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.
September 21st, 2001. It was one of those perfect autumn days we often get in SW France. I was strolling down the avenue near my home enjoying the crisp air and the blue sky. Abruptly, several things happened: there was a loud boom, the ground shook, the air vibrated, a shop-window shattered, and a woman started wailing.
The world was still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attack in the USA only ten days earlier. Images of those collapsing towers had been on constant TV replay. Around me, fearful voices arose – a plane? a sonic boom? Or…someone gasped, and pointed. To the south of the city, an orange cloud was rising into the air. A clamour of sirens broke out, prompting us to move.
The phone was ringing as I got back to my flat. A Parisian friend, working in aviation security, issued instructions: stay indoors, close all windows, put wet towels round the edges, wait for more information.
The explosion, which occurred at 10.17 a.m. in a suburb south of Toulouse, originated at the chemical fertiliser plant, AZF on the outskirts of the city. As 300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated, the sound was heard 80 km away, causing a shock wave of 3.4 on the Richter scale. Hangar 221, where the product was stored, had vanished, replaced by a crater measuring 70 x40 metres, 6 metres deep.
It was pre-smart phone, pre-social media era. Those not in the vicinity of the blast, unsure of what had happened, were seized by panic, streaming out of offices and factories, racing to pick up terrified children from school, trying to contact friends and family. Roads were gridlocked and there was a fearful pulsation in the air, a hubbub of voices, car horns, strident sirens of emergency vehicles. The orange cloud hovered over the city as people choked and coughed, trying to protect their faces.
Information trickled in via TV and radio. The shocked inhabitants of France’s ‘pink city’ were confronted with the grim statistics: 31 dead, 2500 injured, damage extending to a radius of 3 km, an entire neighbourhood – homes, schools, vehicles, public buildings – reduced to rubble. The adjacent ring road showed apocalyptic scenes, cars overturned, drivers covered in blood staggering through the haze. Eighteen months later, 14 000 people were still being treated for PTSD and depression.
The catastrophe, overshadowed by that of 9/11, barely made the front pages in the anglophone press and was scarcely mentioned again last month in relation to the similar, more deadly, blast (800 tonnes) that hit Beirut. For those in Occitania, watching the news from Lebanon and hearing the demands for answers, bitter memories resurfaced. It had taken a Jarndyce and Jarndyce of an affair lasting 18 years to produce answers to what had happened in Toulouse, and even then many were not satisfied.
Things got off to a bad start. Only three days after the explosion, before the inquiry had officially opened, Public Prosecutor Michel Bréard dismissed the idea of a terrorist attack, telling the press it was ‘90 percent certain’ that the explosion was ‘due to an accident’- words which provoked an outcry from the media and the Mayor of Toulouse, Philippe Douste-Blazy. As the weeks passed, rumours began to fly: an electrical short-circuit? A missile? A gas explosion? A meteorite? Leaked results of an autopsy carried out on a Tunisian worker found dead at the scene pointed to a possible terrorist link. According to the medical examiner, the man had been wearing several layers of undergarments beneath his overalls, a characteristic associated with Islamic jihad. This hypothesis (which became known as ‘les 4 slips’ -the 4 pairs of underpants) gained traction after it emerged that, prior to the explosion, the worker had been involved in heated arguments between different groups over the display of an American flag in one of the lorries on site.
By December 2001, however, the official hypothesis was that the explosion had been caused by an accidental mixture of another chemical, sodium dichloroisocyanurate (DccNA), a chlorine-based product used in swimming pools, with the down-graded ammonium nitrate. This was set out in a 700- page report published in May 2006, demonstrating how the two products had come into contact as shown here and supposedly putting an end to rumours and drawing a line under the affair.
The case-the biggest of its kind in French history-finally came to court in February 2009 amid intense media scrutiny and high public emotion. In order to accommodate the 2700 civil plaintiffs, 60-odd lawyers, dozens of witnesses, not to mention bailiffs, police, firemen, emergency services, and 273 journalists, proceedings were held at an extraordinary venue, the Salle Municipale Jean Mermoz, capable of seating 1000 people. At the demand of the plaintiffs, who did not all see eye to eye, the events were filmed.
On the bench of the accused was Grande Paroisse, a subsidiary of oil giant Total, in charge of operations at the plant, along with former manager, Serge Biechlin. From the outset, controversies and contradictions bedevilled the proceedings. The prosecution’s case hinged on the theory set out in the report: an industrial accident caused by poor waste management. A witness testified that, shortly before the blast, a lorry carrying waste materials from Hangar 335 had been unloaded at the entrance to Hangar 221. A scientific expert, Didier Bergues, confirmed the lethal potential of a combination of the chlorine product with ammonium nitrate. But a reconstruction carried out at the site cast doubt on this hypothesis. The chlorine had been stored 900 metres away from Hangar 221 and its strong, distinctive smell would have alerted anyone moving it by mistake to the wrong building. Other scientific experts called by the defence disagreed with the prosecution’s experts. ‘We are all in agreement to say that we disagree with the ‘accident’ theory,’ said one.
Another troubling factor was the ‘double bang’ phenomenon. Witnesses were adamant they had heard two distinct explosions, backed up by recordings on seismological equipment. Two independent analyses were carried out, leading to different conclusions, with one explaining the second bang as an echo of the first. But doubts lingered.
After 4 months of deliberations, the judges ruled that it was impossible to state with any certainty that the explosion had been caused by incorrect storage of the chemicals. Serge Biechlin, Grande Paroisse and Total were cleared of all charges, provoking howls of outrage from the victims. The Parquet (Prosecutor’s Office) immediately appealed, and the case was brought before the Toulouse Appeals Court in 2012. The judge, dismissing calls to rule against Total, nevertheless found the two defendants guilty of ‘involuntarily causing death, through carelessness, inattentiveness, negligence, breach of security obligations or outright error.’ Biechlin was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment with two suspended, while Grande Paroisse was fined 225 000 euros. But doubt cast on the impartiality of one of the expert witnesses resulted in a successful counter-appeal by the defence in January 2015.The case was heard again, this time in Paris in October 2017, and again, the defendants were found guilty, leading to yet another appeal.
Finally, in December 2019, the Paris Cassation Court upheld the October 2017 verdict, thus ‘closing the door’ on a long-running judicial saga. Serge Biechlin was given a 15-month suspended sentence for manslaughter while Grande Paroisse was ordered to pay 225 000 euros in damages. In the meantime, Total, while not admitting responsibility, had paid out millions of euros in compensation. By this time, some of the plaintiffs had died; others were left ill, exhausted and demoralised. While some victim associations declared themselves satisfied that justice had been done, others, like the Association Mémoire et Solidarité, regrouping former AZF employees, believe the responsibility of Total should have been legally recognised. For many investigative journalists and writers the affair is still troubling: numerous books and articles have been written on the subject over the years. And, for many who survived , life will never be the same.
In this video from La Dépêche du Midi today, Catherin Salaün describes how her life changed for ever. Catherine was in the street on the day of the explosion. Knocked unconscious by the blast, she came to her senses to discover she could no longer hear.
‘I lost my hearing, but not just that: I lost the person I was, my self-confidence, my social life, my job, everything. I’m alive, thank God. But at what price?’
The door may have ‘closed’ in legal terms, but for many: ‘on ne peut pas oublier‘ – it’s impossible to forget.
Today’s blog gets passionate about tomatoes and a Michelin chef.
It’s tomato time in France; kilos and kilos of the delicious fruit are appearing in gardens and on market stalls. They always remind me of an interview I did many years ago in Toulouse with Michelin chef, Lucien Vanel, for a paper I was writing as part of a university course on French culture. The experience left me as exhilarated as if I’d knocked back half a bottle of champagne.
There’s a great picture of him on the site set up in his honour in 2008, which awards an annual prize (below).
He was a man of passion. ‘To step into the dining room of my restaurant, to see people enjoying themselves, appreciating the food – ‘je suis aux anges,’ he told me in that long-ago interview. ‘I’m in heaven. Cooking is my life. I don’t want to appear narrow-minded (un esprit borné) but I freely confess to preferring the music of my saucepans to that of a great orchestra.’
He was an animated talker, jumping out of his chair and waving his arms about, and his enthusiasm and exuberance were mesmerising, even when he was describing the hard work demanded by his metier. For himself and his team of three apprentices, the day started early and finished late, with a short break in the afternoon. He was up each morning at 4h 30 to visit the famous Marché Victor Hugo, prowling round the stalls, checking out the produce, mentally working out his menus before placing his orders. The true spirit of ‘la cuisine du marché’ – first select your ingredients, fresh from the market, then decide how to cook them.
Was he one of the chefs putting la nouvelle cuisine on the map? He embraced their ethic of simple, healthy dishes without heavy sauces, he told me, ‘but -don’t expect me to banish butter from my kitchen.’ He talked a lot about ‘l’art culinaire’, the art of cuisine; in his kitchen he would experiment, try out new combinations, expand his horizons. I was intrigued by his library of cookery books which contained not just the latest recipes from talented new chefs, but went back 300 years to the original ‘masters’. His greatest pleasure, he told me, quoting Brillat-Savarin, was to welcome guests in a fitting manner: ‘Convier quelqu’un, c’est de se charger de son bonheur tout le temps qu’ilestsous votre toit.’ (‘To invite someone for a meal means being responsible for their happiness as long as they are under your roof’ – an apt definition of ‘hospitality’.)
‘What do you do when you’re not working?’ I asked.
‘Then,’ he smiled, ‘I like to be the guest. I like to be invited by good friends, who have prepared one perfect dish…’
He pointed at me.
‘Ecoutez- moi bien – (listen carefully), when you invite me to your house, I would like you to make me a tomato salad. But! The tomatoes must be perfectly ripe, perfectly red, skinned and de-seeded; the hard boiled eggs for the garnish must be perfectly cooked – the yolks must remain ‘moelleux’ (slightly runny), the dressing subtle, but flavoursome. Then I’ll be a happy man.’
This wonderful chef and genial personality died in 2010. If you fancy entering the competition in his honour 🙂 be warned – in 2018/2019, 130 restaurants, 15 hotels and 9 cocktail bars took part in the ‘olympiade gourmande’.
When I was creating the character of Madame Martin in the French Summer Novels, I had Lucien Vanel in mind. The housekeeper of Villa Julia – Thérèse Intxausti Martin, to give her her full name – is a formidable lady who has been running things for the Etcheverria family for years. She’s seen two generations grow up; and is respectfully considered as the true Mistress of the Kitchen, (if not of the entire house- don’t leave your wet towels on the bathroom floor!) In Biarritz-Villa Julia, the final book of the series, her famous tomato salad is the subject of a clash of wills between herself and a newly-arrived guest, Hibiscus (‘call me Hibby’) who is one of those people who has no boundaries and firmly believes her way of doing things is the only way. (Don’t we all know one ?)
Read on for wooden spoons at dawn…
Chapter 7 The Mistress of the Kitchen
‘Do you happen to have any honey, chère madame? Honey? You know, bees?’
Caroline stepped into the kitchen just in time to see Hibby stand on tiptoe and start to zigzag round the table, flapping the sleeves of her purple kimono and making a loud buzzing sound.
Madame Martin was backed up against the sink clutching a wooden spoon.
Hibby stopped in mid-flight, a look of relief on her face
‘Yippee! The cavalry arrives in the nick of time! I’ve been trying out my French on poor chère Madame here. But I’m a bit rusty!’
In the middle of the kitchen table stood a large platter of Madame Martin’s famous egg and tomato salad.
On Caroline’s first visit to Biarritz she’d spent many a happy moment in the kitchen, absorbing the culinary knowhow of Villa Julia’s long-time housekeeper/chef. Her cooking was deceptively simple, limited to a relatively few dishes, but always, unfailingly, sublime. Madame Martin knew every stallholder in the market, had an unerring eye for the best cuts of meat and the freshest fish, and the happy residents of the villa were treated to the overflow from the kitchen garden she oversaw at her own house, tended by her husband, Pierre.
‘Seven minutes precisely,’ she had told Caroline, stripping the shells off the hard-boiled eggs and slicing them, revealing golden yolks perfectly poised between firm and runny. ‘And the tomatoes must always be peeled, even in summer, even though they have just come off the vine.’
The alternating rows of egg and tomato would be arranged artistically on a platter in an overlapping pattern. Just before serving, Madame Martin would pour over her thick, glistening vinaigrette. The simple starter was a perennial favourite, with everyone cutting extra chunks of crusty baguette to mop up the last of the vinaigrette, tomato juice and bits of yellow yolk.
‘I was trying to be a model guest, make myself useful and give a hand with lunch. Donner une main, chère madame?’
Hibby notched up her voice a couple of decibels, articulating each syllable so as to get the message across to chère Madame whose French, she was surprised to find, sounded a bit funny, probably the local accent.
She opened the door to one of the cupboards.
‘Yes! Found it! Tada! Miel de lavande.’
She grabbed the pot with the little bee on the label and advanced on the salad.
‘Lavender honey. Perfect. Just a touch in the vinaigrette to take away the bitterness.’
Madame Martin gave a jerk as though someone had stuck a pin in her.
‘Ah non, Madame! Non non non non non!’
With cheetah-like speed Madame Martin sprang from her refuge near the sink and landed next to the table, interspersing herself between Hibby and the bowl of vinaigrette. Her wooden spoon was raised.
Hibby took a step back. Caroline took a step forward.
‘OK, c’est bon, Madame Martin! Tout va bien!’
She reached out to remove the offending jar from Hibby’s clutch, smiling encouragingly at Madame Martin on one side and Hibby on the other, her head bobbing between the two like a nodding dog in a car window.
‘Sorry Hibby, er, we don’t put honey in the vinaigrette, er, it’s Madame Martin’s special recipe, we never interfere, sorry, I know you were just trying to be useful…’
Hibby, crestfallen, peered out from underneath her orange fringe.
‘Oh dear, I do apologise. I just wanted to help, you know? Je suis désolée chère Madame !’
The Mistress of the Kitchen, still bristling, gave a small nod, took the jar from Caroline and sidled over to the cupboard, her eyes never leaving Hibby. She opened the door wide and stood back.
‘Pe-tit-dé-jeu-ner,’ she said, employing the same syllable-hammering technique as Hibby. ‘Brekkfust!’
She placed the honey next to other jars, an array of home-made jams, all neatly labelled. Apricot, strawberry, mirabelle.
‘Brekkfust!’ she repeated. ‘For put on ze bread, for put on ze yaourt. Yes! Good! For put on tomatoes–’ she sucked in a deep breath–‘Nevvair!!’
Having exhausted her linguistic skills, Madame Martin sagged, turned to Caroline and fell back on the exquisite language of Racine and Moliere.
‘Mademoiselle Caroline, please explain that in French cuisine a vinaigrette is made with olive oil and red wine vinegar. As you know, I use a little mustard–Dijon–to thicken, but that is all. It is however permissible to dribble a judicious amount of honey–’ she stressed the word–‘over a sharp goat’s cheese baked in the oven and served with a crisp green salad. Dressed with a vinaigrette. Not something I care for myself, but allowed, under the rules of la nouvelle cuisine.’
Caroline led a deflated Hibby out of the kitchen.
‘Right Hibiscus, Hibby, why not sit outdoors and relax while I bring you a nice cup of coffee?’
‘So sweet of you, Caroline. As I said, I was only trying to help. Now just let me check I understood back there, no sugar either? In the vinaigrette?’
Hibby’s voice floated into the kitchen. Madame Martin’s eyebrows went up. Sugar? Du sucre dans une vinaigrette? She would have to have a word with Mademoiselle Claudie, take her on one side, warn her what to expect if she got married to Pete and this woman became her mother-in-law. Claudie was becoming a top-class chef, a natural. Plus she knew all about nutrition and these new techniques, molecular-whatever, personally Madame Martin was not yet convinced that chocolate and caviar were a happy marriage, but that was beside the point. The point was that on no account must Claudie allow that woman into her kitchen. She could turn her back for a minute and when she turned round again her mushroom vols-au-vent would have icing sugar and candles on. How was it possible that Monsieur Pete, such a lovely person and such an astonishing chef, had grown up with a mother who put honey on her tomatoes and sugar in her vinaigrette? Maybe that was why he’d gone in for pâtisserie…
The French Summer Novels are all free to read with the Kindle Unlimited scheme on Amazon.
Down at the Big Blue for the first time in months it felt strange to be out of the small world of our small hamlet. In post-confinement France there are mixed opinions about social distancing, mask-wearing, legal size of public gatherings, definitions of public gatherings, fines, and the rest.
At the local market- a dozen or so stalls set up along the edge of the beach -there were few customers, none wearing masks, although the traders were fully equipped. Stopping to buy cheese, we fell into conversation with the young stall-holder. He was from the Savoie, plying his trade in the different markets, morning and evening, of the Pyrenées Orientales , working with local members of the market fraternity. Each week he returned to the high mountains to pick up more cheese before driving back across country, a 1200 km round trip.
Further along, another young man was selling melons. Not local ones he told us, but from Provence, the town of Chateau Renard near Avignon. His story was similar. Shuttling between the markets of the coast and the farm , 250 kms away. As they smiled and chatted, offering us samples of their wares, sweet chunks of orange-fleshed melon, the huge wheels of pale Alpine cheeses I was impressed by their dignity and courteousness, the way in which they appeared to be not just happy with their hard and precarious metier, but proud of it. I would have liked to buy up every single melon and every scrap of cheese and taken them home for a slap-up lunch.
We don’t have French TV at The Cowshed so one of our treats here is to watch the 1 o’clock news on TF 1 with Jean-Pierre Pernaut. This French newscaster has been wowing the public since 1988 (Le Journal de 13h has more viewers – 6 to 7 million- than any other European lunch-time news programme) and this month the bespectacled 70-year- old with the Cheshire cat grin was voted France’s No 1 favourite TV personality by the public. A hilarious poke in the eye for those self-satisfied, woke presenters who spend most of their time sucking in their cheeks, grooming their egos and rudely interrupting their guests.
Why is Pernaut so popular? Although famous for occasionally letting rip, Andrew Neill style, about an event hitting the headlines, he’s more likely to start with an image of almond blossoms, budding vines or lavender fields baking under the sun. This is a programme which, for the most part, turns its back on the madding crowd, focusing instead on the regions of France in all their wonderful diversity and stunning natural beauty, highlighting their history, culture and the people who live there (just hearing the accents makes you feel as though you’re on holiday).
Though sniffed at by intellectuals as being boring, provincial, redolent of ‘mucky clogs’ (‘sabots crottés’ –Liberation), even xenophobic, the formula has proved to be a winner for many weary of political harangues, moral lectures and the existential problems of metropolitan elites unable to find supplies of Kobo beef at Le Bon Marché. It has a similar sort of appeal to Rick Stein’s Secret France series. The other day, flocks of sheep were being taken up to the mountains to munch on all that sweet summer grass – the famous transhumance – followed by a trip to France’s ‘Emerald Isle’ – a bit of Ireland in Brittany – followed by a reportage on eco pasturage – an ancestral method of maintaining green spaces by allowing sheep and goats to graze freely.
Ah, forget COVID and its rising death toll for thirty minutes, listen to the sheep bells and breathe in the bracing odour of sabots crottés…
One of the most popular campaigns launched by the programme three years ago is the competition to find ‘the most beautiful market in France.’ Last year more than four million people voted. The winner, Montbrison, a small medieval village in the Loire, is famous for its fourme de Monbrison, a cheese mentioned on the UNESCO site for its part in French gastronomy – ‘an intangible world heritage’. The competition is fierce with each region defending its favourite. This year’s winner will be announced on July 8th…(cue music from Jaws).
Reluctantly leaving behind cheeses and lavender fields…even in our hermit’s cave it’s been hard not to miss the BLM demonstrations. Normally I don’t comment on world events on this blog, but I have previously mentioned two difficult subjects: the plight of Christian girls in Nigeria taken as Boko Haram ‘wives’, and that of Yazidi women and girls taken as slaves by Islamic State. The details of their suffering have been well documented by different sources including reports submitted to the UN Human Rights Council and are available to read by anyone with access to the Internet. I am not going to repeat them here. Suffice it to say they are the stuff of nightmares and anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating need only watch the testimony here of Amal Clooney, speaking to the UN in September 2016 on behalf of one of the Yazidi victims, Nadia Murad.
Watching the BLM UK demonstrations I was struck by the huge groundswell of outrage sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Although the BLM movement, started in 2013, had a specific aim – to protest against incidents of police brutality in the US against unarmed Afro-Americans- the latest protests seemed to indicate something bigger, with more diverse aims; that they were more about human rights than civil rights, about the wider subject of exploitation of certain races by others. A lot of attention was given to the Atlantic slave trade, abolished in the UK (as all school-children know from their history lessons I hope), in the 19th century, thanks to the efforts of William Wilberforce and other members of the Anti-Slavery Society. This organisation, founded in 1823, gave birth to the current day advocacy group, Anti-Slavery International, the oldest international human rights organisation in the world.
What a great opportunity, then, after recalling shameful events of the past, for BLM UK to continue in the honourable tradition of Wilberforce and other reformers by turning a probing searchlight on the even more shameful abuse still being perpetrated today, in the 21st century, on the most vulnerable members of the BAME community- women and children?
The estimates for the number of modern-day slaves are staggering – literally millions. Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.’ Amal Clooney spoke out against what she called ‘a bureaucracy of evil on an industrial scale’, referring to the slave markets, live and on-line using encrypted mobile applications (eg the 4Sale app). Here, girls and women ‘get purchased like barrels of petrol’ (UN envoy and human rights champion Zainab Bangura) and prices for choice specimens go as high as thousands of dollars.
Only four months ago, Rebecca Sharibu, mother of 16-year-old Leah Sharibu, abducted by Boko Haram two years ago, took part in a protest outside the Nigerian High Commission in London. Nigeria has been named by UNESCO as one of the leading countries in human trafficking. Commenting on the case, Lord Ahmad, the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict said ‘The UK has made repeated calls for the release of all those abducted by Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), including Leah Sharibu. We are appalled by and condemn her reported enslavement, forced conversion and pregnancy.’
As I write this, the trial is taking place in Germany over the death of a slave kept by an Iraqui-German couple, a 5-year old Yazidi child chained to a window in searing heat and left to die of thirst after wetting her bed.
Has there been any mention of these victims during the current protests? Where are their names? Where are their pictures? Where are the banners, where is the fury, the outrage against those committing such horrors? As Clooney said ‘we know who the perpetrators are’, adding ‘I am ashamed as a lawyer that there is no justice being done’ with states failing to act ‘because they find their own interests get in the way.’
Not just states, it would seem. I watched in disbelief as some demonstrators, instead of turning the force of righteous wrath (not to mention baseball bats) on real live human traffickers, preferred to attack inert, 300-year-old statues (take that, you villain) and to daub memorials to those who made our history something to be immensely proud of – men and women who sacrificed their lives to defend a liberty without which no protests would be allowed.
What a terrible, lost opportunity. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ said Dr King. One can’t help thinking that if someone with his vision, humanity and courage had been around to provide wise leadership things might have been different, and the moment would have been seized to draw attention to what is going on right under our noses. If I were a cynic (Goddess forbid) I might even be tempted to imagine that sinister strings were being pulled to do just the opposite. Cherchez les idéologues.
After all, we in France have watched since November 2018 the story of les gilets jaunes, a genuine grass-roots movement with huge public support uniting people from across political and other divides, from truckers to grandmothers, brought to an end by blatant hijacking from the violent ‘casseurs‘, wreckers, Black Blocs and the like . And as every French person and student of history knows, the glorious revolution of 1789 was followed by the Bloody Terror of 1793.
So what’s next for the true believers? The Jews have already been lined up, as usual, and in a praiseworthy reaction by Sir Keir Starmer, a shadow cabinet minister who should have known better has been sacked for retweeting an anti-semitic tweet. Country-dwellers however, might have been surprised to find they too were in the firing line as they ambled along in their wellies: ‘many BAME groups see the countryside as a white environment’ according to BBC’s Countryfile . And for heavens sake let’s not forget the literary villains. Salman Rushdie may have been punished, but what about that ‘notorious genocidal racist’ Charles Dickens? Fortunately former Green Councillor Ian Driver put the record straight by painting ‘Dickens Racist’ on a museum in Broadstairs. A statue of Cervantes also got the red paint treatment (the genius with the spray-paint obviously didn’t know the great author had spent 5 years as a slave in Algiers). Publishing houses are purging their authorial lists. Perhaps a spot of book burning ? Now would be a good moment, with cries to #Defundthepolice and more than 140 officers injured dealing with protests and illegal parties in the last 3 weeks according to Cressida Dick.
Funny how these defunders have conveniently forgotten Barak Obama’s caveat in 2015. He defended BLM but added “I think everybody understands all lives matter. Everybody wants strong, effective law enforcement. Everybody wants their kids to be safe when they’re walking to school. Nobody wants to see police officers, who are doing their jobs fairly, hurt.” Thomas Sowell put it more succintly: ‘ If you are not prepared to use force to defend civilization, then be prepared to accept barbarism, ‘
Meanwhile, those in their safe houses and safe democracies will continue to run around with evangelical zeal bravely toppling statues and painting graffiti on war memorials. It will remain for the quiet few, extremely courageous people, mostly unknown to the public, many of them women, who are genuinely risking their lives to speak out on behalf of the real victims of slavery and exploitation today. Hats off to them and shame on those who turn a blind eye because they find their own interests get in the way…
‘You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.’
― William Wilberforce
‘As long as we were desirable enough, and not yet dead.’ Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace prize winner, first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking of the UN, former IS slave, beaten, raped, burned with cigarettes.
‘Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.’ Martin Luther King
‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’ George Orwell, Animal Farm.
‘I was a girl once, but not any more.’ Edna O Brien, Girl
Last week I held in my hands a real copy of Book 1 of the French Summer Novels, Biarritz Passion. The relief was tremendous. Since uploading the manuscript from my PC on April 6th I had prostrated myself daily before the altar of Thoth, (scribe of the gods according to Wiki). Could it be true? Was there really a paperback out there, being virtually born? In between the click of an on-screen button saying ‘Publish’ and the emergence of a physical object with pages and a cover from a printing press in Eastern Europe, who knew what cyber- catastrophe might strike? The worst-case scenario popped up in a dream.
The book had finally arrived! I tore off the wrapping and looked inside. What was this??? The first dozen pages were covered in fading, fragmented hieroglyphics, a bit like the dead Sea Scrolls. As I recoiled in shock, these fragments grew clearer, became legible: regurgitations from the bowels of my computer, pleading letters to the taxman, links to internet sites promising instant weight loss, adverts for haemorrhoid relief. ‘Deep embedded code is never entirely deleted,’ droned a sepulchral Cyber-Inspector in a peaked cap. ‘It can surface at any moment. Anywhere.’ (OK, I’ve been watching a LOT of Netflix. )
Waking up in a sweat from nightmares like this is the moment you know that, deep down, you really belong in the 19th century. There’s something eminently normal and logical, eminently ‘in the order of things’ as the French say*, about the process of throwing down your quill, making a neat brown paper parcel of the ink-stained pages, tying the whole together with a length of butcher’s string and heading out to the publishers through the gas-lit, cobbled streets.
The first book I published was a text book. After many happy hours kneeling on the living room floor cutting and glueing and scribbling notes in margins I sent it off to the publishers who duly sent back proofs to correct and the next thing I knew I was holding a real book. Very hands-on, very touchy-feely. My first venture into e-publishing, six years ago, was a revelation. Not being of a scientific bent, I underwent the kind of mental torture necessary to acquire new (technological) faiths that ignorant 15th century landlubbers must have experienced, watching ships sail into the sunset and seeing them drop off the edge of the earth only to have them pop up somewhere behind them four years later.
The temptation of holding a real book in my hands was irresistible. Two years ago, I had a go at converting from e-book to paperback. But in spite of Amazon’s step-by-step instructions (which are now better than ever, and accompanied by amazing tools) it soon became clear that this was a much bigger alligator to wrestle. Help was needed.
So there are now two more people to go on my Red-Cape Rescuers ‘thank you’ list. Since that exciting day in 2014 when I uploaded the first e-book, this list has grown steadily–friends, advisors, beta-readers, bloggers, reviewers, generous authors and readers already mentioned in previous blogs and on Acknowledgements pages. All have made the writing adventure even more exciting and enriching, and, though I only know most of you in a virtual sense, in this particular instance I am totally convinced of your lovely realities.
For the paperback, Alligator Wrestler Jacqueline Abromeit at goodcoverdesign.co.uk produced two wonderful designs for the cover, making it difficult to choose which one was more impressive (thank you helpers). I finally went for the one with the lighthouse on the headland, and the setting sun streaming through a woman’s hair (‘weave, weave, the sunlight in your hair’). Alligator Wrestler Steve Passiouras at Bookow has a magic programme which allows you to put sausage meat your Word document manuscript in at one end and produces a Saucisse de Toulouse Label Rouge a paperback pdf at the other.
Thanks also to Jacqui Brown (no stranger to these pages) for permission to quote, and to a Wise Man from the East who helped with the very last steps of this particular miracle – he knows who he is 😉
As for the marketing mastermind who decided it would be a good idea to bring out a paperback just when the world is in lockdown and the earliest postal delivery date for non-essential items (like Biarritz Passion) is January 2021 – that would be me.
My next task is to learn to believe that an invisible, sputnik-shaped object covered in reddish warts really does have the power to bring the world to its knees…
Stay safe, stay sane, stay inventive, stop binge-watching The Walking Dead and hang on to your sense of humour 😉
*little factoid for folk who like that sort of stuff: ‘dans l’ordre des choses’ – an illustration of this expression can be found in a letter written in June 1871 by the great Gustave (Flaubert) who says: ‘As (Adolphe) Thiers has just done us great service, within the space of one month he will be the most hated man in his country; it’s ‘in the order.’
(Comme Thiers venait de nous rendre un très grand service, avant un mois, il sera l’homme le plus exécré de son pays ; c’est dans l’ordre.’)
Thiers had negotiated a peace treaty with the Prussians who, after defeating French forces at the Battle of Sedan (September 1870), had invaded northern France. But many Parisians were against the armistice, and the famous Paris Commune was formed to resist it. Thiers sent in the army to put a stop to the revolutionaries, uttering his famous phrase: ‘The republic is the form of government that divides us (the French) least.’ The terrible fighting of Frenchman against Frenchman continued until the end of May, when the Communards surrendered. Flaubert’s Voltairean observation was right in principle if not in date: Thiers was president from 1871 to 1873 , but on May 23rd 1873, he was toppled by a vote of no-confidence and resigned the following day.
It has been a cataclysmic few weeks. A December butterfly flapping its wings in Wuhan caused the entire world to shake by the end of February. Europe is now the epicentre of a pandemic. Here in France, as in other countries, we are contemplating a Sunday without the usual choice of pleasures – sitting on a café terrace with coffee and croissants, getting ready for a special lunch with friends, as recounted in my last blog of February 7th (how things have changed…) As I wrote that, we were also getting excited about a much-anticipated UK trip at the end of the month to see family and friends and join in a once in a lifetime event – all of which we finally cancelled.
If, like me, you are a neurotic control freak, your reaction in such circumstances is an irresistible urge to fling yourself into a total Madame de Récamier lie-down-with-hand-to-brow for the foreseeable future. This gets boring after a while, though. So, struggling upright, I turned to the wise words of others who have faced daunting prospects. Faced them, and survived. Pinned up next to the desk is a poem famous for its inspirational message. It was said to have been a favourite of Nelson Mandela, locked up for 27 years on Robben Island and still able to come out doing his Madiba dance.
W. E. Henley’s poem, Invictus, was featured in an earlier blog. Written in 1875 when its author was 25, it has become a cultural touchstone for those facing adversity. Henley was at the end of an eight year ordeal during which part of his left leg had been amputated and he was recovering from a series of interventions to save his right foot.
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 here’s a suggestion. Intoning those thrilling lines- I AM the master of my fate, I AM the captain of my soul- and Madiba-ing round the house, try keeping up morale by inflicting some order on your domestic universe. Oil that squeaky hinge! Pick up all those clothes in the bottom of your wardrobe! Scrape off the bits of old cheese and tomato sauce stuck to the sides of the fridge! In the Cowshed we wheeled out the big guns and turned our control thunderbolts on la buanderie.
Roughly translated, ‘buanderie’ means ‘laundry room’, in our case the small room off the kitchen where the washing machine lives. The MDM and I had been meaning to tackle this damp and dismal space ever since we moved in. Eight years after that move, the butterfly spurred us into action. In this unrenovated part of the house, the 200- year-old earthenware tiles were in a sad and sorry state, chipped, cracked and covered with cement. Just contemplating how to deal with them made us feel equally sad and sorry, not to mention chipped and cracked around the knee area. Hence we kept putting it off. In our new bid for control however, we needed a helping hand. Fortunately this was before the quarantine measures came in, so for the nastiest part of the job – removing 3 mm from their surface by means of an ear-splittingly loud machine – a cross between a drill and a plane – we fell back on the services of our trusty local magician with youthful, unchipped knees, Monsieur Barleycorn.
Wearing a hazmat suit, goggles, and a mask, Monsieur B. spent 8 hours transforming la buanderie into planet Mars. Three millimetres might not sound like much, but the results were spectacular. Within minutes of his attack, clouds of red dust billowed into the lane through the open window, the grass turned a rusty orange and the post-lady’s yellow van got a surprise sprinkling of paprika.
In spite of precautionary measures –sealing up communicating doors and covering everything in sheets – walls, surfaces and insides of cupboards in the adjoining kitchen were swiftly covered in a thick, sticky film of ancient tile-dust. Monsieur B cut a striking figure as he staggered out of the buanderie for his lunch break. Even after a lengthy shower and the contents of two bottles of extra-strength gel, he still looked like an extra in a sci fi movie– one of those alien life forms emerging from the shimmering atmosphere of the Martian mountains and causing the not- so-intrepid earthling astronauts to drop their laser guns and beat it back to the mother-ship.
The Maître De Maison, meanwhile, wading through the flotsam of buanderie items which had washed up in the kitchen (sink unit, washing machine, ironing board, step ladder) had somehow got to the dusty cooker and the dustier frying pan and rustled up a hearty repast of saucisse de Toulouse et frites, where every gritty, squeaky bite brought back memories of childhood picnics on the beach.
Several days later there was light at the end of the tunnel. After countless sessions of vacuuming, hosing down, re-grouting, re-mopping and re-painting, the formerly dismal little room was emerging, pristine and spring-like after a 200- year-long winter. It’s still not quite finished. The tiles – a becoming shade of deep Martian red- still need repeated moppings before we can apply the final treatment, a wax that will transform them into glowing rubies.
We have our eye on other projects. There’s a sagging arch over the gateway to the 200-year-old courtyard, formerly an extension of the Cowshed. It would be ironic if 20 tonnes of ancient masonry fell on our heads just as we were emerging from quarantine. There’s the garden shed, and its colony of mice and spiders to be re-housed. There’s an energetic star jasmine, which, having covered its trellis, has somehow launched itself across a gap of one metre and got itself seriously involved with a Japanese maple.
And of course, there’s the writing…more news of that in the next (I hope) blog.
Meanwhile, a Happy Mother’s Day to Mums in the UK, and bon courage to readers everywhere, especially those stuck in cities, and those brave souls on the front lines. Keep washing hands, keep taking the Vit C, keep Madiba-ing, stay safe, stay sane …
As February arrived last weekend, a breath of spring wafted across the valley. Stepping outside, we experienced one of those thrillingly uplifting assaults on the senses that signals earth’s awakening after a bleak winter. Near the door, a spectacular winter honeysuckle was in full bloom, its delicate flowers exhaling a sharp fragrance. We looked around, a little dazed. To one side, a country lane winding through bare-branched trees which two weeks ago had been glittering with frost; to the other, the gently undulating hills of the Tarn’s ‘little Tuscany’. And all around, a crescendo of birdsong from the hedgerows, a peculiar sweetness to the air and a softer, hazier radiance to the light.
No wonder poets go mad in spring.
Of course it’s not yet spring, and there are more frosty mornings to come. But last weekend was a foretaste, and it seemed appropriate that we should celebrate such a lovely day in the company of good friends, enjoying a dish which is part of the history of the region–le cassoulet. We were also keen to seize the moment–our hostess is inspired by the cassoulet genie only once a year. Ouf. Thank goodness we were at home when the spirit struck, and not, as sometimes happens, on a Ryanair flight sampling the delights of cheese melts and wilted lettuce.
More treats are in store ten minutes later as we arrive at our destination, a handsome 300-year-old maison de maître set in a sheltered hollow with views opening out across the countryside. As it faces in a different direction from our house, the perspectives it offers are interestingly different and more dramatic. We stand on the steps in front of the sunlit façade, gazing at the spectacle and thinking yet again how lucky we have been to end up in such a beautiful corner of France. The cat, sitting one step above, surveying his kingdom with a look of majestic approval, obviously agrees. We are ushered through the door and immediately start to salivate. In a luminous salon where a fire burns under an immense copper hood stands a low table surrounded by comfortable sofas where the aperitif is served: champagne in old-style coupes, foie gras maison and smoked salmon canapés. The guests raise a toast and catch up with the latest neighbourhood and family news. A chance to take things slowly, to savour le temps de vivre, le plaisir de vivre. Not a smart phone in sight…
I’ve written about cassoulet in a previous blog about Pierre-Paul Riquet, the 17th century genius who built the Canal du Midi, thus linking France’s Atlantic coast with the Mediterranean. His fifteen-year project was unimaginably gigantic for the time; his workforce numbered 12 000 men and women, peasants, stonemasons, blacksmiths, engineers and other technical experts. Riquet was an exemplary employer, paying good wages, granting holidays and sick leave and-naturellement-making sure his workers bellies were full.
The town of Castelnaudary, 60 km south-east of Toulouse, is the main port on the canal, and as those (many) foodies among you will know, it is one of the three places (along with Toulouse and Carcassonne) which claims to have invented this typical Occitan dish. Each time we drive past, I like to imagine a battalion of 17th century cooks stirring cauldronsful of it, ready to be ladled out to the work force. As Napoleon supposedly said, an army marches on its stomach; perhaps Riquet’s army was sustained in its advance towards Sète by the fat geese and ducks of a hearty cassoulet.
Different recipes exist, along with different champions of each version, but our hostess had used the authentic basic ingredients: preserved duck (or goose), Toulouse sausage, couenne de porc (smoked pork rind), and of course, those famous beans. There are different contenders on the bean front, but Sunday’s version had been made using haricots tarbais, dried white beans from the town of Tarbes in the foothills of the Pyrenees which are sometimes planted in between rows of corn or maize so that the stalks of the cereal provide a support as they grow (merci Cathy D for this information😉). In his blog here, American chef David Lebovitz describes them as ‘the holy grail of beans’; aficionados buy the handpicked ones at 19 euros a kilo. Even after lengthy cooking (up to 7 hours including the different stages), they retain their shape and their ‘croquant‘ (slight crunchiness) rather than ending up as a sad and sorry bean mush.
The preparation of the ingredients and the order in which they are added to the earthenware cooking dish are vital steps in achieving your masterpiece. Our hostess had prepared everything the previous day – this is a dish which tastes better re-heated. The beans are soaked for 12 hours, then put on to cook in water flavoured with onion, garlic, salt, pepper and a bouquet garni. Once they are ready the ingredients are assembled in layers: the beans, the previously cooked sausages and preserved duck, then a final layer of beans. Then everything goes into the oven for a long slow simmer (140° C in our hostess’s oven).
In the Riquet blog, I quoted the great Elizabeth David and her classic book French Country Cooking which contains the recipe I would recommend for those dedicated cooks in search of the true cassoulet grail (haricots tarbais can be ordered on the internet). She recounts a wonderful anecdote by Anatole France in which he describes the famous cassoulet served at Chez Clemence, a small tavern in 19th century Paris.
‘We knowthat in order to bring out all its qualities, cassoulet must be cooked slowly on a low light. Mother Clémence’s cassoulet has been on the go 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.’
When, on Sunday, ‘le cassoulet de Denise’ was placed on the table, there were cries of admiration. Although I’m pretty sure it hadn’t been on the go for twenty years, it was one of the best I have ever tasted, a true labour of love. It also ‘caressed the eye’, presentation (or ‘food canvas’ as it’s sometimes called) being another element of success, as fans of Masterchef will know. In order to achieve this wonderful ‘look’, the chef must take out the dish every half hour and push down the crust which has formed on top into the cooking juices. The result is a unique colour, described rapturously by Anatole France, as ‘a rich amber hue similar to that found in the paintings of the great Venetian masters.’
I leave the last word to Prosper Montagné, famous chef and gastronome from the Languedoc, who declared ‘Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine. A God in three persons: God the Father, the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the Son, the cassoulet of Carcassonne, and God the Holy Spirit, the cassoulet of Toulouse.’
PS You may add homemade breadcrumb topping for your last layer of cooking if desired. Also, put a bottle of good vinegar (Banyuls or wine vinegar) on the table if your guests wish to alleviate the well-known side-effects of too many beans…
PPS Visitors to the Tarn may explore its wonders while staying in one of the comfortable bedrooms in Denise’s gracious house. She offers B and B (‘chambres d’hôte‘), serving a delicious and copious breakfast using local organic products, and driving to the boulangerie 5 km away to get the croissants, chocolatines etc fresh from the oven! (No evening meals)
In one of my notebooks of random jottings I have written the following: ‘In 2018, 63 million books were sold in the run-up to Christmas.’ Not sure where I got this factoid or if it’s true. But in case it is, and you’re wondering just which of the 63 million to buy, here are my suggestions, spotlighting five authors whose books I particularly enjoyed this year.
My first ‘Dear Santa’ book list appeared in 2015, the year I started blogging. It featured three authors, all male, all writing in one particular genre-the detective thriller–and all starring the type of complex, edgy, dodgy, sexy, hero-but-anti-hero homme fatal I have been unable to resist ever since falling for those men in trench coats as a teenager.
This year it’s the ladies who get the laurel wreaths, five of them, not a private eye in sight, each one impressive for different reasons. Sheila Patel made me laugh, Jill Kearney made me cry, Helena Whitbread made me bow my head in reverence, and Pamela Allegretto and Deborah Swift took me on incredible journeys. Here’s how they did it, starting with the last two. (Click on their names to go straight to the author page).
Cities are fascinating places. I lived in a flat bang in the middle of Toulouse for ten years, until the exhaust fumes and seedy bar downstairs lost their charm. But although home is now a beloved four-house hamlet deep in rural France, the allure of the great metropolis still lingers. Allegretto and Swift bring to life two iconic cities at momentous periods in their history: WW2 Rome and 17th century London. The authors share an ability to conjure up the startling realism that a dreamer sometimes experiences, swept away on a night journey where, as in a film, the perspective shifts between panoramic aerial shots to voyeuristic close ups. From vistas encompassing houses, bridges, spires, monuments, wide rivers, vast skies and surrounding countryside, the camera zooms in to the tobacco stains on the villain’s teeth, the nuance of grays in a puddle, the whole accompanied by a full-on, sensory onslaught of smells, colours and clamour. As I found out more about these authors’ backgrounds, I was struck by another thing they had in common–the way those backgrounds influenced their work.
Pamela Allegretto is an American artist of Italian descent. As I started to read her book, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams, the scenes unrolled like frescoes across the screen of my mind. It’s 1938 and we are in an idyllic cherry orchard in southern Italy, home of the Lombardi family for hundreds of years. But this enduring, bucolic way of life is about to be shattered, signalling the end of an era and the beginning of an exhausting struggle by one woman, Angelina Rosini, to protect her young daughter in a country torn apart first by the poisonous ideology of Fascism, then by the invading armies of the Allies. The action moves from the countryside to the cobbled alleyways and ancient monuments of Rome, where Allegretto transposes her ‘pictorial eye’ to the written page, creating an arresting canvas of a war-torn city where the inhabitants, in particular Jews and resistance fighters, live in constant fear and deprivation. In the foreground, two women battle it out on a personal level in a combat as full of primitive emotions as the classical dramas of antiquity: Angelina, the artist heroine, and her driven, harpy-like sister-in-law, Lidia. Who will be the winner?
From Rome to London, where a different but equally deadly foe, is spreading terror – the plague. In Deborah Swift’s trilogy, Women of Pepys’ Diaries, the famous diarist is getting up to all sorts of mischief and mayhem. The author started her career in the theatre, working as a set and costume designer, and there’s a dramatic immediacy in her writing similar to that we experience at a live performance. Indeed her third book is about a woman who becomes an actress, Elizabeth Knepp, who, like the other strong female leads, is based on a real person mentioned in the diaries. Pepys, the man of the title, and inspiration for the novels, is an inveterate womaniser who gets up to the sort of sexist manipulation and exploitation typical of the time, but the way in which he is portrayed by Swift endows him with a sort of irresistible attraction for the reader, much like that of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. All the books are terrific reads but my favourite is A Plague on Mr Pepys, with its heroine Bess Bagwell, who sees her ambitions for herself and her husband, Will, crumble under the random blows of fate and the devious machinations of her brother-in-law, Jack. As her circumstances become more and more desperate, she is obliged to turn to the powerful Pepys in an attempt to save herself and Will. The psychology of their relationship, and the way it develops, is gripping. Bess teeters on a dangerous seesaw in which the necessity of reeling in the only man who can help must be counter-balanced by her desire to keep him at arm’s length. Will she succeed?
From London and Rome to the north of England. My next two authors hail from my birthplace, the west riding of Yorkshire (chauvinist, moi? Heh heh). Helena Whitbread is the only non-fiction author of the five, and she has already featured here, in my May blog, along with her 19th century soulmate, Anne Lister, who became world-famous this year in the TV series Gentleman Jack. But Anne’s story may never have reached such a wide audience had it not been for the astonishing devotion and talent of the woman who said of her efforts: ‘I was just the back-street scribe.’ In 1983, Whitbread was looking for a research topic for a Ph D. Wandering into the Halifax Archives, she happened upon the diaries of a 19th century local landowner and secret lesbian, Anne Lister. ‘From that day,’ she writes, ‘I … found myself engaged in a literary, historical and cultural adventure…Halifax, for me, became two different towns. Physically I moved around…twentieth century Halifax. Mentally, I lived in the small nineteenth century town.’ She set out to reveal the Anne hidden in the diaries, decoding and transcribing 27 volumes and 4 million words, of which one sixth are in code with no punctuation. She writes: ‘Curiosity, allied to thethrill of an intellectual challenge, gripped me.’ But her achievement does not stop there. The two books which resulted from her research, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love, consist of her final selections from the diaries themselves linked by explanatory passages and further clarified by detailed footnotes. The sensitivity and justesse of her selections and the lucid passion of her explanatory passages communicate a striking empathy with a woman who lived 150 years previously and who, on the surface, could not have been more different from her 20th century amanuensis.
‘Have you noticed you never see a cow laugh?’ This was one of the more notoriously sibylline pronouncements by my Yorkshire grandmother one Saturday as we took her on a drive through the countryside. Those cows had obviously not come across Sheila Patel’s series of books set in contemporary Bradford, The Magic Vodka Wardrobe. This is definitely not Bradford as you know it, and definitely not as my Yorkshire grandmother would have known the grimy old mill town. But, along with the cows, Grandma would have been singing and dancing and shaking from head to toe (or horn to hoof) with mirth at ‘Ar Sheila’s’ depiction of the Singh family and life in their corner shop, backed up by a mind-boggling cast of friends and neighbours who would make Damon Runyon’s eyes water: Mad Mush Martha, Tattoo Tony and his Rottweiler, Knobhead, Joginder the goat, Graham the pigeon, Dammit Janet, Gyppo Bob, and Guru the Wedding Horse, to name but a few. They feature in a series of outrageously hilarious vignettes which have the same freshness, originality and addictive surrealism as those of Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the 70s.
Patel was the seventh child of a traditional Punjabi family who grew up in the same period as The Flying Circus (is there a link?) 1970s Britain. Her writing, she says, was inspired by ‘all the funny things that Indians do daily to adapt to the British way of life’. Centre stage are the Singh family: Father, Mother, her two sisters Lady Fatima and Sheila (‘short short skirts, four husbands’) and the three daughters Kirsty (rich husband), Shaz and Trace ( ‘both accountants, both thin, with no scary moles and nice cars’ but- to Mother’s chagrin- still husbandless). Another important character is Bachitaar but to meet him we have to step out of the fourth dimension of life in Patel’s Bradford and enter a fifth dimension, accessible only through a magic wardrobe, consisting of a 70s disco bar complete with glitter ball and non-stop musical soundtrack (Douglas Adams, anyone?). Bachitaar, complete with turban, can be found behind the bar serving up endless vodka shots while lending a sympathetic ear to Sheila, Trace and Shaz who take refuge in the wardrobe when life, love, bamboo bikes, spam samozas and the news headlines all get too much. Until the time comes when Santa can supply magic wardrobes to all of us, don’t hesistate to join Sheila and the girls in theirs!
Finally, after the laughs, the tears. It’s a well-known fact that no Christmas is complete without a Miracle on 34th Street.
Jill Kearney, like Sheila Patel, was inspired to write by her real-life experiences. These included being a dog rescuer and in-home care provider. Her book The Dog ThiefandOther Stories, set in a rural pocket of Washington State, features humans who are poor and dispossessed, animals who share a similar fate, and those often-hapless individuals who try to help out. In this divided society with its ‘separate realities’-the affluent owners of oceanside homes at one extreme, the survivalists and hippies running meth labs and puppy mills in the woods at the other – it would be easy to moralise, and hold our noses at people like Beverley, an MS sufferer who rejects the relative comfort of the reservation in favour of a squalid existence in a collapsed trailer with a swarm of feral cats, and who spends her social security checks on alcohol and cat food. Good Samaritan neighbour, Jim, inwardly railing at her stubbornness, tries to save her from total decrepitude, attempting to fix her broken toilet, hauling out overflowing buckets of excrement while literally holding his nose (‘the smell…smacked him in the sinuses.’). Writing in a deceptively low-key, unsentimental style, Kearney gets her message across by delivering unexpected knee chops. She possesses that rare knack of picking out the perfect detail in a myriad of possibilities, the one tiny raindrop that reflects an entire, staggering world, halting us in our tracks as we read, making us laugh out loud or burst into uncontrollable tears. Her alter ego, Elizabeth, features in several of the tales, driven to desperate devices (such as stealing dogs from abusive owners) in order to right wrongs, while simultaneously trying to grasp the meaning of her own unorthodox life, where poignant remembrance of time past vies with a recognition of the importance of seizing the beauty of the moment. Like that other quintessentially American writer, Carson McCullers, Kearney the story teller pulls off the magic trick of getting us to empathise with her variety of creatures great and small, to suspend our judgement, to enter into their lives with wonder and humility and vow to do better ourselves.
And what better Christmas message could there be than that?
To bookworms around the worldJoyeux Noëlet Bonne Année from the Cowshed!
And John Dolan has been invited to take part in a multi-author boxed set of crime thrillers to release in 2020, Notorious Minds. Watch this space.
Coming on my blog in 2020:
A visit to the magnificent John Rylands library in Manchester, more on the Anne Lister theme with a visit to Lightcliffe Church cemetery where Lister’s ‘wife’ Anne Walker is buried…. along with twenty or so of my ancestors! Also an update on my abandoned project Christmas at Villa Julia, which is now busy turning itself into a new historical series, The Etcheverrias, starting in 1898 with A Wedding in Provence… too nervous to say any more in case the Muse goes on an extended holiday without leaving a forwarding address 😉
Last Monday, November 18th, a little book came up for auction in Paris; a VERY little book, one and a half by two and a half inches. The author was Charlotte Brontë, aged 14, and the tiny volume is one of six miniatures written in the Yorkshire parsonage where the Brontë children grew up. A campaign was launched by The Brontë Society to buy it, and a huge wellspring of public goodwill enabled the organisers to reach, and go beyond, the crowdfunding target of £80,000 showing just how much value we still place on the world of books and literature, and how the amazing Brontë story resonates not only for locals but also for readers all over the world.
‘Go, litel book!’ Go back to Haworth and do homage to thy mistress. According to the latest news it is still in Paris, but has its passport (!) and will head off shortly, hopefully going on display in February 2020 after renovations at the Museum are completed. 2020 will also celebrate the bicentenary of Anne.
You can find out more about the Brontës and even join the society (one of the oldest literary societies in the world) here. There are also numerous videos on YouTube about them (one I particularly like is listed in the links at the end of the blog). But as part of my own personal homage to those sisters, in 2017 I wrote a novella, The Passage of Desire, set in Haworth in the early 1990s. It’s FREE to download this weekend, Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th November, here and here. (Kind) reviewers have commented:
‘I loved the rich descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside and how the passion evoked in Wuthering Heights is intertwined with the story.
…the Brontë landscape is beautifully described; clearly the writer knows it very well. There are some pleasing literary references which Brontë fans will enjoy…..
…the Brontës float in and out of the story, both literally and metaphorically, and the tale is something of a homage to romanticism.’
I hope those floating Brontë spirits, wherever they may be, are celebrating this weekend. Youpee!
Read on for an extract from The Passage of Desire, in which 7-year-old Caroline, one of the narrators, visits the parsonage museum for the first time with her mother, Alexandra, and their hosts, Juliet and Oliver, and is struck by the miniature booklets.
Chapter 13 The Brontë Museum
“Caroline had been pestering for a visit to the museum. And so, one bright morning, they found themselves in the shade of the village churchyard on their way to the parsonage. The tower of St Michael and All Angels was just visible as they stepped into a forest of graves, wedged into every available inch of space, the headstones standing shoulder to shoulder like chessmen, some with pointed tops, some shaped like mitres, others representing stars or fleur-de-lys, or crowned with ornate pediments. Some were upright, others listed to the side. Moss and lichen had blurred the blackened inscriptions but it was possible to make out the words if you looked closely. Thousands of bodies, it was said as many as forty thousand, lay together in this confined space, a reminder that the now pretty village of Haworth had once been a grim and insalubrious place, home to workers in the textile mills that spread across the valley, fed by the plentiful water pouring down from the rain-soaked moors. Tuberculosis and other diseases stalked the village streets, carrying off the weak. Sometimes, stopping to look, you would see the names of entire families marked on the headstones. Juliet always got the shivers when she passed through.
Caroline danced from one grave to another squatting down to decipher the words.
‘Here lies Martha, be…love…beloved daughter of James and Eliza…died in the ten, the tenth, year of her age…Luke, in the 2nd year of his age, Mary, in the 6th year of her age.’
She stopped short and slid her hand into Alexandra’s.
‘Why did all these children die, Mummy?’
Alexandra too was feeling uncomfortable. This was not a peaceful resting place, like some she had visited. In spite of the fine day it was dark and chilly under the tall trees where rooks cawed. The graveyard was full of rustlings as the wind passed through the high branches and shook the stands of yew and ibex. White dandelion clocks floated in the unkempt grass.
‘Remember what Daddy told you? In those days, that was Victorian England, the people who lived here were very poor, they didn’t have warm houses and good food. They worked long hours in the mills. Remember when Juliet told you about Wuthering Heights? How cold it gets in winter? People got sick, children died, babies died.’
‘Come on, let’s go look at the museum,’ said Juliet, taking Caroline’s other hand. ‘I bet you’d like to see the room where those sisters used to write their stories, wouldn’t you? And the kitchen where they sat by the fire on winter evenings when the wind was wuthering and shaking the window panes.’
She gave a scary ‘whoo’ and Caroline’s anxious frown was replaced by a tentative smile.
‘Whoo,’ she echoed and gave a little skip, swinging her arms between the two women.
Oliver brought up the rear.
The parsonage reminded Caroline of Juliet and Alan’s house, it had the same big windows with twelve panes of glass exactly the same size surrounded by white painted frames. It stood on a small rise, with grass and flower beds sloping down from the foundations into a flat garden planted with shrubs and flowers.
‘See these?’ said Juliet. ‘They’re called Canterbury bells. And these are hosta. They’re all plants you could find when the Brontës lived here.’
‘That was when Victoria was the Queen?’
They climbed the steps and passed into the hallway. The furniture was old and the walls were hung with dark oil paintings. A grandfather clock ticked. A curved staircase with a polished wooden banister rose to the upper floor.
The first room they visited was Reverend Brontë’s study.
‘Patrick Brontë came to work here as curate in 1820.’ Oliver took over as guide, pointing to a desk covered in books and papers. ‘So, Princess Whatwhyhow, how many years ago was that?’
Caroline’s lips moved silently.
‘Quite a lot,’ she said, eventually.
‘Good answer,’ said Oliver.
‘Patrick was a good man in many ways,’ said Juliet, ‘He did a lot of things for the village, worked hard for the people of his parish, set up a Sunday school, tried to improve their standard of living and health care.’
‘Was he a saint?’
‘Well I suppose some people called him that. But it was hard on his children. Because he had a lot of work, they were usually left to their own devices. Which was lonely for them, but lucky for us, because this house is where the sisters wrote their books. Maybe, if they’d lived in a big city with lots to do and people to visit, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights would never have seen the light of day.’
In the dining room stood the table where the three sisters sat to write.
‘Charlotte and Emily were the famous ones, but Anne wrote two fine books as well. They were all talented. They used to sit here and work together, then walk round the table reading out what they’d written that day.’
‘They really loved each other, didn’t they?’
‘They did. And their brother too, in spite of his problems. He was a talented artist and a poet. We’re going to see some of his paintings.’
Juliet decided to omit the part of the story where three of the siblings had died in quick succession, Branwell and Anne in 1848, Emily in 1849. Nor was she going to recount the sad reminiscences of Tabby, their faithful servant, describing how, after the other three were dead and buried, she used to listen with an aching heart to the footsteps of Charlotte in the room above, ‘walking, walking on alone’.
‘Right. The kitchen.’
Juliet ushered Caroline towards the door. Alexandra paused in front of a sofa that stood against one wall.
Oliver came across to stand behind her.
‘This is where she died, Emily. According to Charlotte. She’d been having pains in her chest for several weeks but wouldn’t see the doctor.’
She turned to look at him.
‘How old was she?’
‘Thirty. Only a few years younger than Mum.’ He shook his head. ‘Charlotte was devastated. She wrote ‘moments so dark as these I have never known’. She’s my favourite one of the sisters, Emily.’
‘Because she died so tragically?’
‘Huh, there was no shortage of tragic deaths. But she was the most solitary of all of the children, shy, didn’t get on easily with people though apparently she was very kind-hearted. She was a creature of the moors. There are stories about how she could talk to animals, she used to bring them home, rabbits, birds, tend to their injuries. Like a vet. She reminds me a bit of our Cath, she used to be out of doors all the time when she was younger, we both did. Mum and Dad named her after Catherine, in Wuthering Heights, did you know that? Along with hundreds of other parents round here. Lots of Cathys in Yorkshire.’
‘I’ve got a copy of Emily’s poems back at the house if you want to read them?’
‘I’d like that. It’s a while since I’ve read any poetry. I used to be quite a fan. Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats.’
He hesitated, then began to recite, his voice little more than a whisper:
“…I am not doomed to wear
Year after year in gloom and desolate despair;
A messenger of Hope comes every night to me,
And offers, for short life, eternal liberty.
He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,
With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars;
Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,
And visions rise and change which kill me with desire.’
He stopped, flushed, gave an embarrassed shrug.
‘She called that one The Prisoner.’
‘Yes…are you OK?’
Alexandra had gone deathly pale. She stared at Oliver. In the dimness of the room his eyes were a blazing blue. His jaw was shadowed by stubble, his curly hair sprang up from his head in darkly gleaming spirals. His face could have adorned a Renaissance painting, an angel bending over the manger, a nobleman hunting with his hawk in the Tuscan hills.
As though in a dream, she reached up and gently touched his cheek. The contact lasted less than a second, then she turned abruptly and left the room.
Oliver stood quite still.
Juliet and Caroline were in the kitchen. Caroline was frowning at the table where Emily used to bake at the same time as she studied her German lessons and made notes for her poems. She decided when she got back to school she was going to learn lots of foreign languages and write poetry.
‘Over here there used to be a window,’ said Oliver, coming up behind her and pointing. ‘It’s blocked up now, but you could look out of it, across the moors. Imagine what it was like on a winter’s night, everything outdoors covered in snow, the fire crackling in the hearth, Emily making bread, Tabby telling stories.’
‘Did they have a cat?’
‘Ah,’ said Juliet, looking helplessly at her son. ‘I’m sure they did. Maybe Alan knows, lovey, we’ll ask him when we get back.’
Caroline’s favourite room was the children’s study where they played when they were little. Branwell had a box of toy soldiers that looked like old-fashioned pegs painted red, blue and black. The four children used to make up fantastical stories about them, inventing an imaginary kingdom called Angria where the Duke of Wellington was the hero, fighting wars with different enemies. He and other characters had lots of adventures which the children wrote about in tiny books, using even tinier writing which needed a magnifying glass to read. It must have been nice to have sisters and a brother. But Teresa Knowles had three sisters and two brothers and they were always fighting with one another and getting punished by Mrs Knowles who sometimes ran after them with a rolling pin.
She was still thinking about brothers and sisters later that day. Picking up her pen she began to write in her notebook:
‘Today we visited the Bronte Museum. It is in the old Parsnidge next to the graveyard. There are a lot of babies and other children buried in the churchyard. It was the Victorian age. You could die at any moment. The toilet was outside and you had to queue even if it was snowing. The best thing was the childrens notebooks. Aunt Juliet bought me a postcard of the Bronte sisters in the museum shop like the picture that you showed me. It was painted by Branwell he was not just a drunkerd but also a nice person. Everybody had a lot of brothers and sisters in those days. If I had a brother I would like him to be the same as Oliver. Arnie is a very nice baby but we haven’t seen him this week. On Sunday Frank was cruel to him and pulled his arm and made him cry. Cath has promised to come over and put some desperate damson on my nails. She has rings on all her fingers even her thumb and in her nose and ears and is pretty. I would quite like her for a sister. The problem with having a brother and sister is they could get a disease and die at any minute. Perhaps it is better just to have a dog or a cat. I am really missing Rusty. Thank you for getting me this notebook Daddy.’
On a recent trip to Manchester the MDM and I visited the altogether incredible, stunning and awe-inspiring John Rylands Library. I’ll be raving enthusiastically talking more about this astonishing building and its history in a later blog, but, as we stood amazed in its cathedral-like reading room, my mind wandered to other reading rooms, and things that had been written there, and their consequences on an unsuspecting world.
So dear readers, here’s a little reading room quiz:
Question 1: Who wrote The Communist Manifesto?
Answer: Right! It was indeed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Question 2: In which reading room did they work together in the 1840s?
Answer: Wrong! It wasn’t the Rylands (I thought it was until our visit). However it was in Manchester, at another famous library, the Chetham, the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. (See why we like Manchester?)
Question 3: In the year The Manifesto was published (1848), how many revolutions took place in Europe?
Answer: Wrong! There were 603 million. (OK, I’m lying, just wanted to check you were paying attention). It is however true that during that momentous year (known also as The People’s Spring) populations all over Europe took to the barricades in an unprecedented wave of revolutionary fever (most of them hadn’t heard of the Communist Manifesto). Not just France, but Poland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Sicily , Denmark and elsewhere, people rose up demanding the downfall of traditional rulers and the implementation of social reforms such as the right to vote, to strike, the freedom of speech and the press etc.
Final Question: what on earth has all this got to do with Villa Julia?
When this admirable Francophile bookworm and blogger reviewed the final volume in the French Summer Novels Series, Biarritz–Villa Julia, back in May, she wrote:
‘I was sad to get to the end and realise there will be no more,’ (Aw!) ‘What next, Laurette?’
I hesitated to reply with the unvarnished truth–‘I intend to assume a recumbent posture on the terrace, a chilled margarita to hand, and listen to the song of the nightingale.’ It didn’t sound very professional. Also, she had touched a chord. I too was a bit sad. I opted for a cagey response:
‘What next? Well (coy smile) it was supposed to be The End, but lately I’ve been wondering what that first Christmas in 1899 would have been like at the Villa, with the arrival of the young Provençale bride for whom it was named, Julia herself…’
Even as I flopped on to the chaise longue and the first notes of the nightingale reached my ears, its melody was drowned by a nasty creature that popped into my head waving a placard and shouting ‘Don’t forget the Protestant Ethic!’ before continuing a rant about hardening arteries, belly fat, safe alcohol guidelines, and dying brain cells ‘Get back to the computer and do some work, you mollusk!’ it finally shrieked.
Though I womanfully ignored it, a little seed had been planted. Soon the seed sprouted leaves. Olive leaves. In its branches, insects sang (crickets and cicadas) A perfume rose up, wild thyme, lavender, juniper and sage, suspiciously like the Mediterranean garrigue.
And so the Mollusk arose, trudged off the terrace, fired up the laptop and started reading all about France in the 19th century. The word ‘revolution’ appeared on virtually every other page, interspersed with monarchy, republic, and Empire, rinse and repeat.
What a joy to put aside the history books and re-plunge into the wonderful world of fiction. I dusted off my paperback copy of Volume 1 of Les Gens de Mogador(why has this never been translated into English??) Elisabeth Barbier’s thrilling saga of a Provençal family from the Second Empire to WW 2.
Though years had passed since I first read it, the heroine, Julia Angellier, had stayed in my mind inspiring the name of the first mistress of Villa Julia, carried over the threshold in 1899 by her mustachioed Basque Beau, Raoul Etcheverria.
I began to hit the keys.
At the end of Chapter 1, I was in a sweat. Did I seriously think I could write a historical novella without mixing up all those kings and emperors called either Louis, Philippe, or Louis-Philippe? Not to mention bringing to life a bunch of characters wearing cache-corsets and redingotes, who, instead of saying ‘See you later, babes,’ intoned ‘Alas, Mademoiselle, I must take my leave, my cousin is expecting me for luncheon and I have matters to attend to before my departure for the capital’? Said characters would then give a deep bow, stride across the creaking parquet in glossy riding boots and jump on foam-flecked stallions/mares/geldings/fillies, which were either bays or roans or chestnuts or greys.
According to my coffee stained synopsis, the story would begin in 1898, with the thirteen desserts of Christmas Eve and Provençal santons under the tree, to end triumphantly with the usual champagne and candlelight in 1899, under another Christmas Tree, this one in the pays basque.
Ploughing on, heading deeper into the writing tunnel meant abandoning the outside world–family, friends, emails, favourite bloggers, social media, not to mention the MDM confronting single-handed the Napoleonic army of bindweed marching across the garden.
The history books piled up, full of interesting facts. Did you know that, after a late start, the French railway system covered 40,000 km in 1900? Julia had to get from Provence to Biarritz somehow. Also, that the ancestor of the nippy little Twingo in your drive was born in a garden shed near Paris in 1898, in the shape of a Voiturette Type A built by Lois Renault? (Raoul buys one of these).
But it was the fiction authors who brought to gorgeous, glowing life the Provence of the late 19th century.
Marcel Pagnol’s memoirs of spending summer holidays as a boy in the hinterland of Marseilles were in the air as Julia’s father, Monsieur Peyrissac sets out at dawn to hunt. Pagnol’s version ends with the capture of the mythic bartavelle, a rare variety of partridge, bringing ‘the glory of his father’, but I kept Monsieur P’s catch to a couple of rabbits.
Describing Julia at her coiffeuse, I heard the singing syllables of Frédéric Mistral, iconic Provençal poet, describing his heroine, Mirèio, and her ‘beauteous hair, all waves and rings of jet’. Mirèio is an altogether entrancing creature who, at one point, tucks a brood of baby blue-tits into her bodice as she sits in a mulberry tree with her amoureux, but tempting though it was to embroider on that charming episode I decided to keep Julia’s bodice firmly laced up (most of the time).
Alphonse Daudet, in his Letters from my Windmilltells the tragic story of Jan, who threw himself off the roof of the family farm for the love of the woman he could not have, the coquettish Arlesienne (who inspired Bizet’s opera of the same name). Though my characters are somewhat more restrained, there’s a fair bit of emotional anguish about. Fortunately star-gazing has always been a consolation for the lovelorn, so Julia’s stable hand, young Loic, can sigh as he looks up at those same brilliant Provençal constellations– the Chemin de Saint-Jacques, the Char des Ames and the Trois Bêtes– which comforted Daudet’s lonesome shepherd dreaming of la belle Stéphanette.
How to do justice to the natural beauties of Provence, and Malaret, the family home of the Peyrissacs, with its extensive gardens and park? Writing of a house further north, Colette’s idyllic descriptions of her mother’s garden in Saint-Sauveur inspired the wanderings of Julia through the family domain, where the delicate perfume of roses and lilies gives way to the aromatic onslaught of the shrubs and bushes of the garrigue.
The big guns of the literary world at that time–Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Proust and company–provided innumerable dazzling frescoes of Parisian life necessary for the creation of Harald, the blond, curling-lipped Cad from the Capital who seduces Julia with his cosmopolitan ways and penchant for Symbolism, ending with…well, I’m not going to tell you, am I ? Roger Martin du Gard recounts in painstaking detail the tortuous machinations of the Dreyfus Affair. (For those interested in finding about more about this crucial period in French social history, read Paulette Mahurin’s brilliant To Live Out Loud.)
But, leaving the world of fiction, back in real-life October 2019 in the Tarn, I am gradually waking up to the fact that it ain’t gonna happen. No way can I write the remaining forty thousand words in time to meet the Christmas deadline, let alone tackle the revision (i.e. deleting half of what’s already been written and writing it again).
So, what now, dear readers/fellow authors? Should I wait for Christmas 2020, and get back to the margaritas (though it’s now too cold to lie on the terrace and the nightingale has gone to Greece)? Should I set a new deadline, and modify the title–Easter Eggs under the Christmas Tree at Villa Julia? Maybe I could write to the matières grises in Brussels, still debating the thorny issue of whether the clocks go forward 2 hours in summer or not, and ask them to move Christmas to March while they’re at it?
All suggestions welcome (no more than 140 characters please), and the lucky winner will receive a packet of pine nuts and a garden gnomette wearing a Provençal skirt.
Wishing you all a wonderful weekend reading lots of good books, perhaps some mentioned above? And for those who haven’t got it, Biarritz-Villa Julia is FREE to download on the 26, 27 and 28 October here and here.
PS While in Manchester we called at M and S for our usual teatime treat of their lemon drizzle cake. Alas the restaurant was closed for renovations But as we left I was reminded of Karl and Friedie once again. In an apocryphal story about the famous Leicester University Sociology Department in the nineteen sixties and seventies, it is said that one of the essay topics proposed for students sitting their final exams was the following:
‘Marks and Spencers has done more for the working classes than Marx and Engels’ Discuss.’ 😉
‘The world is extraordinary–look how beautiful it is!’
50 years ago this summer, 600 million people watched Neil Armstrong take mankind’s giant step on to the moon. The quotation above could have come from any of the astronauts looking out towards our amazing blue planet in the years that followed. But in fact they were the last words of a Frenchman who died ten years after the moon landing, in July 1979. At a time when many of us have been pondering on what constitutes the stuff of heroes, I’d like to pay homage to one of my personal, all-time, men-in-capes-with-human-flaws, Joseph Kessel, 40 years after his death.
I first wrote about him in October 2016. Actor, journalist, scenarist, WW1 aviator, WW2 war correspondent, Resistance fighter, aviator with the Free French squadron of the RAF, co-composer of the stirring anthem of the French Resistance, LeChant des Partisans, and author of more than 40 fiction and non-fiction works, Kessel has never attained in the English-speaking world the legendary stature he enjoys in France. Only a handful of his books have made it into English, the most famous being The Lion,Belle de Jourand The Horsemen. Sadly, the highly acclaimed 450-page biography by Yves Courrière, Joseph Kessel ou Sur la Piste du Lion , published in 1985, is available in French only (but worth learning the language to read it).
Joseph Kessel was born in February 1898 in Villa Clara, Argentina, the son of Jewish emigré doctors. His extraordinary life, which spanned most of the 20th century, took him all over the world and brought him into contact with a staggering range of people–politicians, prostitutes, criminals, Hollywood stars, Bedouin chiefs, gypsy musicians, slave-drivers. Kessel was a dreamer, a humanist, a man of integrity, a man of excess, a loyal friend, a patriot, a gambler, a drinker, an opium-smoker, a timid lover of women, an inveterate traveller, an adventurer, a nighthawk, a lion. You would need a thesaurus to do him justice, a man who was simply larger than life, making Hemingway in comparison look like a neophyte boy scout.
As with many heroic figures, his life was marked by tragedy–the suicide of his brother, Lazare, in 1920 and the death of his first wife, Sandi, in 1928. But, as Courrière writes, the myth of the ‘homokesselianus’, the archetypal hero-adventurer, brave, noble-browed, athletic, resourceful, who finds himself caught up in incredible adventures, had taken root before these events, through Kessel’s experiences in Vladivostok in 1919. At the end of WW1, the Allied leaders met in Versailles. One of the problems they discussed was the anarchy in Russia, where Reds and Whites were engaged in bitter conflict. The 20-year-old Kessel had already proved his courage and daring as a member of the 39th airborne squadron, for which he received the Croix de Guerre. But he had another, vitally important talent: he was a fluent Russian speaker, having spent part of his childhood with his grandparents in Orenburg. Thus it was that he found himself en route to the land of his ancestors, travelling first to the US, then across country to San Francisco, and finally, after a 35-day voyage, sailing into the port of Vladivostok.
Washed up in this last outpost of the west, facing the Pacific Ocean, thousands of people were gathered, unable to go any further. The streets echoed with scores of languages; amid the babel roamed bands of soldiers, merchants, beggars, mercenaries, prisoners of war, ragged refugees, coolies staggering under immense loads, Cossacks brandishing terrible whips. It was like a ‘vast, filthy inn’. The orders of one army were immediately countermanded by those of another and the only thing preventing total breakdown was the presence of the Czech forces, who held the station, and the Japanese who held the port.
Kessel disembarked from the SS Sherman in February 1919. He was hungover and penniless, having just celebrated his 21st birthday on board and lost all his money in a poker game. Thanks to his fluency in Russian, he soon found himself tasked with a strategically important ‘confidential mission’ for the French, involving the railway station. On his first reconnoitre he was unable to believe his eyes. Thousands of homeless people were huddled on the steps outside the building, dying of hunger, disease and cold. Inside, in overpowering heat, a scene from hell, a Breughel painting where ragged mothers nursed starving babies amid the vagabonds, drunken soldiers, deserters and madmen who occupied the vast hall, creating mayhem.
And the confidential mission? ‘Find a train. Find drivers and engineers to get it running. Fill it with food and munitions and send it off to Omsk, 4800 km away across Siberia, where the French forces under General Janin await.’
In this dark, freezing nightmare city where no train was to be had and all was chaos, Homo Kesselianus took shape. Armed with a revolver and a bag stuffed with roubles, 21-year-old Kessel completed the very first Mission Impossible, Russian style.
This was to be the pattern of his life from then on. When, in 1962, Kessel’s candidature was put forward to that nec plus ultra of the French linguistic and literary establishment, l’Académie Française, some of the august members had to reach for the smelling salts. One of them, Pierre Gacotte, is reported to have said:
‘Why Kessel? We’ve already got one Russian (Henri) Troyat. And a Jew (André) Maurois. And up until this year we’ve had two drunks, Marcel Pagnol and Pierre Benoit.’
(‘Pourquoi Kessel? Un Russe nous en avons un : Troyat. Un juif aussi : Maurois. Et des ivrognes jusqu’à cette année nous en avions deux: Marcel Pagnol et Pierre Benoit!’)
In his acceptance speech, Kessel told the Academy: ‘You have shown, by the striking contrast implicit in this nomination, that it is not by a man’s origins that we should judge him.’
Joseph Kessel died on July 23rd, 1979 in the village of Avernes, his home for many years in the company of his third wife, Michèle O’Brien, another relationship haunted by the tragedy of Michèle’s descent into alcoholism. In spite of this, and his own deteriorating health, he was still as interested in life as ever. It was while watching a TV programme with friends, a reportage about a young speleologist shot in sumptuous colours in a deep grotto, that he spoke his final words:
‘Le monde est extraordinaire! Regarde comme c’est beau.’