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.
This month’s blog gets passionate about a city and a hotel.
Readers may remember I have a bit of a thing for the delights of hotel-dwelling. In July 2015 I quoted Vladimir Nabokov, who lived for 16 years in the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland: ‘It avoids the nuisance of private ownership,’ he said. If by ‘nuisance,’ Vladimir was referring to menu-planning, shopping, cooking, washing up, floor-mopping, bed-making, scrubbing the shower tiles and such-like, I am right there with him. (Although such nuisances were probably Véra’s cross to bear as they hadn’t invented househusbands in those days.)
At the end of February, leaving behind our own nuisances, the MDM and I headed off to check out the historic city of Nizza la Bella, as it’s known in the local language, Niçois or Nissart (a variety of Occitan), and the pleasures of hotel-life. We were hoping to find another establishment to add to our list of twinkling stunners, places where, in addition to luxurious amenities, first class service, and maximum pampering, there’s an extra special ‘wow’ factor making for a truly memorable hotel.
In the past I’ve got passionate about the Radisson Blu Edwardian in Manchester (iconic Free Trade Hall, Halle orchestra, Disraeli, Charles Dickens, the Manchester suffragettes) and La Maison Bakéa in Cordes-sur-Ciel (13th century stones, suits of armour, galleried courtyards and the ghosts of massacred Cathars). Closer to home and heart is the Hôtel du Grand Balcon in Toulouse (dashing French aviation pioneers, the shade of Saint-Exupéry and the view across the place du Capitole). And of course, l’Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz has had frequent mentions – love-gift of Napoleon III to his Empress, dazzling Belle Epoque magnificence and views across ‘the queen of beaches’ (not to mention the setting for a scene or two in those French Summer Novels 😉 ).
This time we were off to another ‘palais’– l’ Hôtel Petit Palais, a small hotel in a former private villa also dating from the aptly-named Belle Epoque. Leaving a sunny Tarn behind, we stepped off the plane in Nice to a thorough drenching. The rain and wind buffeting the coast had forced the cancellation of the closing ceremony of the city’s famous Carnival. Happily, the weather picked up, allowing us to explore the 2nd most visited tourist destination in France after Paris. Its unique setting, between mountains and sea, the curve of its beautiful ‘Bay of Angels’, rimmed by the 7-kilometre promenade des Anglais, the imposing silhouette of the Colline du Château, on whose summit stood the medieval town – all have famously inspired artists.
Before I’d even set foot in the city, Nice felt familiar thanks to the paintings of Berthe Morisot, Raoul Dufy, Chagall and of course Matisse, whose view across the sweep of the bay from his windows at Hôtel de la Mediterranée and Le Beau Rivage was a constant source of inspiration. He describes his amazement at the colour of the sea: ‘an unearthly radiance…the blue of sapphires, of the peacock’s wing, an Alpine glacier and the kingfisher… it gleams, it is translucent, its shines as though lit up from below.’
Matisse came to Nice in 1917 to recover from a bout of bronchitis. The weather was so dismal he nearly headed back to Issy-Les-Moulineaux. His painting, Tempête à Nice, which we saw in the Matisse Museum, is more Stygian-gloom than unearthly radiance, but fortunately for him, and for art lovers all round the world, the sun came out, the colours changed, and Matisse stayed on until his death in 1954, leaving us with those paintings.
There’s something endlessly fascinating about windows in art, symbolic openings on to other worlds and universes.
In The Cowshed, two paintings of Nice hang on the walls. One, a reproduction of Interieur à Nice, 1922, exudes an atmosphere of tranquillity and voluptuous farniente, with Mme Matisse taking a siesta on against a background of louvred ‘persienne’ shutters opening on to palm trees. The other, an original (fanfare!) is the work of brilliant artist Gordon Seward, and features those shutters once again, pink this time- Persiennes roses à Nice, 2002.
A week isn’t long to get to know a great city, but we packed in as much as possible, trying to get a feel of what it was like to be a genuine Nissard, to live in this buzzing vibrant place where the inhabitants have a strong sense of community and pride in their local culture and rich history. Ever since 1861, a resounding ‘cannon shot’ is fired from the top of the hill at noon. According to legend, this custom is in memory of Sir Thomas Coventry who used it as a reminder to his wife to get the lunch served for himself and his men (no househusbands in those days either).
The exception to this tradition occurs on the Fête Nationale, July 14th, a stark reminder of the day on which that sense of community was shattered in the Islamic terrorist attack of 2016; a poignant memorial to the 86 victims stands in the grounds of the Villa Massena.
Our downtown flâneries averaged 5 to 6 kilometres per day, so we were ready for the reward that awaited every evening, 100 or so metres above the coast on the hill of Cimiez, another world, another Nice.
Up here are no clanging trams, hooting traffic, and roaring motorbikes. The contrast with the effervescence of the city below is dramatic. To wind your way through these tranquil narrow lanes is to step back in time, to the glittering era of the Belle Epoque. Sumptuous mansions sit behind wrought iron gates in verdant parks full of birdsong. It’s a tree-lovers paradise – cypresses, palms, green oaks, ancient olives, magnolias, towering pines. Lemon and orange blossom time was over, but branches lit up with bright globes of oranges overhung the walls, occasionally dropping a ripe gift at your feet.
When looking for a hotel back in November we’d foregone those in the centre, choosing instead to follow in the footsteps of Queen Victoria. Those royals knew a good thing when they saw it. Victoria had already spent time at the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz in the early 1890s; in 1897 she and her fleet of staff took up residence in a hotel specially built for her in Cimiez- the Excelsior Regina Palace. The vast 200-room edifice was built in just 18 months, which shows what can be done given the right (royal?) motivation. Here, Her Majesty could gaze down at the panorama of the coast, or take a turn in the park across the road where, today, the restored ruins of the 1st century Roman arena lie close to the Musée Matisse. When the Regina was sold and turned into appartments, Matisse bought three of them, continuing to work in this vast space until the end of his life. He and his wife are buried in the nearby cemetery.
Slightly lower down the hill from this majestic edifice is Le Petit Palais. We arrived that first day, wet, cold, and a bit dispirited, but the welcome was just as warm as it had been cracked up to be in the glowing reviews. An excellent margarita whipped up by Kevin put colour in our cheeks. We quickly succumbed to the hotel’s charm, its soothing décor of pastels contrasting with exotic wall papers, the tranquil garden oasis outside, the unhurried pace – all induced a feeling of relaxation and well-being.
Each evening, after our daily hike, we would retire to our room with its view across the rooftops to the bay and the coastline. Wrapped in fluffy bathrobes we would recline on the cloud-soft mattress, like Madame Matisse taking her siesta; as we drifted off to sleep, painted bluebirds and peacocks spread protective wings (and tails) above our heads.
But perhaps most charming of all was the human touch. Many reviews mention the ‘family atmosphere,’ generated through the warmth and conviviality of the personnel. And indeed, getting to know Philippe, Daniel and Kevin on the front desk, Christina and Emmanuelle in charge of the dining room, we had the impression of being privileged guests at the home of long-lost relatives (the cultured, aristocratic branch) where hospitality and l’art de vivre were the mots du jour.
It’s impossible to spend time in Nice without becoming aware of its Italian roots. Through its geographical position, it was fated to be one of those territories disputed by different kingdoms and dynasties. Though it became French in 1860, there was much local resistance, encouraged by famous general and son of the city, Giuseppe Garibaldi, but such protests were finally quashed by French troops sent in to put down a three-day uprising in February 1871 – the ‘Niçard Vespers’.
Today, though, the Italian connection is still much in evidence. The border is a mere 42 kilometres distant; the architecture in the two main squares, Garibaldi and Massena, bears an unmistakable Italian stamp with its red, yellow and ochre façades. Despite the bustle, the downtown vibe is pretty relaxed; on the café terraces, a popular drink is Aperol Spritz, a prosecco-based aperitive, more salute than santé. It all makes for an irresistible blend – ‘the sweet life’ – or as they say it so well in both Italian and French, la douceur de vivre, la dolce vita…
‘May this year be happier than those which preceded it; may peace, repose and health be yours in place of all the fortunes you do not possess but which you deserve; in short, may your future days be woven with silk.’
As my New Year’s greeting to readers, I can’t think of better words than those written by Madame de Sévigné to her cousin Le Compte de Bussy-Rabotin in January 1687. They are also a fitting introduction to today’s blog, which gets passionate about letters, and teachers.
There’s currently there’s a bit of a revolution going on at La Poste, France’s postal service. Reduced delivery services, the abolition of the famous ‘timbre rouge’ (first-class stamp), replacing it by a more ‘environmentally friendly’ on-line service – these and other changes have provoked cries of outrage from users, and even an article in The Times, asking if this spells the end of ‘three centuries of glorious correspondence’, of ‘wonderful epistolary prose’ much of which has made its way into print for the delight and education of future generations.
I am an ardent reader, and writer, of letters. On the book-shelves are the collected letters of Flaubert, Monet, Tolkien and others; piled up on another shelf are boxes labelled: ‘Letters, 1980s, Letters, 1990s’ etc. Some of the oldest are from my grandmother, whose blue airmail missives regularly crossed the Atlantic, recounting family news and dispensing such gems as ‘I hope you are keeping well my dear take a good stiff glass of Andrew’s or Enos in a morning to clear your stomach, inner cleanliness you can’t beat it and you feel on top of the world.’ (In a similar elan of more appealing prophylactic advice, Madame De Sévigné wrote to her daughter ‘If you are not feeling well, if you have not slept, chocolate will revive you.’)
One famous writer, and one letter in particular, have been much on my mind in recent weeks.
In November, returning to my (never-ending) Work in Progress, I encountered an unforeseen problem. The manuscript is peppered with quotes from favourite authors and artists which I had naively thought I could share under the terms of what is known as ‘fair use/fair dealing’ i.e. the right to use short quotes by authors still under copyright. Further research sent me plummeting down a legal rabbit hole. Loosely speaking, most writers who have been dead for more than 70 years (UK and France) and 50 years (USA) are considered to be ‘in the public domain’ (i.e. can be freely quoted). There are, however, exceptions; and for works still under copyright, the definition of ‘short quotations’ is open to interpretation.
For the past couple of months I’ve been writing to various publishers about permission to quote from copy-righted works. Their replies have ranged from two sentences sent via i-phone citing a hefty fee to responses of a more compassionate nature. In particular, one publisher has been a shining beacon in the best of the French ‘belles lettres’ tradition, albeit in the form of ‘beaux e-mails’. This is the Editions Gallimard, with whom I have been engaged in the most sympathetic and gracious of correspondence about permission to quote from a letter by Albert Camus.
Camus died in a tragic accident 53 years ago this month, aged 46. In 1957, three years before his death, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for ‘his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.’ (His exquisite acceptance speech – humble, generous, immensely moving – can be heard here, with an English translation here.)
On receiving the news of this honour, Camus wrote first to his mother, then to his former primary school teacher, Louis Germain, both of whom were of great significance in his life. Camus was still a baby when his father, an agricultural worker, was killed in the First World War. He was brought up in Algiers, in a poverty-stricken household ruled by his grandmother; his illiterate, partially-deaf mother earned a meagre income as a cleaner. For the young Albert, school was an escape, a sanctuary from the bleakness of his existence at home (in Le PremierHomme, referred to below, he describes poverty as ‘a fortress without a drawbridge’). Throughout his life he remained devoted to the man whose teaching had lifted him out of such a fortress, and to his mother, who believed in the opportunities offered to her son through an education which she had been denied.
The special bond which existed between Camus and Louis Germain is beautifully illustrated by their correspondence between 1945 and 1959, recently published by Gallimard: ‘Cher Monsieur Germain,…’, (Editions Gallimard, Collection Folio, May 2022) in which Camus continues to address his former mentor as ‘Cher Monsieur Germain’ and the latter replies ‘Mon cher Petit’. (In a letter of 22 November 1957, Germain recounts how profoundly touched he was to read Camus’s letter, saying ‘To me, you’ll always be ‘mon Petit’, in spite of Mr Nobel’).
The book also contains a chapter from an unfinished autobiographical novel, LePremier Homme, in which Camus describes his childhood in Algiers, and the experience of going to school. ‘Monsieur Bernard’ (Germain) is the teacher who opens new worlds to his pupils; in the magic of his classroom, the young ‘Jacques’ (Camus) flourishes, eventually passing the scholarship exam enabling him to continue his education at the lycée.
The part where ‘Monsieur Bernard’ goes to see the mother and grandmother of ‘Jacques’ in order to persuade them of the worthiness of allowing the 9-year-old to continue his schooling rather than finding a job, is so beautifully written I defy anyone to read it and remain dry-eyed. The publisher notes that this special edition, in which, for the first time, the correspondence appears in its entirety, stands as an homage to the magnificent bond of gratitude and tenderness linking the two men.
The ‘Nobel Letter’ written with Camus’ characteristic humility and gratitude, asserts that he would never have become the man he was without the generous and helping hand that Monsieur Germain held out to him as a poor child. It has become a touchstone of belief, a credo for teachers and educators. On April 30th 1959, Germain writes about his guiding pedagogical principles, one of which was the conviction that each child should be allowed to find ‘his own truth’– by which I take him to mean a conviction that education is not the same as indoctrination.
Camus’ words came to the forefront of national attention in October 2020 when France was reeling after the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamic terrorist. Paty was given a national homage at the Sorbonne, symbol of the Enlightenment; one of the texts read out at the ceremony, by request of the family, was ‘Cher Monsieur Germain…’ It was a reminder of the inestimable value of education and freedom of speech and the importance of defending them; on a more personal level, it touched a chord with teachers everywhere, recalling the sense of achievement and special joy that comes when students express their gratitude, especially in the form of a letter.
Letters can be kept, and re-read; in my case, those from students have been preciously preserved along with Grandma’s airmails. In some cases they have been joined by further correspondence from the authors, including wedding invitations and announcements of births.
One such series is from a former student in the USA, now a grandmother. In this year’s Christmas greetings and family news roundup, she shared a memory:
‘You know, I remember so fondly the way you brought in fun and current ideas to our French class – it was just right for 13-year-old girls!…It does my heart good to stay in touch.’
It does my heart good too, dear Pam, and those words came at a time when I needed to hear them.
Shortly before Christmas, a cherished friend, with whom I’d worked for more than 20 years, died too soon and too suddenly. His widow and children asked me to speak on behalf of his former colleagues at the funeral service. Struggling to compose a eulogy that would do him justice, I recalled something Camus had said in his acceptance speech in 1957: Les vrais artistes ne méprisent rien, ils s’obligent à comprendre au lieu de juger (True artists scorn nothing, they make it their job to understand rather than to judge.) Our friend, as well as being a teacher, was also an accomplished musician and respected choirmaster. The open-mindedness, intuition and empathy necessary for such a role were qualities which also made him a remarkable communicator in the classroom. Even after he took on the many responsibilities of Head of Department, his office was always open. His generous spirit and lack of pretentiousness were of great comfort for those in search of advice or simply a sympathetic ear, his enduring sense of fun and joie de vivre a tonic for those in need of cheer. He was also a great believer in the importance of education and its power to transform lives.
There’s a common saying, taken from G.B. Shaw: ‘Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.’
There’s another, this one attributed to Victor Hugo: ‘He who opens a school door closes a prison.’
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Michael O’Donoghue, closer of prisons, happy man, husband of Marie-Hélène, father of Emilie and Raphaël, grandfather of Nina and Edwin. Cher ami, we miss you.
Thanks to Elizabeth, for sending the Times article, and sincères remerciements to Monsieur C.G. at Gallimard.
Book news!!! Congratulations to the wonderful Helena Whitbread, who this month received an Honorary Doctorate from The University of Sheffield. An appreciation of Helena’s work can be found here
The father of the modern novel died one hundred years ago this month, November 18th 1922. I’ve already got passionate about his hawthorn; today it’s time for that iconic madeleine.
‘Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure.’
‘For a long time I used to go to bed early…’ so begins the first volume of A la recherche du Temps Perdu, the stupendous 7-volume work relating the author’s journey of self-discovery through his reflexions on time, memory, art and love.
These early pages describe the young Marcel’s holidays at his grandparents’ country house in Combray as he remembers them. They are dominated by the psychodrama that played out each evening, the narrator’s ‘bedtime torture’. Dinner was served indoors or, when the weather was fine, in the garden behind the house. But whatever the setting, the young Marcel would be filled with dreadful anticipation of the inevitable moment he would be sent off to bed. While bedtime can be a source of anxiety for many children – ghosts in the dark , monsters under the bed – Marcel’s ‘hours of anguish’ arose from the hours of separation from his mother, and in particular, the thought that she might be prevented from coming up to give him his bedtime kiss. (What would his contemporary, Sigmund Freud have made of this?) One of the regular guests who unwittingly thwarted Marcel’s felicity by retaining his mother à table, was their neighbour, Monsieur Swann, later to exert a profound influence on Marcel’s life.
The real significance of these childhood holidays, and how they set him on the ‘two paths’ of self-discovery, would only be revealed later, in the famous episode of the madeleine. ‘For many years, Combray had only existed for me insofar as it concerned the theatre and drama of my bedtime,’ the author tells us, before launching into what is surely the most well-known passage in the entire 3000 pages. A tired, depressed Marcel arrives home one dreary winter evening. His mother suggests a nice cup of hot tea accompanied by ‘one of those short, plump cakes called ‘petites madeleines’, which look as though they have been moulded in a ridged scallop shell’.
He breaks off a piece of the cake, dips it in the ‘tea’ (an infusion of lime blossoms, ‘tisane de tilleul‘) and raises the spoon to his lips. Immediately, an extraordinary thing happens: it’s as if he’s received an electric shock. A shudder runs throughout his body, followed by an intense, exquisite sensation of expanding pleasure. His existential doubts and anxieties vanish, replaced with a joyful optimism.
Mystified, Marcel struggles to identify the source of such powerful emotions; the answer eludes him, until, at last, he feels something shift and break loose inside him, becoming ‘unanchored.’
It is a memory. In ‘a Proustian rush’ he is once more in Combray, but this time the neurasthenic, sickly child waiting for his mother’s kiss is replaced by the Marcel of Sunday mornings, going to say hello to Great Aunt Léonie. This famous widowed aunt is a malade imaginaire – a hypochondriac confined to bed with a mystery illness and whose ‘inadvertent’ death serves to comfort in their opinion not only those who had always believed her strict confinement would finish her off, but also those who believed she really did have a fatal illness. During the holidays, Tante Léonie has an unvarying Sunday breakfast ritual: summoning her great-nephew to her bedside, she dips a madeleine in her tisane and gives it to him to taste.
Unlike memories triggered by visual and auditory stimuli, those associated with our sense of taste and smell linger on when everything else has died. Proust calls them ‘fragile souls’ buried deep within us, waiting to be discovered. In a beautiful image he describes them as ‘remembering…hoping, on the ruin of everything else, bearing unflinchingly on their scarcely perceptible droplet the immense edifice of memory.’
The chapter finishes on a breath-taking wave of poetic intensity as Marcel experiences the full force of this ‘involuntary’ memory. His perspective on the ‘old days in Combray’ is transformed; the narrow ‘panel’ of the house and his bedroom expand into a vast panorama. First the entire house appears, ‘ the old grey house on the street’, then ‘the small extension at the back built for my parents, opening on to the garden, then the town, from morning till night, in all weathers, the square where they sent me before lunch, the streets where I ran errands, the paths we set out to walk when the weather was fine. And, as in the Japanese game where shapeless bits of paper are dropped into a china bowl full of water, then begin to unfurl, spin, infuse with colour and finally become distinct shapes – flowers, houses, solid and recognisable people – so now appeared all the flowers in our garden and the park of Monsieur Swann, the waterlilies on the Vivonne, the good people of the village, their cottages and the church, and all Combray and its surroundings, the whole, town and gardens, emerged into solid shapes, out of my cup of tea.’ *
What Proust is describing is something that is familiar to us all, but the way he describes it is unforgettable. Those fragile ‘souls’ of taste and smell have the power to resuscitate ‘an old dead memory’, to cause an entire world to unfold and bloom in the mind’s eye with the same magic as those paper flowers in their bowl of water.**
For one brief, glorious moment the ‘lost’ past detaches from ‘the immense edifice of memory’ to join the present: time stands still.
Marcel Proust, 10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922
* Caveat: my own loose translations of the original text.
** I’ve come across different queries about these Japanese flowers on Internet. In the last half of the 19th C there was a craze for ‘japonisme‘ in France (la folie japonaise). Such flowers seem to be impossible to find nowadays, but as one British poster said, they used to be a Christmas stocking staple in the 1970s. You can still buy Chinese flowering tea, a similar concept.
It’s official – the world has gone mad. Real wars with tanks and rockets, political wars, economic wars, vaccine wars, culture wars, and eco wars, in which privileged middle-class dimwits consider hurling mashed potatoes and tins of tomato soup at inanimate works of art to be an act of heroism akin to standing up to Iran’s morality police. ‘I definitely did feel scared,’ said one of the ‘Just Stop Oil’ pair who threw tomato soup over Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. Ah, bless. And, as The Times revealed, these heroes are funded by, among others, heiress Aileen Getty, granddaughter of J Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, and, wait for it, former oil tycoon…
As autumn arrives in our hamlet we are glad to be far from the madding crowd and enjoying the douceur of the countryside. Our local heroine is La Dame Guiraude de Lavaur, who in 1211, dared to defy Simon De Montfort’s brutal troops by offering her protection to the persecuted Cathars. For her courageous stance, she was given to the crusading soldiers, raped, thrown down a well and stoned to death.
EXTRACT: FROM NETTLES TO NIGHTINGALES:Hedge Planting and Meadow Makeover
In 2012 our garden was showing some signs of becoming the Mediterranean paradise we’d envisioned in the nightingale-induced Epiphany of our first night at The Cowshed. The next pressing task was to plant hedges. A shift was taking place in the countryside; as small farmers grew too old to work the fields, they would lease or sell. The new owners, with their giant machines, had ripped out some of the old hedgerows, causing mud slides down the hillsides as well as removing natural habitats. Our new ones would not only serve as attractive boundary markers, they would make an important contribution to wildlife propagation and diversity, providing leafy habitats to numerous creatures – the nice ones, of course, birds, rabbits and maybe even hares.
In the spring of 2012 I was strolling down the chemin when I noticed a bizarre scene in the bare field on the left. Two dogs were standing on their hind legs having a fight. A closer look revealed the dogs had very long ears and white tails…mad March hares having a boxing match! What a thrill! It was the first time I’d ever seen a hare, let alone a pair of them knocking the stuffing out of each other, their forepaws a blur of movement. In the years to come, we saw many more, and during the summer of 2020 when a serious drought descended on Occitania, we were treated to another magical experience.
By then our hedge plants were fairly well-established, but the unprecedented long spell of dry weather was taking its toll, calling for regular watering. Though the sun had gone down, it was still stiflingly hot. The MDM was on watering duty, gazing up into the purple dusk trying to spot a UFO, not paying much attention to the garden hose in his hand. But as he moved further up the field, he glimpsed something on the grass under the bush he’d just soaked. Looking more closely he made out three baby hares – leverets. They were in their ‘nest’, a shallow indentation aptly named a ‘scrape’, fitted together, head to toe like slippers. They were almost invisible, having obviously paid attention to Maman Lièvre when she told them to flatten their ears and not to twitch a whisker throughout the long hours of her absence. So there they lay, freshly showered, their huge almond-shaped eyes standing out from their drenched fur. I was beckoned over, and we stood for a few moments in entranced silence. Obviously the temptation was to pick them up and take them back to The Cowshed for a cuddle and a saucer of warm milk. But, nature having its own laws, we knew we had to leave them where they were, praying the owl didn’t pay a midnight visit. The next morning all three were gone, which we took as a sign that Maman had decided to do a moonlight flit to a drier home with her three babes rather than contemplating a more bloody scenario.
Another astonishing encounter with a hare occurred in the spring of 2021. Due to Covid, our quiet hamlet had become even more wild and unfrequented. I was ambling along the chemin as usual, pausing to admire the new foliage and the first traces of green on the fields, when a leveret hopped out, a couple of metres ahead. I immediately adopted a tree impersonation, resisting the temptation to get out the phone and take a picture. The babe hopped almost to my feet, then tilted its head. After staring at me for a few seconds, it suddenly performed a vertical take-off, leaping into the air from all four feet.
This impressive feat was followed by a virtuoso dance routine. It twirled, pirouetted, threw in more of those amazing standing jumps, turning to look coyly in my direction after each move. Nobody puts Baby Hare in the corner! I was so excited that when it took its final bow and shot off, I tried to capture it with the phone camera-too late!-then rushed to the neighbours to describe what had happened. Did hares dance? Had they ever seen anything similar? The answer was no, and the way they were eyeing me I got the impression they were wondering if I’d abandoned my usual croissant and coffee that morning in favour of a demi-saucisson and half a litre of vin blanc…
Others who gave a vote of approval to our hedge scheme were the deer, who, in later years, liked to breakfast on the new shoots of one of our most spectacular dogwoods. They were a rare sight, so we resisted putting up protective netting even though the dogwood ended up lopsided.
In charge of the meadow’s new look was our tree whisperer, Munns Le Magnifique. Along with his buddy, Patrick Le Pelletier, he dug out three long trenches marking our boundaries, then levelled off an area at the foot of the slope. This marked the first step of our next project – the Sunset Terrace.
Since the nightingale had returned to our garden in 2012, his favourite opera house was the fig tree at the bottom of the field. Our idea was to create a sheltered spot where we would be in the front stalls for the performance, as well as ideally placed to watch the spectacle of the sun setting behind the medieval village across the valley. Going for the Full Romantic, we planned a small olive grove next to the terrace, complete with poppies and wild thyme.
Neither the MDM nor I knew much about the best shrubs for hedges. Many local gardens were surrounded by magnificent thickets of box and yew, but as these had taken 150 years to grow, something faster was required.
We called a meeting with Le Magnifique who, as usual, had his own ideas. Each evening he would email a list of suggestions, and I would look them up on the internet. The result was three splendid mixed hedges, deciduous and evergreen, full of scent and colour. Most of the bushes were unfamiliar to us: silverberries, or oleasters, fragrant-leaved shrubs found near the Mediterranean; osmanthus, another scented evergreen, this one from East Asia; a variety of dogwoods; Cotinus, called the smoke bush in English, (no guesses for what their large flowers look like); Ligustrum, a variety of privet; Spirea, known by the lovely name of meadowsweet in English, covered with pretty sprays of pink and white flowers….the list went on.
They didn’t look like much when they went in. The project was another big financial investment, so we’d opted for ‘slips’, fragile, twiggy things which gave no hint of their future splendour. In total, there were 56 of them, producing beautiful surprises over the years for all four seasons. Once they grew to maturity, we would stand on our hilltop, looking down at the meadow, listening to the rustle of leaves, imagining the hares sleeping in the moonlight and the deer crossing in the pale dawn, and hope that others, after us, would find the same pleasure in the sight, and perhaps see ghostly traces of our footsteps in the dew.
BOOK NEWS…..BOOK NEWS….BOOK NEWS
Fans of John Dolan will be thrilled to hear his latest book is out, and it’s a stunner. Land OfRed Mist, a work of historical fiction, completes the cycle of books which make up the 7- volume Time, Blood and Karma and Children of Karma series. Grab it here and here. For thriller fans who haven’t yet discovered this addictive series, start with the first book, Everyone Burns: ” a corker of a detective story…by the time I finished the novel, I was panting for more.” (Robert A. Cohen, Amazon review).
P.S. In my last blog, July 2022, I was looking forward to building sandcastles in August with my great-nephews. The Fates intervened, and for the last two months I have been strapped up with a fractured humerus, unable to write or build sandcastles…the boys had fun, though! Happy to be back in the blogging saddle once more….carpe diem, and stay upright 😉
It’s full blazing summer in the Tarn and devoted followers of this blog (friends, family, the neighbour’s Great Aunt Brigitte and the lady on the cheese counter at SuperU) may have been wondering what’s been happening since February.
That month’s blog included an extract from Chapter 28 of my never-ending Work in Progress From Nettles to Nightingales. Readers may recall the author’s heroic tussles with this Demon Shape Shifter of a memoir. ‘When will it be finished? Who knew it would be so hard?’ I moaned in July 2021. This year’s attempts to tame the beast have included garlic-waving and spear-wielding while singing Running Up that Hill in falsetto (you can learn a lot from Netflix). As spring arrived, social life ground to a halt, the writing tunnel got deeper and I joined a Facebook group (see my thanks in the P.S.) which kept me going when I wanted to lie down and sob.
One day (maybe in March, it’s all a blur) I actually typed the magic words ‘The End’, thus breaking a cardinal rule: Never Ever Tempt the Fates. For, to borrow Winston’s famous words, ‘The End’ was not actually the end, it was not even the beginning of the end…More, and sterner, challenges lay ahead. Read on…
In Chapter 6 of the book, I write about how the installation of a wood-burning stove (poêle) in The Cowshed led me to muse on the story of René Descartes, whose eureka moments occurred in a series of dreams when sleeping in his ‘poêle’ (a small room heated by a stove). The resulting masterpiece was Discourse on the Method, published in 1637 and which established Descartes as the father of modern rationalism.
‘Sitting in front of our very own poêle on chilly evenings, the MDM (Maître De Maison) and I had often found ourselves dozing off. So far neither of us has had a eureka moment and become a famous philosopher. (We’d settle for a dream about the winning lottery numbers). But I’ve occasionally mused on the idea that the Cartesian mindset, ‘cogito ergo sum’, the notion of eliminating all possible doubt by a process of reasoning before accepting the truth of something, has shot down in a straight line through history to lodge itself in the head of the MDM.
In contrast, winding and looping down into my head over the years and making a cosy nest there are the observations of another great Frenchman, an accidental philosopher writing about life the way he sees it in a series of rambling, digressive ‘loose sallies of the mind’ (to borrow a definition from Dr Johnson).’
I was referring to the mighty Michel De Montaigne, whose Essays, published in 1580, have frequently been mentioned on this blog, and about whom Nietzsche observed ‘The pleasure of living on earth has been increased by the fact that such a man wrote.’
The point of the above, as it relates to my tussles with the Shape-Shifter, is this: perhaps one reason I’m drawn to Montaigne’s work as opposed to that of Descartes is because I am not a rational, organised writer (or indeed person) who goes about things in a linear fashion with a lot of cogitos and ergos. Consequently, when I came up with a plan for a non-fiction book three years ago– a short, easy-to-write, easy-to-read memoir about how the Maître De Maison and I moved to rural France and created a garden from a wilderness – I felt extremely pleased with myself. I even went as far as to write a chapter outline based on diary entries, photographs and emails to friends. Eureka! I was going linear!
The problem was, my subconscious had another plan, a non-linear ramble more like a drunken weave that wandered off down all sorts of paths, historical, geographical, cultural, linguistic, literary – in short, a Rebel that blew raspberries at my neat timeline, tempted me with honeyed words and siren-songs, and when I resisted, bellowed the chorus from the Monty Python ‘Philosopher’s Song’, the bit that goes ‘René Descartes was a drunken fart/I drink therefore I am.’
Writing, at the best of times, is a solitary and demanding business. Authors must cope with obstacles and obligations – a day job, a family to bring up, the lack of quiet place to write, and so forth. In my case, I had neither day job nor children; I had a tranquil study with stunning views; at the end of the writing day I had the MDM flipping the burgers, mixing the margaritas and generally shoring me up.
But I faced other obstacles – writing in English while immersed in a French-speaking environment, and living in a small rural community where anglophone bookworms willing to discuss chapter development over coffee and hobnobs were thin on the ground. Adding to these difficulties was the Rebel Raspberry-Blower, whose subversive agenda had introduced an unexpectedly personal dimension into the story: the account of my mother’s final years, her declining health, and death. From writing about the excitement of new beginnings I found myself compelled to write also about the sadness of endings; about joy, and about sorrow.
The stark realisation came mid-March: I had two choices: chuck the manuscript on the compost heap or get professional help.
Enter the developmental editor.
Editorial services for writers fall into distinct groups, line editing, copy editing and developmental editing. Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the terms, the line editor checks things like syntax, word choice and clarity in sentences. The copy editor will focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, stylistic inconsistencies and formatting. The developmental editor is the Head Surgeon, looking at the big picture, head, shoulders, knees and toes, then delivering a detailed, in-depth critique on things like content, structure, quality, plot and character development, and market potential.
When I wrote my EFL book, I was working with one of the big publishers, Oxford University Press, and thus had a de facto editor. She turned out to be a godsend, transforming the manuscript and becoming a dear friend. I learned that the collaborative process with the right kind of editor is truly invaluable. The question now was: where could I find another Yvonne?
Set up in 2014, Reedsy is an on-line market place where you can hire freelance professionals, describing itself as ‘changing the way books are published by giving authors and publishers access to talented professionals, powerful tools, and free educational content.’
Browsing the numerous profiles, I submitted my proposal to a short list of five, finally choosing one whose professional background and enthusiasm for the project had the added benefit of a somewhat unusal work method. Instead of offering a detailed written critique followed by phone or video discussions, she proposed a form of mentoring lasting between four to six weeks. I would send one chapter at a time, she would edit and critique it, and I would write a revised version. At the end of the process she would read the revised manuscript in one ‘swoop’ and give a verdict.
There was a lot of word-shedding. We started with 106 000 words (which I had already whittled down from 108 000), and finished with 99 000. Parts where the pace flagged and I wandered off-piste were noted, and re-written. Structurally, chapters were moved about, merged together, renamed. The entire work became tighter, better-written and more focused, and a harmonious, somewhat arboreal 😉 shape grew around the central garden theme. The six weeks became two months. Seeing the book through a second pair of eyes made me stop and think; it was rare that I disagreed with her suggestions, expressed in a kind and encouraging manner, praising the bits she liked while being clear about what needed changing, and why, often with practical suggestions.
What an experience! Challenging, intensive, enriching, inspirational, and totally exhausting – I loved it. This, I thought, was what every writer needs – a patient, meticulous, empathetic and innovative editor who knows how to handle not just the manuscript, but the author, whose moods can range from black despair to full-on defensive prickliness.
So three rousing cheers for Tatiana Wilde, whose role in getting me to The Real End (Fin) will be fully acknowledged when the manuscript makes the next step, into print/ebook.
But that’s another story, another challenge, another day. Meanwhile, I shall be down at the Big Blue acquiring new skills as an apprentice sand-castle builder with my three great-nephews. Life is one long, learning process…
Bonnes vacances to all readers!
PS I’ve previously mentioned those amazing friends who stepped up as literary midwives when I was writing the French Summer Novels. During this last year, when momentum flagged, I’ve had support via a Facebook group called ‘500 words a day’. Thanks to all, in particular the ever-encouraging mods, E.M. Swift-Hook and Ian Bristow, and member Fabrice Rigaux who read and gave feedback on a difficult chapter about Paris.
Extract from Chapter 28From Nettles to Nightingales
As any gardener will tell you, autumn is bulb-planting time. I will go further and argue that those possessing the merest smidgeon of British DNA are driven to plant bulbs each autumn in the same way swallows wave ‘Bye Bye’ and head back to Africa. UK supermarkets are full of special offers, gaudily-illustrated catalogues from Holland drop through British letterboxes like bonbons, and Britannia-en-masse gets out trowels and kneeling mats. Why? Because for us northerners, bulbs are the eagerly-awaited signs of spring, bright harbingers after dark winter days.
I remember the whole Yorkshire family longing for spring. As early as February we would go outside and sniff the air, hoping for that faint delicious draught that heralds winter’s close. The change from light to dark, from death to rebirth, could be summed up by the biannual pronouncements of my maternal Grandmother. In autumn she would glumly observe ‘th’ neets are drawin’ in’ (trans: the nights are drawing in) while spring merited the cheerful pronouncement ‘th’ neets are drawin’ out.’ In neighbouring houses every scrap of garden, no matter how humble, would celebrate the event with a joyful show of snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, narcissi, tulips and primroses.
In Cambridge, where I later lived, one of the most iconic sights was ‘the backs’ of the colleges, in particular King’s. Every March, these placid green swathes of sheep-and-cow-dotted meadowland sloping gently to the River Cam and extending beyond as far as the road with copses of tall trees, would be invaded by camera-clicking tourists, angling for the perfect shot: in the foreground, the explosions of thousands of crocuses, daffodils and narcissi, in the middle, the river, bridges and willows, and topping it all off like a spun sugar wedding cake ornament in the background, the magnificent cathedral of King’s College.
In Toulouse, we’d always had spring pots of tulips on the terrace. At The Cowshed it was a different story. Some of our most spectacular garden failures had been bulbs. In 2013 we eagerly awaited the results of the ‘Buckingham Palace Tulips’ project. Envisioned as an arresting double row of proud, letter-box red blooms lining the north wall like guardsmen and causing farmers passing by on tractors to shout ‘boudiou!’ and doff their caps, the reality was a handful of thin-stemmed droopers falling nose first into the grass. Ditto for the drifts of crocuses (a grand total of 9 huddled in misery down the side of the slope) and snowdrops (what snowdrops?)
So, with my genetic heritage, why was the bulb initiative a total flop? Was it the climate? The terrain? Or could it be the past catching up with the Head Gardener, making her pay for former sins…was it, in short, Tulip Karma?
The awful truth was that, as a child, I had committed a flower crime. The shameful story was handed down from generation to generation, and the experience remains imprinted on my mind in lurid technicolour. The drama occurred at my grandparents’ house. My paternal grandparents, as recounted in an earlier chapter, lived in a one-up, one-down rented terrace property with their six children. My maternal grandparents on the other hand, by dint of scrimping, saving and only having one child, had risen in the world, finally able to buy a small terraced house with the luxury of an indoor bathroom. Along with the other families who had bought in the same street, this was the equivalent of reaching domestic Nirvana. Thirty-odd identical houses ran up the left-hand side of the street, another thirty-odd ran down the opposite side. At the back of each house were long, narrow gardens separated by low rustic fences, and which were on a par, Nirvana-wise, with the indoor bathrooms. In Grandad’s well-tended plots, not a weed dared to poke its head through the abundant clusters of flowers characteristic of the English garden – marguerites, hollyhocks, lupins, poppies – ending in a rustic arch covered in roses. The rectangle of lawn in the middle was cricket-pitch smooth and weedless. This garden was my kingdom: I was its miniature tyrannical ruler with two slaves. My mother being an only child, logic decreed that, as first grandchild, I should be hopelessly spoiled, cossetted and indulged, an angel who could do no wrong. At the bottom of the garden, next to the shed, Grandad had erected a swing; one of his jobs was to push the young angel up and down until his arms dropped off.
When Grandad wasn’t on duty, it was Grandma’s turn, telling stories as she sat in her chair on the lawn. In my earliest memories she is wearing dark glasses and a green eyeshade, like the ones worn by 19th C telegraphers. Born into a large family, she had contracted a lethal combination of chicken pox and diphtheria which left her with scarring on both retinas. Although kept off school for long periods, she was a smart, intelligent child who loved to read whenever her damaged eyesight permitted. By the time I came onto the scene, she was undergoing treatment with a specialist involving the application of drops and creams to burn off the scars. The results were variable; at times she was able to see well enough to read and write; on other, terrifying, days, she would wake up to find her world had dimmed to vague shapes and faded colours. It was only as I grew older that I understood what an indomitable spirit she had, living not only with this physical handicap but also the fear that one day a final darkness would descend and the colours would never return.
One of her favourite expressions, much-used to express her amazement and gratitude at having risen to the heights of a two-up-two-down residence with indoor toilet and garden, was ‘Ee! We live like fighting cocks!’ I had no idea what a fighting cock was, but dimly grasped that these farmyard creatures were living the high life, like their cousins, the pigs in clover. It was only later I found out the terrible truth–they were being fattened up and cossetted in order to take part in gladiatorial combats similar to those in the bloody arenas of ancient Rome! Much later I learnt that their French cousins didn’t fare any better, being fattened up with the express intention of ending their days in a pie, the French equivalent of Grandma’s exclamation being ‘nous vivons comme des coqs en pâte.’
Grandma was a wonderful story teller. All the old favourites – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears, were recounted in dramatic detail, with different voices. She also invented tales of her own, inspired by her new garden where she would sit in a chair, narrating wondrous events like a Celtic bard, while I sat on the grass, spellbound. As she nudged my imagination into realms of beauty and magic, flower kingdoms with fairies, princes and princesses, witches and wizards, all of these imaginary journeys became linked to that unique, grounded feeling of love and security imparted to children by the presence of a beloved human story-teller. Listening to Grandma’s voice, I could look around at the enclosed world of marguerites and Michaelmas daisies, all taller than me, and feel safe and happy.
So, Reader, what then possessed the little angel, that fateful day in the spring of her fourth year, to embark on a campaign of carnage and destruction?
A better question would be ‘who’? Also visiting his grandparents that day was a certain Brian, a year older than me and obviously destined to become a future leader of a satanic cult. As the grownups were busy preparing Sunday lunch, the devil-child Brian lured me away from the fairy kingdom and led me up and down the backs of every house in the street where we gleefully nipped off the tops of every blooming tulip in every spring garden. A red and yellow trail of disaster lay in our wake.
Naturally, the crime was discovered. The entire street came out to witness our walk of shame, marched along by outraged grandparents (the first time I had ever experienced their wrath) to apologise to every scandalised householder and injured gardener. As I sobbed out a litany of ‘sorry-I-promise-never-to do-it again’, the spawn of Satan trailed behind, bottom lip thrust out. His parting shot, accompanied by a look of false righteousness and a pointing finger was:
‘She told me to do it!’
Thus concluded my first life lessons about the wickedness of destroying beautiful things and the inconstancy of the male species.
‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’
Joyeux printemps to all, hoping for brighter days ahead!
(Since writing this, Storm Eunice has battered the UK, 1 million people without power and gusts of 122 mph wind have been recorded 🙁 so extra-special thoughts go to those across the Channel.)
Looking for something to read?There’s a treat in store with Sheila Patel’s latest book in her Aunt Sheila’s Pandemic Diaries Series: The Vaccine Strikes Back : ”the writing sparkles…” “genuinely funny but also touching in places…” “Brilliantly written account of the madness of the pandemic.” What are you waiting for?
Meanwhile, not far from the Singh’s corner shop in Bradford is Haworth, home of the Brontës and the setting for The Passage of Desire, which is FREE to download February 19, 20 and 21. Enjoy!
Today’s blog gets passionate about France’s ‘Little Tuscany’, our home for the past ten years. As 2021 draws to a close and a global pandemic continues to bring misery, we are lucky to live in a place where we only have to step outside to realise the world is still full of wonders. Here’s how it hit us that first autumn.
FROM NETTLES TO NIGHTINGALES: CHAPTER13 CHANGING SEASONS CHANGING VISTAS
“Autumn 2011. As former city-dwellers we took a while to adjust to the experience of living up close and personal with Big Nature. The geographic situation of the house meant that we were constantly coming face to face with arresting spectacles. Sitting at the edge of our plateau was like being in a planetarium, or a 3D IMAX cinema.
The vast expanses of earth and sky all around furnished a constantly-changing panorama – at eye-level, the gentle swells of the hills and valleys with their changing colours was cut through by sharp lines of trees and wedges of forests, the branches stark in winter and burgeoning with leaves in summer.
The sky above our heads would one day be a blinding cerulean blue pieced by a burning sun; the next, full of frantic commotion, rolling banks of clouds with black thunderheads, apocalyptic sunsets and fingers of God. In summer evenings a dusty golden light fell over the landscape, gilding grass and leaves.
Every time you stepped outdoors you noticed something had changed; the way the branches bent against the wind or the cloud shadows chased across the meadows, the way the sun’s rays lit up the new candles on the umbrella pine.
Growing up on the edge of Bronte country, I was familiar with the wide, open vistas where immense stretches of moorland reached to the horizon under the inverted bowl of the sky. But the vistas of Little Tuscany were different, full of complex geometry, Cezanne-like in the juxtaposition of their shapes. Nothing was flat; the landscape rolled or climbed or dipped or curved.
To reach the horizon your eye had to travel across irregular fields clinging to slanting hillsides and bounded by untrimmed hedges running up and down vertically or at extreme angles. Beyond were valleys, dark patches of woodland and clusters of habitations perched on hilltops.
As summer drew to an end that first year, we discovered autumn’s ambivalent moods. There were days full of glorious Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness, the smell of log fires, the crackle of fallen leaves underfoot and the promise of Dickensian Christmases to come. Others, damp and chilly, struck a more downbeat note, reminding us of the ‘sere, the yellow leaf’ into which our lives fall after their spring and summer.
For Paul Verlaine, poet par excellence of mists and half-tones, the season’s melancholy and sad landscapes were like a wound – the ‘long sobbing notes’ of autumn’s violins striking a monotonous languor into his heart in one of his most famous poems:
Les sanglots longs/ Des violons de l’automne/ Blessent mon cœur/ D’une langeur monotone.
One day that first September I opened the bedroom shutters and saw nothing except for the ghostly silhouette of brambles at the top of the slope. The panorama had vanished, the universe had shrunk. As the sun rose, the blanket of mist became translucent, each drop of moisture hanging in a shimmering web.
Little by little, a village began to emerge half-way up the sky, a church spire, blurred rooftops. Then the entire hilltop village became visible, floating like an Arthurian mirage in the middle of a lake. Colour was added, streaks of cobalt, and, from the east shafts of sunlight broke through to make the rooftop tiles glint, then turn into sheets of gold.This shifting spectacle continued for most of the morning.
The mist would sometimes lift completely, only to drop again with the suddenness of a stage curtain. At other times the different layers dissolved and re-formed in a sensuous ballet, revealing tantalising patches of countryside, coy folds and hollows, the corner of a field, before swirling veils would hide the scene once more. It was the first time I realised that ‘grey’ could be such an interesting and nuanced colour (fifty shades?) ranging from impenetrable sub-marine murkiness to a scintillating quivering silver, hinting at magical revelations- a witch, a wizard, a fairy, a goddess.
Later I saw a TV programme about a photographer called Simon Powell who roams the Welsh countryside trying to capture the phenomenon known to the locals as ‘dragon’s breath’, huge swirling clouds of vapour that sometimes hit the mountains and valleys of that country in the evenings and early mornings. Our ‘Little Tuscany’, a region of softer, more gentle undulations, offers a spectacle that is meridional rather than Celtic, magical and ethereal as opposed to dramatic and menacing.
“For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value,’ wrote Claude Monet.
Thinking of Monet’s numerous paintings of Rouen cathedral and northern haystacks, Turner’s eddying vapours of sea frets and industrial smoke, I envied the artists who were able to capture so compellingly such ever-changing, fleeting moments. For beings such as myself, possessing zero artistic talent, the camera is both a godsend and a curse. The faithful Canon has been called to do duty countless times in an attempt to capture just a hint of nature’s season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Sometimes this involved studied zooms and panoramas from the bedroom window, other times, eye-ball-to-eyeball confrontations with the elements, standing in the chemin clad in pyjamas and slippers, waving the smartphone in all directions.
Similar to our first misty morning experience was the day in February 2012 when I again pushed back the shutters, this time onto a world in black and white. It had snowed overnight; all around lay silent white fields broken by leafless hedges and the dark density of the oak wood. The chemin disappeared, the temperature dropped to minus 14 at night, our hamlet was cut off, and we were glad we hadn’t planted an olive tree in the field the previous October.
(Extract from my Work (Still!) In Progress: From Nettles to Nightingales).
For sumptuous visual treats this Christmas, take a look at the website of artist Gordon Seward, who has recently won two prestigious Prizes: the Prix Raphaël-Sennelier 2021 awarded by the Fondation Taylor-Paris, and the Prix Renée Asp 2021 awarded by the Académie du Languedoc Toulouse . Three cheers for Gordon and his Muse, Cécile!
And, as 2021 draws to a close, I once again hand over to Kurt Vonnegut:
“I am eternally grateful… for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.” (Timequake)
Happy Christmas to one and all, hoping you can raise a glass with loved ones to toast ‘the honour of being alive.’
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Albert Poyet, much loved husband of Françoise, who left us in September. A loyal and supportive friend for forty years, a scholar, a gentleman and an enthusiast who lived life to the full.
In a galaxy far away I once met a man who was working on an exciting revolutionary object to streamline our shopping experience. It was called a bar code and could transmit information through lines, or something, and the man’s name was Asimov, or something.
Fast forward to the early 1990s and a famous school for space engineers in southern France. It’s the end of year presentations, and our speaker is describing an exciting new revolutionary object called a mobile phone.
‘They will be small enough to slip into your pocket! Everyone will have them, even children! We won’t be able to live without them!’
By the time he’d finished most of the audience were rolling in the ailes.
This summer I became a barcode myself. All I had to do to prove my existence was to call up an image on that mobile phone I couldn’t live without and I could step inside the local café and sip a petit noir while the barcodeless were left outside, licking the windows.
Mind you, I was a bit worried about what might be lurking behind that image. To be precise, it was called a QR, not a bar, code and consisted of fuzzy dots instead of lines. I learnt on an age-appropriate site called Science ABC that ‘a QR code holds hundreds of times more information than a barcode.’
I first flashed my dots in public when checking into a hotel. The owner, nervously fiddling with his brand new bar-code reader, eventually managed to dock his gizmo with my gizmo. His eyebrows shot up.
‘Oh là là! ‘He said, eyeing me up and down ‘This is SO indiscreet!’
He gave a wink.
‘Don’t worry! Your secret’s safe with me!’
Mon Dieu, what was on there? The tattoo of Patrick Swayze on my left buttock? The arrest warrant that was out for the library book I never returned when I was at Uni?
I was born and raised a ‘no ID cards!’ Brit . Now I have a passport, a French ID card and (to date) three indiscreet barcodes, some or all of which I need to travel within borders, travel across borders, enter certain buildings or order a croque monsieur at the Café du Commerce. If I worked for the French Health Service, or for certain companies, I would also need them to keep my job. It’s hardly surprising that the ‘pass sanitaire’ (EU vaccine passport) has provoked violent demonstrations in European cities throughout the summer.
In the August blog I extolled the delights of a carefree break in the rural Tarn. A few weeks later, we discovered that travelling further afield has now become a nightmare.
Our freefall down the rabbit hole began in midsummer. I was pining for my UK family, not seen since 2019. In spite of COVID uncertainty we took the plunge and booked a flight to Edinburgh. Too bad if the traffic lights changed and we lost the money. I girded for administrative battle and hit the official websites. And clicked on the links. And hit more links, which led to…more links.
Before I knew it I was back to Page 1, which warned me if I tried to get out of the country WITHOUT THE RIGHT DOCUMENTS I was for it. Headmaster’s study, handcuffs, fines, Devil’s Island… I took a look at some internet travellers forums to see if anyone had managed to pass ‘Go’. Quelle horreur! Some still hadn’t arrived at the bottom of the rabbit hole after months!
‘I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time? ‘(Alice) said…’I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth…that would be four thousand miles.’
Others had become so entangled in red tape on the way down they were hanging mummified like the victims of Shelob’s web in Lord of The Rings.
Somehow we managed to hack through the red tape. We were haggard, but poised to go with smartphones, QRs, and 5 kilos of paper backups in case our phones exploded. Then Ryanair sent a message to say our return flight was cancelled. Next came a volley of identical emails saying we had to be at the airport TWO AND A HALF HOURS BEFORE CHECK IN NOT TWO HOURS and that it wasn’t their fault (true).
Fast forward two months.
Blagnac, Toulouse. Eerily quiet at this normally bustling airport. No sign of a check-in desk for Edinburgh. Spot a lady in a tartan scarf frozen in a traveller’s no man’s land pushing a trolley full of plastic document files .
‘Excuse me, are you waiting for the Edinburgh flight?’
After a ten minute filibuster I had learned that she’d a) only had one hour’s sleep b)arrived at the airport at dawn c) had been coming to France for 42 years and had never been so stressed even when she went all round the world to Australia on her own and d) her French friend’s printer had broken under the weight of all the forms he’d had to print out for her.
Meanwhile others had rolled up, all pushing their own trolleys full of plastic folders. An impromptu crisis cell was formed and documents compared. A man with a beard took charge.
‘Right, have you all got…’
1.Smartphone with QR showing EU vaccine passport? (Tartan lady didn’t have a smart phone. Collective gasp of horror. She feebly waved some crumpled papers.)
2.Smart phone with QR code of obligatory PCR test taken in the three days prior to departure? (Tartan lady got out her hankie.)
The Beard read out from the official instructions:
‘Does the information on the QR code match with the EXACT names as shown on your travel documents? If not you…’
Oh dear. My turn for the Naughty Step. The PCR test taken before departure showed my name as it appears on my UK passport. However, the EU vaccine passport QR code delivered by the French Social Security Administration back in June was in my maiden name (because they are French and that’s the way they do it). Politically correct British passports don’ t have maiden names on them. Ergo, I had also brought
-birth certificate bearing maiden name
-marriage certificate (two in my case), bearing various other names
-document bearing hyphenated maiden and married names certifying I pay property taxes in France, thus an upstanding citizen
– EU residency card (necessary to get back into France) bearing maiden and married names
– French driving licence, showing maiden name and ancient photo of bearer looking like startled fly head grafted onto human neck.
I also had a lucky rabbit’s foot but wasn’t sure it would get through Security.
Our Leader continued. ‘Do those returning to France, have the two-page ‘Sworn Statement’ to be filled in on day of departure saying they do not have COVID, have not been in contact with anyone who has COVID, do not have any of the following 12 symptoms?’
The dreaded PLF (Passenger Locator Form) had been the subject of much on-line angoisse. Its numerous questions can only be answered 48 hours before travelling – a nightmare for control freaks/those who live in rural areas with dodgy internet connexions. We were now in another book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Designed by John Bunyan’s love-child, the PLF is a virtual Slough of Despond intended to weed out the faint-hearted on their way to Palace Beautiful. One section is vitally important – the bit where pilgrims must enter the 12 digit reference number for the Day 2 COVID test they must take after arrival. (Any readers who have not fallen into a coma by now will realise that means TWO COVID tests within a period of five days, three in our case, actually because we were so nervous we took a home test in France the day before we went to the Pharmacie for the real one.)
I had discovered at the last minute that the Day Two test for Scotland is different for the Day Two test for England – there is only one approved provider charging £68 per test. Suck it up. I also discovered I had to provide an address in Scotland to which the Royal Mail could deliver the £68 tests. The instructions said:
‘Each test must be ordered for each travellers home address. You are not allowed to order tests to be delivered to your address for people who are not normally resident at your address’.
In the softening up queue at the airport, several passengers are now sobbing. Fortunately It is in situations like this natural leaders emerge. Within minutes we had all vowed to follow The Beard in affirmative action. If they didn’t let us on the flight we’d damned well glue ourselves to the tarmac. (The Beard hadn’t told us how to reach said tarmac from Departures Hall/ how to attain recumbent posture on it for those with dodgy hips/where the Superglue was)
Reader, we did it. Somehow our bedraggled little group made it without Superglue. We kept waving to each other and giving a thumbs up each time we got past another hurdle – check in security, customs, arrivals.
Our troubles were over, weren’t they?
Er no, as it turned out. But I will spare those who have got up to here and are hoping this is where they meet the four virgins of Palace Beautiful. I will draw a merciful veil over our attempts to register, and post off, the obligatory Day Two test, the hours spent, the kilometres trudged up and down the dozen Difficulty Hills in Edinburgh looking for a Priority PostBox.
No it isn’t you dumbell!
Instead I will post the photo of Inspector Rebus’s Oxford Bar, where on arrival we were able to have a drink sans QR code, and gear up for a great week of fun and frolics with the family. Yippee 😉
A code-less drink at Inspector Rebus’s favourite watering hole
In my last blog I described how in, May 2011, the MDM (Maître de Maison) and I moved from big city Toulouse to a four-house hamlet in rural Tarn, where a nightingale inspired us to turn a wasteland into a Mediterranean paradise. In October the same year, we found more garden inspiration during a stay at a B and B not far away: Cuq en Terrasses, in the village of Cuq Toulza.
We picked up lots of brilliant ideas for plants and landscaping while we were there but apart from horticultural enrichment the whole experience was so special we vowed to return as soon as possible.
Ten years later, in August 2021, we finally made it! It was everything we remembered, and more…..
Below is the story of that first visit to Cuq, taken from my current Work In Progress, From Nettles to Nightingales, The Story of a French Garden.
CHAPTER 5 October 2011
After a summer of intensive DIY, the MDM was still having problems with his swollen knee. In October he had an appointment with a specialist.
‘Do you want me to come with you?’ I asked.
I was just back from a trip to Yorkshire, feeling a bit tired after a 6 a.m. Ryanair flight.
‘No, no, you stay here, it’s just a consultation to see about treatment options’ (he’d been having massages) ‘he’ll probably prescribe more X-rays or something.’
Off he went, whistling.
He returned with a very pale face and a very thin knee.
The Doc had told him ‘It’s an ‘épanchement de synovie’, stop all massages’ before whipping out a giant horse-syringe, plunging it into the swollen joint and draining off several pints of brake-fluid. Before the stunned patient could stagger up from the table, the Doc whipped out a second horse-syringe: ‘This,’ he said ‘is hyaluronic acid -magic!’ Plunge!
When the MDM got home, he said:
‘We need a holiday.’
We took a look on Trip Advisor to see if there was a ‘hôtel de charme’ not too far away where we could recuperate and forget about the nettles and brambles outside. There was; and that is how we found ourselves at Cuq en Terrasses, recent winner of the award for France’s best B and B.
When we arrived we understood why.
Perched on top of a steep hillside, with dramatic views across the open countryside (more vistas!), this former 18th C presbytery has 6 acres of gardens featuring 300 different species of plants and shrubs. The website invites guests ‘to sit and contemplate the serenity of nature and discover its scents.’ Perfect. We had packed the camera, hoping to get a few ideas for our own scents and serenity in the future Mediterranean paradise.
Situated at the rear of the hotel, the gardens spread out down a vertiginous slope, which made the slope at The Cowshed look like a molehill. They ‘may not be accessible to persons with limited mobility,’ warned the website. The MDM took one look and declared he’d be lounging on the sybaritic bed in our room with a book while I carried out botanical explorations. I made my way downwards towards an orchard and vegetable plot, along winding rustic paths with rest areas to the side, arbours shaded by grapevines, secluded benches for sunset-watchers and all around the resinous smell of pines.
Who was the perfect gardener in charge of this slice of heaven? In a conversation with Philippe, one of our hosts, I discovered the ‘jardinier’ was in fact a ‘jardinière’ – a lady with green fingers and an eye for beauty.
Gardens aside, the rest of our experience at Cuq was just what we needed thanks to the passion and commitment of the two owners, the afore-mentioned Philippe – the wine expert – and Andonis – the inspiration behind the delicious and creative meals based on fresh ingredients from their garden and local producers. As well as running the B and B, they’re closely involved with the local community and organize an annual festival of classical music in the village church. In spite of their busy schedule they were welcoming, relaxed and at the service of their guests (some of whom had a lot of questions…).
Indoors the ambiance was just as magical as outdoors. The five bedrooms and two appartments have been lovingly furnished and decorated so as to give each one a unique character and style. We fell instantly in love with the elegant drawing room, dotted with easy chairs and sofas, full of books, paintings and flower arrangements. It had a strangely English feel to it, reminiscent of those aristocratic country manors of the 1920s where the Bloomsbury set would gather for a weekend of literary conversation and mah jong. You could easily imagine Lady Ottoline Morell swanning through the doorway wearing a Turkish robe and an ostrich plume, followed by Noel Coward waving an ebony cigarette holder (though I’m not sure what either of them would have made of the impressive collection of ‘bandes dessinées’ -classic comic strip albums- in one of the bookcases…)
In warm weather, guests dine outside on the terrace with panoramic views across the hills and valley, but as this was the end of the season, dinner was served indoors. Enticing smells wafted from the kitchen as we entered the dining room, noticing on our way an unusual item of furniture, one of those ancient pianolas you see in black and white westerns, the sort that’s playing merrily in the background when the hero kicks open the saloon doors and makes an entrance. Just as we were finishing our dessert we got a Cuq-style variation on this wild west theme: the kitchen door was flung open and Andonis, whipping off his chef’s toque, strode across to the pianola and launched into an astonishing one-man Julie Andrews fest, belting out all the old favourites -A Spoonful of Sugar, Chim Chim Cher-ee, Doe a Deer et al- with tremendous gusto.
Needless to say, everyone was delighted.
The French have a word for it ‘dépaysement’ – a change of scene so radical it’s like a dose of pure oxygen. We returned to The Cowshed enchanted, refreshed, and with 150 inspirational photos.
August 9th 2021
As we approached the top of the steep hill of Cuq Toulza it seemed as though nothing had changed since our visit ten years previously, except that this time it was full summer and boiling hot . As the MDM was backing the elderly Clio into the shade of a tree, the engine cut out and obstinately refused to start again. It was then we discovered that our hosts, in spite of their growing fame (the restaurant is now open to the public and has a Michelin award for excellence), were still the same old charmers. Seeing what was happening, Andonis left his saucepans and came to help us push the car off the road.
We soothed our frazzled nerves by plunging into the aquamarine pool in its pine- scented gardens before whiling away the afternoon on sunbeds, lulled by the song of the crickets. We were looking forward to dining al fresco this time, as well as discovering new delights in the highly-acclaimed restaurant.
The setting is dreamlike: tables were laid along the terrace which runs along the back of the hotel then meanders into a little glade where a series of secluded dining areas were lit by flickering candles. It was a perfect ending to the day, one in which to enjoy those two eminently French notions – le temps de vivre – time to savour the moment, to let the eye travel down past the cascade of greenery and linger on the sunset -and l’art de vivre – to partake of beautifully cooked and presented dishes served in an atmosphere of harmony and conviviality.
Merci Philippe, Andonis and the team! We will be back, hopefully before 2031…
The photos I took that October of 2011 would inspire us when we stood in front of our mini slope in the spring of 2012, newly cleared and forbiddingly bare. Two hundred and fifty baby plants went into the earth and seven trees were planted in a couple of months, the first steps towards the realization of our dream.
Book news! Book news! Congratulations to Paulette Mahurin on the publication of her latest historical novelOver The Hedge. 25 five-star reviews already 😉 More than 70 years after ‘the dark curse of Hitler’, this is ‘a story that needs to be told…’ and needs to be read, lest we should forget.
Ten years ago, in May 2011, the MDM and I said goodbye to our small flat (which we loved) in la ville rose (which we loved) to move to a converted farm-building in a four-house hamlet in the Tarn. The house was fully renovated but the ‘terrain’ which came with it could have been the perfect location for a WW1 film – a No Man’s Land of nettles, brambles, boulders, rusty iron rods and bits of old sink tumbling down a hillside into a neglected, treeless field.
That first evening, dragging chairs outside after an exhausting move in 36° heat, we were both wondering the same thing – had we gone mad? With stoic smiles and sinking hearts we raised plastic glasses in a toast to our new adventure.
It was very quiet on the hilltop. Our nearest neighbours were away; the insects and birds had gone to bed, leaving a vast, unbroken silence without a breath of wind or sigh of leaves. Beyond our wasteland, the overwhelming expanse of fields, hills, valleys, woods lay all around under an even more overwhelming, steadily darkening sky. Then, from the next door garden, the hush was broken by three long, pure notes, followed by a tentative trill, like a flute tuning up.
We paused mid-sip.
The air quivered, the invisible songster burst forth: opening bars like liquid honey, a distinctive bubbling melody, gathering force, then a gradual crescendo to a joyous, sparkling final aria.
I had heard a similar performance only once before, on a hot June night at a wedding in Provence. But once heard, the magic of the nightingale’s song is unforgettable. No wonder this small, dun-coloured bird, the Keatsian ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’ singing of summer ‘in full-throated ease’ sends poets into raptures. No wonder it inspires song writers swooning after a kiss in Berkeley Square. No wonder its song cured the Emperor of China. No wonder it found a path through the sad heart of Ruth, standing in tears amid the alien corn. No wonder my arms and legs broke out in goosebumps. I was so excited I jumped to my feet, almost knocking over the MDM and his ‘beaker full of the warm south’. Reader, I had an epiphany!
Before my eyes (a bit misty on account of the light-winged Dryad), the brambles and nettles vanished. In their place, a bountiful paradise sprang up: hedges of lavender, thickets of rosemary, golden-flowering gorse, pink oleander, wild thyme covered in purple flowers, sage, savoury…The wilderness was transformed into Eden; trees and bushes rose up, sun-drunk plants undulated down the hillside and spilled into the field, the field became a meadow, bejewelled with poppies, cornflowers and buttercups spreading as far as the ancient fig tree bursting with fruit. From this mirage a ghostly fragrance rose into the air, that unique, aromatic scent which spirals like incense over the Mediterranean garrigue on hot summer days. Our future garden!
A nightingale will do that to you.
It has done so every year since we moved. For ten springtimes, the rossignol philomèle has arrived punctually at the end of April. There are now hosts of rossignols, in the garden we’ve created, in our neighbours’ gardens, in the nearby woods. They sing day and night, casting their enchantment over the hamlet. Ornithologists have counted between 120 and 260 different sequences in their dazzling repertoire.
But Nature has its rhythms. April passes, then May, then June. The day dawns when we no longer hear the nightingales. In the cruel month of July, the beautiful songster falls silent.
Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades…past the near meadows..up the hillside…
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep?
John Keats: Ode to A Nigtingale
Now we must cross our fingers and wait for another spring, to sit among the lavender and oleander, among the thyme and the olive trees, listening for those first uplifting notes heralding one of nature’s marvels – the song of the nightingale.
Never heard a nightingale sing?
In this link you can hear it in all its matchless glory, and read the astonishing story of Beatrice Harrison, a cellist who in the 1920s played duets with the nightingales in her garden. On May 19th 1924 the BBC recorded such a duet, the first ever outdoor broadcast. During WW2 these broadcasts took on a special significance, boosting the morale of a nation at war.
Although we hope that our four households have encouraged the nightingale to return to our hamlet each spring, in England it’s a different matter. The nightingale population is dwindling. Here you can meet musician and conservationist Sam Lee and discover an annual event called Singing With Nightingales. His book, The Nightingale, (on my TBR list), published in March this year can be bought here.
From Nettles to Nightingales is my current work-in-progress, recounting the story of a French garden and its two novice gardeners. When will it be finished? The jury’s out on that. Who knew it would be so hard? Watch this blog-space and say a little prayer to the Muse for the exhausted author 😉