For me it was a story about a man called Mr Flop who was a flower collector. Mr Flop gathered up faded and dying flowers and whisked them off on a flying apple-tree branch (sort of prototype of Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000) to the Kingdom of Flowers where they ‘regained their lost beauty and perfume and became more beautiful than ever’.
I loved the idea, but even more appealing was that Mr Flop whisked off the young heroine for a magical visit to the Kingdom on his flying branch. And what was the young heroine’s name? Alice? Dorothy? Wendy? No, they’d already had their fun. It was Laurette.
In Stephen Frears’ award-winning film ‘Philomena’, there’s a beautifully funny scene where ‘Phil’ and cynical journalist Martin are at the airport being taken to their plane on a mobility vehicle thanks to Phil’s titanium hip. A captive listener on the buggy, Martin is forced to endure Phil’s detailed resume of the romantic novel she’s just been reading, ‘The Slipper and the Horseshoe’. Triumphantly recounting the ending, where the hero rejects the duchess and her diamonds for the humble stable girl and true love, she says:
‘Well I didn’t see that coming Martin, not in a million years.’
Since I started this blog in 2015 there have been quite a few Philomena moments. As 2017 gets under way, we find ourselves in the middle of huge societal changes we never saw coming, where the word ‘unpredictable’ has acquired new resonance and the word ‘future’ more often than not preceded by the adjective ‘uncertain’. As the wind of change swirls around the globe and night approaches black as the pit from pole to pole, there’s an urge to roll a big boulder across the entrance to the family cave and pray there are no sabre-tooth tigers sleeping in the shadows at the back. (See Nancy Babcock’s blog on the current ‘hygge’ craze:
I’m reminded of the famous 1995 interview with Woody Allen on French television. Bernard Pivot, King of French Culture, posed the question:
‘If you were reincarnated as a plant, tree or animal, what would you choose?’
Woody fidgeted and wrung his hands.
The bushy eyebrows of Pivot shot up. Woody shrugged.
‘A sponge,’ he said, ‘has no enemies’.
I hear you, Woody. The notion of an inert sponge-like existence in the calm waters of a tropical lagoon is not looking bad at the moment. Alternatively, a bit of cocooning in the family cave sounds appealing. Here we can turn to traditional sources of renewal and inspiration: the clan artist, painting a few Matisse-like deer on the wall, the clan bard, strumming lyrical ballads on his mammoth jawbone, singing about hosts of golden daffodils and answers blowing in the wind, and of course the story-teller, inviting us to sit upon the ground and weep while he tells sad stories of the death of kings. The soothsayer obviously will have got the boot for failing to read the entrails correctly, but we could end the soirée by turning to the bearded philosopher for wise counsel. The drawback is that instead of providing answers he may well fall back on the sneaky philosopher’s trick of asking us questions instead. The sort of stuff that gets the heckler at the back of the cave yelling ‘Give us break, mate, yer doin’ our heads in.’ Stuff like Who are we? How have we become who we are? And trickiest of all, What about the future? Are we mere pawns swept along on the current of an indifferent Destiny? Perhaps it’s time to all join hands and sing ‘Que sera sera’. Wait, it’s that man at the back again, or maybe a woman, they’re getting a bit uppity since they invented that round thing with spokes, what’s she saying? Something about being the master of her fate?
In The Oxford Book of English Verse, wedged between offerings from the Hon. Emily Lawless and Sir Edmund Gosse, are the following lines:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
So begins a poem by William Ernest Henley. His name many not ring many bells but the four stanzas he wrote in 1875 have become a cultural touchstone for those facing personal adversity (‘My head is bloody but unbow’d’), as well as those engaged in a wider struggle for the right to liberty when their freedoms are under attack.
Henley was 25 when he wrote the poem. Since adolescence, he had suffered from a form of tuberculosis which affected the bones in his legs. In 1868 the lower left leg was amputated and over the next few years his health deteriorated to the point where he was told his right foot would have to go as well. Henley took the decision to consult pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister, who, after several interventions, managed to save the foot. It was the end of an eight-year ordeal. While recovering from the final operation, Henley wrote a series of ‘hospital poems’, one of which, quoted above, was included by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his seminal anthology, The Oxford Book of English Verse. Quiller-Couch gave it the title Invictus: Unconquered.
In September 1941, two years after World War Two was declared, Britain was emerging from the nightmare of the Blitz in which 41 000 civilians died and an estimated 139 000 were wounded. Winston Churchill told the House of Commons: ‘…a year ago our position looked forlorn, and well-nigh desperate, to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls.'”
He was referring to the last stanza of Henley’s poem:
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
Around the same time as Churchill was delivering his speech, a 23-year-old Nelson Mandela was setting out to study law in Johannesburg. He went on to join the African National Congress, became involved in political activism, was arrested, and began his 27-year-long imprisonment in 1963. The rest, as they say, is history.
The title of Henley’s poem was borrowed by Clint Eastwood for his 2009 film about Mandela and his relationship with François Pienaar, captain of the all-white (with one exception) South African rugby team, the Springboks. In the film we see recently-elected President Mandela trying to convince his countrymen that the only way forward is through reconciliation and forgiveness. Seeing a chance to use a famous sporting event to create a feeling of unity for his new ‘rainbow’ nation, he convinces the Springbok captain to work with him, to redeem his team’s flagging reputation and aim for victory against overwhelming odds in the forthcoming 1995 Rugby World Cup.
He tells him:
‘On Robben Island, when things were very hard, I found inspiration in a poem…A Victorian poem. Just words. But they helped me to stand when all I wanted was to lie down’.
The poem is Invictus and he gives a copy to Pienaar.
‘This helped me, many times,’ he says. ‘Perhaps it will help you, too.’
While much of the film is based on true events, there are claims that Mandela’s gift was not a copy of Henley’s poem, but of a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, ‘Citizenship in a Republic’, part of which became known as ‘The Man in the Arena’:
‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’
Henley or Roosevelt, does it matter? The point being made is the importance of inspiration, and how inspiration can feed our beliefs. In this case Mandela was talking about the conviction that we all have some control over our destiny, a conviction which spurs us to get up when all we want to do is lie down. Roosevelt’s speech inspires, Invictus inspires. It is a matter of record that, during his incarceration on Robben Island, Mandela read Henley’s poem to his fellow prisoners and, in ‘the Robben Island Bible’ ( i.e. The Complete Works of Shakespeare which had been smuggled inside by another prisoner), he marked the following lines from Julius Caesar:
‘Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once/Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/It seems to me most strange that men should fear’.
It’s tempting at times to believe our fate is ‘in the lap of the gods’, that we are simply the helpless victims of circumstance. Or we can turn to the visionary world of artists, musicians and writers whose insights often help us to see our condition from a different perspective.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced or cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbow’d
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
Henley, Mandela and Churchill were all pretty thoroughly bludgeoned by chance. Were they the masters of their fate? These three remarkable men were driven by the same conviction: Fate had perhaps dealt the cards, but it was up to them to play the hand. And, more importantly, in the fell clutch of circumstance, their minds were free, free to believe in the invincibility of the human spirit. They were indeed the captains of their souls.
Last December I wrote about three authors who had created three totally captivating Private Eyes to add an extra sparkle to the festive season. The authors were all Indie (independent) writers, self-published on Amazon, and, like their heroes, were all men.
Of the 120 or so books I’ve read this year, there are three I’d like to get passionate about. The authors this time are women, two of them Indies, one traditionally published. For two of them, it was their first novel.
As 2016 draws to a close one thing is sure. Many books will be written about a year which has been so dark. The great political divides, the crises in Europe, the USA, the Middle East, the terrifying rise of terrorism. But of the novels that will emerge from these events, how many will manage to take a step back from all the upheaval in order to transcend what is local and temporal and show us something more important, something deeper and more universal?
What is striking about the first two books on my list is that they manage to do just that. The first is a historical novel with a specific time and setting, the Second World War. The second is more generic, an imaginary time in a war-torn country without a name. But we know that the author is Lebanese and that the book comes out of her experiences of ‘a country under siege’.
Dear Reader, I can see the frown lines appearing. All you want for Christmas is a book of really bad jokes or yet another James Patterson or a bit of romantic fantasy to waft you to a tropical island with a George Clooney/Dakota Johnson lookalike covered in sun oil. You don’t want to get into something serious, something that’s going to depress you even more than the news. But that’s the thing about these books. If you give them a chance, step out of your comfort zone, you’ll end up with a feeling that’s the opposite of the despair that’s seemed to dominate this year: a feeling of Hope.
In May I saw that Paulette Mahurin had published a book called “The Seven Year Dress”, based on a true story about the Holocaust. Did I really want to plunge once more into the unspeakable events of that time? I did, because I had been knocked for six by her 2015 historical novel about the Dreyfus Affair (another time of bitter divisions) “To live out Loud”. Reading her new book I felt as overwhelmed as with the previous one, a feeling shared by readers everywhere to judge by the reviews, and culminating, in November, in the author winning the McGrath House Independent Book Award for Historical Fiction.
In October I read another book which again, simply because of its subject matter, I wouldn’t normally have chosen. This time it had been assigned to me in a review group. The title was ‘Miro’, a debut novel by A. E. Nasr.
As already mentioned, both books are set against a background of conflict. But the terrible events that make up the narrative are presented in such a way that even as we are carried along by the drama we are forced to reflect on deeper issues, to think about human nature itself, about ‘the great and universal passions of men’* and what it is in us that leads to situations where the very notion of humanity breaks down.
In particular, the theme of dominance and oppression is powerfully evoked by both authors. Along with their synonyms–subjugation, control, enslavement–dominance and oppression need an object, someone or something to control and subjugate. From whatever source it arises–intolerance, greed, cruelty, a lust for power–and whatever form it takes–religious, political, racial, psychological–there is something peculiarly chilling about man’s** need to oppress. To assert physical or ideological supremacy, to stifle, to crush, to destroy, to create a world of the dominator and the dominated. It may be in the camps of Boko Haram or ISIL, with their Chibok schoolgirl ‘wives’ and 10-year-old Yasidi sex slaves. It may be in a corner of the school playground, in sports locker rooms, or behind the closed doors of a middle-class family home. In Paulette Mahurin’s novel, it is in Auschwitz where Helen Stein is humiliated, degraded, stripped of her identity, ‘dismantled’ as a person. In “Miro” it is an underground hole where four men and a boy have been imprisoned for 9 years, deprived of light and contact with the natural world, subjected to unspeakable torture in an attempt to dehumanise them.
Before you throw up your hands and reach for the joke book it’s important to remember that, as history has shown us time after time, among the dominated and oppressed a spark of resistance somehow manages to survive, a resilience nourished by the belief in the idea that man, if not born free, is at least meant to be free. And writers such as Paulette Mahurin and A.E. Nasr inspire us to hang on to that belief, to encourage us to continue, to resist oppression, to blow the spark into a flame, to fire the heart to aim for the best. Through their wonderful prose they bring a ringing message of hope that, as in all the best literature, will give immense comfort in these worst of times.
(A little commercial aside before I talk about the last book that had me on my feet and cheering this year. Bearing in mind the baser human craving for a little bit of candy floss in the world of seriously good books, I have been working on my final tome in the French Summer Novel Series and am delighted to inform future readers that Chapter 1 opens with Claudie, on her way to Biarritz, jumping out of the Renault and flashing her red satin Agent Provocateur knickers to a tailgating macho driver, along with an invitation for him to embrace her derrière.)
“H is for Hawk” was an instant sensation when published in 2014. I missed the rave reviews and literary awards and didn’t read it until this year, knowing nothing at all about the book or its author. Just in case, like me, you were on another planet (aka pruning lavender in the Tarn) when it came out, here’s why you should put it on your list.
One of the enduring symbols of freedom must be the soaring hawk. Earthly animals bound off into the forest or swim away into the ocean, but the hawk goes up, into the endless sky. There are countless examples of man’s oppression of animals, wild or domestic, just as there are examples of man’s friendship with animals, a bond which may even surpass the love he has for another human being. There are cases too where the animal feels that bond so deeply it would rather die than remain alive without its human friend. As an anthropomorphist guided by that old master, Montaigne, I am happy to agree that in many cases animals are superior to humans.
But the heroine of Helen Macdonald’s book defies anthropomorphism. Everything about her is ‘tuned and turned to hunt and kill.’ For the author, she was ‘everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.’ Her name is Mabel, and she is a goshawk. In this extraordinary ‘memoir’, Macdonald tells the story of her year with Mabel, whom she acquired to help her cope with the overwhelming grief she felt after her father’s death. She dreams of ‘the hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world’ and later realises that she ‘had wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.’ Her intellectual curiosity, her reflections on her own experiences with her hawk against the context of history and myth, ‘older ways of seeing the world’, her courageous, no-holds-barred descriptions of the emotional roller coaster she managed to survive, are so moving that several times I found myself having to put down the book and march off into the garden. (As indeed I did with the other two books). There’s also a story within Helen’s own story, that of T.H. White’s experience with falconry, a superb bonus for anyone who had been entranced by White’s magical morphings of humans to animals in ‘The Once and Future King,’ but didn’t know anything about his real-life obsession with ‘the birdwatchers’ dark grail.’ Add to all these marvels the exquisite, breath-taking beauty of Macdonald’s prose, and you have a must-read.
‘I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild’…‘but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me…’Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.’
Ah, the wonderful world of books… Six stars out of five for these three great reads! Kurt Vonnegut has the last word:
“I am eternally grateful… for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.” (Timequake)
Happy Reading, Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year!
*Wordsworth, Preface to ‘Lyrical Ballads’
**’man’, standing for man, woman, he, she etc. (Do I really need to say that??)
Last November I wrote a blog called ‘Resist’. This was in reaction to the Paris attacks of November 13th 2015, events that left France, and the world, reeling after the single deadliest terrorist attack in French history with 130 dead and 352 wounded. More than 1 700 people have now been officially recognised as victims of what happened on that dreadful day.
One year later, the events of 2016 have shown that resistance is more necessary than ever.
22 March: in neighbouring Belgium, Islamic jihadists attacked the airport and the metro in Brussels. 32 killed, 300 injured.
13 June, Magnanville: a police chief and his wife were butchered by Larossi Abballa. The couple’s 3-year-old son was forced to watch his mother die as the event was recorded on Facebook Live, with the murderer claiming allegiance to ISIL and promising to kill infidels at their homes. ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with the boy yet,’ he said.
July 14th Nice: in the middle of the 14th July celebrations Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlelan drove a truck into a crowd of revellers. 86 killed, 434 injured. Islamic state claimed responsibility.
26 July St Etienne du Rouvray: two Islamic state ‘soldiers’ entered a church in a small Normandy village, took hostages, forced the priest to his knees and cut his throat.
Last week in a survey carried out by the Red Cross, 55% of people in France said that they feared ‘finding themselves in a situation which posed a dangerous risk’ as against 38% in 2010. 70% of those polled cited the events of 2015/2016 as an influential factor.
Tonight, Saturday 12 November, the Bataclan reopens for its first concert since last year’s tragedy. Sting gives a concert to “remember and honour those who lost their lives…” and to “celebrate the life and the music this historic theatre represents.”
I would like to echo his words, remembering and honouring not just those who lost their lives in November 2015 but also the victims of 2016 and adding to the musical tribute the magnificent lines of Resistance poet Paul Valery, quoted in my blog of November 2015, below.
In July I wrote a blog about Paris. It began:
“Just back from two weeks in Paris, the most beautiful and evocative city on earth…City of Light, City of Love… the Seine and its bridges.”
I then went on to talk about a poem:
“…the melancholic poem about love and time by Guillaume Apollinaire that every student of the French Baccalauréat knows by heart, ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’.
On November 13 in Paris a gang of murdering cowards hiding behind Kalashnikovs turned their weapons on families and children enjoying an evening at the restaurant, on football fans enjoying a friendly game, on excited music fans enjoying a rock concert. Their aim was to turn the City of Light into the City of Darkness, the City of Love into the City of Hate and Fear.
It’s doubtful that these brutal, ignorant murderers had ever read Apollinaire’s poem, or indeed any other work of literature. They had surely never thrilled to the verses of Shakespeare, wept at the poetry of Homer; never shared the sufferings of Jean Valjean or Edmond Dantès.
And others like them, lashed to the ideology of terrorism and tyranny, will never, ever, understand why Allied planes, flying over occupied France in World War 2, dropped not just weapons to the maquis: fluttering down from the sky came thousands of copies of a poem, which would continue to inspire and uplift those men and women risking their lives in the fight against Nazi tyranny.
Its title was ‘Liberté, j’écris ton nom’ , Freedom, I write your name.
Written by poet and Resistance member Paul Eluard in 1942, its celebratory stanzas end with the following lines:
Et par le pouvoir d’un mot
Je recommence ma vie
Je suis né pour te connaître
Pour te nommer:
And through the power of one word
I begin my life again
I was born to know you
To name you:
This weekend the Eiffel Tower was cloaked in darkness as the world mourned the victims of November 13th. But the darkness was temporary.
Last night the lights came on again as the Lady put on the colours of the tricolor demonstrating once again the regenerative power of one word:
In memory of the victims of the terrorist attack of November 13th, 2015.
A complete version of Eluard’s poem can be read at:
First, my own (better another one than the alternative, as the saying goes), plus that of my one-and-a-bit-year-old bionic hip. Twelve months ago I was in rehab, lying on my back with one leg in the air attached to a pulley.
There was a lot of moaning, whining and feeling generally ill-done by, particularly as I didn’t get the morphine pump I’d been expecting and had to make do with paracetamol. Now, October 2016, I’m scrambling up the garden like…um…a mountain goat (?), hanging onto gorse bushes with one hand and yanking out bindweed with the other, or jumping up and down in the aquagym class with-if not grace-a solid two-legged enthusiasm.
What would Hippocrates have made of the marvellous technique whereby the removal of an old body part and insertion of a new one, a bit like taking the car to the garage, has changed the destiny of those who would otherwise be limping around with the help of sticks or confined to wheelchairs? Hip hip hooray!
What a wonderful world.
This month also sees the birth of my third book. After more moans and wails the novella has finally made it into cyber-print, thanks to another astonishing invention, the e-book. This allows aspiring authors to bypass the traditional publishing route and, with the click of a button, see their magnum opus available to all who possess a computer, tablet, smartphone, Kindle and (in my case) £0.91p.
On February 10th, 1898 in Villa Clara, Argentina, Joseph-Elie Ressel was born, the son of Russian Jewish emigré doctors. Except that he wasn’t. He had been born 11 days earlier, but his absent minded-father forgot to register the birth. And his name wasn’t Ressel. The clerk made a mistake. So began the extraordinary life of one of my mega-heroes, Joseph Kessel, actor, journalist, WW1 aviator, WW2 war correspondent, aviator with the Free French squadron of the RAF, co-composer of the ‘Chant des Partisans’, the stirring anthem of the French Resistance, writer of screenplays, and internationally famous author. He was a dreamer, a humanist, a man of integrity, a loyal friend, a patriot, a gambler, a drinker, an opium-smoker, a timid lover of women, an inveterate traveller, an adventurer, a nighthawk, a lion. His life, which spanned most of the 20th century, took him all over the world and brought him into contact with a staggering range of people–politicians, prostitutes, criminals, Hollywood stars, Bedouin chiefs, gypsy musicians, slave-drivers. You would need a thesaurus to do him justice, a man who was simply larger than life, making Hemingway in comparison look like a neophyte boy scout.
When, in 1962, Kessel’s candidature was put forward to that nec plus ultra of the French linguistic and literary establishment, l’Académie Française, some of the august members had to reach for the smelling salts. One of them, Pierre Gacotte, is reported to have said:
‘Why Kessel? We’ve already got one Russian (Henri) Troyat. And a Jew (André) Maurois. And up until this year we’ve had two drunks, Marcel Pagnol and Pierre Benoit.’
(‘Pourquoi Kessel? Un Russe nous en avons un : Troyat. Un juif aussi : Maurois. Et des ivrognes jusqu’à cette année nous en avions deux: Marcel Pagnol et Pierre Benoit!’)*
In his acceptance speech, Kessel told the Academy: ‘You have shown, by the striking contrast implicit in this nomination, that it is not by a man’s origins that we should judge him.’ **
His astonishing life story is recorded in an equally astonishing 950-page biography, ‘Joseph Kessel ou Sur la Piste du lion’ (On the track of the lion) by Yves Courrière, journalist, author and close friend of Kessel. In one memorable passage he recounts the birth of ‘homo kesselianus’, the archetypal hero-adventurer, brave, noble-browed, athletic, resourceful, who finds himself caught up in incredible adventures. It was an archetype based on Kessel’s own experiences in 1919, in Vladivostok. When, at the end of WW1, the Allied leaders met in Versailles, one of the problems discussed was the anarchy in Russia where Reds and Whites were engaged in bitter conflict. The 20-year-old Kessel had already proved his courage and daring as a member of the 39th squadron (airborne) for which he received the Croix de Guerre. But he had another talent. He was a fluent Russian speaker. And so he found himself en route to the land of his ancestors, travelling first to the US, then across country to San Francisco and finally, after a 35-day voyage, sailing into the port of Vladivostok.
Washed up in this last outpost of the west, facing the Pacific Ocean, thousands of people were gathered, unable to go any further. The streets echoed with scores of languages; amid the babel roamed bands of soldiers, merchants, beggars, mercenaries, prisoners of war, ragged refugees, coolies staggering under immense loads, Cossacks brandishing terrible whips. It was like a ‘vast, filthy inn’. The orders of one army were immediately countermanded by those of another and the only thing preventing total breakdown was the presence of the Czech forces, holding the station, and the Japanese who held the port.
Kessel disembarked from the SS Sherman in February 1919. He was hungover and penniless, having just celebrated his 21st birthday on board and lost all his money in a poker game. Thanks to his fluency in Russian he soon found himself tasked with a strategically important ‘confidential mission’ for the French, involving the railway station. On his first reconnoitre he couldn’t believe his eyes. Thousands of homeless people were huddled outside the building, on the steps, dying of hunger, disease and cold. Inside, in overpowering heat, a scene from hell, a Breughel painting where ragged mothers nursed starving babies amid the vagabonds, drunken soldiers, deserters and madmen who occupied the vast hall, creating mayhem.
And the confidential mission? ‘Find a train. Find drivers and engineers to get it running. Fill it with food and munitions and send it off to Omsk, 4800 km away across Siberia, where the French forces under General Janin await.’
In this dark, freezing nightmare city where no train was to be had and all was chaos, Homo Kesselianus took shape. Armed with a revolver and a bag stuffed with roubles, 21-year-old Kessel completed the very first Mission Impossible, Russian style.
Joseph Kessel died on July 23rd, 1979 in the village of Avernes, his home for many years. In spite of ill-health he was still as interested in life as ever. He was watching television with two close friends, Georges and Liliane Walter, a reportage about a young speleologist shot in sumptuous colours in a deep grotto.
‘Le monde est extraordinaire,’ Kessel remarked to Liliane ‘Regarde comme c’est beau.’ These were his final words.
‘The world is extraordinary. Look how beautiful it is.’
A wonderful world. Sunset
*‘Joseph Kessel Sur la Piste du lion’ Yves Courriere, Ed. Plon, 1985
** ‘Vous avez marqué, par le contraste singulier de cette succession, que les origines d’un être humain n’ont rien à faire avec le jugement que l’on doit porter sur lui.’ Joseph Kessel, acceptance speech, Académie Française
Writers are notorious for coming up with extremely good reasons to procrastinate*.
“The novella just had to be finished soon, or she would go mad. But events seemed to conspire against her. She had lost an entire day last week when a giant lizard ran amok in the study…”
“Finally she fell into bed exhausted after a long day in front of the computer. The words just didn’t seem to flow. If only she could get a good night’s sleep! Eight hours later she was back at her desk, hollow-eyed, having spent the entire night trying to escape from a dive-bombing bat which had somehow got into the bedroom.”
As a long, hot August draws to an end, another chapter comes to a close in the Tarn version of E. M. Delafield’s ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’.
Guests have come and gone.
Concerts have been attended, classical and jazz.
The lavender has been cut back and peach jam has been made. Life has been good.
And that novella, the one that should have been out in June? Something about desire, and passages? So sweet of you to ask. Currently it is undergoing a full body lift after numerous nips and tucks. Yes, obviously it should now be up on Amazon with its beautiful new cover (more of that later).
But you know how it is, progress has been interrupted by the ‘inequalities of Fate’ as E. M. Delafield calls them in her wonderful book about life in a 1930s Devonshire village.
This gently satirical, extremely funny, book recounts the everyday tribulations involved in running a middle class household, serving on the Women’s Institute, dealing with snobbish aristocrats, trying to get rid of The Vicar’s Wife, struggling to grow a pot of hyacinths and finding time to get on with her writing.
Here is E. M. trying to concentrate on her latest literary project:
“June 3rd.–Astounding and enchanting change in the weather, which becomes warm. I carry chair, writing-materials, rug and cushion into the garden, but am called in to have a look at the Pantry Sink, please, as it seems to have blocked itself up.”
Ah, the famous Pantry Sink syndrome. It manifested itself here last week in different forms on two separate occasions. I had just been re-writing (again) a particularly tricky scene in ‘The Passage of Desire’ when I became conscious of an eerie, scrabbling sound in the region of the bookcase. Suddenly a long scaly creature shot across the study, underneath my desk (narrowly missing bare feet) and vanished behind a cupboard.
‘Help!’ I shrieked.
This was obviously a job for the Maître de Maison (MDM). We operate on a clear division of labour principle. He deals with spiders, crickets and other animal invaders, I make the lavender sachets. This particular animal invader was a lizard. A big, bold Jurassic lizard. Not content with its beautiful home in the patio (why?) it had evidently decided on a move.
One hour later all the furniture had been pulled away from the walls, the rugs had been removed and the bookshelves scoured. No lizard.
“Are you sure you saw one?’
Now, as any relationship counsellor will tell you, that is not a helpful question at times of stress. A terse Franco-Britannique exchange ensued, ending with the unsatisfying (to me) verdict:
“Well it must have got out again.’
The MDM began to put away his lizard-tackling equipment viz: two tea towels (best quality linen), the dustpan, and a high-beam Maglite. Suddenly (again) there was a scuttling noise overhead and we both shrieked as the wily reptile made a flying leap across our heads and out of the window.
Obviously I was too unnerved to do any more work that day, being forced to lie down on a sunbed with my copy of ‘Wuthering Heights’ (which actually figures in ‘The Passage of Desire’, so you could say I was doing research). Here’s the scene in which Mr Lockwood, forced to spend a night at the isolated snowbound house high on the moors, is woken by a noise at the window. He concludes it is ‘the branch of a fir-tree that touched my lattice, as the blast wailed by’, but finally, unable to sleep, he opens the window to ‘seize the importune branch’ but finds instead… ‘my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand!’
A couple of nights later that riveting scene conjured up by Emily’s wondrous pen was still playing in my mind as I drifted off to sleep.
Tap tap! Tap tap!
Something was trying to get in through the window. As I came out of the dream, I realised that something was trying to get in, through our window.
Horreur des horreurs!!!
Fortunately, the Maitre de Maison was on the case, Maglite in hand, reaching cautiously for the catch.
This time the shriek did not come from me, and it was in French.
‘What is it, what is it, put the light on! Aargh!’
Something whistled past my head, narrowly missing my hair, good job I’d ditched the Kate Bush hairstyle many moons ago.
‘It is a bat!’
One minute later and we’d have been full swing into the ‘moth/meuth’ routine from ‘A Shot in the Dark’. But we hardly had time to get going before the nocturnal Red Baron launched into the series of ultra-rapid, ultra-acrobatic dive- bombing manoeuvres so beloved of The Red Arrows and the Patrouille de France, resulting in the MDM racing out of the room (the reum) to get the long-handled cobweb brush and me pulling the sheet over my head, each of us wailing in different languages.
As I say, it’s been a long, hot August here in the country, with its fair share of Pantry Sinks.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Denise Baer, a gracious and talented lady who kindly invited me on to her blog to talk about country matters and the joy of writing. She has just posted a tempting squash recipe for those in search of culinary inspiration:
I had my first crush aged thirteen in a small village in the north of France, not far from Amiens. It was the end of a long journey for a group of excited grammar school girls from a working class town in the north of England. We were going on a ‘French exchange’. We were going ‘abroad’. Oh the resonance of that word. Abroad – different, exotic, possibly dangerous, and undeniably, 100%, ‘foreign’. It was heady. Some of us had never even been outside Yorkshire apart from the odd day trip to Blackpool, which in spite of the Tower and the funny accent, could hardly be called foreign.
I don’t remember much about our arrival. We were all tired and probably fell straight asleep in our foreign beds with their funny sausage-shaped pillows. But I do remember the first morning, awaking to an amazing smell. Downstairs in the kitchen of my penfriend’s house I discovered my first ‘ficelle’, another sausage-shaped object, this one long, thin, crusty, golden and warm to the touch. Anne-Marie split it longways, slathered it with butter and jam from a jar labelled ‘confiture d’abricots’ and handed it over. I would later discover rows of similar jars lining the shelves of the ‘grenier’, the loft, along with boxes of apples in slatted wooden crates, and herbs hanging from the ceiling. The second morning was even more amazing. Anne-Marie and I were ordered by ‘Maman’ to go and buy the ficelles–still in our pyjamas and dressing gowns!
We stepped out into a hot summer’s morning, the dust rising from the village street beneath our slippers, and pushed open the door of the boulangerie. Inside were several ladies, also in nightwear, exchanging the latest news, speaking in high rapid voices with a lot of hand-waving and ‘dis-donc’s. Their hair was a gleaming confection of undulating waves and complicated curls, their eyebrows perfect, glistening arcs, and waves of eau-de Cologne from their morning ‘toilette’ mingled with the smell of baking bread. It was dizzying and dazzling. Strangely, they were all wearing the same silky dressing gown, a navy blue model with white spots, belted neatly at the waist. (Several years later, watching a rerun of the classic horror film ‘Les Diaboliques’ I discovered Vera Clouzot wearing an identical version as she helped Simone Signoret drown her husband in the bath tub.)
La joie de vivre. The joy of biting into that perfect ficelle, of lingering in the potager in the falling dusk, bats flitting and ‘Papa‘ watering the tomatoes, of being welcomed into the perfumed embrace of the glamourous ladies in the boulangerie every morning, of comparing bra sizes with Anne-Marie in the bathroom mirror (2 white egg cups, 2 pink egg cups), of hanging out of the bedroom window hoping to catch a glimpse of the tobacconist’s son (he of the convict-cropped hair and bold black eyes), of lying in a boat in the middle of a lake, catching the flash of a swooping kingfisher or the menacing shadow of a drifting pike. Taking the time to enjoy life’s pleasures, le temps de vivre. Freedom was a relatively new concept in a country which still remembered the wounds of a six-year Occupation.
The seed of love had been planted that year and it continued to grow, nurtured through successive holidays. A summer in Brittany as a camp counsellor, herding singing crocodiles of little French girls in plimsolls and cotton hats through the country lanes leading to the beach. The beach itself, all fine white sand, swimming lessons where you hung on to the fillettes by the straps of their woollen swimsuits hoping they didn’t stretch far enough for them to plunge to the seabed and drown. Rockpools, starfish, picnic lunches of cold omelettes and Breton pancakes. At nightfall, a return trip for the older girls to lie on the sand and contemplate a million stars or gaze out at an ocean shimmering with phosphorescence.
Later, other beaches, further south approached through pine forests echoing with the strident vibrato of cicadas. The crash of the surf, rows of burnished women in bikinis and ankle chains stretched out like cats on sunbeds, the tap of balls hitting wooden rackets. The palm-fringed beach, a salty breeze coming in across the blue yacht-studded water, wafts of Ambre Solaire and the smell of beignets and chouchous. And it would be on these summer holidays, spreading the towels and putting up the beach umbrella for the first time, that I would listen out for that most beautiful and evocative of sounds, the laughter of children. Racing in terror from the waves, splashing each other in mock fights, digging holes in the sand, wriggling out of the grasp of suncream-bearing parents, launching themselves onto rubber rings. The embodiment of what it is to be joyful and carefree, to be insouciant. La joie de vivre. Le temps de vivre.
On July 14th this year, day of the Fête Nationale, an Islamic terrorist killed 85 people who were out enjoying the firework display in Nice. 307 others were injured. The following week, in a small church in Normandy, an 85-year-old priest was forced to his knees to have his throat cut. It was the 11th attack in 18 months by Islamic terrorists, starting with the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre. Bombings, stabbings, shootings, beheadings and vehicle rammings. This year, in the second half of July, children playing on the beaches of France saw a new and terrible sight, soldiers and police patrolling with machine guns.
‘…le passé, peut-il renaître?’ ‘Can the past live again?’ asks Yvonne de Galais, heroine of ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, that most devastating of novels about adolescent friendship and the quest for ideal happiness. And Meaulnes himself tells his friend François Seurel that, when he found the mysterious Domain where Yvonne lived, ‘I had reached a height, a degree of perfection and purity that I will never reach again’, adding ‘Dans la mort seulement…je retrouverai peut-être la beauté de ces jours-là…’ ‘Only in death, perhaps, will I find the beauty of those days once again.’
Packing up our suitcases I realise that this is the end of a French idyll. Those summer holidays with their carefree children are gone. For many of us, who knew what it was like before, we shall look back on how it was and mourn the end of insouciance.
It was good to rediscover Kamel Daoud’s voice once more in a recent article in The New York Times:
In the spring of 2016 the talented Algerian author of prize-winning novel ‘The Meursault Investigation’* had announced he was giving up journalism after his article about the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne had provoked a torrent of violent recriminations from a group of 19 French academics in Le Monde.
Accused of ‘pathetic clichés’, ‘colonialist paternalism,’ ‘anti-humanism’, racism and Islamophobia, Daoud replied that he found their reaction ‘immoral’: ‘They don’t live in my flesh nor in my land and I find it illegitimate, scandalous even, that I am accused of Islamophobia by certain people sitting in the safety and comfort of their western cafés. All dished up like a Stalinist trial…’
For 20 years Daoud, writing in the newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran, had adressed such controversial issues as religious freedom and women’s rights. ‘Women’s freedom is my freedom,’ he said at a literary festival in Germany. A fatwah calling for his execution was announced in 2014 by a salafist imam.
Ironically, (and happily), two months after the media controversy, Daoud was awarded the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère for Journalist of the Year. Denis Olivenne, presenting the prize, spoke of ‘his courage as a journalist…in the tradition of great writer/journalists such as Camus and Mauriac.’ French Prime Minister Manuel Valls congratulated ‘a brave journalist who refused to be cowed’, adding ‘Freedom to inform is also the right to blaspheme and be irreverent, a fundamental principle that France will defend to the last.’
*‘Meursault, contre-enquête’ by Kamel Daoud, Goncourt du 1er roman 2015
In a couple of hours I shall turn on the TV and see the result of the UK referendum on Europe.
Many years ago I had the privilege of being invited to join the French team of delegates sent to Montreal for an ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) conference. My mission was ‘linguistic’, the aim being to develop a bank of language used in international meetings, and I was given permission to interview delegates from different member states. It was, to put it mildly, an eye-opener. The ICAO, like the UNO, operates on the basis of consensus but as the subject of the conference that year was particularly controversial, it appeared as though a vote (the last resort) loomed.
‘Why not a vote? Why is consensus important?’ I asked one member (from a Middle Eastern state, educated at Oxbridge).
‘Because,’ he said, ‘a vote turns people into winners and losers.’
Last Friday I mentioned on Facebook that I visited the exhibition of artist Gordon Seward in Toulouse. Always a visual treat of enormous magnitude, this year there was an extra. Gordon has written a book called ‘Why I paint’.
Here’s a story from it (with the author’s permission). It’s called: ‘Portrait of a woman singing’.
“A gallery in Toulouse. A young woman enters and looks at my paintings for a long time. I am in the back room. My wife asks her if she would like any information. The young woman beams out a smile when she realises who my wife is and that her artist husband is there too. I come out to say hello.
‘Can I sing for your paintings?’
Apprehensive but amused I told her that she could go ahead while wondering to myself whether this was really a good idea.
‘So I am going to sing a piece by Puccini that states that “the worth is meaningless if not appreciated”.
She told me that she was in Toulouse to perform a lead role in the Mozart opera ‘The Magic Flute’, and by chance she had found herself in front of the gallery. She admitted that for a long time she had been looking for the sensation that opera gave her in contemporary painting and that “at last I have found it.’
So she sang for the paintings. The small room seemed to swell as the voice left her lungs. The paintings blazed. We stood as if tied to a mast in a storm, the sound waves rose impossibly then fell melodiously. A crowd assembled outside the door and windows. We cried. When it was over she held my hands and said:
‘I just wanted you to know how your paintings made me feel.’
‘Listening to paintings, looking at music’ is the title of this chapter.
After two weeks during which the daily news has showed nothing but bitter division and strife in the three countries in which I have lived, the UK, the US and France, and for which I have immense fondness, I’d like to say the following:
Let’s hear it for consensus.
Let’s find a way together. Let’s remember the words of Jo Cox, in her maiden speech in Parliament:
‘We have far more in common than (that) which divides us.”
I believe, from everything that my parents taught me, that, for the majority of us, it is possible to open our minds, to listen to a painting, to look at music.
For each of us human beings with a clamouring voice in our heads, is it too much to listen to those other voices? Have we closed off our ears to ‘the other side’, insisting on what is different rather than what is in common?
Do we really want to live in a world of winners and losers?
Gordon Seward’s book ‘Why i paint’ , Collected Thoughts on Art, is dedicated ‘To Cécile’, his wife, his Muse, poet and lyricist, brilliant translator into French of ‘Pourquoi je peins’: Cécile Toulouse.