern day UK, perhaps?) Although Djenné is a very religious place, there is no sign of any muslim fundamentalism in these elections. On this subject I have already noticed how the majority of Malians I meet are very pro-West, to the extent that some were even strong Bush supporters and in favour of the Iraq war.

Everyone I know , more or less, is supporting RPM (Rassemblement Pour le Mali), whose candidate is Maitre Baber Gano, a lawyer originally from Djenné but operating in Bamako- a slick orator, as befits a lawyer. Nevertheless, I have a sneaking suspicion that he gains the majority of his support not so much by the quality of his ideas or speeches as by the superior style of the shirts and fabric he doles out to his supporters.
Baby kissing is also a Malian election strategy, and practised with aplomb recently in the presidential elections by Amadou Toumani Toure, the re-elected president of Mali.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

This morning I ate the first pawpaw produced in the garden of Hotel Djenne Djenno! And I ate it on the placemats produced at ZIP printers in Romsey, Hampshire. Before launching into anything else about Africa I have something important to communicate and to recify:
My Best Friend Cressida Bell ( well, she is my Best Friend, but I am under no illusion that I occupy the same position for her) has been very annoyed with me for lots of reasons, only one of which we will go into here. I would like you all to know that the said Cressida Bell did have a lots of pain and trouble over the blasted Landrover too (see May 17th) and in fact she had it standing on her forecourt in Hackney for weeks and had it fixed by the AA. For this I am very grateful to her , and not only to Daisy, Francois and Alan. who are mentioned.
And while we are at it, attributing credit were credit is due, I should also mention that it was my other Best Friend,the artist Kathy Prendergast,who was responsible for my finding Malick Sidibe. She told me I must go and see him in Bamako, and if possible have my portrait done. Kathy is a member of a very exclusive club, the same as Sidibe, in that she too is a Venice Biennale winner for her home country Ireland.
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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Back on African soil.
Greeted by dramatic duststorms preceded by an other- wordly light in Djenne when I arrived yesterday afternoon- as if the heavens were announcing the Apocalypse. The rains have not yet started, but are imminent. I am writing this at from the sunset bar at Hotel Djenne Djenno. The chanting from a koran school is carrying across the dried-out river bed which separates the hotel from the city of Djenne proper. Darkness has nearly descended and Jupiter -I think it is- has risen and sits immediately above the Great Mosque. The moon is exactly half.

Malick Sidibe Studio in Street 30, Bagadadji, Bamako

When I was in Bamako I went to see Malick Sidibe, the photographer who just won the Venice Biennale, thus confirming what we already knew: Mali is currently the coolest place on earth.
I found the great man sitting outside his portrait studio (which he set up in 1958) shaving himself in a cracked mirror. Having congratulated him on his great success we chatted for a while and I told him about Hotel Djenne Djenne and my life here in Mali. I hardly dared ask him if he could do me a portrait, but he suggested taking one of me on Xaloc!
All going well Hotel Djenne Djenno, its staff and live stock as well as Keita and me will be photographed by one of the greatest photographers alive as soon as he can get up here!

Darkness is now complete. Keita and I will sleep on the roof like we did last night. Lovely to see him and all of Djenne in fact - everyone seems pleased to see me and every one tells me immediately that I have put on lots of weight and that they hardly recognize me because I am so fat. Can't quite bring myself to thank them for what to them is a compliment, but just smile sweetly (well, try to).
I was somewhat alarmed to hear that Keita, in cahoots with his pal from the hospital Dr. Cisse, borrowed the hospital generator for a soiree dansante to celebrate the anniversary of the death of Bob Marley on the 11th of May. It was a great success it appears, but what about those poor people in intensive care at the hospital if the power had failed in Djenne like it often does??? And apparently they opened the hotel for the Peace Corps administrators too, using the same electricity source. I wonder what they would have thought about it if they knew....? Bref, all is well and there were no power cuts so Hotel Djenne Djenno has not incurred any deaths yet as far as we know.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Soon soon I will be back in Djenne- on my few visits in Romsey I had some placemats done to be used for the dining tables from vintage photographs. This picture is a postcard from 1909.

It is done.
And all is well.
David and Jeremy came to celebrate with me and we left the Mill Arms yesterday morning. It was a lovely month's interlude at Mottisfont.
I now have a couple of days of transition, filled with things like trying to find spare parts for Sharp air conditioners, and buying loo brushes and chess pieces. (Bought A GUITAR for the bar the other day!)
But I am nearly in Mali again. The next time I write this blog will be on African soil.

This is the picture I have been using as reference- it is in this dining room that the floorcloth will eventually be placed at the end of June, when I will be far far way in another world quite untouched by rococo cornucopia and acanthus.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The word bovine, with its connotations of sweetness, calm and compliance describes accurately all proper, nice cows, such as those in Mali for instance. It is a wholly inaccurate adjective to describe the beasts populating the Hampshire countryside.
Hampshire cows are on a consciousness-enhancing drug. Hyped-up,speedy and ready for action. The want the world, yeah, man, and they want it now.

Action presented itself at 6 am this morning in the form of the author of this blog, setting out walking across the fields from the Star at Lockerley (the Mill Arms had no room last night due to a previous long-standing booking). I had the intention of crossing the approximately four miles to reach Mottisfont, on what I believed would be a peaceful stroll through the lovely English country side.

Instead,I was catapulted straight in to a vortex of pastoral terror.

I tried to cross three cow and bull infested fields using various strategies to escape detection, such as dashing madly between oak trees,haystacks and other incidental cover; or tip-toeing slowly and silently through the long dew-covered grass, both of which failed miserably. When I found myself half-way across the field the whole herd, including the bull, would invariably detect me and start stampeding full speed towards me, with the result that I threw myself across the nearest barbed-wire fence within seconds of a certain death.
O.K. Mauled by a lion, or eaten by a crocodile in Africa, I can see a certain vainglorious value in that- but mauled by the wildlife in Hampshire?!
A kind young man in a van on his paper round took pity on me when I emerged, dishevelled and bleeding onto the main road, and gave me a lift.

(A few nights ago from the Mill Arms)
I am just indulging in a dessert at the Mill Arms, for research purposes. The chef here is what one might call a 'rough diamond'. At least that is how he appears to me when he emerges from the kitchens at 9.30 on the dot. It wouldn't do to get your order in late, he would have no mercy. He seems to be missing a front tooth. He installs himself in the public bar and rolls a fag, having ordered a bitter. He is reading a book. A literate rough neck, it appears.
I have been resisting the 'pecan and bourbon pie with black currant sorbet' for the last three weeks, not understanding what black currant could possibly have to do with pecan pie. Tonight I stepped out into the unknown, and , baby, the rough neck is a culinary poet!
It came, as the desserts usually do here, on a rather poncy sort of big square glass plate, with a squiggle of chocolate across it. So far so good, but a bit predictable.
But as an additional decoration there was a strawberry, quartered but not cut through, in the centre of which reclined, shameless like an odalisque, - a raspberry.
But the pie! Oh my oh my! The pie!
I wonder if the rough neck wants to do some cooking in Africa?
(Sadly, I devoured the pie described above without immortalizing it in a picture. Have had 3 more since, and the strawberry never came back....)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

12 June
Well, by dint of the law which says that all things come to an end, the Aubusson is nearing completion, and my time amongst the roses, buttercups and bunny rabbits of Hampshire is nearly over. In a week I will be sitting on the plane winging my way back 'home' to Mali. The Aubusson will be finished, but it requires a continued 12-14hour day in the last stages. It is totally absorbing, and the days fly by. I have been working in total silence mostly, and have been amused at how one's mind makes up a 'sound track' to what is happening, completely unconsciously. I have been using a palette of pinks and golden yellows and pale browns: and suddenly became aware that I kept humming 'Golden Brown' by the Stranglers. And later, when I was painting 4 large swans in the corners, some imaginary loudspeakers were playing me 'down the Swanny River'.
But eventually I started playing some old music I have just downloaded for a change. I just wonder if anyone knows what these splendid lyrics are?

'I was sitting,
superficially thinking
about the washed-out blonde on my left.'
She was common,
she looked about thirty;
she told me later
she's a machinist operator,
she said she liked the way I held the microphone'...

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The new idea at Mottisfont is that the roses I paint in the garlands on the floorcloth should the ones for which Mottisfont is world famous. Therefore David, the head gardener arrived with the real thing for me to copy. so everyone who comes to Mottisfont Abbey will be shown the famous roses on the floorcloth I have painted. No room for error! Don't even think of failure, girl. You are the heir of Whistler. For Mottisfont Abbey is the place where Whistler made a most exquisite trompe l'oeil room, and somehow this is the heights I have to aspire to... Oh ,well I WILL do my best in the face of rather formidable anticedents. Please wish me well, oh unknown reader of this blog!

Did you know that very early in the morning, when we are all fast asleep, there are a million spiders in Hampshire that are working very hard to provide the webs so the dew has somewhere to land for a precious hour or so, before the sun dries it all? I bet you didn't!

Did you know that bunny rabbits have a white bit of fur under their bottoms, which is revealed only when they run away from you? Of course you did. But I have spent too much time in Notting Hill (and in the Interior of Africa, for that matter) to realize. Therefore it was quite a revelation this morning, as the extended bunny rabbit family which lives by the gate in the above picture all ran away from me as was approaching, on my way to work. It makes one think of early cinema somehow, this sort of white flickering backwards and forwards, in motion.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Thinks are progressing and I WILL get it done- working about 14 hours a day. It is not looking toooo bad...
But this is apropos something different, but equally important: My bogolans are going to feature in the August issue of the World of Interiors!
I have taken it as an opportunity to launch MaliMali, which will be the textile/craft and fashion company which will start in connection with Hotel Djenne Djenno, but will be run with all potential profits plowed into the business to give employment and art/craft training. There is nothing to do for young people in Djenne. We are going to work towards a fashion show at Christmas. We will make clothes, cushions, furtishing fabrics etc, and we will buy a big loom to weave large widths of fabrics for the bogolan.
But now I must rush off to paint some more rococo acanthus!

Friday, June 01, 2007

My walk across the fields to work every day is a time for reflection. I wish I had reflected a little earlier on what I know to be true: every act of creativity, whether writing a novel, painting a picture, cooking a meal, or, in this case, painting a trompe l'oeil Aubusson, is a form of partership between the THING itself- the novel, the painting, the meal even and the artist, writer or cook. We, as the artist/writer/cook have to understand what the THING wants to do. The novel which is not even created is sitting there waiting to be discovered. The novelist simply helps it unravel. When I was a fashion designer I was constantly struck by how the fabric wanted to do things. All I needed to do was to help it along- that was my function. (Perhaps it is so with life even, in the biggest picture: it is lying there, waiting and wanting to do things, and all we are supposed to do is to understand what it is it wants!)
Now there is this trompe l'oeil Aubusson I am supposed to create. It is waiting for me- how could I not have seen that? I have been very arrogant, thinking it was nothing, and that I can do anything without hardly thinking about it! Well I am very wrong, and I am possibly about to pay dearly for my arrogance.

31st May
Things are not going well. What is happening was not at all in the plan. This commission, which came along so conveniently, clearly sent by the powers above just to help me pay for the electricity at Hotel Djenne Djenno (it surely had no other function?) has now suddenly asserted itself and reared up like a big beast snarling, growling and demanding attention:
'Look at me you silly little charlatan! I am an AUBUSSON! I am the stuff walked upon by the Kings and Queens of France! And who are you, if you please? What makes you think you can just saunter in here and knock together something in a couple of weeks just like that!"
I cower in shame, shuddering in the corner.
This should have been researched and sketched for a month at least, the design and the colours completely decided on and the execution, even under those conditions, would need at least a couple of months with one or two assistants!
Instead I have just two weeks left before it has to be finished, varnished and installed in the dining room! And every time I look at the Djenne Djenno emails I have more and more bookings at the end of June! I must get back...!
The above picture is a real Aubusson, and my trompe l'oeil version needs to be just as intricate. And poor old National Trust are paying me an absolute fortune...!

I am panicking.
What you see above is the state of affairs a few days ago- things have progressed somewhat,but nevertheless...
Things are going badly wrong with the colours and I am having to redo large sections. But I am flying back to Mali on the nineteenth of June! Just to make things worse, I have become a tourist attraction. Visitors to Mottisfont Abbey walk up the rickety stairs to the hayloft where I am crawling around on my hands and knees, just to see this marvel which I am supposed to be producing. 'Oh, innit lovely!' - (oh, no Madam, it isn't! I mumble under my breath)have sent an SOS to Pia to come and be my assistant next weekend.
Blogging will be sporadic, but will try and give blow by blow accounts on progress in pictures...