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.
On February 14 2016 I published ‘Love Story… or the big doggy poopoo’. This was a billet doux to the newest member in our four-house hamlet in the Tarn, Indie (or Indiq in Breton), a small black and brown puppy with a lolling pink tongue and caramel eyes.
This tiny waif, whose mother had died, had been abandoned by her step-mother, a farm dog. After roaming the countryside in search of a crust and a kindly word, her little paws were worn and bleeding (talk about Dickens…) But Sirius, her own special star 😉, had been watching over her. She ended up winning the jackpot – her very own 5-star hotel and restaurant, otherwise known as ‘the neighbours’.
We watched her grow from a cute little waif into a Very Large Dog. Fortunately, as her size increased, so did her affection. Indie was a dog with a big heart. But just over a year ago, on a routine visit to the vet, it was revealed that Indie’s big heart was not perfect. Last month, after a short life in which she enslaved us all, she left us. The neighbours, her beloved Maman and Papa, are bereft, and so are we all.
Indie was a great hostess who loved having lots of humans and animals visit her home; she was an inveterate socialite, dropping by the other houses in the hamlet to check everyone was up and dressed and ready to throw sticks (or, even better, frying up a bit of Toulouse sausage); she was a nature lover, fond of sniffing the flowers and watching the sunsets. She tripped us up, stood on our feet, bruised our shins and made us laugh. She brightened our days and enriched our lives and we miss her.
Au revoir Indie, maybe one day, passing by Sirius….
Her full story can be found below, in the February 2016 blog.
For this first piece of 2018, I’d like to wish a very sincere Bonne Année to all readers. The year started with a wonderful surprise…
On January 8thareadersreviewblog published their list of Top Reads of 2017. Included was ‘The Passage of Desire’. Tina Williams had already reviewed the book, and I’d said a word or two about why her comments had touched me so deeply. But the real answer is longer and more complicated.
This third book in the series is different from the first two. As a prequel, it’s meant to tell the story of Alexandra’s secret affair, revealed at the end of ‘Hot Basque’. Who was the mystery man? How did their paths cross? What were the consequences? In line with the French theme, I’d envisioned a passionate meeting between strangers in a foreign hotel, a Brief Encounter à la française. It would be in novella form, a quick write.
That was the plan. But alien forces took over. A part of my own life sneaked in and I found myself abandoning the pays basque in favour of my own purple-blue remembered hills, tipping my hat to the places, the people and experiences that helped to shape me. The Muse, ready for another holiday in the Basque country morphed into a wing-flapping Raven. ‘Be afraid,’ she croaked ‘be very afraid…’
When I started this blog in January 2015 I asked readers ‘Can you remember the first book that really captured your imagination as a child?’ I didn’t actually have any readers at the time, but a few friendly bookworms wrote in enthusiastically to share memories of ‘Heidi’, ‘Bunny Blue’, ‘Phantom Tollbooth’, ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, ‘Where’s Wumpus’, ‘The Faraway Tree’, ‘Little House in the Woods’…
Writing today, I’m thinking about books that marked me as an adolescent. I’d devoured ‘Jane Eyre’, shaken by the heroine’s suffering at Lowood School, thrilled by her meeting with Mr Rochester, shocked by the secret wife in the attic. Then I read ‘Wuthering Heights’. It was like undergoing an anaesthetic. I lost consciousness and emerged completely disoriented, unable to put the experience into words. It was as though there were two books in parallel, one a passionate tale of doomed love set on the Yorkshire moors, and a second, more subterranean, full of shadowy elements which I only half-intuited. (It was much later that I read that even greater shocker, with its domestic violence and desertion, ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, but some of its themes would creep into my novella.)
For many born in Yorkshire’s West Riding, the Brontë legend enters our lives as naturally as the air we breathe. It’s not the most picturesque part of England, no honey-stoned thatched cottages in bucolic villages, but it has its own unique, strong personality, its culture, its ‘folk’, with their keen sense of humour, ‘independent, ready ever to resist authority which was conceived to be unjustly exercised’, as Elizabeth Gaskell* put it .Crucially, although the former mill towns were grim-looking places, they were a mere hop and a skip away up the hills to something else: the spell-binding, other-worldly landscape of the moors. It’s hard to explain the fascination of these ‘high, wild, desolate’ places, chillingly bleak in winter when ‘the four winds of heaven seemed to meet and rage together’, but which, in late summer, are transformed into ‘long swells of amethyst-tinted hills’, ‘all glorious with the purple bloom of the heather’ contrasting with ‘the tawny golden light…of summer evenings’.
Inseparable from the fascination is the haunting story of that family, who came to live in the village of Haworth in 1820: the Reverend Patrick Brontë, his wife Maria, and their six children, Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne.
The moorland landscape ‘sloping upwards beyond the parsonage’ was to become an essential part of their lives. For one of them, Emily, it was literally vital; on the rare times she was forced to leave it, she became physically ill. ‘I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home’ wrote Charlotte when the decision was taken to remove Emily from Roe Head school.
Illness and suffering were things the Brontës knew well. The list of family deaths on the memorial plaque in Haworth church is sobering: Maria Brontë, the mother,1821. The two oldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, 1825. Branwell and Emily 1848, Anne, 1849.
Charlotte, the last surviving child and the only one to marry, died nine months after her wedding day, taking her unborn child with her. The villagers, who in the June of 1854 had flocked to congratulate the bride, looking ‘like a snowdrop’ in her white muslin gown and bonnet decorated with green leaves, would return the following March ‘thronging the churchyard and the church’ to see her ‘carried forth’ to lie ‘beside her own people’.
Only the father and the husband remained.
Trying to put everything I’d like to say about the Brontës into one short(ish) blog is like Jill trying to squeeze into her Speedo in ‘Hot Basque’. There are bulges and bits hanging out. I’ve put some of them into footnotes for readers interested in knowing more. The basic facts of their story are well-known. Thousands of visitors travel to Haworth each year, visiting the moors and the museum, reading about the Dickensian childhood of the six little Brontës, their ailing mother confined to bed, their remote father working and eating alone in his study or out visiting his flock. The children were left to their own resources, with seven-year-old Maria making sure her younger siblings made no noise to disturb the invalid upstairs, taking them out for walks ‘hand in hand, towards the glorious wild moors, which in after days they loved so passionately.’ They inhabited a self-contained world, mixing rarely with others, drawing, sketching, inventing plays and fantasy worlds. Voracious readers of whatever they could lay their hands on from contemporary magazines to the poetry of Wordsworth and Byron and the novels of Sir Walter Scott, they created stories and poems of their own, their fertile imaginations fed by the written word and the ‘purple-black’ moors. Patrick Brontë observed ‘I frequently thought that I discovered signs of rising talent, which I had seldom or never before seen in any of their age.’
Three years after Mrs Brontë’s death, Maria, then Elizabeth, died from tuberculosis contracted at the school they attended. Maria’s sufferings there made a lasting impression on younger sister Charlotte, feeding her imagination for the Lowood scenes in ‘Jane Eyre’. The children were looked after by Aunt Branwell, the late Mrs Brontë’s sister, an unwilling expatriate from the tropical climes of Cornwall. There was also 53-year-old Tabby, servant, cook, confidante, story-teller, and honorary grandmother. Nine-year old Charlotte took over as eldest of the little community of four who drew together even more closely.
All would become famous, the sisters as novelists, the brother for his tragically wasted life of debauchery, alcoholism and opium addiction. But literary fame came late, after bitter struggles, keen disappointments, the exhaustion of constant ill health and persistent worry over the uncontrollable Branwell.
The sisters’ first literary venture was a collection of poems put together under the pen names of Currer (Charlotte), Ellis (Emily) and Acton (Anne) Bell. Failing to find a publisher, Charlotte took matters into her own hands, establishing what might be considered as the first Indie Writers’ Co-op. She managed to ‘pitch’ her idea to the firm of Aylott and Jones in 1846, proposing to meet the costs of publication herself, but giving specific details about the format. Having bought ‘a small volume from which to learn all she could on the subject of preparation for the press’, she sent her instructions: ‘one octavo volume of the same quality of paper and size of type as Moxon’s last edition of Wordsworth’, ‘a duodecimo form… with CLEAR type.’ If Amazon self-publishing had been around in 1846, Charlotte would have been the first client.
The little volume of poetry, though it had no commercial success, was the first step on the road to fame. It was, however, a road full of obstacles, which are sometimes forgotten today. For Charlotte, Emily and Anne, writing was as essential as breathing. But for some time, ‘an indistinct dread…was creeping over their minds’. They were living with a ‘Shadow in the house’. Branwell, that ‘boy of remarkable promise’, the former hope of the family, was entering his final decline. The sisters needed to write, needed to earn a living, in order to stay together and keep the family going.
For the next three years, until Branwell’s death, they would continue to work while witnessing the details of his descent into hell. His attacks of delirium tremens were so frightening that ‘he slept in his father’s room, and he would sometimes declare that either he or his father should be dead before the morning.’ Patrick Brontë’s health was poor, he’d only been saved from blindness by a cataract operation, but he undertook his responsibility as a father with stoicism. The sisters, ‘sick with fright’, ‘listen(ed) for the report of a pistol in the dead of night.’
Another obstacle they faced was their sex. Like others, such as George Eliot, they felt they would be taken more seriously if they adopted ‘the sheltering shadow of an incognito’. ‘Authoresses are liable to be looked upon with prejudice,’ wrote Charlotte. She had previously entered into correspondence with Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, sending him some of her poems. He replied in a courteous and kindly manner, praising her ‘faculty of verse’, but also, suspecting she was a woman, urging her to seriously consider ‘whether literature was, or was not, the best course for a woman to pursue’…‘literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.’
The three were also up against literary conventions regarding subject and style. When their first novels were finally published in 1847, one reviewer commented:
‘It is not only the subject of this novel, however, that is objectionable, but the manner of treating it. There is a coarseness of tone throughout the writing of all these Bells [Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë], that puts an offensive subject in its worst point of view….’
Things only got worse when their identity was discovered, and the ‘great unknown genius’ behind ‘Jane Eyre’ turned out (shock, horror) to be a woman. Victorian political correctness stipulated that women, if they did take up the pen, should write about ‘proper’ subjects. ‘In certain instances, authoresses (have) much outstepped the line which men (feel) to be proper’ was one comment, while a fellow author confided to Charlotte: ‘You know, you and I Miss Brontë have both written naughty books’
A worthy model was to be found in ‘Miss Austen’. But the Brontës were not Miss Austen*** They came from a different world. The accusations of coarseness continued. When in 1858 ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ was published, the esteemed Charles Kingsley praised it as ‘powerful and interesting’, but noted ‘the fault of the book is its coarseness’.
Charlotte suffered keenly from such criticisms of her work, or that of her sisters. She felt they were unjust and in this she was warmly defended by her biographer and friend, Mrs Gaskell. ‘(The Sisters) could not write otherwise than they did of life’ she says, noting Charlotte’s strongly-held principle concerning. ‘the duty of representing life as it really is, not as it ought to be.’ Anne was even more explicit, saying:
‘When we have to do with vice and vicious characters, I maintain it is better to depict them as they really are than as they would wish to appear.’
In particular Mrs Gaskell launched into a rant against the ‘stabbing cruelty’ of an article about ‘Jane Eyre’ in The Quarterly Review of December 1848. ‘Everyone has the right to form his own conclusion respecting the merits and demerits of a book’ she says, but when an anonymous reviewer ‘desirous of writing ‘“smart articles” which shall be talked about in London’ (ouch!) starts to make conjectures about the author, she lets rip with the following:
‘Who is he that should say of an unknown woman: “She must be one who, for some sufficient reason, has long forfeited the society of her sex?” Is he one who has led a wild and struggling and isolated life–seeing few but plain and outspoken Northerners, unskilled in the euphemisms which assist the polite world to skim over the mention of vice?’
Go, Mrs G, go!
And she does, alluding to the terrible trials of the preceding years, which ended with Emily’s death in that very month, and which left Charlotte bereft***. ‘Cowardly insolence’ is her verdict on the unknown reviewer, who was by then probably skulking round the capital in a false beard and dark glasses.
Of course, it wasn’t just women writers who came under attack. Across the Channel, the great Flaubert was put on trial for offence to public morality after the publication of ‘Madame Bovary’. His scorn for society’s self-appointed ‘correct thinkers’, ‘les bien-pensants,’ is set out in deliciously satirical form in his ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’ where ‘Imbécile’ is defined as ‘ceux qui ne pensent pas comme vous’ (those who don’t think the same way you do).
‘Wuthering Heights’ received even greater censure than ‘Jane Eyre’. It ‘revolted many readers’, it was hardly respectable. Charlotte knew only too well ‘the dark side of respectable human nature’, she’d seen enough of it as a governess, as had Anne, and their own ‘dark side’ was living in the parsonage. ‘Who is without their drawback, their scourge, their skeleton behind the curtain?’ she asks. She leaped to her sister’s defence, but Emily, that ‘free, wild, untameable spirit’ was in any case ‘impervious to influence’, a creature of passions, true to herself. (Monsieur Hegel’s remark**** ‘She should have been a man’ is telling in more ways than one.) ‘A spirit more sombre than sunny’, Emily drew her inspiration from what she saw around her–‘natures so relentless and implacable…spirits so lost and fallen’, blending the rhythms of her dramas with the rhythms of the landscape she herself was so attuned to. Charlotte, in the preface to the second edition of ‘Wuthering Heights’ after the death of the sister she called ‘the nearest thing to my heart in the world’, said the book’s ‘power fills me with renewed admiration’.
‘Wuthering Heights’ is still revolting readers today. The biggest internet site in the world for readers, writers and reviewers is Goodreads. Launched in 2007, its stated mission is ‘to help people find and share books they love’. It has a staggering 65 million members, 2 million books listed, and 68 million reviews rated on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.
Wuthering Heights has 27,202 reviews and 1,042,590 ratings (i e number of stars awarded without giving a review). Its overall rating, combining the two, is 3.8 stars. Below is a link to an interesting review which awards the book 5 stars, describing it as ‘epic’:
but which begins with the words: ‘I understand why so many people hate this book. Catherine and Heathcliff are monstrous. Monstrous.’
When I’d finished ‘The Passage of Desire’, the Muse’s dire warnings were still ringing in my ears. The book was too personal. It was an unabashed, chauvinistic Hymn to Yorkshire. It was a blatant publicity campaign to ‘Like’ those sisters, ‘coarse and revolting’ to some, but an inspiration to many; feminists before the hour, independent, principled, who overcame suffering and prejudice to follow their vocation. My characters, frail, innocent, vulnerable creatures, had somehow got involved with them, read their books, fallen victim to moor-fever, been buffeted by the winds of fate. Wanting to protect them, had I laid them open to ‘stabbing cruelty’?
Moreover, the innumerable re-writes had given me a constant headache, indigestion, and mouse elbow. Spiders had taken up residence in the dust-covered house, the garden was full of weeds, the lavender needed cutting back. All that was left was to emigrate to Outer Mongolia.
How wonderful then to read in the first review: ‘…imbued with the dark passions of Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. Indeed the Brontës float in and out of the story, both literally and metaphorically, and the tale is something of a homage to romanticism’.
Others followed, of a mixed nature. I intoned Charlotte’s words ‘Censure, though not pleasant, is often wholesome.’ But some, like the first, spoke of reactions that made me cancel the ticket to Outer Mongolia:
‘Spellbound and lost in the beauty of Long’s words, the picturesque moors and passion of the characters, transported me to another time. Her writing made melancholy feel dreamlike, passion feel like a burning fire, and friendships feel like a shady oak.’
‘If the human heart has a voice, it is certainly portrayed through the lovely words author Long has set to the page.’
‘This reminded me of reading the classics in high school and not really understanding the emotional drama of the story, then re-reading them as an adult and thinking, wow, because Long has captured that ‘WOW.’.
Those reviews were my highlights of 2017.Thank you to those who took the time and trouble to write them. Thank you again to Tina Williams, working indefatigably with her fellow-elf, Caroline Barker, to ‘help people to find and share books they love’
*Mrs Gaskell’s biography ‘The Life of Charlotte Brontë’, 1857. Many of the quotes in the blog come from this fascinating book; which includes numerous letters written by Charlotte.
**Charlotte wasn’t a fan of Jane Austen. She wrote in a letter to G. H. Lewes ‘I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.’ However, she agreed to think about Lewes’ advice about writing in a more ‘subdued’ manner, but without making any promises since she believed that authors did their best work while under ‘an influence… which becomes their master, which will have its own way…dictating certain words…whether vehement or measured in their nature…new-moulding characters…rejecting …old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones.’ ‘Can there be a great artist without poetry?’ she asked.
*** After the death of her sisters, Charlotte suffered from acute loneliness. Writing of her solitary walks across the moors she said ‘everything reminds me of the times when others were with me… My sister Emily had a particular love for them, and there is not a knoll of heather, not a branch of fern, not a young bilberry leaf, not a fluttering lark or linnet, but reminds me of her. The distant prospects were Anne’s delight, when I look round, she is in the blue tints, the pale mists, the waves and shadows of the horizon.’
*** ‘I think, however long I live, I shall not forget what the parting with Monsieur Heger cost me,’ wrote Charlotte. At the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, Charlotte fell in love with her teacher Constantin Heger. She was there with Emily (one of the rare times that Emily managed to overcome her ‘moor-sickness’ and ‘rallied through the mere force of resolution’). Heger considered both of them to be extraordinarily gifted though ‘he seems to have rated Emily’s genius even higher than Charlotte’s’. ‘Her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty’ he said, obviously regarding such qualities as being of a ‘masculine’ nature.
It’s one of those days when you’re driving home through a countryside washed fresh by melting frost, the sun just starting to pierce the mist. The narrow road dips into hollows shrouded in swathes of dense, rolling fog, then rises, emerging into uplands of sparkling brilliance under a sky so blue you make a grab for your sunglasses. Across the valley a curl of smoke floats above the chimney of a house perched on a hilltop. Inside the car, the classical music station has decided to go Nordic in celebration of the wintry morning and a blast of fjordian Grieg makes the windows vibrate. There’s a faint smell of chlorine, you’ve spent an hour jumping up and down in a swimming pool with a group of aquagym friends, somehow managing between puffs and pants to argue the relative merits of Guinea fowl versus capon for the traditional Reveillon meal on December 24th.
It’s one of those eureka moments when you suddenly realise you’re happy.
Happiness is a warm puppy, Lucy famously told us, while Charlie Brown went for jelly babies (no green ones) and going to the pictures to see films with cowboys and Indians and no kissing. Socrates (like many other Big Thinkers) said the secret to happiness was not seeking for more but developing the capacity to enjoy less. Buddha said it was the journey and not the destination. ‘There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.’ Thoreau (or was it Nathaniel Hawthorne??) used the image of a butterfly: ‘The more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.’
The main protagonist in ‘The Passage of Desire’, Alexandra, is an unhappy person. Emotionally distant from her six-year-old daughter and her devoted husband, she’s not an immediately sympathetic character. If asked to explain this lack of feeling, she’d probably struggle to put it into words (if she ever understood its nature and the possible reasons for it in the first place). But in the magical grace of a summer holiday with an old friend, the mist rolls away and for a brief interlude Alexandra is transported to the sparkling uplands of happiness and emotional connection. Those who have read the book know what happens next. Those who haven’t – wait for it – it’s FREE, yes FREE to download this week: 21st, 22nd and 23rd December (starting as always at midnight Pacific Standard time). Take that, Grinch!
Yesterday I was the one behind the wheel of the car, getting my very own Son et Lumière fix to add to the aquagym endorphins, joining my dum de dums with the rhapsodic piano of Mr Rubinstein, recklessly braving the hasards of veering into roadside ditches in return for the inestimable rewards of staring at the dramatic spectacle outside the window, light and shadow flitting across the undulating hills of ‘little Tuscany’. Definitely a Buddha’s path moment in more ways than one, and though I couldn’t see the butterfly, I could definitely feel its wings caress my cheek.
Ours was the house on the hill, with the smoke curling from the chimney; when I finally got back, came down to earth and checked my emails it was to discover a cherry had landed on top of my happiness cake. ‘Areadersreviewblog’, run by Tina Williams and Caroline Barker, is one of my favourite haunts when looking for new books to read. Their banner proclaims ‘To read is to escape, to write is to release!’ And yesterday the book they were reviewing was my very own novella, yes, dear readers, ‘The Passage of Desire’, which, as recounted in previous blogs, had given me such birthing pains it almost joined the smoke going up our chimney. It’s always a huge thrill to get a good review, but the thing that struck me about this one in particular was that the author, Tina Williams, seemed to know intuitively what I’d been struggling so hard to write about:
‘The author delves deeply into the emotions of two women and their families…It touches on all which makes us human; the different stages of life; family dynamics; intimate relationships and unexpected desire…The setting…the wild and untamed Yorkshire moors… is a metaphor for the tale itself.’
Ouf. Thank you so much, Tina. The things that make us human, and the ‘life-changing repercussions’ that ensue when those very human hearts of ours become a battlefield. In the words of William Faulkner:
‘…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…only that is worth writing about.’
Joyeuses fêtes to booklovers everywhere, and may that butterfly land on all your shoulders!
I have yet to read the series of contemporary romances that comprise the French Summer Novels, but having read the observations of Caroline, my co-blogger, I jumped at the chance to review this prequel. The Passage of Desire is the story of Alexandra, the mother of the sisters, Caroline and Annabel, of the later novels Biarritz Passion and Hot Basque.
In the book Juliet, Alexandra’s childhood friend invites her and her daughter Caroline to stay with her in her family home on the Yorkshire moors. Alexandra, whose husband is away on business, is going through a low point in her life but soon begins to bloom again and under the summer sun, with her friend’s easy going attitude and the healthy country air, she begins to heal herself.
Indeed, there is much to distract her with Juliet’s own offspring: Cath, who has a young child and a volatile partner and Oliver who is about to leave the family home and go away to study. Alexandra’s own daughter is also deeply absorbed by the tangled relationships she witnesses as their visit draws to a close – I loved how the author reflected what is going on through her young eyes.
Throughout the read the author delves deeply into the emotions of two women and their families. It touches on all which makes us human; the different stages of life; family dynamics; intimate relationships and unexpected desire. The book is flawlessly written, with insight and sensitivity as the events, which will have life-changing repercussions for some, unfold.
The setting for the story, the wild and untamed Yorkshire moors, where emotions become freed and passions can often come to a head, is a metaphor for the tale itself. The reference in the book to Alexandra’s recollections of a teenage visit to The Passage of Desire in Paris is also allegorical, and its meaning reveals itself as the plot unravels. The descriptions of the various settings in the book, particularly the countryside, are vivid and beautifully written in a way that powerfully reflects the emotional journey of the characters.
I don’t want to reveal any of the plot as it would spoil the read, but suffice to say that I enjoyed the read immensely and thoroughly recommend it.
A sad week here in the Tarn after saying a long-distance goodbye to Stuart III, last in a line of feline companions who brought joy to my mother’s final years. He picked Mum out of a line-up at the RSPCA, delicately extending a paw through the bars of his cage. What was his history? No-one ever knew, but he had suffered multiple fractures to one of his hind legs, resulting in a stiff, retired-Colonel-type gait which went well with his laid-back personality.
No unseemly galloping about or jumping on and off things for Stuart. He was a mindfulness practitioner, sitting for hours in a trance in front of the window weighing up the pros and cons of staying where he was or strolling outside for a quiet nap underneath his personal bush. Indoors, his favourite position was horizontal. Chairs, beds tables – all the furniture belonged to him – and particularly the patch of carpet in front of the central heating vent where he liked to indulge in his personal invention, a home spa treatment for feline arthritic joints. He would lie on one side, clamp all four paws against the burning metal grill, and roast himself to a turn, fur streaming out behind him in the hot air flow like a comet’s tail.
When Mum died, he was adopted by his wonderful Auntie Jo who took him from Yorkshire to begin a new life as a Cheshire cat. He loved being at his Auntie’s. In the evening they would cuddle together on the sofa watching nature documentaries. He also helped out on the days she worked from home, warming up the computer by draping himself across it and re-arranging piles of important documents into better positions. She took him for weekend breaks to visit his other Auntie and Uncle, who had a terrace looking out over treetops from which, in Attenborough mode, he could observe the habits of birds and squirrels. He got a bit grumpy when Auntie Jo abandoned him to go on holiday, but could be mollified by a stay in his favourite luxury senior citizen apartment at the Best Exotic Marigold Pet Hotel. Downstairs he was able to catch a few rays undisturbed on his private patio while from an upper mezzanine he could look down on the lesser fortunate guests in the communal dorm.
His health had been declining steadily for some time. I last saw him two months ago, at my birthday party in Yorkshire. His Furness processed from Cheshire in Auntie Jo’s car and took up his role as Guest of Honour with a modest miaow. On Monday this week he died peacefully in the arms of his beloved auntie. We shared tearful memories of his many sterling qualities in a lengthy phone call, at the end of which she pronounced a fitting epitaph:
Today I’m re-blogging an article by Tina Williams, one of the two co-founders of “areadersreviewblog”, a mine of treasure for those who love books. The other co-founder, Caroline Barker, gave me a wonderful leg-up with ‘Hot Basque’ (does that sound right??) in 2015. Anyway, today’s blog is under the heading ‘Author Spotlight’ and it spotlights…this author! The very same, herself.
How did I feel when I read it? About seven and a half feet tall.
Thank you so much, Tina. Your reviews are always such a pleasure to read, and I’ve discovered many new authors thanks to your enthusiasm.
I remember (how could I forget, I’m still having flashbacks) the night I uploaded ‘Biarritz Passion’, my first novel, to Amazon. It was March 2014, I had no idea what I was doing, and only got through the ordeal with the help of the Maître De Maison and a bottle of sauvignon blanc. Since then three other books have followed, but getting them on to the pages of Amazon’s catalogue is only the first step. They may be out there, but how do you get people to read them?
This is where a bunch of incredibly generous people come in. They are called reviewers and bloggers, and if you pluck up the courage to ask them nicely, they might – at no charge – read your book, review it and even invite you on to their blog to talk about it!
Why do they do it? Because they love reading. And never mind the fact they have jobs, families, and cleaning out the gerbil cage to keep them occupied, they still manage to find time to share their enjoyment of a new book with their fans.
May they continue to boldly go, and may their paths be strewn with stars!
Here’s the first paragraph, click on the link below to read the rest, then click the little button that allows you to follow a readersreviewblog, that way you won’t miss any goodies:
“We are THRILLED to be featuring Laurette Long’s latest release, The Passage of Desire. We have been a fan of Laurette’s work since Caroline, my co-blogger reviewed the sweet romance Hot Basque, book 2 in the French Summer Novels(click on the title for review). We also love reading Laurette’s entertaining and inspiring blog where she not only shares excerpts from her writing but also snippets from her life in the beautiful South of France, a place which has inspired her muse on many an ocassion. The Passage of Desire, a prequel to the French Summer Novels, is a family drama which I am looking forward to reviewing very soon. Tina 🙂”
On this gloomy November weekend when we remember those who died in the Great War, and when France gets ready to mourn the victims killed and injured in the terrorist attack on the Bataclan, November 13th 2015, I’ve chosen to write about a story of hope, of not giving up, a love story. A true one. One with a happy ending.
It starts in le Passage du Desir, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, a street whose name inspired the title of my novella, ‘The Passage of Desire’. Part 1 ended with an invitation to step through the doors of the magical shop just round the corner, and to lose yourself in visions of the future arising from the dreams of past generations…
‘A La Source des Inventions’ was founded in 1904 by a certain Monsieur Michel, an inventor whose family continued to run the shop for almost a century until its closure in 1994. A well-known meeting place for early aviators and model enthusiasts from all over the world, ‘La Source’ lives on today in the memories of nostalgic fans sharing Internet stories of time spent in its hallowed halls, the thrill of discovering its myriad treasures, the hours spent poring over its famous catalogues, which were sent all over the world and have now become collectors’ items. How many noses pressed up against those window panes over the years? How many children grew up listening to their fathers and grandfathers telling the story of that wonderful shop on the boulevard de Strasbourg, whose potent magic could unleash a flood of memories worthy of Monsieur Proust’s famous madeleine?
Back in the 1950s, in le Passage du Desir just off the Boulevard, the children sat in Grand- Père’s apartment dreaming of ‘La Source’ and its amazing machines, dreaming of a future where men might even travel to the moon in rocket ships.
And the grownups – what were they thinking? Perhaps their minds were turned to the past, and the astonishing twists and turns of fate that had brought them all here: Grand- Père, from the Périgord, his son, Robert, ex-prisoner of war, and his daughter-in-law, Josefa, deported from a village in Poland.
Many years later Josefa would share her memories, shaking her head in wonder at the chain of events that had ended in a French country garden, opening out on to peaceful fields, where sweet summer breezes ruffled the long grass and in the sky above our heads giant aeroplanes floated down to the airport of Roissy Charles de Gaulle.
On September 1st, 1939 Nazi troops invaded Poland. On September 17th, Soviet forces marched in from the east, and one month later the country had been divided up between the two powers. Josefa was caught in that first advance; her village was raided and those who were able-bodied deported to do forced labour. She found herself a prisoner on a farm where the drudgery and inhuman conditions of her new and shocking existence became so unbearable that she decided it was better to risk death in an attempt to escape than continue as she was.
She put her plan into action one night, managing to slip away without waking anyone and raising the alarm. Her initial elation, however, quickly gave way to terror and despair. She was alone in a foreign land, in the pitch dark of unfamiliar countryside, with no idea of what to do or where to go, her sole possessions the clothes she stood up in. She stumbled on through the inky blackness, finally hearing the sound of a river. Instinct told her to follow it: rivers always led somewhere, and if the farmer discovered her escape and unleashed his dogs she could always take to the water to hide. Dawn began to break. She increased her pace, and saw, not far from the river, a railway line. In the distance, she made out a small station.
Now came another agonising decision. Two people waited on the deserted platform. With no other alternative, she approached. The couple turned round and addressed her in German.
Fifty years later she still recalled with amazement the kindness and courage of those strangers. Somehow, they managed to get her as far as Berlin, to a family with Polish connections who kept her hidden as long as they dared. But, as an escaped prisoner with a warrant out for her arrest, it soon became too dangerous for her to stay as she was. People were talked to, strings were pulled, arrangements were made. Josefa gave herself up; instead of being returned to the farm she had run away from, she was taken to a vast agricultural labour camp where the owner had a reputation for his relatively humane treatment of prisoners. There she was put to work in the fields, and there she stayed until the Liberation, when she would become part of the chaotic human tide flowing east and west as prisoners were repatriated. But by that time, her life had once again taken a dramatic turn.
Back in France, in 1940, Grand-Père’s only child, Robert, serving in an artillery division posted in Alsace, was taken prisoner at the fall of the Maginot line. He became a part of the estimated 1.8 million soldiers captured and taken to Germany. From the stalag where he was first held he was transferred to a Kommando, a work detail assigned to carry out agricultural labour. Like Josefa, he had one idea in his head: escape. After various unsuccessful attempts he was finally captured by the SS, saved only from the firing squad thanks to the intervention of a landowner where he worked.
Unknown to both of them, the trajectories of their lives were about to cross. One day Robert was sent to help with the harvest at a farm and it was there, working in the fields, that he and Josefa first set eyes on each other. And in the middle of devastation, death and hopelessness, a love story was born. At an age when young lovers are carried away by the thrill and promise of a budding relationship, the two faced a future that was at best uncertain. It would be years before they could truly be together; the complete story of their adventures, like so many others of that time, is the riveting stuff of novels (and long ones at that).
Josefa was a natural story-teller. Soft-spoken, with a gentle Polish accent, she recounted events which were still vivid in her mind, and which seemed scarcely believable in the context of her enclosed, sun-drenched garden where the distant ringing of church bells added the final touch to a scene of eternal tranquillity.
May 1945. The news arrived at the camp, a rumour at first, then growing louder and louder until the realisation hit everyone with the weight of a sledge-hammer. It was over. Was this the start of a new life for her and Robert? And, her deepest, most cherished prayer, could she now look forward to a future for the baby that was growing inside her, so big that she knew it was only a matter of weeks before it would be born into a world still reeling from the aftershocks of war?
Her hopes were dashed by a terrible decision. The camp was liberated by the Russians. Prisoners from the east would be returned to their country of origin; those from the west dispatched to join the Allies. In this long-awaited, bitter freedom, she and Robert were torn apart, neither of them knowing if they would ever manage to find each other again.
But the Robert whose one obsession whilst a prisoner was to escape now had another burning mission – to find Josefa, to get back to her and to their unborn child. How he would do it was not clear. But one thing was sure, he would move heaven and earth in the attempt.
He informed the authorities that a mistake had been made, that he was in fact of Polish nationality. In the prevailing chaos he was allowed to leave and set out in search of the convoy taking Josefa back to the east. And because, dear Reader, miracles do sometimes happen, he found her. Now all they had to do was hope for another miracle, where they would be travelling in the opposite direction, back to France…
Tensions between the Russians and the Allies were mounting: one final exchange of prisoners was agreed. Robert, switching nationalities yet again, persuaded the Russians he was really French and that he and Josefa were legally married. He found himself on his way back to the Allied zone, this time accompanied by a heavily pregnant Josefa, half-dead with exhaustion and terror, and ‘holding both arms over my stomach as tight as I could, and praying to the baby ‘not yet, not yet’.
It was in Prenzlau, 100 km north of Berlin, that on May 27th 1945, their first son was born. It was in Prenzlau that a shocked and dazed Josefa remembered being handed something by an American soldier: ‘C’étaitun chocolat chaud’. A steaming mug of hot chocolate. With tears in her eyes (and in mine), she re-lived the marvel of clasping her fingers round its warmth and breathing it in. ‘I can still remember it, everything, the heat of the tin mug, the smell of the chocolate, the first sip, the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted.’
Arriving in France, the couple went to live with Robert’s father. For more than two years, the small apartment in le Passage du Desir was home to Grand- Père, the young couple, and their first child. What must it have been like for a young woman exiled from her homeland, captive in a foreign country for six years, starting a new life where she knew no-one except the man she had fallen in love with, and with whom she could only communicate in the language of their captors?
Seeing her all those years later, surrounded by pictures of her children and grandchildren, in the village where she and Robert settled in 1948 and where they would live for the rest of their days, I was in no doubt that life had given her treasures she’d never imagined during those long years at the camp. The image she presented was of someone observant and curious by nature, keenly interested in the world around her, quick to laugh or cry, her generous and loving nature evident not only in her relations with family and friends but in the menagerie of stray cats living in her garden alongside the chickens and rabbits.
But I also wondered about her more ‘hidden’ side; the strength of character and resourcefulness of that person who, aged nineteen, was able not only to escape from the farmer and his dogs, but go on to survive, to endure day after endless day of backbreaking physical work, continuous hunger, and a monotonous, mind-numbing existence. A person intelligent enough to pick up three new languages with no formal instruction. A young woman who somehow managed to keep the stars in her eyes, and whose belief in the possibility of a future allowed her to find love and happiness in the arms of a French prisoner and to survive a first pregnancy in the most terrible of conditions. A young mother who, in the photographs from those days, is strikingly beautiful, with her wavy black hair, blue eyes and full lips. A fascinating woman, with a fascinating story, and probably much more complex than she appeared…
Looking at her, the picture of contentment amid the roses and hollyhocks of her wild and glorious garden, I once remarked that she must have been over-joyed to leave the cramped apartment in the 10th arrondissement to start a proper life with her husband and children in the peace of the countryside.
I was unprepared for her answer.
‘Ah, Paris…’ Her eyes lit up. ‘Vous savez, Paris, c’est autre chose…’
‘Paris is different,’ she told me. ‘In another life, I would have loved to live in Paris…’
Never under-estimate a woman. Never under-estimate Paris.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Josefa and Robert.
“They had been on a school trip to Paris with the French Society, Mademoiselle Pinaud at the helm, chaperone and cultural guide. Paris, city of light, city of romance. All the girls had been so excited that they’d whispered and chatted the whole night long as the coach trundled through the darkness, its beams illuminating black roads and shadowy forests. The journey had seemed endless.
Then a new day was breaking, dingy suburbs appeared in the dawn; they had reached the outskirts and were soon travelling along tree-lined boulevards where water gushed from metal fire hydrants and shopkeepers rinsed down the pavements with old-fashioned brooms. As the sun rose, gilding domes and rooftops, they began the magnificent procession down the Champs-Elysées.
Those few days had been magical. The visit to the Louvre, the statue of Venus rising majestically at the top of a flight of marble stairs, the stunning rose windows of Notre Dame, Monet’s waterlilies, the huge canvases swimming in light and colour…”
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.