For me it was a story about a man called Mr Flop who was a flower collector. Mr Flop gathered up faded and dying flowers and whisked them off on a flying apple-tree branch (sort of prototype of Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000) to the Kingdom of Flowers where they ‘regained their lost beauty and perfume and became more beautiful than ever’.
I loved the idea, but even more appealing was that Mr Flop whisked off the young heroine for a magical visit to the Kingdom on his flying branch. And what was the young heroine’s name? Alice? Dorothy? Wendy? No, they’d already had their fun. It was Laurette.
In the September blog, “The Passage of Desire, behind every title a story, Part 1”, I talked about the book’s French connexion. While Part 2 is gently marinating, I’d like to share a bit of history about Halifax, the Yorkshire town where I was born, which lies 8 miles away from Haworth, the principal setting for the novella.
August 1st this year (Yorkshire Day) marked another Halifax ‘birth’, this one (unlike mine) accompanied by great fanfare and media attention: the newly-restored Piece Hall was at last revealed to the public. The Historic England website describes it as a Grade 1 listed building of ‘dramatic design’, a ‘rare surviving example’ of its kind, drawing particular attention to ‘the scale and architectural grandeur of this monumental cloth hall…’
We were on a visit to the UK, so went to see what all the fuss was about and found ourselves having a ‘back of the wardrobe’ experience. Stepping out of an ordinary street in a northern town, we emerged in Renaissance Italy. On the other side of the immense North Gate, a dramatic vista opened up, a 66, 000 square foot piazza, enclosed by two- and three- tier arcaded galleries in glowing honey-coloured sandstone. To the east, a perfectly Tuscan, curly-treed hill rose in the background, pierced by the dark Gothic spire of the Square Church. In the cafes spilling out on to the gleaming flagstones, shoppers and tourists sipped their coffee whilst admiring the play of light and shade.
The surrounding moorland is still dotted with sheep, those hardy creatures on whose fleecy back the wealth of the region reposed from medieval times to the Industrial Revolution. Wool became big business: today in the House of Lords, the Lord Speaker still sits on ‘the woolsack’, symbolising the importance of the commodity at that time. In the mid-18th century, cloth making was the biggest trade of three West Riding towns-Halifax, Huddersfield and Bradford. It was a cottage industry, with spinners and weavers working at home on handlooms, then taking the ‘pieces’ – 30 yards of woven cloth – across the moors, often by packhorse, to markets or cloth halls.
In 1774 a group of wealthy manufactures in Halifax met to discuss the creation of a new hall, a monument that would not only honour their flourishing commerce but also pay homage to Britain’s cultural and artistic heritage. They may have worn flat caps and talked with a funny accent, but those northerners appreciated a fine painting and could join in with the Hallelujah chorus with the best of them.
And so, on January 1st 1779, with much pomp, ceremony and a firework display engineered by the famous Signor Pietro and a clever pigeon*, the original Halifax Piece Hall opened its doors. Trading started the following day and, in the intimacy of its 315 small rooms, buyers and sellers could negotiate deals, inspired by the view through the elegant colonnades across the grand central court with its neoclassical architecture.
A century later, in 1871, the hall got a magnificent set of ornate iron doors, weighing 5 tonnes, which have also been restored. Their elaborately-worked panels show the town’s coat of arms, featuring the head of John the Baptist and the inscription ‘Halig Feax’, meaning Holy Hair, which gave the town its name. According to some historians, John’s head (which you will remember was removed on the orders of Salome, she of the 7 veils) somehow found its way to Halifax and is buried in the area. (We shall choose to ignore experts preferring a more prosaic explanation.) Above John’s head is the agnus dei, the lamb of God, tipping a wink at its brothers and sisters on the nearby hills, and among the different floral decorations are blooms which surely must depict the white roses of Yorkshire…
A final footnote: the hall had a long and varied history, finding itself about to hit the scrap heap in the early seventies. It was saved by one man, Councillor Keith Ambler, whose impassioned plea to preserve such an important piece of history finally carried the day. Chapeau, Mr Ambler. More fascinating details can be found on:
Today I’m very excited and honoured to be invited on that great blog for readers and writers, The Story Reading Ape. Chris Graham is Chief Ape, and here’s how he describes himself:
“My literature Hero is Terry Pratchett who, in one of his Science of Discworld books, postulated that Homo Sapiens Sapiens survived all the pitfalls that made other Homo Sapiens species become extinct, by being story telling apes.
If this is the case, then in order to be effective, for every story telling ape there had to be a story listening ape.
I am descended from them, except I read stories instead of listening to them; and authors are the tellers of the stories I read.
I don’t so much read books as devour them, (sometimes re-devouring them several times), so I’ve set myself a long term task, to list all the books I’ve ever read on Goodreads – trouble is I’ve got the memory of a sieve and I must have read thousands of them!”
Apart from his interviews with authors and links to free e-books, there’s so much more on Chris’s site, including dozens of posts about writing. I’d like to re-blog his article, but as followers of my blog will know only too well, I’m a non-techie, or a ‘TechnoKlutz’, in the words of blogger Loretta Livingstone. So as I can’t figure out how to re-blog the piece, here’s the introductory paragraph, plus a link to the full article.
Merci beaucoup Chris!
Meet Guest Author, Laurette Long…
Hello readers, I’m Laurette Long, author of The French Summer Novels and I’m writing this sitting in a garden full of rosemary and lavender, admiring the sun slipping behind the hilltop village across the valley and waiting for the nightingale to tune up. Before it gets dark I might stroll down the field to pick a handful of figs–making sure to stamp loudly to warn any sleeping snakes. Where am I? Sometimes I have to pinch myself. They say Life’s a journey. How did that journey take me from a council house in west Yorkshire to a hamlet in south-west France?
‘Alexandra had frozen. Juliet grabbed her friend and pulled her underneath a stone arch leading into a cobbled passageway.
Dusk was falling. They were both feeling panicky now, turning to glance behind them from time to time, their hurried footsteps echoing on the cobblestones. But no-one followed. The street had a deserted air, like an abandoned film set; the tall buildings that lined either side were dark and lifeless, no lights showing, the only illumination coming from old iron lamps hanging from brackets above closed doorways.
Somewhere a distant church clock chimed the hour. Cinq à sept. The expression sprang into Juliet’s mind. ‘Five-till-seven’, the name the French gave to that cloudy window in time between leaving work and returning to the conjugal home, those delicious, illicit hours when lovers slipped into nameless hotels and creaking beds, tasting together the forbidden fruit of adulterous passion
The end of the passage came in sight, opening on to another busy boulevard with flashing neon lights and lines of jammed cars. Increasing their pace, relieved now, they both glanced instinctively to the left where a light stood out, a solitary illuminated rectangle in the dark façade. To its right, a door stood half-open beneath a flickering sign. ‘Hôtel’. They stopped abruptly, unable to tear their eyes from the scene on the other side of the window.
Turning the corner, Alexandra exhaled, closed her eyes for a second then opened them. The glow of a streetlamp fell on the metal plaque affixed to the wall.
Passage du Désir.
The Passage of Desire.
(Extract from The Passage of Desire)
‘Passage du Désir’. What a perfect name for an imaginary street in Paris where two naïve young English girls glimpse an erotic scene through the half-shuttered window of a shady hotel…
Except that the street is real, and if you take a trip to Paris you can find it in the 10th arrondissement, not far from the Gare de l’Est Metro station, a narrow, ancient thoroughfare bisected by the bustling boulevard de Strasbourg.
Previously known as Allée du Puits/Impasse du Puits, (‘puits’ meaning a well), it acquired its current name in 1789. Why the change to a passage named Desire? A browse through the history books is an invitation to let your imagination wander. Was the passage, as some rumours have it, home to a ‘maison de passe’ (brothel) for officers in Napoleon’s army? A place where, for the space of a few hours, they could forget about the horrors of war in the soft embrace of a lady of the night?
A certain M. Lefeuve, in 1863, describes it as leading to a ‘place of pleasure’, referring to one or more of its small hotels in which ‘gallantry had set up shop’. Adding spice to the mix are the names of neighbouring streets: la rue de la Fidelité, la rue de Paradis – one the reward of the other? Or the two, alas, incompatible? And not far away lies the rue Saint-Denis, one of the oldest red-light districts in Paris.
But it was not while exploring the streets of Paris that I first came across the name. The Passage du Désir is part of the history of le Maître de Maison (MDM), whose role as Master of the House has been mentioned at various times on this blog (bat-catcher, dog-trainer, descendant of Périgord Man). It was in this cobbled passage that his grandfather (member of the Périgord branch) had found a place to live when he came to Paris from the country, in search of work.
Recalling visits to Grand-Père’s appartment in the late 1950s, the young MDM hardly gave a thought to the name of the street. Instead, these visits were marked by two vivid and unforgettable childhood memories: the Terrifying Ordeal of the Water Closet and the Unrivalled Pleasures of the Source.
The water closet ordeal was a trial that had to be endured when, after wriggling uncomfortably for ten minutes on a hard wooden chair in Grand-Pere’s gloomy kitchen you realised with a sinking heart that the inevitable could no longer be put off. You Just Had To Go. Along the narrow corridor, through the squeaking door, and into the dim recesses of the WC, in which was enthroned the ancestral toilet. But where was the cistern, with its handy little flush button you tugged on when you’d finished? This was a different set up altogether. A pipe ran upwards from the toilet bowl; at its top, amid the cobwebby rafters, lurked a menacing contraption to which was attached a rusty chain. The result, when you finally summoned the courage to stand on tiptoe and pull it, was a mini-explosion, a deafening roar signalling a torrent of foaming water surely unrivalled even by the mighty falls of Niagara (read about with interest in The National Geographic Magazine). Hearing the first distant rumble, you just had time to wrench open the door and run like the devil back to the kitchen, escaping yet again the perils of the whirlpool of Charybdis frothing up the sides of the bowl…
But the unpredictable hasards of bathroom trips were worth braving for the almost unbearable anticipation of what lay in store on the boulevard itself, before turning into the Passage.
Number 60, Boulevard de Strasbourg. Ali Baba’s cavern, an emporium of dreams for children big and small, packed with the most amazing, the most desirable, the most exciting objects imaginable. Flying machines, sailing ships, trains, steam engines, Dinky toys to drool over and yearn for, balsa wood models to build at home, spread out on a newspaper-covered table, pot of glue to hand…
You had arrived at The Source.
A La Source des Inventions.
To be continued….
I’d like to thank two very generous people I found on my Internet searches and contacted about re-using their photos. They both responded immediately, granting not only permission, but offering further help if needed:
-Patrice, who gave me all the photos from his Tripadvisor review of the Passage. Travellers, check out his reviews, plus his amazing collection of 25 000 photos, many of Paris, at
-Joël, who offered to re-scan the photos on his website to give me better quality images. Joël can be found at le Site des trains-jouets, a must for all classic model train enthusiasts (oh you Hornby fans), versions in English and other languages as well as French.
August means figs. Sunday means lunch. And lolling about doing nothing. The temperature’s a balmy 26° with a warm breeze, the terrace beckons…
The solution is an all-in-one Sunday lunch such as braised Guinea fowl with figs, sweet potatoes, shallots and garlic, put on to cook slowly while the chef enjoys a coffee or three with her feet up.
First, shoot your Guinea fowl (vegetarians stop reading HERE), or, like me, order one from the butcher, a free-range beauty with a red beak and black feet from the Gers, home of France’s finest poultry (OK, there’s those chickens from Bresse…).
Second, pick your figs, making sure to stamp feet loudly when approaching tree at bottom of field to warn sleeping snakes. Third, prepare the bird. In my case this means shouting ‘au secours’ to the Maître de Maison to come and remove head, feet and entrails. I have not yet got my Elizabeth David qualification in Close Encounters with Scaly Claws, Coxcombs and Gizzards, but in any case it’s the rational division of labour, the Maître de Maison having one branch of the family hailing directly from the Périgord and thus being genetically programmed to deal with the slaughter of woolly mammoths. A small bird poses no problem.
Today, though, he is grumpy as I have interrupted his artistic pursuits painting the shutters. So far he’s only done the undercoat; I’m half-expecting a frieze of leaping antelopes for the final version in sage green.
Once the bird is looking more presentable (your butcher will do this for you in advance if no Perigordians handy), salt and pepper the insides. Prepare the vegetables: peel sweet potatoes and chop into largish chunks, leave garlic and shallots in their ‘robe des champs’, their ‘field-dress’, i.e. with their skins on. For years I misheard this expression and imagined them cooking slowly in their dressing-gowns (robe de chambre). Throw giblets into saucepan to be eaten separately/used to supplement sauce and simmer till cooked.
Get your cast-iron casserole heating on stove with a small amount of olive oil and brown the bird on all sides. Ditto the veg, but hold the figs. Season with salt, pepper and sprig of thyme. Slosh in a dollop of something sweet, fruity and alcoholic and boil off alcohol over high heat for about two minutes. I used port this time, but have also tried with Madeira or sweet sherry. In French Country Cooking (1950) Elizabeth David* says ‘there is no French cooking without wine’ and her recipe for Duck with Figs begins: ‘Put 16 fresh figs to marinate in a half bottle of sauternes for 24 hours…’
After the alcohol has boiled off, stir in a cupful of water, put lid on casserole and place into a pre-heated 210° fan oven. After 10 minutes, take out, have a look, add a bit more water if necessary and put everything back again, this time at 180°. Cooking time will depend on the weight of the bird, use an oven-thermometer or, as a rough guess, 20 minutes to the pound and 20 minutes over. Mine weighed in at 2 kg and was ready in 2 ¼ hours. Check on progress every 30 minutes, turning the bird, adding water if necessary. Throw in figs for the last 30 minutes to allow to keep their shape and a bit of crunch.
Go and sit in garden and enjoy your coffee.
To serve: remove bird and veg onto warm serving platter, reduce sauce if necessary on top of stove, skimming off fat (these birds are quite fatty) and adding some of water from giblets. Serve sauce separately or ladle over meat. The sweet potatoes will have miraculously transformed themselves into a sort of chunky orange mash, flavoured with garlic, and the shallots will be deliciously tender inside their field-dress. Serve with a good red wine (we opened a Côte de Nuits).
NB: Before carving, you may want to fortify yourself with a Kir Royal.
Today’s post is a tribute to one of my heroines, Simone Veil. Since I started blogging in January 2015, it’s been a huge pleasure, an indulgence really, to write mostly in light-hearted vein about the things that interest me with no constraints of time or choice of subject. But occasionally topics would intrude that had to be treated more seriously, and today’s post has given me, to be frank, a major headache. How to reduce to 2000 (and a bit more) words a piece that conveys, in the best possible way, all the million things that needed saying about a woman who has been an inspiration for more than 50 years, not just to me, but to millions?
After 15 highly unsatisfactory drafts, here goes. Today would have been her 90th birthday. Tomorrow is le quatorze juillet, Bastille Day, the Fête Nationale here in France. As a very minor part of the celebrations, I’m happy to say you can download my book of blogs, A View From The Tarn, free from 14 to 16 July (details at the end of the post).
Bonne fête, bonne lecture and vive la France!
‘Nousvous aimons, Madame.’
With the three simple words ‘we love you’, Jean D’Ormesson, welcomed Simone Veil* to the ‘temple of the French language’, the French Academy, in March 2010.
On June 30th this year as news of her death broke in France, his sentiment was echoed in the tributes of an entire nation. In a world of political tarnish, Simone Veil gleamed gold. She was respected, adored, revered even. In the outpouring of emotion on June 30th, many said they were ‘in mourning’ for one who will remain ‘immortal’. Today, July 13th, would have been her 90th birthday.
Who was this extraordinary woman with an extraordinary destiny, a woman who, for the space of a few days, achieved the miracle of uniting a country renowned, particularly of late, for its bitter quarrels and divisions? The woman whose beauty left admirers lost for words, and who, with one look from her turquoise eyes could make grown men tremble and inspire adoration in those who had lost hope?
We all need role models, examples, people who set a standard, who inspire us to do our best. Heroes and heroines. Open any magazine and you’ll see the latest contenders. Personalities from the world of arts and culture, from popular entertainment. How many come from the world of politics? And how many will stand the test of time?
The Panthéon, in Paris, is the resting place for many who have left their imprint on French history: Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Jean Jaurès, Marie Curie, Jean Moulin…The latest to join them is Simone Veil, who, growing up as Simone Jacob, youngest of four children in a secular Jewish family living in Nice, could hardly have imagined that one day she would be laid to rest in their company, an inspiration for both men and women, a true French heroine.
Back to March, 2010. In the solemn ceremony marking the election of a new member to one of France’s most august institutions, Simone Veil, like those before her, wore the traditional costume of the Academy, ‘l’habit vert’, and carried the traditional sword. But her sword was engraved with a number: 78651. It was the same as that on her left arm, the tattoo she received on April 15th 1944, arriving at the extermination camp of Auschwitz Birkenau. She was 16. Although she would survive and go on to become a great stateswoman in the country from which she was deported, her mother Yvonne, her brother Jean, and father André would never return to their homeland. They were part of the six million murdered simply because they were Jews.
Two striking characteristics of Simone Veil were her humanity and her passion for justice. In her lucid and moving biography, Une Vie**, she says that her experience as a deportee gave her ‘an acute sensitivity to everything that, in our human relations with one another, leads to the humiliation and abasement of others.’ This awareness gave her a special perspective which rejected all extremes and aimed at reconciliation between often contradictory concepts. Nicolas Sarkozy, protégé and close friend, described her as ‘adhering to no ideology, having paid too high a price herself for the madness of ideologues.’ In a television interview she talked about ‘being on the left’ for some issues, ‘on the right’ for others. She was a traditionalist who believed in progress, a woman whose past was overshadowed by tragedy but who looked to the future with hope; in the words of D’Ormesson ‘la tradition même, et la modernité incarnée’ (the embodiment of tradition, and the incarnation of modernity).
Recalling that first terrible day at Auschwitz, she describes how she, her mother, and sister Milou, along with other women, were herded into the showers, then dumped onto benches, naked, while the ‘kapos’ paraded up and down in front of them, laughing, making humiliating comments about their appearance and prodding their bare flesh like housewives choosing meat at the butcher’s. ‘We were comic figures for a jeering audience,’ as another survivor put it. In an image which conveys the nightmare of those hours Simone Veil says it was like ‘the horror of suddenly finding yourself in a medieval painting, one of those where you are in the group of people who have fallen into hell.’
She never forgot the smell of Auschwitz–‘fetid, made up of rot and mud and the smell of the smoke from the crematorium…We lived enveloped in the permanent stench of burning’. (In a tragic parallel, my last post was about the Cathars who, 800 years previously, also paid the price of being different through relentless persecution and burnings.) What impression must all of this have made on a young girl who grew up ‘in a paradise’, breathing the perfumed air and sea breezes of Nice, that vibrant, beautiful city on the dazzling Riviera? As they were stripped of their possessions by the guards, one of her friends hung on to a small bottle of perfume. ‘They’re going to take it,’ she said. ‘But I’m not going to give it to them.’ And the young women splashed themselves from head to toe in Lanvin’s famous perfume, Arpège, a last gesture of defiant femininity before they would have to put on the rags of the dispossessed.
How did she, and others like her, manage not just to survive such a hell, but to find a way to go on afterwards, more victors than victims? This is a major theme of two outstanding novels written in 2016 by authors Paulette Mahurin and Anita Nasr***. It’s echoed in W. E. Henley’s poem of 1875, Invictus**** with its mantra ‘I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul’. Writing about the carefree ‘joie de vivre’ of her childhood, the warmth and unity of family life, her education in civic values, Simone Veil concludes ‘we received the best arms with which to face life.’ Elsewhere she talks about the human capacity to preserve the will to live, the strength to live. Her mother, who died of typhus on the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen one month before the liberation of the camps, remained an eternal role model for her daughter. ‘She was,’ she says, ‘good and generous…’ Simone was younger, harder, more of a rebel. She defended her mother from those who tried to steal her food and, on the terrible march through the snow, from those who tried to hang on to her for support. She only remembers crying twice, once when she was reprimanded by Milou, the second time when she found out her other sister, Denise, was still alive*****. What we experienced she says, was ‘beyond tears’.
The flint and the fire. It was this toughness and this baptism of fire that reinforced the ideals that would guide her through life, a respect for others and their differences, and a desire to create a better world where what she and millions had suffered would never be repeated. She would demonstrate time after time in her future career that her aim was not to please, not to follow a party-political line, but to listen to her conscience. And in a life of battles, the year 1974 would stand out, as she prepared one of the most controversial laws in French history.
But that was still in the future. In 1945 Simone Jacob returned to France where she discovered with bewilderment that many simply did not want to talk about what had happened. Even worse was the reaction in some quarters that, because she and other had survived, this was obvious proof that ‘things weren’t as bad as all that.’ For months she experienced a feeling of unreality and disconnection. Fortunately she was soon to meet the man she married, and who would remain her rock and companion for 67 years, Antoine Veil. With him she founded a family, and after the birth of her third son, she made the decision to return to her studies and a future career. (This was against her husband’s wishes, but Simone had a way of persuading people round to her ideas…)
The Simone of legend was on the move. Her initial fight, after becoming a magistrate, was to obtain better conditions for prisoners. But as she rose through the ranks to the post of Minister of Health in the new government of Giscard D’Estaing, she approached the first of the truly important battles that would stand out as landmarks in her personal career and in the history of France.
The country was changing. It had gone through the social upheaval of May 1968; the woman’s movement was gaining momentum. In 1971, a shock manifesto hit the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur magazine. Written by Simone De Beauvoir, it was signed by 343 women who all admitted to having had abortions. Their aim was to pressurise the government into legalising a risky procedure undertaken every year by thousands of women, those who couldn’t afford the price of a legal abortion abroad. In 1972 events took an even more dramatic turn when human rights lawyer Gisèle Halimi defended a 16-year-old girl charged with having an illegal abortion after being raped by one of her schoolmates.
Something had to be done. Giscard, and his Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, knew the topic was highly controversial for the majority of their party members. Who to entrust with the unpopular job of trying to change the law?
‘We can no longer close our eyes to the 300, 000 abortions which, every year, mutilate the women of this country’. These were Simone Veil’s words to a packed National Assembly consisting of 481 male deputies and 9 females on November 26, 1974.
There followed a marathon debate of unprecedented violence lasting three days and two nights. Melodramatic speeches and demonstrations took place. A recording of the heartbeats of a foetus was passed round the chamber, with the prophecy that the law, if passed, would produce twice as many victims every year as the bomb on Hiroshima. Simone Veil herself was subjected to abuse and insults with references to embryos ‘thrown into ovens’, abattoirs piled with the corpses of ‘little men’, ‘Nazi barbarity’ and even ‘genocide’. She was insulted in the street, her children were threatened and her home and car daubed with swastikas.
Yet she continued to plead her case with unflagging courage and lucidity. ‘No woman undertakes an abortion lightly,’ she told the Assembly. Refusing to descend to the level of insults of her opponents, she reiterated her faith in the younger generation: ‘they are courageous, capable of enthusiasm and sacrifices like anyone else. Let us put our trust in them…’******
It’s tempting to imagine that, after facing humiliation from the female kapos at Auschwitz, the insults of a bunch of bigoted men didn’t count for much in the grander scheme of things. But the ordeal took its toll. In a 2004 interview she admits she never imagined being the object of such intense hatred, and one famous clip shows her with her head in her hands. For many, however, the enduring image of that time is of an erect, dignified figure in trademark Chanel and pearls, hair swept back in an impeccable chignon, looking for all the world like the person she was, a wife, a mother, a member of the middle classes, ‘la traditionmême’ yet, at the same time, ‘la modernité incarnée.’
On November 29th, 1974, the Loi Veil was adopted by 284 votes to 189. Bloody, but unbowed, Madame la Ministre could breathe for a while before getting caught up in the two other major tasks that awaited her: the vital preservation of the past, a memorial to the Holocaust, the Foundation for the Memory of Shoah, of which she would be president for five years, and the creation of the new: the re-unification of Europe, and Franco-German reconciliation.
In Une Vie she writes that she never really got over her mother’s death. ‘Every day she is with me, and what I have done is thanks to her.’ In 1945, as Yvonne lay dying, she said ‘Ne veuillez jamais de mal aux autres, noussavons trop ce que c’est’ (never wish harm to others, we know what that means only too well). When, in 1979, Simone Veil was elected first President of the brand new European Parliament, it was the memory of her mother that spurred her to battle for the dignity and freedom of future generations, and their right to a world of ‘never again’.
Her disappearance comes at a time when the European dream has dimmed for many initially carried along by the wave of optimism she symbolised in 1979. On the wider political scene, with its posturing narcissists and vulgar brawlers, it’s hard to think of anyone who comes near the standards set for more than half a century by this modest woman, number 78651, who once said ‘I have the feeling that, the day I die, my last thoughts will be of the Holocaust.’ In the moving eulogy given by her son, Pierre-François, he recounts that her last word to those gathered by her bedside was ‘Merci.’
Note: Minutes after posting this I learnt that Simone Veil died today. She’d been on my list of blog subjects for ages, such an amazing and inspirational person that I was lost for words to write about her. Today’s post about religious persecution is perhaps a fitting way to say ‘au revoir’ to this unforgettable lady, who survived Auschwitz and went on to become an icon for women everywhere. Simone Veil, 13 July 1927 – 30 June 2017.
I might have let slip that I’m a huge fan of Michel de Montaigne. How about this thought for the day from the great Renaissance humanist?
‘Si la vie n’est qu’un passage, sur ce passageau moins semons des fleurs.’ (If life is but a passage, then at least let us sow flowers along our way.)
The history of mankind, however, has shown that not everyone agrees with this way of seeing the world. A more appropriate quotation for this month’s blog comes from another favourite writer, Voltaire, in a letter to his old friend Lecornier de Cideville in 1754.
‘Ce monde-ci est un vaste naufrage; sauve qui peut; mais je suis bien loin du rivage!’ (This world of ours is a vast shipwreck; every man for himself; personally I’m a long way from the shore!’)
The April blog ended with the promise to resume, in May, with Part 2 of ‘L’Autoroute des Deux Mers’ as it entered les Corbières, a part of Cathar country which, eight centuries ago, was the theatre of one of the bloodiest struggles in the history of Occitania. The battles that were fought over two interpretations of one religion ended in a devastating trail of burnings and massacres, a lesson from those who considered themselves to have the right answer to those who disagreed. And the reason Part 2 is late is that during the past weeks I, like others, have been demoralised to the point of silence by acts committed in Manchester, London and elsewhere, as more recent pages of history have been branded with the mark of atrocities committed under the banner of another religious ideology.
In 1975 a relatively unknown French historian called Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, published a book about a small village in the high Pyrenees. Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324’ (Montaillou, an Occitanian village, 1294 to 1324) recounts the daily life of this medieval rural community of 200 people, farmers, shepherds and mountain men.
To everyone’s surprise (including the author and his publisher) the book became an international best seller. Interest in regional history, in particular the Cathars, was undergoing a revival, and Ladurie’s book, with its detailed picture of this peaceful, progressive, egalitarian community, its complex social organisation and fascinating local characters, brought a unique perspective to this mysterious ‘branch’ of Christianity. It was based on the records kept by Jacques Fournier, Bishop of Pamiers (later Pope Benoit XII), the zealous Inquisitor tasked by the Catholic church to root out the heretics in this ‘Cathar-infested’ community. But what happened in Montaillou was the end of the story. Fournier, like his fellow Inquisitors in the region, was busy hammering the final nails into the coffin of a ‘heresy’ which, until the end of the 12th century, had coexisted peacefully alongside traditional Catholicism in the Midi.
So how did it all start? Why did the Cathars suddenly come under the scrutiny of Rome? One reason was the movement`s success. Albi, Agen, Toulouse, Carcassonne Mirepoix, Limoux-large swathes of the Languedoc had been seduced by this interpretation of Christianity. It was a spreading ‘leprosy’ that had to be cut out before it went further. Looking at what happened from a 21st century perspective (and not a little influenced by George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones), I’m guessing that human nature hasn’t changed all that much, and that some aspects of Catharism more than others must have been particularly alarming to the established church. One was the idea that the relationship between believers and their God was personal, private and direct. It had no need of a hierarchy of self-appointed interpreters, particularly those who surrounded themselves with pomp and riches.
Along with this anti-clericalism was the practice of an ascetic, spiritual way of life as a way of transcending an earthly domain dominated by Satan. The ‘bons hommes’ and ‘bonnes femmes’ were tolerant and non-violent, but they firmly believed that their version of Christianity was the true one. (In one of those fascinating historical and literary loops, over in the east of France another ‘heretical’ movement was also growing. The Waldensians make an appearance in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, along with Inquisitor Bernard Gui, who happened to be the Inquisitor in Toulouse from 1307 to1323 and who, like Fournier, kept detailed records of his interrogations.)*
One can see how, at the time, all of this would have been a serious pain in the Papal derrière. If things carried on unchecked, a lot of people would be moving out of their sumptuous free housing, abandoning their well-stocked wine cellars and making their way to the medieval job centre. What was to be done about those rebellious Occitans, Cathar communities and the uppity, independent southern counts and viscounts who supported them, who didn’t speak ‘proper’ French, and who had somehow resisted all attempts to be brought back on the right path?
And therein lay another problem. Centuries later, Riquet, planning his Canal du Midi through the same territory, was flummoxed by a geographical handicap, the watershed at Naurouze. In medieval times, an equally vexatious watershed divided north from south, this one linguistic. The Northerners spoke the language of ‘oil’, while the southerners spoke the language of ‘oc’ (‘oil’ and ‘oc’ being the words for ‘yes’). The land of ‘oc’ (Languedoc) at that time extended roughly southwards from Bordeaux almost to Nice; and its lilting, musical language was that of the troubadours and their lyric poetry. In the Dictionnaire of 1762, the word ‘patois’, meaning non-standard French, is defined as ‘rustic, vulgar language as spoken by peasants or lower orders’ **.
History is full of examples of what happens when one lot of people start thinking things another lot don’t agree with. A frustrated Pope Innocent III, having in vain tried to get the Occitans to change their ways, decided enough was enough when one of his Papal legates, having failed to get the Count of Toulouse to toe the line, was mysteriously murdered on his way back to Rome. He appealed to the men in the north, the King of France and his vassals. The dogs of war were unleashed and a terrible revenge descended on the rich and fertile lands of the Midi. The days were numbered for this courtly society where religious tolerance was practised and the arts flourished.
In 1209 thousands of northerners donned the Crusader’s cross and marched south down the valley of the Rhone. We all know about the Crusades, right? All those books and films about the heroic time in the Middle Ages when brave and chivalrous knights set out for the Holy Land to fight against Saladin. Richard the Lionheart, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood…
But these French crusaders were not marching to defend the Holy Land. They were marching against their fellow countrymen. The Albigensian crusade was under way, flying the flag of the true faith against the Cathar heretics. Their noble mission was of course spurred on by the usual baser motives. Crusading may have been a way of getting to heaven but it was also a way of getting rich. Those nobles of the Midi, the Counts of Toulouse, the Trencavel family of Carcassonne, long engaged in their own political chess, were masters of rich territories that were not subject to the French crown.
The military struggle would last for decades until Toulouse, and the devastated and blackened countryside around, would finally belong to the King of France after the signing of the 1229 Treaty of Paris. After that would come the second, equally terrifying, prong of the attack, the Inquisition. By 1330, with the last turn of the Inquisitorial screw, the Cathars of Languedoc were finished.
We started our journey to the A61 north east of Toulouse in Lavaur, the peaceful market town which has been home for the past six years. Spring is a particularly beautiful season with gardens and hedgerows bursting with pink and white blossom. It`s hard to imagine what took place here in May 1211, two years after the Crusaders had first been let loose in the south. Lavaur was an important Cathar stronghold. In a terrible punishment for its intransigence the biggest bonfire of the whole campaign took place, with 400 heretics burned at the stake, 80 knights hanged in violation of the chivalric code, and the town’s Chatelaine, Dame Guiraude, handed over to the soldiers before being thrown down a well and stoned to death. The leader of the troops was a man called Simon De Montfort
But back to July 1209. The first city to feel the weight of the sword was Béziers, near the Mediterranean, where four centuries later Pierre-Paul Riquet would be born, and later build his incredible staircase of locks. The sack of Béziers was particularly horrifying. The town was heavily fortified and the local population had taken refuge inside the walls, refusing to hand over the Cathars. But there was a slip up; the defences were breached and the mob rushed inside the walls, killing and plundering indiscriminately. The leader of the troops, Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury, asked how to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, gave the infamous reply ‘Kill them all, God will know his own.’ In this first shock victory for the Crusaders, an estimated 20,000 people were massacred.
From Béziers the army wheeled into the Corbières, a great machine destroying everything in its path. The rugged, bleakly imposing landscape, parts of it unchanged over the last 800 years, is a fittingly dramatic backdrop to the atrocities carried out here. From the Autoroute des Deux Mers there are glimpses of ruined fortresses on hilltops, forlorn reminders of more doomed sieges. The Cathar way, running from Port-la-Nouvelle on the Mediterranean to Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees, takes in the dramatic sites of Quéribus, Peyrepertuse and Montségur, medieval ‘villages in the sky’. Montségur, built on a rocky hilltop at 1207 metres, fell after a siege lasting 10 months. 225 ‘bonshommes’ were burned at the stake. Quéribus, defying gravity on a rocky ridge, was the last to secede, in 1255.
But the most coveted and perhaps the most spectacular of all Cathar strongholds in the Corbières was that of Carcassonne, the seat of Viscount Raymond-Roger de Trencavel. It appears on the left as you drive down the A 61, inevitably bringing a gasp of surprise from those who have never seen it before. Fallen into a sad pile of rubble, the fortified city was rebuilt in the 19th century by Violett-le-Duc in a 60-year long restauration project, and if you pull off the motorway and park at the viewpoint you’d think you were looking at a fairy-tale castle in a Disney film 😉 *** The air is full of the sound of cicadas and the smell of hot pine-needles, and in front of you, set against the shimmering blue of the distant mountains, a dreamlike vision rises from the vines, its slate turrets and stone ramparts transporting you back to the world of childhood, and stories of knights, castles, minstrels and troubadours.
In August 1209, de Trencavel and his knights watched and waited, stunned by the news from Béziers. The city had been expected to hold for forty days, the standard length of service for crusaders. De Trencavel’s hopes, that the army continuing on to Carcassonne would be much reduced in size, had been crushed. Now thousands of people had taken refuge inside the walls as a crushing heatwave descended on the region. On their arrival, the Crusaders occupied the bank of the River Aude, cutting off the water supply. Dysentery and typhoid broke out. With the situation worsening, deTrencavel offered himself as hostage in exchange for the free departure of those under his protection. Amaury allowed them to leave in what they were standing up in, then threw de Trencavel into the dungeons where he died three months later. The city and its fiefdoms were handed to a Catholic knight, Simon de Montfort.
Having completed their 40 days of service, many barons now went home. But De Montfort stayed on. He would become one of the richest of the conquerors, pursuing his campaigns with a zeal and a bitter relentlessness which made him the terror of Occitania. Ambitious, pitiless, he continued to burn and massacre until 1218, when he was killed during the siege of Toulouse, with some versions of the story recounting that the stone which fatally injured him was launched from the barricades by a woman…
With Carcassonne and the Corbières behind us, neat round silhouettes of pins parasols signal the approach to the Mediterranean. The Autoroute des Deux Mers is ending. Just north of Narbonne the road splits as we hit the A9, the motorway which runs along the coast between France’s natural barriers, the Pyrenees and the Alps.
We turn right, heading west, down through the vineyards of Fitou towards the snapping flags and screaming gulls of the Côte Vermeil. Canigou, Mountain of the Gods, dominates the horizon, its snow-capped peak dazzling against a cerulean sky. Signs announce we’re on La Catalane, the motorway through Catalonia, the province at the Mediterranean end of the Pyrenean range, with one foot in France and the other in Spain. It’s a province with its own language, Catalan, and its traditional dance, the sardana.
At the other end of the Pyrenees lies the Atlantic Ocean, where another region straddles the frontier between two countries, one with an even more mysterious culture and language, le pays basque.
On one side, the ghostly whalers of the Atlantic, on the other, the ships of Ulysses drifting across the wine dark sea.
But that’s another story, and another journey through history.
*An excellent, detailed account of Catharism can be found in Sean Martin’s book: The Cathars.
** Graham Robb, in his fascinating book The Discovery of France (thank you Margaret W. for this gift!) explains it all from a historical point of view. For a thrilling fictional account of 12th century political and religious intrigue, plus a great love story, read Jean’s Gill’s Song at Dawn, Book 1 of The Troubadour Quartet.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…
The Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, opening lines
Geoffrey Chaucer, genial English troubadour of the 14th century, tells us that burgeoning April is the time that ‘folk long to go on pilgrimages’. But for us lucky dwellers in the home of French troubadours, Occitania, March is the month to take to the road and head south, eager to enjoy the first greening of the branches and the spectacle of the almond blossom. The amandier is one of the earliest trees to flower, its shimmering bridal bouquets of pink and white heralding the approach of spring along with the sherbet fizz of mimosa in bloom.
Early March found us setting off down the southern section of the Autoroute des Deux Mers, the Motorway of the Two Seas (las doas mars in Occitan), the road link between Atlantic and Mediterranean. The A62 section goes from Bordeaux to Toulouse, the A61 from Toulouse to Narbonne. During my many years as an adoptive Toulousaine, the A61 was the weekend escape route to sea and sun. Throw a toothbrush and swimsuit into a bag, head off straight after work on a Friday evening, and you could be at the coast in time for an aperitif au bord de la mer in less than an hour and a half.
But the A61 is not just a fast way to get to the waters of la Grande Bleue. It is also a reminder of some of the most fascinating pages in the history of this part of Languedoc. Today’s blog covers the first part of our March journey, through the Lauragais, past Castelnaudary, into the Aude and the beginning of the Corbières.
In 1662, Pierre-Paul Riquet, a man with a head full of projects and dreams, wrote a famous letter to Colbert, Finance Minister for Louis XIV, outlining his idea for the construction of a ‘royal canal of Languedoc’, linking France’s two great ‘seas’.
At the time, he was living in a chateau near Toulouse, known today as the Château Bonrepos-Riquet. One hundred years earlier, another chateau dweller, Michel De Montaigne, had left us a vivid record of the kind of man he was through his writings. But Riquet The Man is harder to pin down. Historians have portrayed him variously as over-ambitious, a dreamer claiming to act through divine inspiration, a misunderstood genius, and a wily player who managed to overcome different obstacles thrown in his path, mostly from Colbert himself who initially approved Riquet’s plans, but who then kept sending inspectors from Paris to check up on him, even considering replacing him for the second phase of work. The exchange of letters between the two men show numerous disagreements, as well as Riquet’s temerity in frequently disobeying Colbert’s instructions.
My own picture of Riquet, the 17th century man of my imagination, has taken shape through what is known of his practical achievements, notably his wonderful legacy to inhabitants of successive centuries, the Canal du Midi.
First, there is Riquet the visionary and problem-solver, the man with the ambition, ingenuity and tenacity to bring to fruition a project that had long shimmered like an unattainable mirage in the minds of many before him. The Romans, Charlemagne, various French kings, had all dreamed of a waterway linking France’s west and southeastern coasts. If such a link could be built, as Riquet proposed, in the form of a canal, its economic and political significance would be enormous. Merchandise from the Mediterranean would no longer have to travel by ship on the long, hazardous voyage through the Spanish-controlled Straits of Gibraltar and round the Atlantic coast in order to reach Bordeaux and the west.
When he finally received official approval for work to begin, in 1666, Riquet had already started a series of experiments near his chateau in Bonrepos. He was in his sixties, rich, married with five children. He was at a time of life when most people, particularly in those days, would be thinking about putting their feet up and enjoying the fruits of a successful life and career. A spot of hunting, a nice glass of claret in the evening, banquets and balls at the weekend, leisurely strolls through the grounds to check on the progress of his park and formal gardens.
But instead he had been messing about in the 17th century equivalent of green wellies, testing his theories with a 300-metre model of his dream project, a prototype complete with reservoirs and channels. Why? Because the most difficult obstacle he would face, if ever work got started, would concern an unbudgeable geographical feature bang on the route of his projected canal.
In 1857, almost two hundred years after the opening of the Canal du Midi, bargemen were able to see trains speeding past on the new railway line from Toulouse to Sète. Today, tourists on barge holidays can also see cars, whizzing along the nearby motorway.
We join the A61 south of Toulouse, at Villefranche-de-Lauragais, and within minutes a sign announces we are crossing the Seuil de Naurouze. This is the symbolic moment the traveller leaves behind the rolling hills and wheat fields of ‘Atlantic’ France to join the cypresses, vines and olives of the Mediterranean. It is the highest point between Toulouse and the coast, the partage des eaux, where the water naturally divides, flowing on one side towards the western ocean and on the other towards the sea. It was this watershed that, in the 1660s, proved the biggest headache for Riquet. If we look to the left, beyond the canal, we see in the distance the looming mass of the Montagne Noire, the Black Mountains crucial to his success.
We know that Riquet was both a cultivated man and a man of the country. Born to an upper-class family in Béziers in 1609-ish (the date is disputed), he showed a keen interest in scientific studies. Through his career in the Languedoc salt trade, where he was responsible for transporting and storing the salt and collecting taxes due on it, he travelled widely in the area, settling, in 1648, in the town of Revel, in the Montagne Noire. It was here that he explored the countryside, observing the different mountain watercourses, noting their geographical and natural features and the possibilities of harnessing their power. Fortified by his subsequent experiments in Bonrepos, he became convinced that the water of the Montagne Noire could be used to feed into the canal at the Seuil de Naurouze and thus overcome the problem of the divided water flow.
We may also surmise that Riquet was an inspiring leader, one who was able to convince others of the feasibility of his theories, imbue them with enthusiasm for the project, while intelligent enough to realise his technical limitations and enlist the help of experts in the field, notably Pierre Campmas and François Andréossy. Once approval had been granted by a king who shared his ambition to leave a mark on history, Riquet threw himself into the project. From now on he would spend the rest of his days working to construct this marvel of engineering, ruining both his health and his finances along the way. In the Montagne Noire a channel system was devised to bring the water from the slopes and into the Lac de St-Férreol, where a huge dam was built, creating a reservoir whose waters were taken to Naurouze along a long supply channel, la Rigole de la Plaine. The first phase of the canal, from Toulouse to Trèbes, was completed in 1672.
The second phase got under way, with Riquet’s debts mounting. The whole project was gigantic, lasting for 15 years, encountering numerous practical and engineering challenges, and involving 12,000 workers, peasants, stonemasons, blacksmiths, as well as technical experts. As an employer, Riquet was in advance of his times, paying good wages, granting holidays and sick leave. Communication with such a large and diverse workforce was vital; Riquet was able to discuss with them in their own local language, Occitan. It’s interesting to note that among his army of workers were many women, some of whom came from the High Pyrenees and whose experience of managing the rivers and torrents in that area, constructing weirs, sluices and other ways of controlling the waterflow, was particularly valuable.
May 19th 1681. The great day of the inauguration of the Royal Canal of Languedoc had finally arrived. In Toulouse, a procession of boats set off, following a magnificent barge carrying various dignitaries including the Cardinal de Bonzi, who would perform the blessing, and Riquet’s two sons, Jean-Mathias and Pierre-Paul II. But sadly, Riquet himself was not with them, having died the previous year, on October 1st 1680, just months before the canal reached its final destination. His sons inherited the difficult task of its completion, along with huge debts.
A sad end to the story? The last major enterprise in which Riquet was involved was tunnelling through a mountain. This audacious project resulted in the 170-metre tunnel of Malpas. On the other side was Béziers, city of his birth, only a few kilometres from the coast. Did the visionary canal-builder have an inkling he would one day be revered as the architect of this wonderful 17th century monument, largest of all those commissioned by King Louis, and today, the oldest European canal still in use? The Canal du Midi is a UNESCO world heritage site and the many marvels on its 241-kilometre course from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau include Riquet’s last construction, the Malpas tunnel, and almost 100 locks, in particular the spectacular ‘staircase’ at Fonsérannes.
On the A61, we have passed the Seuil de Naurouze. The next motorway sign is for Castelnaudary, home to the major port on the canal. Most people, though, associate the town with its famous local speciality of beans, sausage and duck, le cassoulet. It’s tempting to think this peasant dish played an important culinary role in helping Riquet’s army of workers to keep digging. Mangez! Mangez! In the hands of a local grandmère it offers a marvellous blend of savours worthy of its standing as a classic of provincial cuisine. The three rivals for its invention are Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary. In spite of my Toulouse connexions, I have to go along with Elizabeth David when the Queen of Cuisine plumps for the Castelnaudary version. Along with her delicious recipe, she also recounts an equally delicious anecdote by Anatole France, about the cassoulet served at small tavern in 19th century Paris, Chez Clémence.
‘We know,’ he writes ‘that in order to bring out all its qualities, cassoulet must be cooked slowly on a low light. Mother Clémence’s cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years. Occasionally she throws in goose or pork fat, sometimes a piece of sausage or a handful of haricot beans, but it’s always the same cassoulet.’
He goes on to explain that only in this way can the dish acquire its unique amber colour, similar to that found in the paintings of the great Venetian masters. One can only imagine what a European Union Health and Safety Inspector would have made of La Mère Clémence and her 20-year-old Venetian-hued cassoulet.
The kilometres pass, the scenery changes. In this increasingly stark landscape, fortified villages huddle on hilltops, church spires echoing the sombre lances of the cypresses below. Stunted bushes and leaning pines are whipped by ferocious, rampaging winds. In the distance, hills stand out in profile, impressive masses of stone and granite contouring the sky, the bleakness of their treeless slopes reminding us of much darker pages in the history of Languedoc, the bitter wars of religion and conquest that lasted for two centuries and would end, in 1229, with a re-drawing of frontiers in which the independent lords of the Midi would be brought to heel, replaced by conquerors from the north. Languedoc would henceforth be ‘royal’, a part of the kingdom of France.
Vous êtes en pays cathare...
To be continued…
On the link below you can find more information about the Canal du Midi plus a list of books written on the subject:
In Stephen Frears’ award-winning film ‘Philomena’, there’s a beautifully funny scene where ‘Phil’ and cynical journalist Martin are at the airport being taken to their plane on a mobility vehicle thanks to Phil’s titanium hip. A captive listener on the buggy, Martin is forced to endure Phil’s detailed resume of the romantic novel she’s just been reading, ‘The Slipper and the Horseshoe’. Triumphantly recounting the ending, where the hero rejects the duchess and her diamonds for the humble stable girl and true love, she says:
‘Well I didn’t see that coming Martin, not in a million years.’
Since I started this blog in 2015 there have been quite a few Philomena moments. As 2017 gets under way, we find ourselves in the middle of huge societal changes we never saw coming, where the word ‘unpredictable’ has acquired new resonance and the word ‘future’ more often than not preceded by the adjective ‘uncertain’. As the wind of change swirls around the globe and night approaches black as the pit from pole to pole, there’s an urge to roll a big boulder across the entrance to the family cave and pray there are no sabre-tooth tigers sleeping in the shadows at the back. (See Nancy Babcock’s blog on the current ‘hygge’ craze:
I’m reminded of the famous 1995 interview with Woody Allen on French television. Bernard Pivot, King of French Culture, posed the question:
‘If you were reincarnated as a plant, tree or animal, what would you choose?’
Woody fidgeted and wrung his hands.
The bushy eyebrows of Pivot shot up. Woody shrugged.
‘A sponge,’ he said, ‘has no enemies’.
I hear you, Woody. The notion of an inert sponge-like existence in the calm waters of a tropical lagoon is not looking bad at the moment. Alternatively, a bit of cocooning in the family cave sounds appealing. Here we can turn to traditional sources of renewal and inspiration: the clan artist, painting a few Matisse-like deer on the wall, the clan bard, strumming lyrical ballads on his mammoth jawbone, singing about hosts of golden daffodils and answers blowing in the wind, and of course the story-teller, inviting us to sit upon the ground and weep while he tells sad stories of the death of kings. The soothsayer obviously will have got the boot for failing to read the entrails correctly, but we could end the soirée by turning to the bearded philosopher for wise counsel. The drawback is that instead of providing answers he may well fall back on the sneaky philosopher’s trick of asking us questions instead. The sort of stuff that gets the heckler at the back of the cave yelling ‘Give us break, mate, yer doin’ our heads in.’ Stuff like Who are we? How have we become who we are? And trickiest of all, What about the future? Are we mere pawns swept along on the current of an indifferent Destiny? Perhaps it’s time to all join hands and sing ‘Que sera sera’. Wait, it’s that man at the back again, or maybe a woman, they’re getting a bit uppity since they invented that round thing with spokes, what’s she saying? Something about being the master of her fate?
In The Oxford Book of English Verse, wedged between offerings from the Hon. Emily Lawless and Sir Edmund Gosse, are the following lines:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
So begins a poem by William Ernest Henley. His name many not ring many bells but the four stanzas he wrote in 1875 have become a cultural touchstone for those facing personal adversity (‘My head is bloody but unbow’d’), as well as those engaged in a wider struggle for the right to liberty when their freedoms are under attack.
Henley was 25 when he wrote the poem. Since adolescence, he had suffered from a form of tuberculosis which affected the bones in his legs. In 1868 the lower left leg was amputated and over the next few years his health deteriorated to the point where he was told his right foot would have to go as well. Henley took the decision to consult pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister, who, after several interventions, managed to save the foot. It was the end of an eight-year ordeal. While recovering from the final operation, Henley wrote a series of ‘hospital poems’, one of which, quoted above, was included by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his seminal anthology, The Oxford Book of English Verse. Quiller-Couch gave it the title Invictus: Unconquered.
In September 1941, two years after World War Two was declared, Britain was emerging from the nightmare of the Blitz in which 41 000 civilians died and an estimated 139 000 were wounded. Winston Churchill told the House of Commons: ‘…a year ago our position looked forlorn, and well-nigh desperate, to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls.'”
He was referring to the last stanza of Henley’s poem:
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
Around the same time as Churchill was delivering his speech, a 23-year-old Nelson Mandela was setting out to study law in Johannesburg. He went on to join the African National Congress, became involved in political activism, was arrested, and began his 27-year-long imprisonment in 1963. The rest, as they say, is history.
The title of Henley’s poem was borrowed by Clint Eastwood for his 2009 film about Mandela and his relationship with François Pienaar, captain of the all-white (with one exception) South African rugby team, the Springboks. In the film we see recently-elected President Mandela trying to convince his countrymen that the only way forward is through reconciliation and forgiveness. Seeing a chance to use a famous sporting event to create a feeling of unity for his new ‘rainbow’ nation, he convinces the Springbok captain to work with him, to redeem his team’s flagging reputation and aim for victory against overwhelming odds in the forthcoming 1995 Rugby World Cup.
He tells him:
‘On Robben Island, when things were very hard, I found inspiration in a poem…A Victorian poem. Just words. But they helped me to stand when all I wanted was to lie down’.
The poem is Invictus and he gives a copy to Pienaar.
‘This helped me, many times,’ he says. ‘Perhaps it will help you, too.’
While much of the film is based on true events, there are claims that Mandela’s gift was not a copy of Henley’s poem, but of a speech given by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, ‘Citizenship in a Republic’, part of which became known as ‘The Man in the Arena’:
‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’
Henley or Roosevelt, does it matter? The point being made is the importance of inspiration, and how inspiration can feed our beliefs. In this case Mandela was talking about the conviction that we all have some control over our destiny, a conviction which spurs us to get up when all we want to do is lie down. Roosevelt’s speech inspires, Invictus inspires. It is a matter of record that, during his incarceration on Robben Island, Mandela read Henley’s poem to his fellow prisoners and, in ‘the Robben Island Bible’ ( i.e. The Complete Works of Shakespeare which had been smuggled inside by another prisoner), he marked the following lines from Julius Caesar:
‘Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once/Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/It seems to me most strange that men should fear’.
It’s tempting at times to believe our fate is ‘in the lap of the gods’, that we are simply the helpless victims of circumstance. Or we can turn to the visionary world of artists, musicians and writers whose insights often help us to see our condition from a different perspective.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced or cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody but unbow’d
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
Henley, Mandela and Churchill were all pretty thoroughly bludgeoned by chance. Were they the masters of their fate? These three remarkable men were driven by the same conviction: Fate had perhaps dealt the cards, but it was up to them to play the hand. And, more importantly, in the fell clutch of circumstance, their minds were free, free to believe in the invincibility of the human spirit. They were indeed the captains of their souls.
Last December I wrote about three authors who had created three totally captivating Private Eyes to add an extra sparkle to the festive season. The authors were all Indie (independent) writers, self-published on Amazon, and, like their heroes, were all men.
Of the 120 or so books I’ve read this year, there are three I’d like to get passionate about. The authors this time are women, two of them Indies, one traditionally published. For two of them, it was their first novel.
As 2016 draws to a close one thing is sure. Many books will be written about a year which has been so dark. The great political divides, the crises in Europe, the USA, the Middle East, the terrifying rise of terrorism. But of the novels that will emerge from these events, how many will manage to take a step back from all the upheaval in order to transcend what is local and temporal and show us something more important, something deeper and more universal?
What is striking about the first two books on my list is that they manage to do just that. The first is a historical novel with a specific time and setting, the Second World War. The second is more generic, an imaginary time in a war-torn country without a name. But we know that the author is Lebanese and that the book comes out of her experiences of ‘a country under siege’.
Dear Reader, I can see the frown lines appearing. All you want for Christmas is a book of really bad jokes or yet another James Patterson or a bit of romantic fantasy to waft you to a tropical island with a George Clooney/Dakota Johnson lookalike covered in sun oil. You don’t want to get into something serious, something that’s going to depress you even more than the news. But that’s the thing about these books. If you give them a chance, step out of your comfort zone, you’ll end up with a feeling that’s the opposite of the despair that’s seemed to dominate this year: a feeling of Hope.
In May I saw that Paulette Mahurin had published a book called “The Seven Year Dress”, based on a true story about the Holocaust. Did I really want to plunge once more into the unspeakable events of that time? I did, because I had been knocked for six by her 2015 historical novel about the Dreyfus Affair (another time of bitter divisions) “To live out Loud”. Reading her new book I felt as overwhelmed as with the previous one, a feeling shared by readers everywhere to judge by the reviews, and culminating, in November, in the author winning the McGrath House Independent Book Award for Historical Fiction.
In October I read another book which again, simply because of its subject matter, I wouldn’t normally have chosen. This time it had been assigned to me in a review group. The title was ‘Miro’, a debut novel by A. E. Nasr.
As already mentioned, both books are set against a background of conflict. But the terrible events that make up the narrative are presented in such a way that even as we are carried along by the drama we are forced to reflect on deeper issues, to think about human nature itself, about ‘the great and universal passions of men’* and what it is in us that leads to situations where the very notion of humanity breaks down.
In particular, the theme of dominance and oppression is powerfully evoked by both authors. Along with their synonyms–subjugation, control, enslavement–dominance and oppression need an object, someone or something to control and subjugate. From whatever source it arises–intolerance, greed, cruelty, a lust for power–and whatever form it takes–religious, political, racial, psychological–there is something peculiarly chilling about man’s** need to oppress. To assert physical or ideological supremacy, to stifle, to crush, to destroy, to create a world of the dominator and the dominated. It may be in the camps of Boko Haram or ISIL, with their Chibok schoolgirl ‘wives’ and 10-year-old Yasidi sex slaves. It may be in a corner of the school playground, in sports locker rooms, or behind the closed doors of a middle-class family home. In Paulette Mahurin’s novel, it is in Auschwitz where Helen Stein is humiliated, degraded, stripped of her identity, ‘dismantled’ as a person. In “Miro” it is an underground hole where four men and a boy have been imprisoned for 9 years, deprived of light and contact with the natural world, subjected to unspeakable torture in an attempt to dehumanise them.
Before you throw up your hands and reach for the joke book it’s important to remember that, as history has shown us time after time, among the dominated and oppressed a spark of resistance somehow manages to survive, a resilience nourished by the belief in the idea that man, if not born free, is at least meant to be free. And writers such as Paulette Mahurin and A.E. Nasr inspire us to hang on to that belief, to encourage us to continue, to resist oppression, to blow the spark into a flame, to fire the heart to aim for the best. Through their wonderful prose they bring a ringing message of hope that, as in all the best literature, will give immense comfort in these worst of times.
(A little commercial aside before I talk about the last book that had me on my feet and cheering this year. Bearing in mind the baser human craving for a little bit of candy floss in the world of seriously good books, I have been working on my final tome in the French Summer Novel Series and am delighted to inform future readers that Chapter 1 opens with Claudie, on her way to Biarritz, jumping out of the Renault and flashing her red satin Agent Provocateur knickers to a tailgating macho driver, along with an invitation for him to embrace her derrière.)
“H is for Hawk” was an instant sensation when published in 2014. I missed the rave reviews and literary awards and didn’t read it until this year, knowing nothing at all about the book or its author. Just in case, like me, you were on another planet (aka pruning lavender in the Tarn) when it came out, here’s why you should put it on your list.
One of the enduring symbols of freedom must be the soaring hawk. Earthly animals bound off into the forest or swim away into the ocean, but the hawk goes up, into the endless sky. There are countless examples of man’s oppression of animals, wild or domestic, just as there are examples of man’s friendship with animals, a bond which may even surpass the love he has for another human being. There are cases too where the animal feels that bond so deeply it would rather die than remain alive without its human friend. As an anthropomorphist guided by that old master, Montaigne, I am happy to agree that in many cases animals are superior to humans.
But the heroine of Helen Macdonald’s book defies anthropomorphism. Everything about her is ‘tuned and turned to hunt and kill.’ For the author, she was ‘everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.’ Her name is Mabel, and she is a goshawk. In this extraordinary ‘memoir’, Macdonald tells the story of her year with Mabel, whom she acquired to help her cope with the overwhelming grief she felt after her father’s death. She dreams of ‘the hawk slipping through a rent in the air into another world’ and later realises that she ‘had wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.’ Her intellectual curiosity, her reflections on her own experiences with her hawk against the context of history and myth, ‘older ways of seeing the world’, her courageous, no-holds-barred descriptions of the emotional roller coaster she managed to survive, are so moving that several times I found myself having to put down the book and march off into the garden. (As indeed I did with the other two books). There’s also a story within Helen’s own story, that of T.H. White’s experience with falconry, a superb bonus for anyone who had been entranced by White’s magical morphings of humans to animals in ‘The Once and Future King,’ but didn’t know anything about his real-life obsession with ‘the birdwatchers’ dark grail.’ Add to all these marvels the exquisite, breath-taking beauty of Macdonald’s prose, and you have a must-read.
‘I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild’…‘but in my misery all I had done was turn the hawk into a mirror of me…’Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.’
Ah, the wonderful world of books… Six stars out of five for these three great reads! Kurt Vonnegut has the last word:
“I am eternally grateful… for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.” (Timequake)
Happy Reading, Happy Christmas and a very Happy New Year!
*Wordsworth, Preface to ‘Lyrical Ballads’
**’man’, standing for man, woman, he, she etc. (Do I really need to say that??)
Last November I wrote a blog called ‘Resist’. This was in reaction to the Paris attacks of November 13th 2015, events that left France, and the world, reeling after the single deadliest terrorist attack in French history with 130 dead and 352 wounded. More than 1 700 people have now been officially recognised as victims of what happened on that dreadful day.
One year later, the events of 2016 have shown that resistance is more necessary than ever.
22 March: in neighbouring Belgium, Islamic jihadists attacked the airport and the metro in Brussels. 32 killed, 300 injured.
13 June, Magnanville: a police chief and his wife were butchered by Larossi Abballa. The couple’s 3-year-old son was forced to watch his mother die as the event was recorded on Facebook Live, with the murderer claiming allegiance to ISIL and promising to kill infidels at their homes. ‘I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with the boy yet,’ he said.
July 14th Nice: in the middle of the 14th July celebrations Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlelan drove a truck into a crowd of revellers. 86 killed, 434 injured. Islamic state claimed responsibility.
26 July St Etienne du Rouvray: two Islamic state ‘soldiers’ entered a church in a small Normandy village, took hostages, forced the priest to his knees and cut his throat.
Last week in a survey carried out by the Red Cross, 55% of people in France said that they feared ‘finding themselves in a situation which posed a dangerous risk’ as against 38% in 2010. 70% of those polled cited the events of 2015/2016 as an influential factor.
Tonight, Saturday 12 November, the Bataclan reopens for its first concert since last year’s tragedy. Sting gives a concert to “remember and honour those who lost their lives…” and to “celebrate the life and the music this historic theatre represents.”
I would like to echo his words, remembering and honouring not just those who lost their lives in November 2015 but also the victims of 2016 and adding to the musical tribute the magnificent lines of Resistance poet Paul Valery, quoted in my blog of November 2015, below.
In July I wrote a blog about Paris. It began:
“Just back from two weeks in Paris, the most beautiful and evocative city on earth…City of Light, City of Love… the Seine and its bridges.”
I then went on to talk about a poem:
“…the melancholic poem about love and time by Guillaume Apollinaire that every student of the French Baccalauréat knows by heart, ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’.
On November 13 in Paris a gang of murdering cowards hiding behind Kalashnikovs turned their weapons on families and children enjoying an evening at the restaurant, on football fans enjoying a friendly game, on excited music fans enjoying a rock concert. Their aim was to turn the City of Light into the City of Darkness, the City of Love into the City of Hate and Fear.
It’s doubtful that these brutal, ignorant murderers had ever read Apollinaire’s poem, or indeed any other work of literature. They had surely never thrilled to the verses of Shakespeare, wept at the poetry of Homer; never shared the sufferings of Jean Valjean or Edmond Dantès.
And others like them, lashed to the ideology of terrorism and tyranny, will never, ever, understand why Allied planes, flying over occupied France in World War 2, dropped not just weapons to the maquis: fluttering down from the sky came thousands of copies of a poem, which would continue to inspire and uplift those men and women risking their lives in the fight against Nazi tyranny.
Its title was ‘Liberté, j’écris ton nom’ , Freedom, I write your name.
Written by poet and Resistance member Paul Eluard in 1942, its celebratory stanzas end with the following lines:
Et par le pouvoir d’un mot
Je recommence ma vie
Je suis né pour te connaître
Pour te nommer:
And through the power of one word
I begin my life again
I was born to know you
To name you:
This weekend the Eiffel Tower was cloaked in darkness as the world mourned the victims of November 13th. But the darkness was temporary.
Last night the lights came on again as the Lady put on the colours of the tricolor demonstrating once again the regenerative power of one word:
In memory of the victims of the terrorist attack of November 13th, 2015.
A complete version of Eluard’s poem can be read at: