Can you remember the first book that really captured your imagination as a child?

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.

Continue reading Can you remember the first book that really captured your imagination as a child?

Dear Santa, please bring me lots of books

The Rylands Library, home to a lot of books

In one of my notebooks of random jottings I have written the following: ‘In 2018, 63 million books were sold in the run-up to Christmas.’ Not sure where I got this factoid or if it’s true.  But in case it is, and you’re wondering just which of the 63 million to buy, here are my suggestions, spotlighting five authors whose books I particularly enjoyed  this year.

Dear Santa

My first ‘Dear Santa’ book list appeared in 2015, the year I started blogging. It featured three authors, all male, all writing in one particular genre-the detective thriller–and all starring the type of complex, edgy, dodgy, sexy, hero-but-anti-hero homme fatal I have been unable to resist ever since falling for those men in trench coats as a teenager.

This year it’s the ladies who get the laurel wreaths, five of them, not a private eye in sight, each one impressive for different reasons. Sheila Patel made me laugh, Jill Kearney made me cry, Helena Whitbread made me bow my head in reverence, and Pamela Allegretto and Deborah Swift took me on incredible journeys.  Here’s how they did it, starting with the last two. (Click on their names to go straight to the author page).

Roman vista

Cities are fascinating places. I lived in a flat bang in the middle of Toulouse for ten years, until the exhaust fumes and seedy bar downstairs lost their charm. But although home is now a beloved four-house hamlet deep in rural France, the allure of the great metropolis still lingers. Allegretto and Swift bring to life two iconic cities at momentous periods in their history: WW2 Rome and 17th century London. The authors share an ability to conjure up the startling realism that a dreamer sometimes experiences, swept away on a night journey where, as in a film, the perspective shifts between panoramic aerial shots to voyeuristic close ups. From vistas encompassing houses, bridges, spires, monuments, wide rivers, vast skies and surrounding countryside,  the camera zooms in to the tobacco stains on the villain’s teeth, the nuance of grays in a puddle, the whole accompanied by a full-on, sensory onslaught of smells, colours and clamour. As I found out more about these authors’ backgrounds, I was struck by another thing they had in common–the way those backgrounds influenced their work.

frescos unrolling

Pamela Allegretto is an American artist of Italian descent. As I started to read her book, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams, the scenes unrolled like frescoes across the screen of my mind. It’s 1938 and we are in an idyllic cherry orchard in southern Italy, home of the Lombardi family for hundreds of years. But this enduring, bucolic way of life is about to be shattered, signalling the end of an era and the beginning of an exhausting struggle by one woman, Angelina Rosini, to protect her young daughter in a country torn apart first by the poisonous ideology of Fascism, then by the invading armies of the Allies. The action moves from the countryside to the cobbled alleyways and ancient monuments of Rome, where Allegretto transposes her ‘pictorial eye’ to the written page, creating an arresting canvas of a war-torn city where the inhabitants, in particular Jews and resistance fighters, live in constant fear and deprivation. In the foreground, two women battle it out on a personal level in a combat as full of primitive emotions as the classical dramas of antiquity: Angelina, the artist heroine, and her driven, harpy-like sister-in-law, Lidia. Who will be the winner?

The Great Fire of London1666 anonymous courtesy wikimedia commons

From Rome to London, where a different but equally deadly foe, is spreading terror – the plague. In Deborah Swift’s trilogy, Women of Pepys’ Diaries, the famous diarist is getting up to all sorts of mischief and mayhem. The author started her career in the theatre, working as a set and costume designer, and there’s a dramatic immediacy in her writing similar to that we experience at a live performance. Indeed her third book is about a woman who becomes an actress, Elizabeth Knepp, who, like the other strong female leads, is based on a real person mentioned in the diaries. Pepys, the man of the title, and inspiration for the novels, is an inveterate womaniser who gets up to the sort of sexist manipulation and exploitation typical of the time, but the way in which he is portrayed by Swift endows him with a sort of irresistible attraction for the reader, much like that of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.  All the books are terrific reads but my favourite is A Plague on Mr Pepys, with its heroine Bess Bagwell, who sees her ambitions for herself and her husband, Will, crumble under the random blows of fate and the devious machinations of her brother-in-law, Jack. As her circumstances become more and more desperate, she is obliged to turn to the powerful Pepys in an attempt to save herself and Will. The psychology of their relationship, and the way it develops, is gripping. Bess teeters on a dangerous seesaw in which the necessity of reeling in the only man who can help must be counter-balanced by her desire to keep him at arm’s length. Will she succeed?

The Piece Hall, Halifax

From London and Rome to the north of England.  My next two authors hail from my birthplace, the west riding of Yorkshire (chauvinist, moi? Heh heh). Helena Whitbread is the only non-fiction author of the five, and she has already featured here, in my May blog, along with her 19th century soulmate, Anne Lister, who became world-famous this year in the TV series Gentleman Jack. But Anne’s story may never have reached such a wide audience had it not been for the astonishing devotion and talent of the woman who said of her efforts: ‘I was just the back-street scribe.’ In 1983, Whitbread was looking for a research topic for a Ph D. Wandering into the Halifax Archives, she happened upon the diaries of a 19th century local landowner and secret lesbian, Anne Lister. ‘From that day,’ she writes, ‘I … found myself engaged in a literary, historical and cultural adventure…Halifax, for me, became two different towns. Physically I moved around…twentieth century Halifax. Mentally, I lived in the small nineteenth century town.’ She set out to reveal the Anne hidden in the diaries, decoding and transcribing 27 volumes and 4 million words, of which one sixth are in code with no punctuation. She writes: ‘Curiosity, allied to the thrill of an intellectual challenge, gripped me.’ But her achievement does not stop there. The two books which resulted from her research, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love, consist of her final selections from the diaries themselves linked by explanatory passages and further clarified by detailed footnotes. The sensitivity and justesse of her selections and the lucid passion of her explanatory passages communicate a striking empathy with a woman who lived 150 years previously and who, on the surface, could not have been more different from her 20th century amanuensis.

‘Have you noticed you never see a cow laugh?’ This was one of the more notoriously sibylline pronouncements by my Yorkshire grandmother one Saturday as we took her on a drive through the countryside. Those cows had obviously not come across Sheila Patel’s series of books set in contemporary Bradford, The Magic Vodka Wardrobe.  This is definitely not Bradford as you know it, and definitely not as my Yorkshire grandmother would have known the grimy old mill town.  But, along with the cows, Grandma would have been singing and dancing and shaking from head to toe (or horn to hoof) with mirth at ‘Ar Sheila’s’ depiction of the Singh family and life in their corner shop, backed up by a mind-boggling cast of friends and neighbours who  would make Damon Runyon’s eyes water: Mad Mush Martha,  Tattoo Tony and his Rottweiler, Knobhead, Joginder the goat, Graham the pigeon, Dammit Janet, Gyppo Bob, and Guru the Wedding Horse, to name but a few. They feature in a series of outrageously hilarious vignettes which have the same freshness, originality and addictive surrealism as those of Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the 70s.

Is there a glitter ball in there?

Patel was the seventh child of a traditional Punjabi family who grew up in the same period as The Flying Circus (is there a link?) 1970s Britain. Her writing, she says, was inspired by ‘all the funny things that Indians do daily to adapt to the British way of life’.  Centre stage are the Singh family: Father, Mother,  her two sisters Lady Fatima and Sheila (‘short short skirts, four husbands’) and the three daughters Kirsty (rich husband), Shaz and Trace ( ‘both accountants, both thin, with no scary moles and nice cars’ but- to Mother’s chagrin- still husbandless).  Another important character is Bachitaar but to meet him we have to step out of the fourth dimension of life in Patel’s Bradford and enter a fifth dimension, accessible only through a magic wardrobe,  consisting of a 70s disco bar complete with glitter ball and non-stop musical soundtrack (Douglas Adams, anyone?). Bachitaar, complete with turban, can be found behind the bar serving up endless vodka shots while lending a sympathetic ear to Sheila, Trace and Shaz who take refuge in the wardrobe when life, love, bamboo bikes, spam samozas and the news headlines all get too much. Until the time comes when Santa can supply magic wardrobes to all of us, don’t hesistate to join Sheila and the girls in theirs!

Finally, after the laughs, the tears. It’s a well-known fact that no Christmas is complete without a Miracle on 34th Street.

Jill Kearney, like Sheila Patel, was inspired to write by her real-life experiences. These included being a dog rescuer and in-home care provider. Her book The Dog Thief and Other Stories, set in a rural pocket of Washington State, features humans who are poor and dispossessed, animals who share a similar fate, and those often-hapless individuals who try to help out. In this divided society with its ‘separate realities’-the affluent owners of oceanside homes at one extreme, the survivalists and hippies running meth labs and puppy mills in the woods at the other – it would be easy to moralise, and hold our noses at people like Beverley, an MS sufferer who rejects the relative comfort of the reservation in favour of a squalid existence in a collapsed trailer with a swarm of feral cats, and who spends her social security checks on alcohol and cat food.  Good Samaritan neighbour, Jim, inwardly railing at her stubbornness, tries to save her from total decrepitude, attempting to fix her broken toilet, hauling out overflowing buckets of excrement while literally holding his nose (‘the smell…smacked him in the sinuses.’). Writing in a deceptively low-key, unsentimental style, Kearney gets her message across by delivering unexpected knee chops. She possesses that rare knack of picking out the perfect detail in a myriad of possibilities, the one tiny raindrop that reflects an entire, staggering world, halting us in our tracks as we read, making us laugh out loud or burst into uncontrollable tears. Her alter ego, Elizabeth, features in several of the tales, driven to desperate devices (such as stealing dogs from abusive owners)  in order to right wrongs, while simultaneously trying to grasp the meaning of her own unorthodox life, where poignant remembrance of time past vies with a recognition of the importance of seizing the beauty of the moment. Like that other quintessentially American writer, Carson McCullers, Kearney the story teller pulls off the magic trick of getting us to empathise with her variety of creatures great and small, to suspend our judgement, to enter into their lives with wonder and humility and vow to do better ourselves.

And what better Christmas message could there be than that?

Happy Christmas from the Cowshed

 

 

To bookworms around the world Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année from the Cowshed!

 

Book news, book news, books news!!!!!!

Terry Tyler published her new book in the Project Renova series, Blackthorn, in November.

Paulette Mahurin has just announced the release of her latest book, The Old Gilt Clock, about WW2 Dutch resistance fighter, Willem Arondeus.

Miss Moonshine is back in her emporium with Christmas goodies…

And John Dolan has been invited to take part in a multi-author boxed set of crime thrillers to release in 2020, Notorious Minds. Watch this space.

Coming on my blog in 2020:

A visit to the magnificent John Rylands library in Manchester, more on the Anne Lister theme with a visit to  Lightcliffe Church cemetery where Lister’s ‘wife’ Anne Walker is buried…. along with twenty or so of my ancestors! Also an update on my abandoned project Christmas at Villa Julia, which is now busy turning itself into a new historical series, The Etcheverrias, starting in 1898 with A Wedding in Provence… too nervous to say any more in case the Muse goes on an extended holiday without leaving a forwarding address 😉

 

Coming Home To Haworth: Charlotte Brontë’s ‘little book’.

Screenshot of the crowdfunding campaign to buy Charlotte’s book

Last Monday, November 18th, a little book came up for auction in Paris; a VERY little book, one and a half by two and a half inches. The author was Charlotte Brontë, aged 14, and the tiny volume is one of six miniatures written in the Yorkshire parsonage where the Brontë children grew up. A campaign was launched by The Brontë Society to buy it, and a huge wellspring  of public goodwill enabled the organisers to reach, and go beyond, the crowdfunding target of £80,000  showing just how much value we still place on the world of books and literature, and how the amazing Brontë story resonates not only for locals but also for readers all over the world.

Haworth Station

‘Go, litel book!’  Go back to Haworth and do homage to thy mistress. According to the latest news it is still in Paris, but has its passport (!) and will head off shortly, hopefully going on display in February 2020 after renovations at the Museum are completed. 2020 will also celebrate the bicentenary of Anne.

You can find out more about the Brontës  and even join the society (one of the oldest literary societies in the world) here. There are also numerous  videos on YouTube about them (one I particularly like is listed in the links at the end of the blog).  But as part of my own personal homage to those sisters, in 2017 I wrote a novella, The Passage of Desire, set in Haworth in the early 1990s. It’s FREE to download this weekend, Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th November, here and here. (Kind) reviewers have commented:

‘I loved the rich descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside and how the passion evoked in Wuthering Heights is intertwined with the story.

…the Brontë landscape is beautifully described; clearly the writer knows it very well. There are some pleasing literary references which Brontë fans will enjoy…..

…the Brontës float in and out of the story, both literally and metaphorically, and the tale is something of a homage to romanticism.’

I hope those floating Brontë spirits, wherever they may be, are celebrating this weekend. Youpee!

The moors “long swells of amethyst-tinted hills…”

Read on for an extract from The Passage of Desire, in which 7-year-old Caroline, one of the narrators, visits the parsonage museum for the first time with her mother, Alexandra, and their hosts, Juliet and Oliver, and is struck by the miniature booklets.

Chapter 13 The Brontë Museum

The churchyard, Haworth

Caroline had been pestering for a visit to the museum. And so, one bright morning, they found themselves in the shade of the village churchyard on their way to the parsonage. The tower of St Michael and All Angels was just visible as they stepped into a forest of graves, wedged into every available inch of space, the headstones standing shoulder to shoulder like chessmen, some with pointed tops, some shaped like mitres, others representing stars or fleur-de-lys, or crowned with ornate pediments. Some were upright, others listed to the side. Moss and lichen had blurred the blackened inscriptions but it was possible to make out the words if you looked closely. Thousands of bodies, it was said as many as forty thousand, lay together in this confined space, a reminder that the now pretty village of Haworth had once been a grim and insalubrious place, home to workers in the textile mills that spread across the valley, fed by the plentiful water pouring down from the rain-soaked moors. Tuberculosis and other diseases stalked the village streets, carrying off the weak. Sometimes, stopping to look, you would see the names of entire families marked on the headstones. Juliet always got the shivers when she passed through.

Caroline danced from one grave to another squatting down to decipher the words.

‘Here lies Martha, be…love…beloved daughter of James and Eliza…died in the ten, the tenth, year of her age…Luke, in the 2nd year of his age, Mary, in the 6th year of her age.’

She stopped short and slid her hand into Alexandra’s.

‘Why did all these children die, Mummy?’

Alexandra too was feeling uncomfortable. This was not a peaceful resting place, like some she had visited. In spite of the fine day it was dark and chilly under the tall trees where rooks cawed. The graveyard was full of rustlings as the wind passed through the high branches and shook the stands of yew and ibex. White dandelion clocks floated in the unkempt grass.

‘Remember what Daddy told you? In those days, that was Victorian England, the people who lived here were very poor, they didn’t have warm houses and good food. They worked long hours in the mills. Remember when Juliet told you about Wuthering Heights? How cold it gets in winter? People got sick, children died, babies died.’

‘Come on, let’s go look at the museum,’ said Juliet, taking Caroline’s other hand. ‘I bet you’d like to see the room where those sisters used to write their stories, wouldn’t you? And the kitchen where they sat by the fire on winter evenings when the wind was wuthering and shaking the window panes.’

She gave a scary ‘whoo’ and Caroline’s anxious frown was replaced by a tentative smile.

‘Whoo,’ she echoed and gave a little skip, swinging her arms between the two women.

Oliver brought up the rear.

The Parsonage. the Bronte Society brochure, cover

The parsonage reminded Caroline of Juliet and Alan’s house, it had the same big windows with twelve panes of glass exactly the same size surrounded by white painted frames. It stood on a small rise, with grass and flower beds sloping down from the foundations into a flat garden planted with shrubs and flowers.

‘See these?’ said Juliet. ‘They’re called Canterbury bells. And these are hosta. They’re all plants you could find when the Brontës lived here.’

‘That was when Victoria was the Queen?’

‘That’s right.’

They climbed the steps and passed into the hallway. The furniture was old and the walls were hung with dark oil paintings. A grandfather clock ticked. A curved staircase with a polished wooden banister rose to the upper floor.

The first room they visited was Reverend Brontë’s study.

‘Patrick Brontë came to work here as curate in 1820.’ Oliver took over as guide, pointing to a desk covered in books and papers. ‘So, Princess Whatwhyhow, how many years ago was that?’

Caroline’s lips moved silently.

‘Quite a lot,’ she said, eventually.

‘Good answer,’ said Oliver.

‘Patrick was a good man in many ways,’ said Juliet, ‘He did a lot of things for the village, worked hard for the people of his parish, set up a Sunday school, tried to improve their standard of living and health care.’

‘Was he a saint?’

‘Well I suppose some people called him that. But it was hard on his children. Because he had a lot of work, they were usually left to their own devices. Which was lonely for them, but lucky for us, because this house is where the sisters wrote their books. Maybe, if they’d lived in a big city with lots to do and people to visit, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights would never have seen the light of day.’

In the dining room stood the table where the three sisters sat to write.

‘Charlotte and Emily were the famous ones, but Anne wrote two fine books as well. They were all talented. They used to sit here and work together, then walk round the table reading out what they’d written that day.’

‘They really loved each other, didn’t they?’

‘They did. And their brother too, in spite of his problems. He was a talented artist and a poet. We’re going to see some of his paintings.’

Juliet decided to omit the part of the story where three of the siblings had died in quick succession, Branwell and Anne in 1848, Emily in 1849. Nor was she going to recount the sad reminiscences of Tabby, their faithful servant, describing how, after the other three were dead and buried, she used to listen with an aching heart to the footsteps of Charlotte in the room above, ‘walking, walking on alone’.

‘Right. The kitchen.’

Juliet ushered Caroline towards the door. Alexandra paused in front of a sofa that stood against one wall.

Oliver came across to stand behind her.

‘This is where she died, Emily. According to Charlotte. She’d been having pains in her chest for several weeks but wouldn’t see the doctor.’

She turned to look at him.

‘How old was she?’

‘Thirty. Only a few years younger than Mum.’ He shook his head. ‘Charlotte was devastated. She wrote ‘moments so dark as these I have never known’. She’s my favourite one of the sisters, Emily.’

‘Because she died so tragically?’

‘Huh, there was no shortage of tragic deaths. But she was the most solitary of all of the children, shy, didn’t get on easily with people though apparently she was very kind-hearted. She was a creature of the moors. There are stories about how she could talk to animals, she used to bring them home, rabbits, birds, tend to their injuries. Like a vet. She reminds me a bit of our Cath, she used to be out of doors all the time when she was younger, we both did. Mum and Dad named her after Catherine, in Wuthering Heights, did you know that? Along with hundreds of other parents round here. Lots of Cathys in Yorkshire.’

He smiled.

nothing like a good book

‘I’ve got a copy of Emily’s poems back at the house if you want to read them?’

‘I’d like that. It’s a while since I’ve read any poetry. I used to be quite a fan. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats.’

‘Really?’

He hesitated, then began to recite, his voice little more than a whisper:

“…I am not doomed to wear

Year after year in gloom and desolate despair;

A messenger of Hope comes every night to me,

And offers, for short life, eternal liberty.

 

He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,

With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars;

Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,

And visions rise and change which kill me with desire.’

He stopped, flushed, gave an embarrassed shrug.

‘She called that one The Prisoner.’

‘The Prisoner?’

‘Yes…are you OK?’

Alexandra had gone deathly pale. She stared at Oliver. In the dimness of the room his eyes were a blazing blue. His jaw was shadowed by stubble, his curly hair sprang up from his head in darkly gleaming spirals. His face could have adorned a Renaissance painting, an angel bending over the manger, a nobleman hunting with his hawk in the Tuscan hills.

As though in a dream, she reached up and gently touched his cheek. The contact lasted less than a second, then she turned abruptly and left the room.

Oliver stood quite still.

Juliet and Caroline were in the kitchen. Caroline was frowning at the table where Emily used to bake at the same time as she studied her German lessons and made notes for her poems. She decided when she got back to school she was going to learn lots of foreign languages and write poetry.

Tree near Top Withens

‘Over here there used to be a window,’ said Oliver, coming up behind her and pointing. ‘It’s blocked up now, but you could look out of it, across the moors. Imagine what it was like on a winter’s night, everything outdoors covered in snow, the fire crackling in the hearth, Emily making bread, Tabby telling stories.’

‘Did they have a cat?’

‘Ah,’ said Juliet, looking helplessly at her son. ‘I’m sure they did. Maybe Alan knows, lovey, we’ll ask him when we get back.’

Caroline’s favourite room was the children’s study where they played when they were little. Branwell had a box of toy soldiers that looked like old-fashioned pegs painted red, blue and black. The four children used to make up fantastical stories about them, inventing an imaginary kingdom called Angria where the Duke of Wellington was the hero, fighting wars with different enemies. He and other characters had lots of adventures which the children wrote about in tiny books, using even tinier writing which needed a magnifying glass to read. It must have been nice to have sisters and a brother. But Teresa Knowles had three sisters and two brothers and they were always fighting with one another and getting punished by Mrs Knowles who sometimes ran after them with a rolling pin.

She was still thinking about brothers and sisters later that day. Picking up her pen she began to write in her notebook:

‘Today we visited the Bronte Museum. It is in the old Parsnidge next to the graveyard. There are a lot of babies and other children buried in the churchyard. It was the Victorian age. You could die at any moment. The toilet was outside and you had to queue even if it was snowing. The best thing was the childrens notebooks. Aunt Juliet bought me a postcard of the Bronte sisters in the museum shop like the picture that you showed me. It was painted by Branwell he was not just a drunkerd but also a nice person. Everybody had a lot of brothers and sisters in those days. If I had a brother I would like him to be the same as Oliver. Arnie is a very nice baby but we haven’t seen him this week. On Sunday Frank was cruel to him and pulled his arm and made him cry. Cath has promised to come over and put some desperate damson on my nails. She has rings on all her fingers even her thumb and in her nose and ears and is pretty. I would quite like her for a sister. The problem with having a brother and sister is they could get a disease and die at any minute. Perhaps it is better just to have a dog or a cat. I am really missing Rusty. Thank you for getting me this notebook Daddy.’

The Passage of Desire

LINKS

Other blogs of mine relating to the Brontës can be found in the archives: March 2015, April 2016, January 2018 and July 2018.

Also on the same subject, check out author Helena Fairfax’s  November 21 blog,  which links to another blog 😉  by Annika Perry. Let’s hear it for the Brontës and their fans!

Here’s a video  (in spite of lots of background ‘wuthering’ at the beginning, all adds to the atmosphere !by LucyTheReader, showing the moors, the churchyard and the museum. 

 

Have a great reading weekend!

 

 

Marx, Engels, and Christmas at Villa Julia (or: why you’re not going to be reading my next book with your turkey and mince pies)

The reading room, John Rylands Library

On a recent trip to Manchester the MDM and I visited the altogether incredible, stunning and awe-inspiring John Rylands Library. I’ll be raving enthusiastically talking more about this astonishing building and its history in a later blog, but, as we stood amazed in its cathedral-like reading room, my mind wandered to other reading rooms, and things that had been written there, and their consequences on an unsuspecting world.

So dear readers, here’s a little reading room quiz:

Question 1: Who wrote The Communist Manifesto?

Answer: Right! It was indeed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Question 2: In which reading room did they work together in the 1840s?

Answer: Wrong! It wasn’t the Rylands (I thought it was until our visit). However it was in Manchester, at another famous library, the Chetham, the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. (See why we like Manchester?)

Question 3: In the year The Manifesto was published (1848), how many revolutions took place in Europe?

The window alcove at Chetham’s where Marx and Engels worked Courtesy of user KJP1 Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chetham%27s_Library_-_The_Marx,_Engels_alcove.jpg

Answer: Wrong! There were 603 million. (OK, I’m lying, just wanted to check you were paying attention). It is however true that during that momentous year (known also as The People’s Spring) populations all over Europe took to the barricades in an unprecedented wave of revolutionary fever (most of them hadn’t heard of the Communist Manifesto).  Not just France, but Poland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Sicily , Denmark and elsewhere, people rose up demanding the downfall of traditional rulers and the implementation of social reforms such as the right to vote, to strike, the freedom of speech and the press etc.

Final Question: what on earth has all this got to do with Villa Julia?

Answer: It all started with Jacqui Brown...

When this admirable Francophile bookworm and blogger reviewed the final volume in the French Summer Novels Series, Biarritz–Villa Julia, back in May, she wrote:

‘I was sad to get to the end and realise there will be no more,’ (Aw!) ‘What next, Laurette?’

I hesitated to reply with the unvarnished truth–‘I intend to assume a recumbent posture on the terrace, a chilled margarita to hand, and listen to the song of the nightingale.’ It didn’t sound very professional. Also, she had touched a chord. I too was a bit sad. I opted for a cagey response:

‘What next? Well (coy smile) it was supposed to be The End, but lately I’ve been wondering what that first Christmas in 1899 would have been like at the Villa, with the arrival of the young Provençale bride for whom it was named, Julia herself…

The terrace beckons the Mollusk

Even as I flopped on to the chaise longue and the first notes of the nightingale reached my ears, its melody was drowned by a nasty creature that popped into my head waving a placard and shouting ‘Don’t forget the Protestant Ethic!’ before continuing a rant about hardening arteries, belly fat, safe alcohol guidelines, and dying brain cells ‘Get back to the computer and do some work, you mollusk!’ it finally shrieked.

Though I womanfully ignored it, a little seed had been planted. Soon the seed sprouted leaves. Olive leaves. In its branches, insects sang (crickets and cicadas) A perfume rose up, wild thyme, lavender, juniper and sage, suspiciously like the Mediterranean garrigue.

Everyone to the barricades! The Cambridge Illustrated History of France by Colin Jones

And so the Mollusk arose, trudged off the terrace, fired up the laptop and started reading all about France in the 19th century. The word ‘revolution’ appeared on virtually every other page, interspersed with monarchy, republic, and Empire, rinse and repeat.

What a joy to put aside the history books and re-plunge into the wonderful world of fiction. I dusted off my paperback copy of Volume 1 of Les Gens de Mogador (why has this never been translated into English??) Elisabeth Barbier’s thrilling saga of a Provençal family from the Second Empire to WW 2.

Though years had passed since I first read it, the heroine, Julia Angellier, had stayed in my mind inspiring the name of the first mistress of Villa Julia, carried over the threshold in 1899 by her mustachioed Basque Beau, Raoul Etcheverria.

I began to hit the keys.

At the end of Chapter 1, I was in a sweat.  Did I seriously think I could write a historical novella without mixing up all those kings and emperors called either Louis, Philippe, or Louis-Philippe? Not to mention bringing to life a bunch of characters wearing cache-corsets and redingotes, who, instead of saying ‘See you later, babes,’ intoned ‘Alas, Mademoiselle, I must take my leave, my cousin is expecting me for luncheon and I have matters to attend to before my departure for the capital’? Said characters would then give a deep bow, stride across the creaking parquet in glossy riding boots and jump on foam-flecked stallions/mares/geldings/fillies, which were either bays or roans or chestnuts or greys.

Heroes (mustachioed) and heroines (crinolined) of Elisabeth Barbier

According to my coffee stained synopsis, the story would begin in 1898, with the thirteen desserts of Christmas Eve and Provençal santons under the tree, to end triumphantly with the usual champagne and candlelight in 1899, under another Christmas Tree, this one in the pays basque.

Ploughing on, heading deeper into the writing tunnel meant abandoning the outside world–family, friends, emails, favourite bloggers, social media, not to mention the MDM confronting single-handed the Napoleonic army of bindweed marching across the garden.

The history books piled up, full of interesting facts. Did you know that, after a late start, the French railway system covered 40,000 km in 1900? Julia had to get from Provence to Biarritz somehow. Also, that the ancestor of the nippy little Twingo in your drive was born in a garden shed near Paris in 1898, in the shape of a Voiturette Type A built by Lois Renault? (Raoul buys one of these).

But it was the fiction authors who brought to gorgeous, glowing life the Provence of the late 19th century.

Pagnol et copains

Marcel Pagnol’s memoirs of spending summer holidays as a boy in the hinterland of Marseilles were in the air as Julia’s father, Monsieur Peyrissac sets out at dawn to hunt. Pagnol’s version ends with the capture of the mythic bartavelle, a rare variety of partridge, bringing ‘the glory of his father’, but I kept Monsieur P’s catch to a couple of rabbits.

Describing Julia at her coiffeuse, I heard the singing syllables of Frédéric Mistral, iconic Provençal poet, describing his heroine, Mirèio, and her ‘beauteous hair, all waves and rings of jet’. Mirèio is an altogether entrancing creature who, at one point, tucks a brood of baby blue-tits into her bodice as she sits in a mulberry tree with her amoureux, but tempting though it was to embroider on that charming episode I decided to keep Julia’s bodice firmly laced up (most of the time).

Alphonse Daudet, in his Letters from my Windmill tells the tragic story of Jan, who threw himself off the roof of the family farm for the love of the woman he could not have, the coquettish Arlesienne (who inspired Bizet’s opera of the same name). Though my characters are somewhat more restrained, there’s a fair bit of emotional anguish about. Fortunately star-gazing has always been a consolation for the lovelorn, so Julia’s stable hand, young Loic, can sigh as he looks up at those same brilliant Provençal constellations– the Chemin de Saint-Jacques, the Char des Ames and the Trois Bêtes– which comforted Daudet’s lonesome shepherd dreaming of la belle Stéphanette.

How to do justice to the natural beauties of Provence, and Malaret, the family home of the Peyrissacs, with its extensive gardens and park? Writing of a house further north, Colette’s idyllic descriptions of her mother’s garden in Saint-Sauveur inspired the wanderings of Julia through the family domain, where the delicate perfume of roses and lilies gives way to the aromatic onslaught of the shrubs and bushes of the garrigue.

More goodies

The big guns of the literary world at that time–Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Proust and company–provided innumerable dazzling frescoes of Parisian life  necessary for the creation of Harald, the blond, curling-lipped Cad from the Capital who seduces Julia with his cosmopolitan ways and penchant for Symbolism, ending with…well, I’m not going to tell you, am I ? Roger Martin du Gard recounts in painstaking detail the tortuous machinations of the Dreyfus Affair. (For those interested in finding about more about this crucial period in French social history, read Paulette Mahurin’s brilliant To Live Out Loud.)

But, leaving the world of fiction, back in real-life October 2019 in the Tarn, I am gradually waking up to the fact that it ain’t gonna happen. No way can I write the remaining forty thousand words in time to meet the Christmas deadline, let alone tackle the revision (i.e. deleting half of what’s already been written and writing it again).

So, what now, dear readers/fellow authors? Should I wait for Christmas 2020, and get back to the margaritas (though it’s now too cold to lie on the terrace and the nightingale has gone to Greece)? Should I set a new deadline, and modify the title–Easter Eggs under the Christmas Tree at Villa Julia? Maybe I could write to the matières grises in Brussels, still debating the thorny issue of whether the clocks go forward 2 hours in summer or not, and ask them to move Christmas to March while they’re at it?

All suggestions welcome (no more than 140 characters please), and the lucky winner will receive a packet of pine nuts and a garden gnomette wearing a Provençal skirt.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend reading lots of good books, perhaps some mentioned above?  And for those who haven’t got it, Biarritz-Villa Julia is FREE to download on the 26, 27 and 28 October here and here.

Biarritz-Villa Julia

PS While in Manchester we called at M and S for our usual teatime treat of their lemon drizzle cake. Alas the restaurant was closed for renovations But as we left I was reminded of Karl and Friedie once again. In an apocryphal story about the famous Leicester University Sociology Department in the nineteen sixties and seventies, it is said that one of the essay topics proposed for students sitting their final exams was the following:

‘Marks and Spencers has done more for the working classes than Marx and Engels’ Discuss.’ 😉

 

 

The Lion, forty years after: remembering Joseph Kessel.

The earth seen from Apollo 17

‘The world is extraordinary–look how beautiful it is!’

50 years ago this summer, 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong take mankind’s giant step on to the moon. The quotation above could have come from any of the astronauts looking out towards our amazing blue planet in the years that followed. But in fact they were the last words of a Frenchman who died ten years after the moon landing, in July 1979. At a time when many of us have been pondering on what constitutes the stuff of heroes, I’d like to pay homage to one of my personal, all-time, men-in-capes-with-human-flaws, Joseph Kessel, 40 years after his death.

Kessel le magnifique
Kessel le magnifique

I first wrote about him in October 2016. Actor, journalist, scenarist, WW1 aviator, WW2 war correspondent, Resistance fighter, aviator with the Free French squadron of the RAF, co-composer of the stirring anthem of the French Resistance, Le Chant des Partisansand author of more than 40 fiction and non-fiction works, Kessel has never attained in the English-speaking world the legendary stature he enjoys in France. Only a handful of his books have made it into English, the most famous being The Lion, Belle de Jour and The HorsemenSadly, the highly acclaimed  450-page biography by Yves Courrière, Joseph Kessel ou Sur la Piste du Lion , published in 1985, is available in French only (but worth learning the language to read it).

Joseph Kessel by Pinn Hans
www.gpo.gov.il, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3426445

Joseph Kessel was born in February 1898 in Villa Clara, Argentina, the son of Jewish emigré doctors. His extraordinary 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. Kessel was a dreamer, a humanist, a man of integrity,  a man of excess, 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. 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.

As with many heroic figures, his life was marked by tragedy–the suicide of his brother, Lazare, in 1920 and the death of his first wife, Sandi, in 1928. But, as Courrière writes, the myth of the ‘homo kesselianus’, the archetypal hero-adventurer, brave, noble-browed, athletic, resourceful, who finds himself caught up in incredible adventures, had taken root before these events, through Kessel’s experiences in Vladivostok in 1919. At the end of WW1, the Allied leaders met in Versailles. One of the problems they 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 airborne squadron, for which he received the Croix de Guerre. But he had another, vitally important talent: he was a fluent Russian speaker, having spent part of his childhood with his grandparents in Orenburg. Thus it was that 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, who held 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 was unable to believe his eyes. Thousands of homeless people were huddled on the steps outside the building, 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.

Extract from the site of l’Académie Française

This was to be the pattern of his life from then on. 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.’

Site of the Académie Française:’ it is not by a man’s origins that we should judge him’

Joseph Kessel died on July 23rd, 1979 in the village of Avernes, his home for many years in the company of his third wife, Michèle O’Brien, another relationship haunted by the tragedy of Michèle’s descent into alcoholism. In spite of this, and his own deteriorating health, he was still as interested in life as ever. It was while watching a TV programme with friends, a reportage about a young speleologist shot in sumptuous colours in a deep grotto, that he spoke his final words:

‘Le monde est extraordinaire! Regarde comme c’est beau.’

© 2019  Laurette Long

‘Regarde comme c’est beau’ Photo © 2015 Laurette Long

 

It’s the weekend! Time to change the quilt covers (OR Caring and Sharing with your Loved One)

The Horror! The Horror!

Today’s blog is unashamedly sexist, dedicated to those millions of stoic women, unsung heroines smiling bravely while bracing themselves for another weekly ordeal in the bedroom…

It’s summertime! The livin’ is easy, the Master of The House is down the pub with his mates, the kids are on a sleepover and the Mistress of the House can kick off her shoes, pour herself a pre-lunch glass of rosé, flop into a deckchair underneath the honeysuckle and start reading the latest Kate Atkinson. Bliss! Forget the decomposing gym kit sitting in a bag in the hallway, the open packet of butter melting on the kitchen counter next to the jam smears, the downstairs loo that’s been declared a Hazmat area by your flouncing thirteen-year-old (is that lipstick she’s wearing?), they can wait! After the week you’ve had you deserve some ME time…

Time to smell the honeysuckle

Hang on a minute–the bed!! A panicked glance at the clock, a sprint upstairs with clean sheets, please O Divine Domestica, do not let HIM (Master of the House but also well-trained Modern Man) return just yet!

(Sounds of car pulling up, door banging).

‘Honey, I’m home! Just in time to give you a hand with the quilt cover….’

Read on to see if they do it better on the other side of the Channel. 😉

‘Exquisite writing and story-telling’

 

Sharing their own domestic moment at the Villa Julia are Gérard and Anouk, parents of Claudie, the book’s romantic lead. Anouk, getting ready to celebrate her sixtieth birthday with twin sister Julie, has woken up to a most unusual  sight. She tries to ignore a premonitory twinge, warning her to beware of husbands (well, Gérard anyway) bearing trays of coffee and croissants…

 

Chapter 11

‘Why can’t we get Madame Martin to change the bloody sheets? I’ve never got the hang of these damned quilt covers, don’t even know why we need a quilt anyway, it’s far too hot.’

‘Just concentrate, chéri, nearly there.’

Gérard had started the day most unusually by bringing his wife coffee in bed. Then he had promptly spilled it all over the clean bed linen.

Anouk, who had been luxuriating in her unexpected lie-in, had sprung to her feet, repressing a desire to strangle her husband as she rushed into the bathroom for towels to staunch the flood while he stood flapping his hands and swearing.

The previous evening they’d enjoyed a refreshing swim before falling on the wonderful meal prepared by Claudie and her new boyfriend, Pete. It had been late by the time they’d all straggled to bed, reluctant to leave the night garden, its pools of light, its mysterious rustles, its pine-scented fragrance. Figaro, prowling and sniffing under every bush, lifted his head to check on them from time to time, his yellow eyes like miniature headlights amid the shrubbery. As they were finally making their way upstairs, Adam, ever the English gentleman, had caught hold of Gérard’s arm.

‘What say we give our two wonderful ladies breakfast in bed tomorrow, eh Gerry? Let them have a lie-in after the long journey?’

Gérard’s face had been a picture. Anouk and Julie had burst out laughing. Gérard was definitely not a ‘let-me-bring-you-breakfast-in-bed-mon-amour’ kind of person. He had huffed, but he’d put a brave front on it, patting Adam on the arm and muttering ‘good idea’. At eight o’clock this morning Anouk had experienced the once in a lifetime surprise of seeing her husband march into the bedroom bearing a tray of croissants and a pot of coffee. Which he’d then proceeded to pour over the bed.

She could have cried. The coffee had smelled heavenly, the croissants were warm from the oven. She had instantly resolved on a revenge trip. Her husband was going to get his own once in a lifetime experience. He was going to help her change the sheets.

She clamped her lips together and tried to keep a straight face watching him fume as he wrestled with the quilt cover which had miraculously doubled in size. Damn. She should have got Antony to hide behind the armoire and film the sequence to put on YouTube.

‘In any case, Madame Martin has quite enough to do today, chéri. Plus she’s too old to be dealing with sheet-changing.’

This was a downright lie. Madame Martin, whose age was a thing of mystery, was as nimble as a cat. But the spectacle of Gérard’s face getting redder and redder and the sound of his breathing getting huffier and puffier as he fought to wedge the top corner of the quilt into the top corner of the cover was just too delicious.

‘Good, that’s it, now the bottom corner, see it’s not as difficult as you thought, is it? You’ll be able to help me at home.’

Gérard glared and wrenched the quilt out of her hand.

‘Very funny. Stand back while I give it a good shake.’

He sucked in his stomach and flexed his muscles. The quilt flew up and down a couple of times then settled across the bed. They both stared at it. On Anouk’s side it was perfectly aligned in its cover; on Gérard’s side a hunched, lumpy mess.

‘I think you’ve put your top corner in your bottom corner.’

Gérard flung up his hands.

‘Nonsense! You saw me put my top corner in my top corner. The thing must have twisted round, this is your side.’

Anouk folded her arms. She thought of the great philosopher, Michel Montaigne: ‘No retort is as biting as scornful silence.’

Her husband gave a strangled roar, drew a deep breath, then launched himself into the air and landed like a dead starfish flat on top of the quilt, arms and legs flung out. He tried beating and kicking the corners into submission.

Merde!!!!’

He raised his head, breathless.

‘This is no job for a man, dealing with these…these female contraptions. We’re wired to judge the width of a car, you lot are wired to put quilts in covers. It’s simple biology.’

Anouk’s arms remained folded.

With a long-suffering sigh he got to his knees, stuck his head inside the cover and burrowed around furiously. Thirty seconds later he emerged, what was left of his hair standing up like a hoopoe’s crest.

There were now two indentations, like little ears, cosying up in the middle of the bed, and a lot of empty cover dangling over the side.

Anouk gave a loud sigh.

‘Sometimes you can be so…medieval, chéri. Let’s start again. ‘Your lot’ will hold her side in place, while ‘Car Man’ sorts out his width problems on the other.’

She could have done the whole job on her own in a matter of seconds. But she wasn’t going to. The battle continued grimly until all four corners were finally in the right place.

‘Thank God for that. Now the damned coffee’s cold. What’s left of it.’

Gérard picked up the cafetière with a scowl.

Anouk righted the overturned cups and shook out the soggy croissants. She put the bundle of damp sheets in a heap in front of the door.

‘You can pop downstairs and put these in the machine, chéri, while you make a fresh pot. Is anyone else up yet?’

‘How the hell should I know? There was nobody in the kitchen except me and Adam, both of us wearing pinnies and preparing breakfast trays.’

‘That was a sweet idea of Adam’s, wasn’t it? I do hope Julie’s not having to change beds and mop up coffee on her nice lie-in.’

Satisfied that she’d made her point, she changed the subject.

‘So anyway, what do you make of Pete’s mother?’

Gérard gave a shrug.

‘Plenty to say for herself. Doesn’t mince her words.’

‘She is a bit ‘full on’, isn’t she? Not like her son. I do like that boy, he’s so polite and attentive as well as a natural charmer.’

‘Yes, well, I don’t know how he puts up with your daughter. God help the poor sod. She’s impossible to live with, look what happened with those others, that chap with the Porsche and the Rolex, he soon gave her her marching orders.’

Anouk’s nostrils flared.

‘It was our daughter who issued the marching orders, may I remind you. She wasn’t ready for marriage and motherhood, she hasn’t even finished her studies yet, and Stéphane was too demanding and self-absorbed. Personally I never took to him. A Porsche and a Rolex aren’t exactly character references.’

‘Too demanding! That’s a good one. She’s like the foutue queen of Sheba, our daughter, bossing people around, insisting she’s right about everything. She doesn’t deserve a nice guy like Pete.’

‘She’s not bossy. She’s feisty. She has strong opinions which she’s not afraid to express but she’s ready to listen to others. She’s independent. And funny.’

Gérard rolled his eyes heavenwards. He picked up the bundle of sheets and opened the door.

Anouk got back into bed.

‘And neither do you.’

‘Neither do I what?’

‘Deserve me. Don’t trip as you’re going downstairs.’

As the door banged, she sank back against the pillows. Her thoughts wandered to her beautiful new party dress, hanging in the wardrobe. Creamy white linen. The colour of honeysuckle petals. It would look stunning against her tanned arms and dark hair. And so would Julie’s gorgeous number in indigo blue silk, the bleu de Lanvin. Sixty? Pah. Sixty was nothing these days. When they were young they’d worn flowers in their hair and followed in the footsteps of their role models, the two brilliant Simones, Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Veil. When they stood side by side on the day of their birthday, ready to greet their guests, they’d look like a million dollars.

And so would her daughter. Her feisty, funny, independent, loving, loveable daughter.

And merde to her antiquated father.

Grab a copy of Biarritz-Villa Julia on Amazon here (US) and  here (UK) Only 99c/99p  or FREE on Kindle Unlimited. Have a great weekend!

Miss Anne Lister and Mrs Helena Whitbread: a marriage of two minds

Anne Lister Portrait by Joshua Horner – GLBTQ Encyclopedia http://www.glbtq.com/images/entries/literature/lister_anne.jpg, Wikipedia.org Public Domain

In 1983  a Yorkshire woman in the springtime of her fifties dropped in to the Calderdale Archives building hoping to find a research topic about which to write a book. She came out with photocopies of 50 pages of the diary of a 19th century  local celebrity whose ancestors had lived at Shibden Hall, near Halifax, for several generations.

The name of the researcher was Helena Whitbread and the diary she began to read was that of Anne Lister, 1791-1840. What happened next has been well-documented, and the story is set to reach an even wider audience this month with the airing of Gentleman Jack, a BBC/HBO drama series based on Anne Lister’s life.* This multi-faceted personality was a woman of impressive determination and intellect. She set herself a rigorous programme of study and self-improvement (Latin, Greek, algebra, music); she was an energetic, capable businesswoman, helping to manage her uncle’s estate and often joining the workmen in their physical tasks; she was  a keen traveller, adventurer and mountaineer (the first woman to ascend Mont Perdu, 3355 metres, in the Pyrenees) . But her intimate journals (1806-1840) revealed something else. Anne was a lesbian, a charming, charismatic, ardent lover of women, with a strong sexual appetite and ‘a romantic and enthusiastic mind’.

Today’s blog gets passionate not just about Anne Lister, but also her equally fascinating 20th century amanuensis and interpreter, Helena Whitbread, who, as she put it, ‘serendipitously’ wandered in to those archives and emerged with those 50 pages. It was the first step on an adventure into ‘another woman’s time and life’ in which her efforts to elucidate Anne’s complex character and secret loves would occupy her for more than three decades.

Shibden Hall Richard Buck / Shibden Hall / CC BY-SA 2.0 geograph.org_.uk_-_1804046.jpg

I discovered Helena Whitbread’s books,  The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love, on a visit to Yorkshire last year, thanks to my sister-in-law and her daughter, avid readers and amateur local historians. The main tourist attraction of the area is Haworth, home to the Brontës, but for local families Shibden Hall has long been known as a great place for a day out ever since it was gifted to the council in 1933. Anne went to live there in 1815, aged 24. Born in 1791, two years after the outbreak of the French Revolution, her own accounts of her childhood reveal a distinctly rebellious streak (she describes being whipped every day at school). This exuberant character exploded into the sheltered lives of her Uncle James, owner of Shibden, and Aunt Anne, his sister, bringing a style and a dash which set the local tongues wagging. A ‘tomboy’ in her youth, Anne, in her twenties, was masculine in appearance and behaviour, with a strong personality. Convinced from an early age that she was different from most women in terms of her sexual orientation, she was equally convinced that the difference was entirely natural. This comes across clearly in the journals of 1816 to 1826, on which Whitbread’s books are based. During this period Anne had three serious relationships and numerous flirtations, but, although a regular churchgoer, she finds no contradiction in the way she loves other women and religious orthodoxies. Her ‘difference’ arose from her birth and was thus a part of her nature, bestowed on her by ‘that Almighty Being who had created me.’

Country Lane, West Yorkshire

Anne was also confident about the validity-indeed superiority-of her own feelings as compared with the artificial and inconsistent qualities of ‘Sapphic love‘. Remarkably, she did not suffer the social and familial rejection which one might expect, but was able to discuss her situation (albeit in veiled terms)** with her unmarried aunt and uncle, whose main concern, once they understood that marriage to a man was out of the question, seemed to be that their niece should find a partner with whom she could be happy. Similarly, although the subject of gossip, Anne was accepted into genteel social circles where allusions were often made to her preferences and occasional flirting took place. The only openly prejudicial treatment she mentions in any detail occurred during her encounters with jeering local youths. These seemed to invigorate rather than traumatise her; in one incident, when a man tried to put his hand up her skirt, she was about to hit him with her umbrella when he ran off: ‘I did not feel in the least frightened, but indignant and enraged.’***

Haworth station. Alight here for a visit to The Brontë Museum…

It’s interesting to compare Anne’s accounts of her interactions with other women of her social standing with those of, for example, Jane Austen, who, in her novels (Emma was published in 1815) gives us a very different picture of what ladies discussed when they took tea. Of course that was in genteel Hampshire rather than unpredictable Yorkshire, where the following year, 1816, saw the birth of Charlotte Brontë, who, along with her sisters, would have polite society grabbing for the smelling salts with the publication of Jane Eyre and, worse still, Wuthering Heights just seven years after Anne’s premature death. But all these women shared one important similarity–the limitations of their condition. For women of a certain class without independent means, the future offered few choices: a good marriage, with its attendant financial security and respectability; a somewhat lowly and precarious ‘career’ as governess or teacher; or a life of spinsterhood, dependent on the goodwill of relatives.

Books by Helena Whitbread

But this is merely a bare bones summary of Anne’s life. More will be revealed in the TV series. But my advice (Dear Reader, have I ever mislead you?) is to go straight to Helena Whitbread. Not only do her books contain everything necessary to know about Anne during this crucial, formative period, they are a work of art in themselves, arising from a labour of love in the truest sense. The mere introduction to The Secret Diaries…  had me throwing up my hands and shouting ‘Hallelujah’. The quality of the prose is a delight-clear, cogent, erudite, getting directly to the heart of the matter and luring the reader irresistibly on to the journals themselves. I didn’t stop till I got to the end of the second book and only then did the full import of this astonishing achievement really hit me.

The Piece Hall, Halifax, where Anne saw a balloon ascent in 1824 , an event attended by ‘some said…50 thousand’

So who is this other remarkable lady? Helena Whitbread was born into a poor Halifax family and forced through ill health to leave school aged 14. After marriage and four children, it was only in her late thirties that she was able to fulfil her dream of continuing her studies. Further education, a university degree, a teaching career…this ‘eternal student’ continued to pursue her academic interests, little suspecting what lay ahead when she took home those first pages of Anne’s diary: years of painstaking work and the gradual revelation of a historical figure destined to fire the imagination of readers. From 1816 to 1826 the fascinating minutiae of Anne’s daily life at home and on her travels (dress, food, health, study, finances, walking, riding, social visits) are interposed with the ecstasy and torments of forbidden love, mainly as they relate to Isabella Norcliffe and Mariana Lawton, her two most intense affairs at this time, along with Maria Barlow whom she met in Paris. (Her relationship with Anne Walker, whom she ‘married’****, which came later, starting in 1832 and continuing until her death in 1840, is the subject of Gentleman Jack.) Anne’s innermost thoughts in her beloved journal (‘writing my journal has amused & done me good. I seemed to have opened my heart to an old friend. I can tell my journal what I can tell none else’), her romantic and social aspirations, the complexity of her often contradictory character over these ten years are all vividly illuminated through extracts that have been judiciously selected, rigorously annotated and indexed, and linked by passages which not only put events into a larger social, historical and literary context but also continue the narrative as seen through the eyes of Helena Whitbread.

Les deux Amies
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Les_Deux_Amies_by_Lagrenee.jpg

Perhaps most moving is Anne’s ‘sentimental education’ as regards Mariana Lawton, with whom she fell in love in her twenties, but was unable to live with due to the circumstances of both women. Anne, even if she had dared to openly cohabit with another woman at the time, did not have the financial independence to do so. The same was true for Mariana, who entered into a marriage with a much older man, Charles Lawton*****, with both women hoping that a conveniently early demise (!) would leave them in a position to be together. The gradual disillusion of Anne is heart-breakingly recounted, leaving her, at the end of 1824, a much-changed person. ‘I always considered your marriage legal prostitution,’ she tells Mariana. Like all romantics, she yearns for more. ‘It must be an elegant mind joint with a heart distilling tenderness at every pore that alone can make me happy,’ she writes in 1823. Mariana, she concluded, was too ‘worldly’, ‘she has not that magnanimity of truth that satisfies a haughty spirit like mine’…‘the chivalry of heart was gone. Hope’s brightest hues were brushed away.’

‘Illustration for The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allen Poe. By Frédéric Théodore Lix – “Модный магазин” (Fashion magazine), 1864, №23 (December), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

The journals in total comprise 6600 pages and 4 million words, of which one sixth are in code. Whitbread writes: ‘Curiosity, allied to the thrill of an intellectual challenge, gripped me.’ Even before she got her hands on them, their story reads like a detective novel. In the 1890s, years after Anne’s death, they were discovered and deciphered by two men, John Lister, last of the family to live at the Hall, and his friend Arthur Burrell. What they found-‘an intimate account of homosexual practices among Miss Lister and her many ‘friends’’-so shocked them that Burrell advised Lister to destroy them. Instead, he hid them behind a panel where they remained until his death in 1933, when the Hall and its contents became the property of the borough of Halifax. Whitbread writes: ‘an iron curtain of conspiracy’ then descended over the coded sections of the diaries in the interests of preserving the family reputation.

Since April you can see the code and read Anne’s diaries for yourselves on-line at the West Yorkshire Archives. Amazing…

When she took on the Herculean task of transcribing the diaries, Whitbread not only had to learn how to use the key to the code but also attempt to read the uncoded entries which were written in semi-legible handwriting, with words running together and crisscrossing the pages. (She has an interesting note about how letters in those days were written in cramped writing using every inch of the notepaper in order to reduce the cost of postage.) Apart from these physical and technical hurdles, other concerns arose. Her first obligation, she tells us, was to keep the author’s authentic voice; then, once she had found it and realised its uniqueness, another dilemma popped up–should she put this intimate journal into the hands of the wider public? If so, in what form? ‘From that day (in 1983) I have found myself engaged in a literary, historical and cultural adventure,’ she writes in the introduction to No Priest But Love ‘…Halifax, for me, became two different towns. Physically I moved around…twentieth century Halifax. Mentally, I lived in the small nineteenth century town…

The enormity of the task was staggering, demanding an approach at complete odds with today’s thirst for the instant and the immediate. But the result is a triumph, a passionate engagement, an homage to the slow and the beautiful, to le temps de vivre, time to live, learn, read, enjoy, savour and reflect. Qualities, I’m sure, that Anne Lister would have been the first to appreciate.

‘Oh books, books! I owe you much. Ye are my spirit’s oil, without which, its own friction against itself would wear it out.’ Anne Lister’s journal, 20 July 1823.

Thanks for reading this lengthy blog! I’ve just discovered Helena’s books are selling out fast in paperback, but are available on Kindle 😉

*A previous BBC series was aired in 2010 starring Maxine Peake as Anne Lister

**’No doubt both aunt and uncle drew their own conclusions about Anne’s sex life.’ (No Priest But Love)

***She was however deeply  ‘mortified’  on a trip to Scarborough in 1823 by Mariana’s criticisms of her masculine appearance. (The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister)

****the two women took the sacrament together at the Holy Trinity church in York in 1834

*****Anne contracted a venereal disease from Mariana, which, to her shame, she passed on to Isabella. (Mariana had caught it from Charles.)

Fifty Shades of Blue: Thalassotherapy Heaven

The Med and its marvellous colours

Today’s blog gets passionate about sludge.

Not just any old sludge. This kind comes in pots, hot, steaming and smelling remarkably like pongy seaweed, the sort that’s been lying about on a rock covered in sand flies and half-eaten by crabs. That’s because it is pongy seaweed, or used to be, before being put into a gigantic blender and turned into something that looks like potter’s clay.

It was the Spring Equinox and we were down on the Med, having fled to its balmy shores to escape the relentless onslaught of the mainstream media. The late great Douglas Adams had summed it up perfectly in 1980: ‘it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.’ What more was there to add? We needed a therapeutic escape, something that tuned out our brains and tuned in our bodies. Sludge, in short.

Fade to fifty shades of blue and the plaintive songs of whales…

Sun rising on the wine-dark (sort of) sea

The sun rises on Day One at the Hôtel Les Flamants Roses, the beautiful Pink Flamingo Hotel on the water’s edge in Canet-en-Roussilon. The Maître de Maison and I have signed up at their thalassotherapie centre, (sea water therapy centre) for a ‘remise en forme’: five half-day sessions of ‘get back into shape’. Thanks to the magical properties of seawater and its products, the stiff and creaky hinges that attach my lower limbs to my torso will, five days hence, be whizzing back and forth like pistons on the Flying Scotsman (original version), the crunchy, gristly bits in my neck locking me into permanent ‘face forward’ position will have magically dissolved, allowing reversing of the car sans demolition of the garden wall, and the flaking, dingy envelope covering my body will be buffed to the pearly perfection of Venus rising in her cockleshell. The MDM’s knees will have lost their squeak, his bionic shoulder will be re-tuned to High C, and if he owned a Mercedes coupé he’d be able to vault into the driver’s seat without opening the door.

We know all this because we’ve been here before, in 2016. We now know, as ‘veterans’, the correct protocol. When removing swimsuits for a massage, for instance, the scrap of material lying on the end of the table is to be placed in fig-leaf position rather than on the head as a hairnet. The highly professional staff here have obviously been trained, like the Queen, to keep a straight face in all situations, but as the MDM observed the first time we came ‘Ah, vous devez en avoir vu des vertes et des pas mûres’–literal translation: ‘you must have seen some  green and unripe ones’, Yorkshire translation: ‘ee lass, tha’ must have seen a thing or two in this job’.

Arriving at the centre with swimsuits and flipflops, we are given fluffy towels, robes and our individually tailored programs and invited to lounge on sunbeds drinking herbal tea while waiting to be called for our first treatment.

The atrium and its mosaics

The spacious atrium opening up to the second floor looks a bit like the Alhambra, with pillars and decorative tiles and mosaics reflecting the colours of the Med and its sandy beaches. To either side are corridors and cubicles with closed doors from which splashes and gurgles can be heard. As you recline and sip, you can watch the aqua gym class taking place in the indoor pool with its jacuzzis and water jets. Beyond, visible through the vast windows at the end, is the sea. ‘Thalassa, thalassa!’ as the Ancient Greeks may have intoned (thalassa being the correct Greek word to use when addressing the sea, I am reliably informed) as they scanned the horizon hoping to catch a glimpse of Odysseus and his many-oared galley. The Med’s associations with the classical myths and legends that have nourished western civilization lends a mystic quality to this inland sea with its swiftly changing moods and endless palette of colours. From thunderous steel grey with angry whitecaps to scarcely a ripple,  a glassy expanse extending to a mirage-like horizon in blue, pink and mauve.

Douglas, Thomas Stearns and Big H. The perils of too much reading.

I was musing on such associations when we arrived for our first visit in 2016, feeling a bit nervous about that wine-dark stuff just a few metres away. Images of whirlpools and one-eyed giants kept popping up, accompanied by the opening bars of Jaws. Apparently 47 species of shark live in the Med (I checked) but fortunately, given their size, there didn’t seem much chance that one might insert itself into the pipes connecting the centre to the sea and shoot up in the middle of the aquagymers with a toothy grin. But what about poisonous jelly fish? Now they are quite slithery, n’est ce pas, and could easily wobble through a small vent…This time round, though, I am calm and confident, knowing what delights lie in store as I follow the uniformed assistant for my first treatment. In a dimly lit cubicle stands a bathtub the size of the Queen Mary. The smiling young lady helps me negotiate the gangplank, settles me into the warm water, squirts in copious amounts of liquid sludge, presses the button on the Starship Enterprise console, and tells me to lie back and relax. The lights go out, leaving me in the dark. There is a terrific rushing noise and suddenly the water stars to churn like the famous whirlpool of Charybdis. I am in the bain des multijets, which begins to glow with mesmeric colours, green, blue, and red, bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, ouch, the toe of frog has found that sore bit just below my left shoulder blade, ah, that’s better, heaven, I’m in heaven…there’s a beeping sound and I open my eyes. The gurgling has stopped. My body is warm and rosy and relaxed and my bones have been reduced to jelly. Have I been asleep?

I don’t have much time to reflect on the question before I’m up out of the bath and off to another cubicle where I’m told to take off my wet swimsuit and put on the Chippendale micro-thong. The door opens and another smiling person appears, carrying a pot of smelly brown substance and a large spatula. I am about to embark on an intensive Sludge session, otherwise known as Meet Your Inner Mummy. The Sludge Whisperer slathers me efficiently from scalp to toenail before wrapping me tightly in clingfilm, re-wrapping the cling film in a hot foil shroud and leaving end-product to bake like a plantain a clay oven. For someone a tad claustrophobic, this can be unsettling. The only way I got through the first session in 2016 without screaming to be let out was to channel The Hulk, visualizing myself giving a superhuman muscle flex and bursting through the bindings in the event of everyone else in the centre being suddenly struck down with a mysterious, paralysing virus.

Buffed to a pearly hue. Courtesy of Sandro Botticelli and Wikimedia Commons.

Finally I am unwrapped, hosed off, and left to inspect the finished product. I peer at my skin. Is it…can it be…the light is dim, I don’t have my glasses on, but surely…ô miracle!  From Ancient Lizard  to Diaphanous Dragonfly with one wave of the spatula!

But it’s not just your skin and muscles that are getting pampered. The approach here is multi-sensorial. As the heavenly hands of the masseuse banish the last drop of tension from your body, your nose is twitching with pleasure at the perfumed cloud of orange blossom released by the warm oil. Stretched out on the Hydrojet water bed, enjoying the thrills and drills of the Thousand Whirling Water Spouts which have swept in from the Pacific and are currently trying to burst through the mattress, revving up and down the spine (don’t stop!), digging in behind the knee (bliss!) pummeling the back of the head (just there!), seeking out every lingering ache and pain, you gradually fall into a trance as you gaze up at the ceiling.  This is no magnolia paint job; its chromotherapeutic display of waving palms and lotus blossoms, fading in and out of soft pinks and purples, transports you to tropical isles, borne on the wings of distant music, the Arcadian pipes of a naughty Pan or the plangent cries of whales calling to their young through the blue unfathomable depths. Or perhaps it is the mermaids singing?

the purple silhouette of the Albères, foothills of the Pyrenees.

By the end of the week our bodies don’t know what’s happened to them. The flabby bits have been pummeled into submission with powerful water jets, the bones have been baked in sludge, every muscle from cranium to toes has been massaged to ecstasy with fig oil and we glow as we walk into a room. On one perfect morning we were forced to cast off our Lotus-eating torpor and plunge into the outdoor pool for an Aquagym class. There, in the March sunshine, we leaped up and down singing Can’t take my Eyes off of You while admiring the purple silhouette of the Pyrenean foothills slipping down to the water’s edge and the glittering sea beyond.

Was that a mermaid in the distance, riding seaward on the waves, combing the white hair of the waves blown back…?

Wishing you all a very happy Easter weekend!

PS At the end of Biarritz-Villa Julia, Jill is busy organizing a ladies’ pamper day at the thalassotherapy centre of the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz. If the French Summer Novels had been set on the Med, they’d have been booking in to the Hôtel les Flamants Roses, and Jill would have been the one singing off key with Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in the outdoor pool…I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of you who bought copies of this last book in the series, and the four reviewers who put a spring in my step and a flip in my aqua-leap with your warm and wonderful 5-star words 😉

 

Biarritz-Villa Julia, the French Summer novels finale

Biarritz-Villa Julia cover Annette Wood

‘I laughed and cried and held my breath…’ To my astonishment, this  review of Biarritz Passion appeared in April 2014 on Goodreads (the world’s biggest online book community) just after the book’s publication. It was written by someone called Sue, and reading it was like one of those moments when the George Clooney lookalike at the party says ‘Hey, you’re looking nice tonight!’ and you turn round to see who he’s talking to. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. Who was this unknown Sue, commenting on my very first novel? I gleaned a bit more information about her from her profile page (over 1000 books read, ‘Just a Grandma with a Kindle, dangerous when interrupted!!! ’) but not enough to send her a mega-box of Swiss chocolates and an invitation to spend her next holiday in the south of France. Not that I would have dared to do so, for on my steep learning curve as a brand-new, independent, fiction author, I had found out via Internet forums that author etiquette required stoic silence in reaction to reviews, particularly bad ones.*

Beautiful Biarritz

No matter how strong the urge to argue with the impudent coxcomb who had called your book a load of horse-manure, the advice was: DON’T DO IT. Similarly, falling on your knees and sobbing your thanks to those cultivated, enlightened literati who recognised your budding genius was also not allowed. Instead of good manners (don’t forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), this kind of behaviour could be interpreted as a buttering-up technique in the hopes of getting another five stars for the next masterpiece.

Sue, therefore, remained unthanked, but her words had struck a significant chord. They summed up in a nutshell what I hoped to do with my writing–make readers laugh, cry and hold their breath. Sue, if you should happen to read this blog on Goodreads, that’s how much your words meant to me, and I thank you most sincerely now.

Five years later, and here I am at the end of the journey, or at least the French Summer Novel journey, with the publication on February 7th of the last book in the series, Biarritz-Villa Julia, resplendent in a beautiful cover designed by Annette Wood. For bargain hunters, or simply those whose hearts have melted after reading the above, it’s available for pre-order now, in the US, and the UK here,  at the launch price of 0.99 cents/0.99 pence. An exerpt can be found at the end of this blog for anyone with the strength to continue reading 😉

A long journey with 100 notebooks

It’s been a long journey and a hard journey and a very exciting journey. When I started writing Biarritz Passion I didn’t actually know it was going to be the first book in a series, I was just so pleased to have the opportunity of doing something I’d always dreamed of–publishing a novel, thanks to Amazon’s revolutionary self-publishing programme, Kindle Direct Publishing. There are drawbacks to going it alone, however, as I soon found out. Writing the book is only the first step. Next comes formatting and uploading it, and, quelle horreur, trying to promote it. Fortunately, family and friends cheered me on, and soon another amazing thing happened. People I’d never met began to join in. Unknown readers, like Sue, wrote reviews. Established fellow authors gave encouragement. Book bloggers extended invitations: Bernard Arini, Jacqui Brown, Caroline Barker and Tina Williams, Chris Graham, Denise Baer and Barbara Webb all gave me a chance, and to all of you, grateful thanks. It was enough to make me believe in fairies, unicorns and the human race.

O Wall, full often hast thou heard my moans

Book 2 in the series came out in 2015, but as the writing of Book 3 got under way, I was confronted with another headache–the trials and tribulations of writing a series, especially an unplanned one. Papers piled up on the desk, the wall of the study became covered in arcane diagrams, arrows and post-its, even the bed got commandeered. The handful of characters in Biarritz Passion had grown to over 80. Keeping them all straight (who wore what perfume/drove what car/drank which scotch) was a nightmare. As I wrote in my October blog, I take my hat off to series writers, you are amazing, and I will be leaving your ranks as soon as I can extricate myself.

Even the bed got commandeered

Not only were there the factual details to get right, there was the logistical problem of how to conduct a string quartet which had somehow grown into a full orchestra with bells, canons and the Huddersfield Choral Society singing in the background. Was this final performance going to be musical mayhem, a debacle of discords, a tonal turkey? Would I have to crawl under my desk and never come out again?

And behold, dear readers, at that moment there was a tinkle of harp strings, a sprinkle of fairy dust and down from cyberspace came a fairy godmother in a sunbeam. ‘My name is Paula,’ she said, ‘can I help you?’

a sunbeam called Paula

A couple of years previously I’d chatted with a fellow bookworm on an Internet readers’ forum (maybe Jacqui Brown’s Francophile book blog?) After I joined Facebook, the bookworm  became a ‘friend’. In spring of 2018, when Biarritz-Villa Julia was two years late, she sent me a private message: where was the last book in the series, due out in 2016? She’d been looking all over for it…

Biarritz-Villa Julia is dedicated to Paula, bookworm, Facebook friend, and now real-life friend (we finally met in September), with heartfelt thanks. She read every chapter hot off the computer, sending back comments and corrections by return. She kept me in stitches with her hilarious e-mails and galvanised me into producing ‘the next bit, please’. As she licked both prose and author into shape, I reached out to two other people. Long-time dear friend, Miette, had read the manuscripts for the previous books, correcting my worst linguistic blunders (and not just the French ones). My brother, Michael, an unexpected beta reader, nobly put aside James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Peter May and stepped (vaulted?) out of his comfort zone, reading all of the French Summer Novels before applying a critical eye to this one. The feedback from both was invaluable (although next time, Michael, please don’t organise your comments on an Excel spreadsheet, you know I’m no good at columns).

The rocky road to love and life

So now it’s time for me to bid adieu to Villa Julia and the gang. And I’ll confess… I’m going to miss you (gulp). I’m hoping that your final adventures on the rocky road to love and the even rockier road to life are going to make readers laugh, cry and hold their breath, (and, who knows, maybe even write a review…😉)

Have a great weekend!

(*I have since learnt that you can ‘thank’ reviewers on Goodreads by ticking a box which says the review was ‘helpful’, and you can also send them private messages. Amazon is a different story.)

Read on for an exerpt from the new book…hoping to make you laugh (and maybe cry?), Chapter 11 features Gérard and Anouk, parents of Claudie, (who first appeared in Biarritz Passion) the romantic lead in this last book. They’ve travelled from Paris to take part in the big party at Villa Julia to celebrate the sixtieth birthdays of Anouk and her twin, Julie (mother of Edward). Here they are on the morning after their arrival.

11 GERARD AND ANOUK MAKE THE BED

‘Why can’t we get Madame Martin to change the bloody sheets? I’ve never got the hang of these damned quilt covers, don’t even know why we need a quilt anyway, it’s far too hot.’

‘Just concentrate, chéri, nearly there.’

Gérard had started the day most unusually by bringing his wife coffee in bed. Then he had promptly spilled it all over the clean bed linen.

Anouk, who had been luxuriating in her unexpected lie-in, had sprung to her feet, repressing a desire to strangle her husband as she rushed into the bathroom for towels to staunch the flood while he stood flapping his hands and swearing.

The previous evening they’d enjoyed a refreshing swim before falling on the wonderful meal prepared by Pete and Claudie. It had been late by the time they’d all straggled to bed, reluctant to leave the night garden, its pools of light, its mysterious rustles, its pine-scented fragrance. Figaro, prowling and sniffing under every bush, lifted his head to check on them from time to time, his yellow eyes like miniature headlights amid the shrubbery. As they were finally making their way upstairs, Adam, ever the English gentleman, had caught hold of Gérard’s arm.

‘What say we give our two wonderful ladies breakfast in bed tomorrow, eh Gerry? Let them have a lie-in after the long journey?’

Gérard’s face had been a picture. Anouk and Julie had burst out laughing. Gérard was definitely not a ‘let-me-bring-you-breakfast-in-bed-mon-amour’ kind of person. He had huffed, but he’d put a brave front on it, patting Adam on the arm and muttering ‘good idea’. At eight o’clock this morning Anouk had experienced the once in a lifetime surprise of seeing her husband march into the bedroom bearing a tray of croissants and a pot of coffee. Which he’d then proceeded to pour over the bed.

She could have cried. The coffee had smelled heavenly, the croissants were warm from the oven. She had instantly resolved on a revenge trip. Her husband was going to get his own once in a lifetime experience. He was going to help her change the sheets.

She clamped her lips together and tried to keep a straight face watching him fume as he wrestled with the quilt cover which had miraculously doubled in size. Damn. She should have got Antony to hide behind the armoire and film the sequence to put on YouTube.

‘In any case, Madame Martin has quite enough to do today, chéri. Plus she’s too old to be dealing with sheet-changing.’

This was a downright lie. Madame Martin, whose age was a thing of mystery, was as nimble as a cat. But the spectacle of Gérard’s face getting redder and redder and the sound of his breathing getting huffier and puffier as he fought to wedge the top corner of the quilt into the top corner of the cover was just too delicious.

‘Good, that’s it, now the bottom corner, see it’s not as difficult as you thought, is it? You’ll be able to help me at home.’

Gérard glared and wrenched the quilt out of her hand.

‘Very funny. Stand back while I give it a good shake.’

He sucked in his stomach and flexed his muscles. The quilt flew up and down a couple of times then settled across the bed. They both stared at it. On Anouk’s side it was perfectly aligned in its cover; on Gérard’s side a hunched, lumpy mess.

‘I think you’ve put your top corner in your bottom corner.’

Gérard flung up his hands.

‘Nonsense! You saw me put my top corner in my top corner. The thing must have twisted round, this is your side.’

Anouk folded her arms. She thought of the great philosopher, Michel Montaigne: ‘No retort is as biting as scornful silence.’

Her husband gave a strangled roar, drew a deep breath, then launched himself into the air and landed like a dead starfish, flat on top of the quilt, arms and legs flung out. He tried beating and kicking the corners into submission.

Merde!!!!’

He raised his head, breathless.

‘This is no job for a man, dealing with these…these female contraptions. We’re wired to judge the width of a car, you lot are wired to put quilts in covers. It’s simple biology.’

Anouk’s arms remained folded.

With a long-suffering sigh he got to his knees, stuck his head inside the cover and burrowed around furiously. Thirty seconds later he emerged, what was left of his hair standing up like a hoopoe’s crest.

There were now two indentations, like little ears, cosying up in the middle of the bed and a lot of empty cover dangling over the side.

Anouk gave a loud sigh.

‘Sometimes you can be so…medieval, chéri. Let’s start again. ‘Your lot’ will hold her side in place, while ‘Car Man’ sorts out his width problems on the other.’

She could have done the whole job on her own in a matter of seconds. But she wasn’t going to. The battle continued grimly until all four corners were finally in the right place.

‘Thank God for that. Now the damned coffee’s cold. What’s left of it.’

Gérard picked up the cafetière with a scowl.

Anouk righted the overturned cups and shook out the soggy croissants. She put the bundle of damp sheets in a heap in front of the door.

‘You can pop downstairs and put these in the machine, chéri, while you make a fresh pot. Is anyone else up yet?’

‘How the hell should I know? There was nobody in the kitchen except me and Adam, both of us wearing pinnies and preparing breakfast trays.’

‘That was a sweet idea of Adam’s, wasn’t it? I do hope Julie’s not having to change beds and mop up coffee on her nice lie-in.’

Satisfied that she’d made her point, she changed the subject.

‘So anyway, what do you make of Pete’s mother?’

Gérard gave a shrug.

‘Plenty to say for herself. Doesn’t mince her words.’

‘She is a bit ‘full on’, isn’t she? Not like her son. I do like that boy, he’s so polite and attentive as well as a natural charmer.’

‘Yes, well, I don’t know how he puts up with your daughter. God help the poor sod. She’s impossible to live with, look what happened with those others, that chap with the Porsche and the Rolex, he soon gave her her marching orders.’

Anouk’s nostrils flared.

‘It was our daughter who issued the marching orders, may I remind you. She wasn’t ready for marriage and motherhood, she hasn’t even finished her studies yet, and Stéphane was too demanding and self-absorbed. Personally I never took to him. A Porsche and a Rolex aren’t exactly character references.’

‘Too demanding! That’s a good one. She’s like the foutue queen of Sheba, our daughter, bossing people around, insisting she’s right about everything. She doesn’t deserve a nice guy like Pete.’

‘She’s not bossy. She’s feisty. She has strong opinions which she’s not afraid to express but she’s ready to listen to others. She’s independent. And funny.’

Gérard rolled his eyes heavenwards. He picked up the bundle of sheets and opened the door.

Anouk got back into bed.

‘And neither do you.’

‘Neither do I what?’

‘Deserve me. Don’t trip as you’re going downstairs.’

As the door banged, she sank back against the pillows. Her thoughts wandered to her beautiful new dress, hanging in the wardrobe. Creamy white linen. The colour of honeysuckle petals. It would look stunning against her tanned arms and dark hair. And so would Julie’s gorgeous number in indigo blue silk, the bleu de Lanvin. Sixty? Pah. Sixty was nothing these days. When they were young they’d worn flowers in their hair and followed in the footsteps of their role models, the two brilliant Simones, Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Veil. When they stood side by side on the day of their birthday, ready to greet their guests, they’d look like a million dollars.

And so would her daughter. Her feisty, funny, independent, loving, loveable daughter.

And merde to her antiquated father.

 

Soothing a Savage Breast or Two – La maîtrise de Toulouse comes to Lavaur

The Maîtrise de Toulouse in concert at the Cathédrale de Saint-Alain, Lavaur

As the festive seasons gears up, it’s time to think about reasons to feel good amid the global gloom…

Last weekend we were at the stunning medieval Cathédrale de St-Alain in Lavaur, to attend an equally stunning concert of Christmas music performed by the La Maîtrise de Toulouse.

Cathédrale de Sain-Alain Lavaur

The cathedral, a masterpiece of Southern French Gothic art, has recently undergone extensive renovation; as we sat in the vast nave (40 x13.8 metres) under its soaring 22-metre-high blue and gold painted roof, we experienced a moment of pure joy listening to these young choristers, transfixed by the beauty of the singing while simultaneous dying to leap to our feet and join in.

The Maîtrise, formed in 2006 by Mark Opstad under the auspices of the Conservatoire de Toulouse, is the first choir school of its kind in SW France. It has received a veritable cornucopia of glowing reviews (American Record Guide, Organists Review, Diapason Magazine, The Sunday Times…) and in 2017 was awarded the prestigious Prix Bettencourt for choral music. The choristers, aged 11 to 15, work under their talented director and founder, who himself began his career as a chorister at Bristol Cathedral. He continued his musical education at Oxford, then Cambridge, where he was assistant organist of Clare College before coming to France under the Entente Cordiale scholarship scheme. Happily for those of us in Occitania, he moved from Caen to Toulouse, where he is now professor of music at the Conservatoire.

Brochure Pastel en scène

The concert was introduced by Michel Guipouy, President of les Amis des Orgues de Lavaur. Since leaving Big City Toulouse to settle in our rural paradise in the Tarn, I have been moved and inspired by the passion for all things artistic that flourishes here in the countryside. Lavaur (pop: 11,000) has two associations, Pastel en scène and Les Amis des Orgues de Lavaur, comprising a group of volunteers who work tirelessly to bring a rich and varied programme of cultural events to the inhabitants of this town and the surrounding area.

This passion goes hand in hand with a pride in local history and tradition. Lavaur is first mentioned in the 11th century, but became famous during the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229) as one of the places which paid most dearly for its tolerance of Catharism. In May 1211, after a siege lasting 37 days by the troops of Simon de Montfort, the castrum was taken. 80 knights were put to the sword, the Lady Guiraude, protector of the town, was thrown alive into a well and pelted with rocks, her brother Aymeric was hanged, and 400 citizens were burned at the stake in the biggest bonfire of the Crusade.

The Cavaillé-Coll organ

Building of the Cathedral started in 1255, after the ‘heresy’ had been stamped out. It predates by 30 years its cousin, the Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile in Albi, now a world heritage site and reputedly the largest brick building in the world. While Sainte-Cécile might be bigger and more famous, we prefer Saint Alain 😉. Many of its features are typical of the Southern French Gothic style of architecture–fortress-like walls and an octagonal tower (of which the most famous example can be seen in Toulouse at the Basilique de St-Sernin), but Saint-Alain boasts other features, including a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ (which we heard in a solo by young organist George Gillow) and the only jacquemart in the south west. This little wooden man with his metal hammer appears every hour on the hour to strike the time on the cathedral clock, a descendant of the jacquemart first entrusted with this important task in 1604.

Lavaur; by Paul Ruffié and Jean-Phillipe Arles,Edition Privat (see link below)

 

As we sat there listening to the music and admiring the restored murals and frescoes, I marvelled yet again at the power of the arts to bring people together and remind them of a shared heritage which transcends time and conflicts. The moment was both powerful and poignant: a British choirmaster conducting a French choir, young choristers singing in German, French, English and Latin, the music of Mendelssohn, Bach, Rachmaninov, the artistry of the two Italian brothers who painted the extraordinary grisaille murals. The 21st century audience–old and young, city folks and country folk, believers and at least one pagan (me)–had all come together in a small town marked by terrible religious and military persecution, to listen, to look, to reflect: taking time to remember what’s really important in life.

To all faithful blog readers, sincere wishes for a warm and jolly Christmas and a New Year bringing better prospects and hope to all, especially those in distress and those in need.

Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année from the Cowshed!

The Cowshed at Christmas

P.S. Six degrees of separation…on the cover of the summer programme of Pastel en scène is a photo of Poppy Beddoe, founder of The Temple Ensemble, who performed here in August at the Mediathèque Guiraude (named after the Lady). Poppy has a strong connexion with Cambridge, the city in which Mark Opstad was an organist and where, in another life, I used to walk down the hill to listen to another choir at Christmas, this one raising their voices to the stunning fan-vaulted ceiling of King’s College Chapel, built two hundred years after its French relative in Lavaur. King’s College Choir this year celebrates its 100th birthday. The centenary CD can be found here, the CDs of the Maîtrise–Slava and Noël Français are available from : association.maitrisedetoulouse@gmail.com. The beautiful book “Lavaur: Une Nouvelle Capitale aux portes de Toulouse  was a gift from la Famille Bermond when we first arrived here in 2011. Merci!

Taking a medieval break in Saint Antonin Noble Val

Many heads featured in wall decorations

Last weekend, taking a break from romantic sagas and all things Basque, we headed off to the village of St Antonin Noble Val in the neighbouring department of the Tarn-et-Garonne. Though a mere hour’s drive away, the countryside soon began to change, the hilltop villages and high plateaux reminding us we were approaching the towering limestone cliffs of the gorges de l’Aveyron.

A quick read of the local history before setting off brought to mind Montaigne’s gloomy pronouncement that ‘of all the animals in the world, man is the most fearsome’. In the 13th century the village of Saint Antonin was a Cathar stronghold, earning the wrath of the Holy Roman Church and its crusading army (The Albigensian Crusade), including a sack of the town by the troops of the devil himself, Simon de Montfort. You can read more about him here including his well-deserved demise in 1218 at the hands, it is rumoured, of an early feminist from Toulouse who launched a rock at his head from the roof of Saint-Sernin.

la maison des consuls, oldest civic building in France

In the 14th century the village was fought over at length by the two opposing sides in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453, House of Plantagenet v House of Valois), then, after a bit of a breather in the 15th century, things turned nasty once more when the Wars of Religion (1562-1598) broke out and the village became a bastion of Protestantism. A massacre of Protestants by Catholics in 1561 was followed by a massacre of Catholics by Protestants in 1568. (Everybody following? Good. Nearly finished.)

King Louis XIII intervened in 1621 (he had come to lay siege to the neighbouring town of Montauban) destroying the village walls and re-baptising the place Saint Antonin Noble Val.

There was a happy codicil to this page of horrors in 2014, when the village was chosen as the setting for a rom-com starring Helen Mirren and Om Puri The 100-Foot Journey.* ‘It behoveth man more to make love not war,’ as I’m sure the Mighty Michel would have written if he’d been around to comment.

A narrow street. Horses only.

The village layout has remained authentically medieval as we soon realised when stupidly following the satnav into the narrow streets leading to our chambre d’hôtes. We were forced to a halt three times, unsure whether it was possible to continue further without leaving a couple of Peugeot wing mirrors embedded in priceless ancient monuments, finally helped by a kind local who, we later discovered, was the baker, and who relayed to our hosts the news of our impending arrival long before we’d scraped through the labyrinth and managed to find a parking place safely outside the ancient centre.

 

Having abandoned the car, we found ourselves in Kodak heaven.

Au Lion d’Or

But before indulging in a point and click fest, we checked in at our lodgings, the Auberge Lion d’Or, an 18th century coaching inn whose sign advertises ‘Un bon logis à pied ou à cheval’–‘a good lodging whether on foot or on horseback’, words which held a particular resonance for us. (Next time, remember to bring Dobbin). Since January this year the establishment has been run by the felicitously named Mr and Mrs Shakeshaft (no I’m not making it up), more commonly known as Renée and Paul, whose hostly qualities have evidently contributed hugely to the establishment’s success.

The inside is as atmospheric as the outside, but though the beams may be black with age and the stones ancient, the beds are 21st century comfortable, the bathrooms are en suite, and on this wet and chilly November evening, a black stove resembling a lion couchant roared away in the comfortable salon topping up the blissfully warm under-floor heating.

Irouleguy, the wine of the pays basque

We decided to leave our explorations until the next day (hopefully sunny) and, on the recommendation of our hosts, sallied forth to dine at Le Carrée des Gourmets. The Muse, obviously miffed at being abandoned, decided to give a nudge: the restaurant was decorated with strings of Espelette peppers and the wine list featured Irouleguy, which naturally we sampled, saying ‘Vive le pays basque’ as we ate an excellent meal of chicken and gambas for me, and sweetbreads in a snail sauce for the Maître de Maison.

Saturday dawned damp and misty, giving us a moody view of the roc d’Anglars from the bedroom window and encouraging us to linger over the copious breakfast during which we discovered, thanks to our host, that some scenes from The 100-Foot Journey had actually been shot in the auberge.

The aptly named Rue Bombecul, turn right under the arch

As the weather cleared we set out with map and guide book, starting with the little alley next to the inn, curiously named Carriera Bombacuol, (rue Bombecul in modern French). ‘Stick out ze bottom??’ In spite of our limited knowledge of Occitan we got the message as we teetered down the treacherous slippery slope of Bum-in-the-air Street * in a hunched, waddling, semi-crouch. Later our hostess explained that this was where the horses were taken down to the stables underneath the auberge, the valets doubtless adopting the same inelegant posture as ourselves in order to avoid Bums-on the-cobbles.

From then on it was merveille after merveille in this village out of time where ancient archways invite the visitor to wander into the past through crooked twisting streets. Arriving at the Place de la Halle, the market square, there was a more open vista from which to admire one of the most impressive facades, that of the Maison des Consuls, the old town hall, built in 1125 and reputedly the oldest civic building in France. Restorations were carried out on the tower by Viollet-le-Duc, the man who restored the city of Carcassonne to its former glory and set off lots of architectural arguments.

Rue Guilhem Peyre where the English troops were barracked

In Rue Guilhem Peyre, the narrow street which winds down as you step under the tower archway, is the Caserne des Anglais. English troops occupied these barracks in the 13th and 14th centuries, during the Hundred Years’ War and judging by the amount of English we heard, several descendants have since returned, this time however in a spirit of entente cordiale. One of the places I’d hoped to drop in to was The English Bookshop, opened 20 years ago, which I was looking forward to raiding. But like many other commerces it was closed, one disadvantage of an off-season trip here, but offset by the fact that, away from the squares and cafés, we virtually had the town to ourselves.

What a treat. Drinking in the atmosphere of the silent streets with shuttered facades, lingering before buildings with fascinating histories: the Maison du Roy, a gift to King Louis IX, ‘Saint Louis’ as he became after his death, from Guy de Montfort, brother of the infamous Simon, in 1227 and whose first floor has 6 ornately decorated Gothic windows; the Maison de l’Amour (a former brothel?) whose 15th century arcade is surmounted by a carving of a couple exchanging a kiss, peculiar carvings and corbels such as the one showing a naked upside down woman held in the jaws of a lion-like monster.

Naked woman in jaws of monster
Embracing couple at the maison de l’Amour

Our wanderings were accompanied by the sound of underground streams rushing beneath grates; occasionally we crossed placid canals. Saint Antonin is a watery town, an important tanning industry flourished here in the 13th  century.

 

 

 

Sunday was our last day. We’d been eagerly anticipating exploring the famous weekly market which extends from one edge of the town to the other. But as the rain pelted down with a vengeance, shoes began to squelch and drops began to seep under collars, we finally abandoned the attempt and headed to the car. Hurrying over the cobbles we were halted in our tracks by mouth-watering smells coming from one stall. We ended up returning to The Cowshed with the spoils of our trip into the Middle Ages, half-a dozen freshly baked naan breads and a bag of onion bhajis.

More Om Puri than Simon de Montfort. But we’ll be back to try the saucissons…

Market day, Sunday

 

*In 2001 the village also featured in Charlotte Gray, the film adaptation of the book by Sebastian Faulks.

** In French bomber = to stick out  cul = arse

PS We ate lunch at a tiny café called Le Citron Bleu, highly recommended!

BEFORE YOU GO….

Bookworms! Hot from the press…Don’t miss Legacy, the latest  in the Project Renova series by Terry Tyler and Two Rivers, one Stream, Book 2 of Karma’s Children by John Dolan (more about these authors here)

Also, to make sure you have plenty of books to see you through the Turkey Season, Books 1 and 2 in the French Summer Novels are FREE to download this weekend.

Happy reading!