The father of the modern novel died one hundred years ago this month, November 18th 1922. I’ve already got passionate about his hawthorn; today it’s time for that iconic madeleine.
‘Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure.’
‘For a long time I used to go to bed early…’ so begins the first volume of A la recherche du Temps Perdu, the stupendous 7-volume work relating the author’s journey of self-discovery through his reflexions on time, memory, art and love.
These early pages describe the young Marcel’s holidays at his grandparents’ country house in Combray as he remembers them. They are dominated by the psychodrama that played out each evening, the narrator’s ‘bedtime torture’. Dinner was served indoors or, when the weather was fine, in the garden behind the house. But whatever the setting, the young Marcel would be filled with dreadful anticipation of the inevitable moment he would be sent off to bed. While bedtime can be a source of anxiety for many children – ghosts in the dark , monsters under the bed – Marcel’s ‘hours of anguish’ arose from the hours of separation from his mother, and in particular, the thought that she might be prevented from coming up to give him his bedtime kiss. (What would his contemporary, Sigmund Freud have made of this?) One of the regular guests who unwittingly thwarted Marcel’s felicity by retaining his mother à table, was their neighbour, Monsieur Swann, later to exert a profound influence on Marcel’s life.
The real significance of these childhood holidays, and how they set him on the ‘two paths’ of self-discovery, would only be revealed later, in the famous episode of the madeleine. ‘For many years, Combray had only existed for me insofar as it concerned the theatre and drama of my bedtime,’ the author tells us, before launching into what is surely the most well-known passage in the entire 3000 pages. A tired, depressed Marcel arrives home one dreary winter evening. His mother suggests a nice cup of hot tea accompanied by ‘one of those short, plump cakes called ‘petites madeleines’, which look as though they have been moulded in a ridged scallop shell’.
He breaks off a piece of the cake, dips it in the ‘tea’ (an infusion of lime blossoms, ‘tisane de tilleul‘) and raises the spoon to his lips. Immediately, an extraordinary thing happens: it’s as if he’s received an electric shock. A shudder runs throughout his body, followed by an intense, exquisite sensation of expanding pleasure. His existential doubts and anxieties vanish, replaced with a joyful optimism.
Mystified, Marcel struggles to identify the source of such powerful emotions; the answer eludes him, until, at last, he feels something shift and break loose inside him, becoming ‘unanchored.’
It is a memory. In ‘a Proustian rush’ he is once more in Combray, but this time the neurasthenic, sickly child waiting for his mother’s kiss is replaced by the Marcel of Sunday mornings, going to say hello to Great Aunt Léonie. This famous widowed aunt is a malade imaginaire – a hypochondriac confined to bed with a mystery illness and whose ‘inadvertent’ death serves to comfort in their opinion not only those who had always believed her strict confinement would finish her off, but also those who believed she really did have a fatal illness. During the holidays, Tante Léonie has an unvarying Sunday breakfast ritual: summoning her great-nephew to her bedside, she dips a madeleine in her tisane and gives it to him to taste.
Unlike memories triggered by visual and auditory stimuli, those associated with our sense of taste and smell linger on when everything else has died. Proust calls them ‘fragile souls’ buried deep within us, waiting to be discovered. In a beautiful image he describes them as ‘remembering…hoping, on the ruin of everything else, bearing unflinchingly on their scarcely perceptible droplet the immense edifice of memory.’
The chapter finishes on a breath-taking wave of poetic intensity as Marcel experiences the full force of this ‘involuntary’ memory. His perspective on the ‘old days in Combray’ is transformed; the narrow ‘panel’ of the house and his bedroom expand into a vast panorama. First the entire house appears, ‘ the old grey house on the street’, then ‘the small extension at the back built for my parents, opening on to the garden, then the town, from morning till night, in all weathers, the square where they sent me before lunch, the streets where I ran errands, the paths we set out to walk when the weather was fine. And, as in the Japanese game where shapeless bits of paper are dropped into a china bowl full of water, then begin to unfurl, spin, infuse with colour and finally become distinct shapes – flowers, houses, solid and recognisable people – so now appeared all the flowers in our garden and the park of Monsieur Swann, the waterlilies on the Vivonne, the good people of the village, their cottages and the church, and all Combray and its surroundings, the whole, town and gardens, emerged into solid shapes, out of my cup of tea.’ *
What Proust is describing is something that is familiar to us all, but the way he describes it is unforgettable. Those fragile ‘souls’ of taste and smell have the power to resuscitate ‘an old dead memory’, to cause an entire world to unfold and bloom in the mind’s eye with the same magic as those paper flowers in their bowl of water.**
For one brief, glorious moment the ‘lost’ past detaches from ‘the immense edifice of memory’ to join the present: time stands still.
Marcel Proust, 10 July 1871 – 18 November 1922
* Caveat: my own loose translations of the original text.
** I’ve come across different queries about these Japanese flowers on Internet. In the last half of the 19th C there was a craze for ‘japonisme‘ in France (la folie japonaise). Such flowers seem to be impossible to find nowadays, but as one British poster said, they used to be a Christmas stocking staple in the 1970s. You can still buy Chinese flowering tea, a similar concept.
It’s official – the world has gone mad. Real wars with tanks and rockets, political wars, economic wars, vaccine wars, culture wars, and eco wars, in which privileged middle-class dimwits consider hurling mashed potatoes and tins of tomato soup at inanimate works of art to be an act of heroism akin to standing up to Iran’s morality police. ‘I definitely did feel scared,’ said one of the ‘Just Stop Oil’ pair who threw tomato soup over Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. Ah, bless. And, as The Times revealed, these heroes are funded by, among others, heiress Aileen Getty, granddaughter of J Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, and, wait for it, former oil tycoon…
As autumn arrives in our hamlet we are glad to be far from the madding crowd and enjoying the douceur of the countryside. Our local heroine is La Dame Guiraude de Lavaur, who in 1211, dared to defy Simon De Montfort’s brutal troops by offering her protection to the persecuted Cathars. For her courageous stance, she was given to the crusading soldiers, raped, thrown down a well and stoned to death.
EXTRACT: FROM NETTLES TO NIGHTINGALES:Hedge Planting and Meadow Makeover
In 2012 our garden was showing some signs of becoming the Mediterranean paradise we’d envisioned in the nightingale-induced Epiphany of our first night at The Cowshed. The next pressing task was to plant hedges. A shift was taking place in the countryside; as small farmers grew too old to work the fields, they would lease or sell. The new owners, with their giant machines, had ripped out some of the old hedgerows, causing mud slides down the hillsides as well as removing natural habitats. Our new ones would not only serve as attractive boundary markers, they would make an important contribution to wildlife propagation and diversity, providing leafy habitats to numerous creatures – the nice ones, of course, birds, rabbits and maybe even hares.
In the spring of 2012 I was strolling down the chemin when I noticed a bizarre scene in the bare field on the left. Two dogs were standing on their hind legs having a fight. A closer look revealed the dogs had very long ears and white tails…mad March hares having a boxing match! What a thrill! It was the first time I’d ever seen a hare, let alone a pair of them knocking the stuffing out of each other, their forepaws a blur of movement. In the years to come, we saw many more, and during the summer of 2020 when a serious drought descended on Occitania, we were treated to another magical experience.
By then our hedge plants were fairly well-established, but the unprecedented long spell of dry weather was taking its toll, calling for regular watering. Though the sun had gone down, it was still stiflingly hot. The MDM was on watering duty, gazing up into the purple dusk trying to spot a UFO, not paying much attention to the garden hose in his hand. But as he moved further up the field, he glimpsed something on the grass under the bush he’d just soaked. Looking more closely he made out three baby hares – leverets. They were in their ‘nest’, a shallow indentation aptly named a ‘scrape’, fitted together, head to toe like slippers. They were almost invisible, having obviously paid attention to Maman Lièvre when she told them to flatten their ears and not to twitch a whisker throughout the long hours of her absence. So there they lay, freshly showered, their huge almond-shaped eyes standing out from their drenched fur. I was beckoned over, and we stood for a few moments in entranced silence. Obviously the temptation was to pick them up and take them back to The Cowshed for a cuddle and a saucer of warm milk. But, nature having its own laws, we knew we had to leave them where they were, praying the owl didn’t pay a midnight visit. The next morning all three were gone, which we took as a sign that Maman had decided to do a moonlight flit to a drier home with her three babes rather than contemplating a more bloody scenario.
Another astonishing encounter with a hare occurred in the spring of 2021. Due to Covid, our quiet hamlet had become even more wild and unfrequented. I was ambling along the chemin as usual, pausing to admire the new foliage and the first traces of green on the fields, when a leveret hopped out, a couple of metres ahead. I immediately adopted a tree impersonation, resisting the temptation to get out the phone and take a picture. The babe hopped almost to my feet, then tilted its head. After staring at me for a few seconds, it suddenly performed a vertical take-off, leaping into the air from all four feet.
This impressive feat was followed by a virtuoso dance routine. It twirled, pirouetted, threw in more of those amazing standing jumps, turning to look coyly in my direction after each move. Nobody puts Baby Hare in the corner! I was so excited that when it took its final bow and shot off, I tried to capture it with the phone camera-too late!-then rushed to the neighbours to describe what had happened. Did hares dance? Had they ever seen anything similar? The answer was no, and the way they were eyeing me I got the impression they were wondering if I’d abandoned my usual croissant and coffee that morning in favour of a demi-saucisson and half a litre of vin blanc…
Others who gave a vote of approval to our hedge scheme were the deer, who, in later years, liked to breakfast on the new shoots of one of our most spectacular dogwoods. They were a rare sight, so we resisted putting up protective netting even though the dogwood ended up lopsided.
In charge of the meadow’s new look was our tree whisperer, Munns Le Magnifique. Along with his buddy, Patrick Le Pelletier, he dug out three long trenches marking our boundaries, then levelled off an area at the foot of the slope. This marked the first step of our next project – the Sunset Terrace.
Since the nightingale had returned to our garden in 2012, his favourite opera house was the fig tree at the bottom of the field. Our idea was to create a sheltered spot where we would be in the front stalls for the performance, as well as ideally placed to watch the spectacle of the sun setting behind the medieval village across the valley. Going for the Full Romantic, we planned a small olive grove next to the terrace, complete with poppies and wild thyme.
Neither the MDM nor I knew much about the best shrubs for hedges. Many local gardens were surrounded by magnificent thickets of box and yew, but as these had taken 150 years to grow, something faster was required.
We called a meeting with Le Magnifique who, as usual, had his own ideas. Each evening he would email a list of suggestions, and I would look them up on the internet. The result was three splendid mixed hedges, deciduous and evergreen, full of scent and colour. Most of the bushes were unfamiliar to us: silverberries, or oleasters, fragrant-leaved shrubs found near the Mediterranean; osmanthus, another scented evergreen, this one from East Asia; a variety of dogwoods; Cotinus, called the smoke bush in English, (no guesses for what their large flowers look like); Ligustrum, a variety of privet; Spirea, known by the lovely name of meadowsweet in English, covered with pretty sprays of pink and white flowers….the list went on.
They didn’t look like much when they went in. The project was another big financial investment, so we’d opted for ‘slips’, fragile, twiggy things which gave no hint of their future splendour. In total, there were 56 of them, producing beautiful surprises over the years for all four seasons. Once they grew to maturity, we would stand on our hilltop, looking down at the meadow, listening to the rustle of leaves, imagining the hares sleeping in the moonlight and the deer crossing in the pale dawn, and hope that others, after us, would find the same pleasure in the sight, and perhaps see ghostly traces of our footsteps in the dew.
BOOK NEWS…..BOOK NEWS….BOOK NEWS
Fans of John Dolan will be thrilled to hear his latest book is out, and it’s a stunner. Land OfRed Mist, a work of historical fiction, completes the cycle of books which make up the 7- volume Time, Blood and Karma and Children of Karma series. Grab it here and here. For thriller fans who haven’t yet discovered this addictive series, start with the first book, Everyone Burns: ” a corker of a detective story…by the time I finished the novel, I was panting for more.” (Robert A. Cohen, Amazon review).
P.S. In my last blog, July 2022, I was looking forward to building sandcastles in August with my great-nephews. The Fates intervened, and for the last two months I have been strapped up with a fractured humerus, unable to write or build sandcastles…the boys had fun, though! Happy to be back in the blogging saddle once more….carpe diem, and stay upright 😉
It’s full blazing summer in the Tarn and devoted followers of this blog (friends, family, the neighbour’s Great Aunt Brigitte and the lady on the cheese counter at SuperU) may have been wondering what’s been happening since February.
That month’s blog included an extract from Chapter 28 of my never-ending Work in Progress From Nettles to Nightingales. Readers may recall the author’s heroic tussles with this Demon Shape Shifter of a memoir. ‘When will it be finished? Who knew it would be so hard?’ I moaned in July 2021. This year’s attempts to tame the beast have included garlic-waving and spear-wielding while singing Running Up that Hill in falsetto (you can learn a lot from Netflix). As spring arrived, social life ground to a halt, the writing tunnel got deeper and I joined a Facebook group (see my thanks in the P.S.) which kept me going when I wanted to lie down and sob.
One day (maybe in March, it’s all a blur) I actually typed the magic words ‘The End’, thus breaking a cardinal rule: Never Ever Tempt the Fates. For, to borrow Winston’s famous words, ‘The End’ was not actually the end, it was not even the beginning of the end…More, and sterner, challenges lay ahead. Read on…
In Chapter 6 of the book, I write about how the installation of a wood-burning stove (poêle) in The Cowshed led me to muse on the story of René Descartes, whose eureka moments occurred in a series of dreams when sleeping in his ‘poêle’ (a small room heated by a stove). The resulting masterpiece was Discourse on the Method, published in 1637 and which established Descartes as the father of modern rationalism.
‘Sitting in front of our very own poêle on chilly evenings, the MDM (Maître De Maison) and I had often found ourselves dozing off. So far neither of us has had a eureka moment and become a famous philosopher. (We’d settle for a dream about the winning lottery numbers). But I’ve occasionally mused on the idea that the Cartesian mindset, ‘cogito ergo sum’, the notion of eliminating all possible doubt by a process of reasoning before accepting the truth of something, has shot down in a straight line through history to lodge itself in the head of the MDM.
In contrast, winding and looping down into my head over the years and making a cosy nest there are the observations of another great Frenchman, an accidental philosopher writing about life the way he sees it in a series of rambling, digressive ‘loose sallies of the mind’ (to borrow a definition from Dr Johnson).’
I was referring to the mighty Michel De Montaigne, whose Essays, published in 1580, have frequently been mentioned on this blog, and about whom Nietzsche observed ‘The pleasure of living on earth has been increased by the fact that such a man wrote.’
The point of the above, as it relates to my tussles with the Shape-Shifter, is this: perhaps one reason I’m drawn to Montaigne’s work as opposed to that of Descartes is because I am not a rational, organised writer (or indeed person) who goes about things in a linear fashion with a lot of cogitos and ergos. Consequently, when I came up with a plan for a non-fiction book three years ago– a short, easy-to-write, easy-to-read memoir about how the Maître De Maison and I moved to rural France and created a garden from a wilderness – I felt extremely pleased with myself. I even went as far as to write a chapter outline based on diary entries, photographs and emails to friends. Eureka! I was going linear!
The problem was, my subconscious had another plan, a non-linear ramble more like a drunken weave that wandered off down all sorts of paths, historical, geographical, cultural, linguistic, literary – in short, a Rebel that blew raspberries at my neat timeline, tempted me with honeyed words and siren-songs, and when I resisted, bellowed the chorus from the Monty Python ‘Philosopher’s Song’, the bit that goes ‘René Descartes was a drunken fart/I drink therefore I am.’
Writing, at the best of times, is a solitary and demanding business. Authors must cope with obstacles and obligations – a day job, a family to bring up, the lack of quiet place to write, and so forth. In my case, I had neither day job nor children; I had a tranquil study with stunning views; at the end of the writing day I had the MDM flipping the burgers, mixing the margaritas and generally shoring me up.
But I faced other obstacles – writing in English while immersed in a French-speaking environment, and living in a small rural community where anglophone bookworms willing to discuss chapter development over coffee and hobnobs were thin on the ground. Adding to these difficulties was the Rebel Raspberry-Blower, whose subversive agenda had introduced an unexpectedly personal dimension into the story: the account of my mother’s final years, her declining health, and death. From writing about the excitement of new beginnings I found myself compelled to write also about the sadness of endings; about joy, and about sorrow.
The stark realisation came mid-March: I had two choices: chuck the manuscript on the compost heap or get professional help.
Enter the developmental editor.
Editorial services for writers fall into distinct groups, line editing, copy editing and developmental editing. Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the terms, the line editor checks things like syntax, word choice and clarity in sentences. The copy editor will focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, stylistic inconsistencies and formatting. The developmental editor is the Head Surgeon, looking at the big picture, head, shoulders, knees and toes, then delivering a detailed, in-depth critique on things like content, structure, quality, plot and character development, and market potential.
When I wrote my EFL book, I was working with one of the big publishers, Oxford University Press, and thus had a de facto editor. She turned out to be a godsend, transforming the manuscript and becoming a dear friend. I learned that the collaborative process with the right kind of editor is truly invaluable. The question now was: where could I find another Yvonne?
Set up in 2014, Reedsy is an on-line market place where you can hire freelance professionals, describing itself as ‘changing the way books are published by giving authors and publishers access to talented professionals, powerful tools, and free educational content.’
Browsing the numerous profiles, I submitted my proposal to a short list of five, finally choosing one whose professional background and enthusiasm for the project had the added benefit of a somewhat unusal work method. Instead of offering a detailed written critique followed by phone or video discussions, she proposed a form of mentoring lasting between four to six weeks. I would send one chapter at a time, she would edit and critique it, and I would write a revised version. At the end of the process she would read the revised manuscript in one ‘swoop’ and give a verdict.
There was a lot of word-shedding. We started with 106 000 words (which I had already whittled down from 108 000), and finished with 99 000. Parts where the pace flagged and I wandered off-piste were noted, and re-written. Structurally, chapters were moved about, merged together, renamed. The entire work became tighter, better-written and more focused, and a harmonious, somewhat arboreal 😉 shape grew around the central garden theme. The six weeks became two months. Seeing the book through a second pair of eyes made me stop and think; it was rare that I disagreed with her suggestions, expressed in a kind and encouraging manner, praising the bits she liked while being clear about what needed changing, and why, often with practical suggestions.
What an experience! Challenging, intensive, enriching, inspirational, and totally exhausting – I loved it. This, I thought, was what every writer needs – a patient, meticulous, empathetic and innovative editor who knows how to handle not just the manuscript, but the author, whose moods can range from black despair to full-on defensive prickliness.
So three rousing cheers for Tatiana Wilde, whose role in getting me to The Real End (Fin) will be fully acknowledged when the manuscript makes the next step, into print/ebook.
But that’s another story, another challenge, another day. Meanwhile, I shall be down at the Big Blue acquiring new skills as an apprentice sand-castle builder with my three great-nephews. Life is one long, learning process…
Bonnes vacances to all readers!
PS I’ve previously mentioned those amazing friends who stepped up as literary midwives when I was writing the French Summer Novels. During this last year, when momentum flagged, I’ve had support via a Facebook group called ‘500 words a day’. Thanks to all, in particular the ever-encouraging mods, E.M. Swift-Hook and Ian Bristow, and member Fabrice Rigaux who read and gave feedback on a difficult chapter about Paris.
Extract from Chapter 28From Nettles to Nightingales
As any gardener will tell you, autumn is bulb-planting time. I will go further and argue that those possessing the merest smidgeon of British DNA are driven to plant bulbs each autumn in the same way swallows wave ‘Bye Bye’ and head back to Africa. UK supermarkets are full of special offers, gaudily-illustrated catalogues from Holland drop through British letterboxes like bonbons, and Britannia-en-masse gets out trowels and kneeling mats. Why? Because for us northerners, bulbs are the eagerly-awaited signs of spring, bright harbingers after dark winter days.
I remember the whole Yorkshire family longing for spring. As early as February we would go outside and sniff the air, hoping for that faint delicious draught that heralds winter’s close. The change from light to dark, from death to rebirth, could be summed up by the biannual pronouncements of my maternal Grandmother. In autumn she would glumly observe ‘th’ neets are drawin’ in’ (trans: the nights are drawing in) while spring merited the cheerful pronouncement ‘th’ neets are drawin’ out.’ In neighbouring houses every scrap of garden, no matter how humble, would celebrate the event with a joyful show of snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, narcissi, tulips and primroses.
In Cambridge, where I later lived, one of the most iconic sights was ‘the backs’ of the colleges, in particular King’s. Every March, these placid green swathes of sheep-and-cow-dotted meadowland sloping gently to the River Cam and extending beyond as far as the road with copses of tall trees, would be invaded by camera-clicking tourists, angling for the perfect shot: in the foreground, the explosions of thousands of crocuses, daffodils and narcissi, in the middle, the river, bridges and willows, and topping it all off like a spun sugar wedding cake ornament in the background, the magnificent cathedral of King’s College.
In Toulouse, we’d always had spring pots of tulips on the terrace. At The Cowshed it was a different story. Some of our most spectacular garden failures had been bulbs. In 2013 we eagerly awaited the results of the ‘Buckingham Palace Tulips’ project. Envisioned as an arresting double row of proud, letter-box red blooms lining the north wall like guardsmen and causing farmers passing by on tractors to shout ‘boudiou!’ and doff their caps, the reality was a handful of thin-stemmed droopers falling nose first into the grass. Ditto for the drifts of crocuses (a grand total of 9 huddled in misery down the side of the slope) and snowdrops (what snowdrops?)
So, with my genetic heritage, why was the bulb initiative a total flop? Was it the climate? The terrain? Or could it be the past catching up with the Head Gardener, making her pay for former sins…was it, in short, Tulip Karma?
The awful truth was that, as a child, I had committed a flower crime. The shameful story was handed down from generation to generation, and the experience remains imprinted on my mind in lurid technicolour. The drama occurred at my grandparents’ house. My paternal grandparents, as recounted in an earlier chapter, lived in a one-up, one-down rented terrace property with their six children. My maternal grandparents on the other hand, by dint of scrimping, saving and only having one child, had risen in the world, finally able to buy a small terraced house with the luxury of an indoor bathroom. Along with the other families who had bought in the same street, this was the equivalent of reaching domestic Nirvana. Thirty-odd identical houses ran up the left-hand side of the street, another thirty-odd ran down the opposite side. At the back of each house were long, narrow gardens separated by low rustic fences, and which were on a par, Nirvana-wise, with the indoor bathrooms. In Grandad’s well-tended plots, not a weed dared to poke its head through the abundant clusters of flowers characteristic of the English garden – marguerites, hollyhocks, lupins, poppies – ending in a rustic arch covered in roses. The rectangle of lawn in the middle was cricket-pitch smooth and weedless. This garden was my kingdom: I was its miniature tyrannical ruler with two slaves. My mother being an only child, logic decreed that, as first grandchild, I should be hopelessly spoiled, cossetted and indulged, an angel who could do no wrong. At the bottom of the garden, next to the shed, Grandad had erected a swing; one of his jobs was to push the young angel up and down until his arms dropped off.
When Grandad wasn’t on duty, it was Grandma’s turn, telling stories as she sat in her chair on the lawn. In my earliest memories she is wearing dark glasses and a green eyeshade, like the ones worn by 19th C telegraphers. Born into a large family, she had contracted a lethal combination of chicken pox and diphtheria which left her with scarring on both retinas. Although kept off school for long periods, she was a smart, intelligent child who loved to read whenever her damaged eyesight permitted. By the time I came onto the scene, she was undergoing treatment with a specialist involving the application of drops and creams to burn off the scars. The results were variable; at times she was able to see well enough to read and write; on other, terrifying, days, she would wake up to find her world had dimmed to vague shapes and faded colours. It was only as I grew older that I understood what an indomitable spirit she had, living not only with this physical handicap but also the fear that one day a final darkness would descend and the colours would never return.
One of her favourite expressions, much-used to express her amazement and gratitude at having risen to the heights of a two-up-two-down residence with indoor toilet and garden, was ‘Ee! We live like fighting cocks!’ I had no idea what a fighting cock was, but dimly grasped that these farmyard creatures were living the high life, like their cousins, the pigs in clover. It was only later I found out the terrible truth–they were being fattened up and cossetted in order to take part in gladiatorial combats similar to those in the bloody arenas of ancient Rome! Much later I learnt that their French cousins didn’t fare any better, being fattened up with the express intention of ending their days in a pie, the French equivalent of Grandma’s exclamation being ‘nous vivons comme des coqs en pâte.’
Grandma was a wonderful story teller. All the old favourites – Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Bears, were recounted in dramatic detail, with different voices. She also invented tales of her own, inspired by her new garden where she would sit in a chair, narrating wondrous events like a Celtic bard, while I sat on the grass, spellbound. As she nudged my imagination into realms of beauty and magic, flower kingdoms with fairies, princes and princesses, witches and wizards, all of these imaginary journeys became linked to that unique, grounded feeling of love and security imparted to children by the presence of a beloved human story-teller. Listening to Grandma’s voice, I could look around at the enclosed world of marguerites and Michaelmas daisies, all taller than me, and feel safe and happy.
So, Reader, what then possessed the little angel, that fateful day in the spring of her fourth year, to embark on a campaign of carnage and destruction?
A better question would be ‘who’? Also visiting his grandparents that day was a certain Brian, a year older than me and obviously destined to become a future leader of a satanic cult. As the grownups were busy preparing Sunday lunch, the devil-child Brian lured me away from the fairy kingdom and led me up and down the backs of every house in the street where we gleefully nipped off the tops of every blooming tulip in every spring garden. A red and yellow trail of disaster lay in our wake.
Naturally, the crime was discovered. The entire street came out to witness our walk of shame, marched along by outraged grandparents (the first time I had ever experienced their wrath) to apologise to every scandalised householder and injured gardener. As I sobbed out a litany of ‘sorry-I-promise-never-to do-it again’, the spawn of Satan trailed behind, bottom lip thrust out. His parting shot, accompanied by a look of false righteousness and a pointing finger was:
‘She told me to do it!’
Thus concluded my first life lessons about the wickedness of destroying beautiful things and the inconstancy of the male species.
‘Frailty, thy name is woman!’
Joyeux printemps to all, hoping for brighter days ahead!
(Since writing this, Storm Eunice has battered the UK, 1 million people without power and gusts of 122 mph wind have been recorded 🙁 so extra-special thoughts go to those across the Channel.)
Looking for something to read?There’s a treat in store with Sheila Patel’s latest book in her Aunt Sheila’s Pandemic Diaries Series: The Vaccine Strikes Back : ”the writing sparkles…” “genuinely funny but also touching in places…” “Brilliantly written account of the madness of the pandemic.” What are you waiting for?
Meanwhile, not far from the Singh’s corner shop in Bradford is Haworth, home of the Brontës and the setting for The Passage of Desire, which is FREE to download February 19, 20 and 21. Enjoy!
Today’s blog gets passionate about France’s ‘Little Tuscany’, our home for the past ten years. As 2021 draws to a close and a global pandemic continues to bring misery, we are lucky to live in a place where we only have to step outside to realise the world is still full of wonders. Here’s how it hit us that first autumn.
FROM NETTLES TO NIGHTINGALES: CHAPTER13 CHANGING SEASONS CHANGING VISTAS
“Autumn 2011. As former city-dwellers we took a while to adjust to the experience of living up close and personal with Big Nature. The geographic situation of the house meant that we were constantly coming face to face with arresting spectacles. Sitting at the edge of our plateau was like being in a planetarium, or a 3D IMAX cinema.
The vast expanses of earth and sky all around furnished a constantly-changing panorama – at eye-level, the gentle swells of the hills and valleys with their changing colours was cut through by sharp lines of trees and wedges of forests, the branches stark in winter and burgeoning with leaves in summer.
The sky above our heads would one day be a blinding cerulean blue pieced by a burning sun; the next, full of frantic commotion, rolling banks of clouds with black thunderheads, apocalyptic sunsets and fingers of God. In summer evenings a dusty golden light fell over the landscape, gilding grass and leaves.
Every time you stepped outdoors you noticed something had changed; the way the branches bent against the wind or the cloud shadows chased across the meadows, the way the sun’s rays lit up the new candles on the umbrella pine.
Growing up on the edge of Bronte country, I was familiar with the wide, open vistas where immense stretches of moorland reached to the horizon under the inverted bowl of the sky. But the vistas of Little Tuscany were different, full of complex geometry, Cezanne-like in the juxtaposition of their shapes. Nothing was flat; the landscape rolled or climbed or dipped or curved.
To reach the horizon your eye had to travel across irregular fields clinging to slanting hillsides and bounded by untrimmed hedges running up and down vertically or at extreme angles. Beyond were valleys, dark patches of woodland and clusters of habitations perched on hilltops.
As summer drew to an end that first year, we discovered autumn’s ambivalent moods. There were days full of glorious Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness, the smell of log fires, the crackle of fallen leaves underfoot and the promise of Dickensian Christmases to come. Others, damp and chilly, struck a more downbeat note, reminding us of the ‘sere, the yellow leaf’ into which our lives fall after their spring and summer.
For Paul Verlaine, poet par excellence of mists and half-tones, the season’s melancholy and sad landscapes were like a wound – the ‘long sobbing notes’ of autumn’s violins striking a monotonous languor into his heart in one of his most famous poems:
Les sanglots longs/ Des violons de l’automne/ Blessent mon cœur/ D’une langeur monotone.
One day that first September I opened the bedroom shutters and saw nothing except for the ghostly silhouette of brambles at the top of the slope. The panorama had vanished, the universe had shrunk. As the sun rose, the blanket of mist became translucent, each drop of moisture hanging in a shimmering web.
Little by little, a village began to emerge half-way up the sky, a church spire, blurred rooftops. Then the entire hilltop village became visible, floating like an Arthurian mirage in the middle of a lake. Colour was added, streaks of cobalt, and, from the east shafts of sunlight broke through to make the rooftop tiles glint, then turn into sheets of gold.This shifting spectacle continued for most of the morning.
The mist would sometimes lift completely, only to drop again with the suddenness of a stage curtain. At other times the different layers dissolved and re-formed in a sensuous ballet, revealing tantalising patches of countryside, coy folds and hollows, the corner of a field, before swirling veils would hide the scene once more. It was the first time I realised that ‘grey’ could be such an interesting and nuanced colour (fifty shades?) ranging from impenetrable sub-marine murkiness to a scintillating quivering silver, hinting at magical revelations- a witch, a wizard, a fairy, a goddess.
Later I saw a TV programme about a photographer called Simon Powell who roams the Welsh countryside trying to capture the phenomenon known to the locals as ‘dragon’s breath’, huge swirling clouds of vapour that sometimes hit the mountains and valleys of that country in the evenings and early mornings. Our ‘Little Tuscany’, a region of softer, more gentle undulations, offers a spectacle that is meridional rather than Celtic, magical and ethereal as opposed to dramatic and menacing.
“For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value,’ wrote Claude Monet.
Thinking of Monet’s numerous paintings of Rouen cathedral and northern haystacks, Turner’s eddying vapours of sea frets and industrial smoke, I envied the artists who were able to capture so compellingly such ever-changing, fleeting moments. For beings such as myself, possessing zero artistic talent, the camera is both a godsend and a curse. The faithful Canon has been called to do duty countless times in an attempt to capture just a hint of nature’s season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Sometimes this involved studied zooms and panoramas from the bedroom window, other times, eye-ball-to-eyeball confrontations with the elements, standing in the chemin clad in pyjamas and slippers, waving the smartphone in all directions.
Similar to our first misty morning experience was the day in February 2012 when I again pushed back the shutters, this time onto a world in black and white. It had snowed overnight; all around lay silent white fields broken by leafless hedges and the dark density of the oak wood. The chemin disappeared, the temperature dropped to minus 14 at night, our hamlet was cut off, and we were glad we hadn’t planted an olive tree in the field the previous October.
(Extract from my Work (Still!) In Progress: From Nettles to Nightingales).
For sumptuous visual treats this Christmas, take a look at the website of artist Gordon Seward, who has recently won two prestigious Prizes: the Prix Raphaël-Sennelier 2021 awarded by the Fondation Taylor-Paris, and the Prix Renée Asp 2021 awarded by the Académie du Languedoc Toulouse . Three cheers for Gordon and his Muse, Cécile!
And, as 2021 draws to a close, I once again hand over to Kurt Vonnegut:
“I am eternally grateful… for my knack of finding in great books, some of them very funny books, reason enough to feel honored to be alive, no matter what else might be going on.” (Timequake)
Happy Christmas to one and all, hoping you can raise a glass with loved ones to toast ‘the honour of being alive.’
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Albert Poyet, much loved husband of Françoise, who left us in September. A loyal and supportive friend for forty years, a scholar, a gentleman and an enthusiast who lived life to the full.
In a galaxy far away I once met a man who was working on an exciting revolutionary object to streamline our shopping experience. It was called a bar code and could transmit information through lines, or something, and the man’s name was Asimov, or something.
Fast forward to the early 1990s and a famous school for space engineers in southern France. It’s the end of year presentations, and our speaker is describing an exciting new revolutionary object called a mobile phone.
‘They will be small enough to slip into your pocket! Everyone will have them, even children! We won’t be able to live without them!’
By the time he’d finished most of the audience were rolling in the ailes.
This summer I became a barcode myself. All I had to do to prove my existence was to call up an image on that mobile phone I couldn’t live without and I could step inside the local café and sip a petit noir while the barcodeless were left outside, licking the windows.
Mind you, I was a bit worried about what might be lurking behind that image. To be precise, it was called a QR, not a bar, code and consisted of fuzzy dots instead of lines. I learnt on an age-appropriate site called Science ABC that ‘a QR code holds hundreds of times more information than a barcode.’
I first flashed my dots in public when checking into a hotel. The owner, nervously fiddling with his brand new bar-code reader, eventually managed to dock his gizmo with my gizmo. His eyebrows shot up.
‘Oh là là! ‘He said, eyeing me up and down ‘This is SO indiscreet!’
He gave a wink.
‘Don’t worry! Your secret’s safe with me!’
Mon Dieu, what was on there? The tattoo of Patrick Swayze on my left buttock? The arrest warrant that was out for the library book I never returned when I was at Uni?
I was born and raised a ‘no ID cards!’ Brit . Now I have a passport, a French ID card and (to date) three indiscreet barcodes, some or all of which I need to travel within borders, travel across borders, enter certain buildings or order a croque monsieur at the Café du Commerce. If I worked for the French Health Service, or for certain companies, I would also need them to keep my job. It’s hardly surprising that the ‘pass sanitaire’ (EU vaccine passport) has provoked violent demonstrations in European cities throughout the summer.
In the August blog I extolled the delights of a carefree break in the rural Tarn. A few weeks later, we discovered that travelling further afield has now become a nightmare.
Our freefall down the rabbit hole began in midsummer. I was pining for my UK family, not seen since 2019. In spite of COVID uncertainty we took the plunge and booked a flight to Edinburgh. Too bad if the traffic lights changed and we lost the money. I girded for administrative battle and hit the official websites. And clicked on the links. And hit more links, which led to…more links.
Before I knew it I was back to Page 1, which warned me if I tried to get out of the country WITHOUT THE RIGHT DOCUMENTS I was for it. Headmaster’s study, handcuffs, fines, Devil’s Island… I took a look at some internet travellers forums to see if anyone had managed to pass ‘Go’. Quelle horreur! Some still hadn’t arrived at the bottom of the rabbit hole after months!
‘I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time? ‘(Alice) said…’I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth…that would be four thousand miles.’
Others had become so entangled in red tape on the way down they were hanging mummified like the victims of Shelob’s web in Lord of The Rings.
Somehow we managed to hack through the red tape. We were haggard, but poised to go with smartphones, QRs, and 5 kilos of paper backups in case our phones exploded. Then Ryanair sent a message to say our return flight was cancelled. Next came a volley of identical emails saying we had to be at the airport TWO AND A HALF HOURS BEFORE CHECK IN NOT TWO HOURS and that it wasn’t their fault (true).
Fast forward two months.
Blagnac, Toulouse. Eerily quiet at this normally bustling airport. No sign of a check-in desk for Edinburgh. Spot a lady in a tartan scarf frozen in a traveller’s no man’s land pushing a trolley full of plastic document files .
‘Excuse me, are you waiting for the Edinburgh flight?’
After a ten minute filibuster I had learned that she’d a) only had one hour’s sleep b)arrived at the airport at dawn c) had been coming to France for 42 years and had never been so stressed even when she went all round the world to Australia on her own and d) her French friend’s printer had broken under the weight of all the forms he’d had to print out for her.
Meanwhile others had rolled up, all pushing their own trolleys full of plastic folders. An impromptu crisis cell was formed and documents compared. A man with a beard took charge.
‘Right, have you all got…’
1.Smartphone with QR showing EU vaccine passport? (Tartan lady didn’t have a smart phone. Collective gasp of horror. She feebly waved some crumpled papers.)
2.Smart phone with QR code of obligatory PCR test taken in the three days prior to departure? (Tartan lady got out her hankie.)
The Beard read out from the official instructions:
‘Does the information on the QR code match with the EXACT names as shown on your travel documents? If not you…’
Oh dear. My turn for the Naughty Step. The PCR test taken before departure showed my name as it appears on my UK passport. However, the EU vaccine passport QR code delivered by the French Social Security Administration back in June was in my maiden name (because they are French and that’s the way they do it). Politically correct British passports don’ t have maiden names on them. Ergo, I had also brought
-birth certificate bearing maiden name
-marriage certificate (two in my case), bearing various other names
-document bearing hyphenated maiden and married names certifying I pay property taxes in France, thus an upstanding citizen
– EU residency card (necessary to get back into France) bearing maiden and married names
– French driving licence, showing maiden name and ancient photo of bearer looking like startled fly head grafted onto human neck.
I also had a lucky rabbit’s foot but wasn’t sure it would get through Security.
Our Leader continued. ‘Do those returning to France, have the two-page ‘Sworn Statement’ to be filled in on day of departure saying they do not have COVID, have not been in contact with anyone who has COVID, do not have any of the following 12 symptoms?’
The dreaded PLF (Passenger Locator Form) had been the subject of much on-line angoisse. Its numerous questions can only be answered 48 hours before travelling – a nightmare for control freaks/those who live in rural areas with dodgy internet connexions. We were now in another book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Designed by John Bunyan’s love-child, the PLF is a virtual Slough of Despond intended to weed out the faint-hearted on their way to Palace Beautiful. One section is vitally important – the bit where pilgrims must enter the 12 digit reference number for the Day 2 COVID test they must take after arrival. (Any readers who have not fallen into a coma by now will realise that means TWO COVID tests within a period of five days, three in our case, actually because we were so nervous we took a home test in France the day before we went to the Pharmacie for the real one.)
I had discovered at the last minute that the Day Two test for Scotland is different for the Day Two test for England – there is only one approved provider charging £68 per test. Suck it up. I also discovered I had to provide an address in Scotland to which the Royal Mail could deliver the £68 tests. The instructions said:
‘Each test must be ordered for each travellers home address. You are not allowed to order tests to be delivered to your address for people who are not normally resident at your address’.
In the softening up queue at the airport, several passengers are now sobbing. Fortunately It is in situations like this natural leaders emerge. Within minutes we had all vowed to follow The Beard in affirmative action. If they didn’t let us on the flight we’d damned well glue ourselves to the tarmac. (The Beard hadn’t told us how to reach said tarmac from Departures Hall/ how to attain recumbent posture on it for those with dodgy hips/where the Superglue was)
Reader, we did it. Somehow our bedraggled little group made it without Superglue. We kept waving to each other and giving a thumbs up each time we got past another hurdle – check in security, customs, arrivals.
Our troubles were over, weren’t they?
Er no, as it turned out. But I will spare those who have got up to here and are hoping this is where they meet the four virgins of Palace Beautiful. I will draw a merciful veil over our attempts to register, and post off, the obligatory Day Two test, the hours spent, the kilometres trudged up and down the dozen Difficulty Hills in Edinburgh looking for a Priority PostBox.
No it isn’t you dumbell!
Instead I will post the photo of Inspector Rebus’s Oxford Bar, where on arrival we were able to have a drink sans QR code, and gear up for a great week of fun and frolics with the family. Yippee 😉
A code-less drink at Inspector Rebus’s favourite watering hole
In my last blog I described how in, May 2011, the MDM (Maître de Maison) and I moved from big city Toulouse to a four-house hamlet in rural Tarn, where a nightingale inspired us to turn a wasteland into a Mediterranean paradise. In October the same year, we found more garden inspiration during a stay at a B and B not far away: Cuq en Terrasses, in the village of Cuq Toulza.
We picked up lots of brilliant ideas for plants and landscaping while we were there but apart from horticultural enrichment the whole experience was so special we vowed to return as soon as possible.
Ten years later, in August 2021, we finally made it! It was everything we remembered, and more…..
Below is the story of that first visit to Cuq, taken from my current Work In Progress, From Nettles to Nightingales, The Story of a French Garden.
CHAPTER 5 October 2011
After a summer of intensive DIY, the MDM was still having problems with his swollen knee. In October he had an appointment with a specialist.
‘Do you want me to come with you?’ I asked.
I was just back from a trip to Yorkshire, feeling a bit tired after a 6 a.m. Ryanair flight.
‘No, no, you stay here, it’s just a consultation to see about treatment options’ (he’d been having massages) ‘he’ll probably prescribe more X-rays or something.’
Off he went, whistling.
He returned with a very pale face and a very thin knee.
The Doc had told him ‘It’s an ‘épanchement de synovie’, stop all massages’ before whipping out a giant horse-syringe, plunging it into the swollen joint and draining off several pints of brake-fluid. Before the stunned patient could stagger up from the table, the Doc whipped out a second horse-syringe: ‘This,’ he said ‘is hyaluronic acid -magic!’ Plunge!
When the MDM got home, he said:
‘We need a holiday.’
We took a look on Trip Advisor to see if there was a ‘hôtel de charme’ not too far away where we could recuperate and forget about the nettles and brambles outside. There was; and that is how we found ourselves at Cuq en Terrasses, recent winner of the award for France’s best B and B.
When we arrived we understood why.
Perched on top of a steep hillside, with dramatic views across the open countryside (more vistas!), this former 18th C presbytery has 6 acres of gardens featuring 300 different species of plants and shrubs. The website invites guests ‘to sit and contemplate the serenity of nature and discover its scents.’ Perfect. We had packed the camera, hoping to get a few ideas for our own scents and serenity in the future Mediterranean paradise.
Situated at the rear of the hotel, the gardens spread out down a vertiginous slope, which made the slope at The Cowshed look like a molehill. They ‘may not be accessible to persons with limited mobility,’ warned the website. The MDM took one look and declared he’d be lounging on the sybaritic bed in our room with a book while I carried out botanical explorations. I made my way downwards towards an orchard and vegetable plot, along winding rustic paths with rest areas to the side, arbours shaded by grapevines, secluded benches for sunset-watchers and all around the resinous smell of pines.
Who was the perfect gardener in charge of this slice of heaven? In a conversation with Philippe, one of our hosts, I discovered the ‘jardinier’ was in fact a ‘jardinière’ – a lady with green fingers and an eye for beauty.
Gardens aside, the rest of our experience at Cuq was just what we needed thanks to the passion and commitment of the two owners, the afore-mentioned Philippe – the wine expert – and Andonis – the inspiration behind the delicious and creative meals based on fresh ingredients from their garden and local producers. As well as running the B and B, they’re closely involved with the local community and organize an annual festival of classical music in the village church. In spite of their busy schedule they were welcoming, relaxed and at the service of their guests (some of whom had a lot of questions…).
Indoors the ambiance was just as magical as outdoors. The five bedrooms and two appartments have been lovingly furnished and decorated so as to give each one a unique character and style. We fell instantly in love with the elegant drawing room, dotted with easy chairs and sofas, full of books, paintings and flower arrangements. It had a strangely English feel to it, reminiscent of those aristocratic country manors of the 1920s where the Bloomsbury set would gather for a weekend of literary conversation and mah jong. You could easily imagine Lady Ottoline Morell swanning through the doorway wearing a Turkish robe and an ostrich plume, followed by Noel Coward waving an ebony cigarette holder (though I’m not sure what either of them would have made of the impressive collection of ‘bandes dessinées’ -classic comic strip albums- in one of the bookcases…)
In warm weather, guests dine outside on the terrace with panoramic views across the hills and valley, but as this was the end of the season, dinner was served indoors. Enticing smells wafted from the kitchen as we entered the dining room, noticing on our way an unusual item of furniture, one of those ancient pianolas you see in black and white westerns, the sort that’s playing merrily in the background when the hero kicks open the saloon doors and makes an entrance. Just as we were finishing our dessert we got a Cuq-style variation on this wild west theme: the kitchen door was flung open and Andonis, whipping off his chef’s toque, strode across to the pianola and launched into an astonishing one-man Julie Andrews fest, belting out all the old favourites -A Spoonful of Sugar, Chim Chim Cher-ee, Doe a Deer et al- with tremendous gusto.
Needless to say, everyone was delighted.
The French have a word for it ‘dépaysement’ – a change of scene so radical it’s like a dose of pure oxygen. We returned to The Cowshed enchanted, refreshed, and with 150 inspirational photos.
August 9th 2021
As we approached the top of the steep hill of Cuq Toulza it seemed as though nothing had changed since our visit ten years previously, except that this time it was full summer and boiling hot . As the MDM was backing the elderly Clio into the shade of a tree, the engine cut out and obstinately refused to start again. It was then we discovered that our hosts, in spite of their growing fame (the restaurant is now open to the public and has a Michelin award for excellence), were still the same old charmers. Seeing what was happening, Andonis left his saucepans and came to help us push the car off the road.
We soothed our frazzled nerves by plunging into the aquamarine pool in its pine- scented gardens before whiling away the afternoon on sunbeds, lulled by the song of the crickets. We were looking forward to dining al fresco this time, as well as discovering new delights in the highly-acclaimed restaurant.
The setting is dreamlike: tables were laid along the terrace which runs along the back of the hotel then meanders into a little glade where a series of secluded dining areas were lit by flickering candles. It was a perfect ending to the day, one in which to enjoy those two eminently French notions – le temps de vivre – time to savour the moment, to let the eye travel down past the cascade of greenery and linger on the sunset -and l’art de vivre – to partake of beautifully cooked and presented dishes served in an atmosphere of harmony and conviviality.
Merci Philippe, Andonis and the team! We will be back, hopefully before 2031…
The photos I took that October of 2011 would inspire us when we stood in front of our mini slope in the spring of 2012, newly cleared and forbiddingly bare. Two hundred and fifty baby plants went into the earth and seven trees were planted in a couple of months, the first steps towards the realization of our dream.
Book news! Book news! Congratulations to Paulette Mahurin on the publication of her latest historical novelOver The Hedge. 25 five-star reviews already 😉 More than 70 years after ‘the dark curse of Hitler’, this is ‘a story that needs to be told…’ and needs to be read, lest we should forget.
Ten years ago, in May 2011, the MDM and I said goodbye to our small flat (which we loved) in la ville rose (which we loved) to move to a converted farm-building in a four-house hamlet in the Tarn. The house was fully renovated but the ‘terrain’ which came with it could have been the perfect location for a WW1 film – a No Man’s Land of nettles, brambles, boulders, rusty iron rods and bits of old sink tumbling down a hillside into a neglected, treeless field.
That first evening, dragging chairs outside after an exhausting move in 36° heat, we were both wondering the same thing – had we gone mad? With stoic smiles and sinking hearts we raised plastic glasses in a toast to our new adventure.
It was very quiet on the hilltop. Our nearest neighbours were away; the insects and birds had gone to bed, leaving a vast, unbroken silence without a breath of wind or sigh of leaves. Beyond our wasteland, the overwhelming expanse of fields, hills, valleys, woods lay all around under an even more overwhelming, steadily darkening sky. Then, from the next door garden, the hush was broken by three long, pure notes, followed by a tentative trill, like a flute tuning up.
We paused mid-sip.
The air quivered, the invisible songster burst forth: opening bars like liquid honey, a distinctive bubbling melody, gathering force, then a gradual crescendo to a joyous, sparkling final aria.
I had heard a similar performance only once before, on a hot June night at a wedding in Provence. But once heard, the magic of the nightingale’s song is unforgettable. No wonder this small, dun-coloured bird, the Keatsian ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’ singing of summer ‘in full-throated ease’ sends poets into raptures. No wonder it inspires song writers swooning after a kiss in Berkeley Square. No wonder its song cured the Emperor of China. No wonder it found a path through the sad heart of Ruth, standing in tears amid the alien corn. No wonder my arms and legs broke out in goosebumps. I was so excited I jumped to my feet, almost knocking over the MDM and his ‘beaker full of the warm south’. Reader, I had an epiphany!
Before my eyes (a bit misty on account of the light-winged Dryad), the brambles and nettles vanished. In their place, a bountiful paradise sprang up: hedges of lavender, thickets of rosemary, golden-flowering gorse, pink oleander, wild thyme covered in purple flowers, sage, savoury…The wilderness was transformed into Eden; trees and bushes rose up, sun-drunk plants undulated down the hillside and spilled into the field, the field became a meadow, bejewelled with poppies, cornflowers and buttercups spreading as far as the ancient fig tree bursting with fruit. From this mirage a ghostly fragrance rose into the air, that unique, aromatic scent which spirals like incense over the Mediterranean garrigue on hot summer days. Our future garden!
A nightingale will do that to you.
It has done so every year since we moved. For ten springtimes, the rossignol philomèle has arrived punctually at the end of April. There are now hosts of rossignols, in the garden we’ve created, in our neighbours’ gardens, in the nearby woods. They sing day and night, casting their enchantment over the hamlet. Ornithologists have counted between 120 and 260 different sequences in their dazzling repertoire.
But Nature has its rhythms. April passes, then May, then June. The day dawns when we no longer hear the nightingales. In the cruel month of July, the beautiful songster falls silent.
Adieu! Adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades…past the near meadows..up the hillside…
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: Do I wake or sleep?
John Keats: Ode to A Nigtingale
Now we must cross our fingers and wait for another spring, to sit among the lavender and oleander, among the thyme and the olive trees, listening for those first uplifting notes heralding one of nature’s marvels – the song of the nightingale.
Never heard a nightingale sing?
In this link you can hear it in all its matchless glory, and read the astonishing story of Beatrice Harrison, a cellist who in the 1920s played duets with the nightingales in her garden. On May 19th 1924 the BBC recorded such a duet, the first ever outdoor broadcast. During WW2 these broadcasts took on a special significance, boosting the morale of a nation at war.
Although we hope that our four households have encouraged the nightingale to return to our hamlet each spring, in England it’s a different matter. The nightingale population is dwindling. Here you can meet musician and conservationist Sam Lee and discover an annual event called Singing With Nightingales. His book, The Nightingale, (on my TBR list), published in March this year can be bought here.
From Nettles to Nightingales is my current work-in-progress, recounting the story of a French garden and its two novice gardeners. When will it be finished? The jury’s out on that. Who knew it would be so hard? Watch this blog-space and say a little prayer to the Muse for the exhausted author 😉
Today’s blog gets extremely passionate about a writer, a painter and a bush.
‘Mais j’avais beau rester devant les aubépines, à respirer, à porter devant ma pensée qui ne savait pas ce qu’elle devait en faire, à perdre, à retrouver leur invisible et fixe odeur…’
Thus begins one of the most sensational passages in Marcel Proust’s classic 3000-page novel In Search of Lost Time (and the bane of students wrestling to translate its seductive subtleties into English). Young Marcel, narrating, is on a country walk with his family near his aunt’s house in Combray. He’s at an age when he’s just discovering the sensory world – the beauty of nature, its colours, scents and mysterious harmonies – and, entering a lane of flowering hawthorn, he stops, transfixed.
‘A succession of chapels… disappearing beneath the masses of flowers piled up on their altars’, their ‘dazzling bouquets of stamens… radiating outwards like the fine ribs of Gothic window tracery,’ the creamy scent filling the air and making the whole lane seem to ‘bourdonner’ – to buzz, to vibrate. The sensation is overwhelming: Marcel senses a connection, a secret charm which he struggles in vain to identify.
His reverie is interrupted by his grandfather, calling him to come and see an even greater wonder – a pink hawthorn among the white. It is while he is gazing at this spectacle, each tiny bud like a pink marble goblet with blood-red depths, that his perspective changes. Looking through the branches rather than at them, he sees part of the grand park belonging to wealthy family friend, Charles Swann. On one of the gravel pathways, a little girl is watching them.
Marcel takes it all in – the spade she’s holding, the strawberry blond of her hair, the pale pink freckles on her skin and eyes that shine with a brilliant fixity. As he stares, enraptured and imploring, the girl, by a slight movement, a turning aside, a slant of the eyes and a secret smile, communicates the crushing weight of her scorn for Marcel and his family. At the same time, she raises her hand and makes a gesture so ‘indecent’ that the well-brought up Marcel is shocked to the core. The spell is broken by the appearance of a woman, presumably her mother, who calls out ‘Come along, Gilberte! What are you doing?’
The effect is immediate and irreversible – Marcel is in love. Gilberte returns to the house; too late the recipient of Cupid’s fatal arrow thinks of all the stinging retorts that could have kept her attention – ‘You’re ugly, grotesque, repulsive!’ From then on, her name, carried to him on the pure air like a scitillating rainbow, will be a talisman -Gilberte. From then on, the image of the hawthorns will recur, ‘un doux souvenir d’enfance’ – a sweet childhood memory inextricably bound up with seduction and desire, with the contradictory pleasures and pains of l’amour.
I saw quite a few hawthorns in 2012, at London’s Royal Academy. They were part of A Bigger Picture, an exhibition of works by David Hockney, the world’s greatest living painter. 1.3 million people came to see it and, swept like a frail hawthorn petal from room to room by the human tide, I had the impression that at least half of them were there the same day as me. Somehow I managed to dodge the stewards hustling people towards the exit and plunged into the next human tide being let in. Carried round once more, I was better prepared, managing by dint of crafty elbowing to tread water long enough to feel the tantalising ‘buzz’ of those mighty paintings of the Yorkshire countryside – a subject too big to be captured by the camera, Hockney tells us.
And lo! the art gods were merciful and granted me a third opportunity to see them, quite unexpectedly, on a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao later the same year. It was just before closing time, the rooms had emptied, and the four of us on the trip were able to do celebratory star jumps undisturbed.
I had long been a Hockney fan. Shades of the artist – books, posters, prints, postcards, press cuttings – have followed me on my travels over many years and in different countries.
To attempt to put into words the shock of sensations caused by those paintings -electrified, radiant, tearful, jubilant, liberated – I would need to Proustify for another forty pages. Readers who missed the exhibition can share the experience thanks to the excellent DVD (pictured above) with commentaries by the artist. In fact for anyone who wants to know Hockney better there’s a great series of videos on YouTube. (Yes, oft have I made moan about the horrors of social media but in this particular instance it’s like having the password to Ali Baba’s cave.)
Many of the works shown in 2012 had been specially commissioned by the Royal Academy. They’re radically different from earlier ones inspired by the artist’s years in the USA, in particular LA -the electric blue swimming pools and explosive colours of his house and garden, the dizzying swirls and switchbacks of routes and highways. Hockney left season-less California in 2006, returning to the four-seasoned Yorkshire of his birth where he set about painting the cycle of the year as it unfolded around him.
From birth to death and re-birth we see through the eye of the artist the first spring flowers and tree blossom, the unfurling of new leaves, the saturnalian riot of hawthorn hedges, the tall trees and deep forests in their different seasonal attire, the falling leaves of autumn and the felled logs of winter. Hockney famously does a lot of ‘looking’; many people told him they too had begun to ‘look’ after seeing these paintings, noting the individuality of trees and their changes over time. One thing that had attracted him about the RA’s offer was that they had a lot of big rooms to fill – Hockney the ‘space freak’ embraced the challenge with relish, embarking on a series of huge plein air paintings. His Bigger Trees Near Warter (40 by 15 feet, 50 panels) which he later donated to The Tate Gallery was designed to fill the end wall of the biggest room at the RA. Outdoor painting on such a scale involves a lot of organisation (a Jeep with special racks to hold the numerous canvases plus all the painting materials) and readiness to do battle with the elements -one video shows the wuthering winds of Yorkshire trying to make off with the artist’s easel and flat cap.*
At the same time he was creating pictures on a much smaller scale. His interest in new technologies has been well-documented and the discovery of the Brushes app on his iPad allowed him to do rapid drawings using the thumb of one hand (which left the other conveniently free to hold a cigarette). He would fire these off by email to friends, like cheerful postcards.
Hockney is an inspirational personality from many points of view. His passion for art, his erudition and his own artistic sensibilities allow him to communicate a boundless enthusiasm (‘exciting’ is one of his favourite words). Anyone reading his books or listening to him talk cannot fail to be charmed by his curiosity, his fervour, his clarity and his utter lack of pretension in a milieu which can be tediously pretentious. I can’t remember the exact words he used in the audio commentary at the RA, describing what he called ‘action week’ – the period when spring suddenly bursts forth, but I was left with the impression the artist and his team leaped into the Jeep to seize the moment like those intrepid tornado watchers in disaster movies.
The hawthorn paintings received mixed reactions. Ian Jack, reviewing in The Guardian said they looked like ‘evil yellow slugs’ for which he was taken to task by some commentators for not getting out more and actually looking at some hawthorns. For me, the over-the top ebullience and blowsy sensuality of those muscular cancan-dancing hedgerows is captivating. You can almost smell their faintly nauseating yet addictive perfume, like traces of old face-powder in a theatre dressing-room. Hockney said ‘it’s as if a thick white cream had been poured over everything’. ‘Creamy’ was the adjective I used earlier, freely translating Proust’s word ‘onctueux’- unctuous- which is much better, suggesting something fulsome, oleaginous and perhaps a bit off-putting (shades of Uriah Heap?).
Hockney read In Searchof Lost Time over a period of 18 months when he was 21. Proust’s ideas about time, perspective and the observer, greatly influenced him as did his theories about the role of art (in its general sense to include literature, painting music etc). Proust talks about ‘the miracle of communication’ whereby we are able to grasp a version of reality different from our own, to see with the eyes of the artist: ‘Only through art can we get outside of ourselves and know what another person sees of this universe which is not the same as ours…Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, ours, we see it multiplied …’ For Proust, this is an escape, an antidote to what literary critic Roger Shattuck calls ‘Proust’s complaint’ – the solitary confinement of the human condition. In That’s the way I see it (Chronicle Books 1993) Hockney has an uncannily similar remark. ‘My duty as an artist is to overcome and alleviate the sterility of despair…new ways of seeing mean new ways of feeling.’
The world has now entered ‘the 16th month of 2020’ as a friend aptly put it (thank you JD), and we’ve all to some degree come face to face with Proust’s complaint. Many of us have turned to music, painting, and literature as an antidote to ‘the sterility of despair.’ Hockney spent the spring of 2020 confined in France, in Normandy where he has bought a house. His paintings of la douce Normandie show him in more of an Impressionist than a Californian state of mind with a fairly muted palette, tender greens, patches of mist, apple and pear trees coming into bloom. This is a landscape which famously inspired others, notably one of Hockney’s favourite painters, Monet. The works first went on exhibit in Paris in October 2020 at the Galerie Lelong (where, in 2001, I saw another Hockney exhibition entitled Close and Far) and can be seen here in a virtual visit.
And for those in the UK, great news -the Royal Academy website announces the exhibition is : ‘Due to open 23 May: Opening exactly a year after the works were made during the global pandemic, this exhibition will be a reminder of the constant renewal and wonder of the natural world – and the beauty of spring.’
Here in the Tarn it’s hawthorn time. Stepping outdoors we can experience at first-hand what Hockney called the ‘most exciting thing nature has to offer’ -the arrival of spring. In his latest book, written with Martin Gayford, he says ‘We have lost touch with nature, rather foolishly as we are a part of it, not outside it.’ Looking at the explosion in our garden, in the fields and hedgerows, the surrounding countryside, I’m reminded of one particular iPad painting done by Hockney during the 2020 lockdown – a small clump of four daffodils, grass, and a distant line of bare trees. Those flowers practically jump out of the frame waving their arms.
What are they telling us? Hockney’s title is
‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring.’
Hockney and Proust have both got into my current work-in-progress, From Nettles to Nightingales. I’ll be back to explore more of their fascinating ideas and work in another blog. Meanwhile for those eager to find out for themselves, I’ve added some useful links to books and on-line sources below. Joyeux printemps 😉
Discussing Proust with me the other day, our French neighbour was pleased that I found him surprisingly ‘easy’ to read. ‘Me too,’ he said, adding, with a gleam in his eye ‘It’s almost as if those intellectuals in Paris who say he’s difficult want to keep him all to themselves.’ For those stalwarts wanting to tackle all 7 volumes in French, you can download a digital version produced by Les Editions Vattolo with an excellent, clearly written introduction – for a mere 99 cents.
The classic English translations of Proust are those by C.K. Scott Moncrieff in the 1920s, and Terence Kilmartin in the 1980s. But I found the 2003 translation of Du Côté de Chez Swann by Lydia Davis in the Penguin Modern Classics series to be an impressive read.
Proust’s Way by Roger Shattuck (2000) is an essential ‘field guide’. One of the chapters, published previously as Proust’s Binoculars got Mr Hockney ‘very excited’.
Spring Cannot Be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy can be purchased here.
VIDEOS AND WEBSITES
*The video mentioned in the blog is the trailer for Bruno Wollheim’s prize-winning filmDavid Hockey: A Bigger Picture which you can rent on Vimeo and read about in this interview. Wollheim followed the painter in Yorkshire for three years, acquiring hours of film which he had to edit down to just one hour for the final version. Recently on YouTube and Facebook he has released a series of fascinating ‘outtakes’ called Hockney Unlocked.
Hockney talks about using the iPad here and his official website is here. One of the biggest collections of his works in the UK is at Salt’s Mill, Saltaire West Yorkshire. Salt’s was the brainchild of Hockney’s close friend Jonathan Silver, who died in 1997. A great place to visit.
On a lovely website,Hockney Trail in Yorkshire, you can see photos of the particular landscapes in the Yorkshire Wolds which inspired the painter along with their locations on an ordnance survey map.
Finally a special thanks to dear friends Elizabeth and Andrew who bought the Hockney print on the wall of my study and the illustrated edition of The Hare With Amber Eyes.
Wild violets are appearing in our garden, the first sign of spring. Today’s blog gets passionate about their cousins, les violettes de Toulouse, emblem of the city where I lived for many years. Here’s a story about them.
Toulouse, France 1918: As a terrible World War enters its final year, one man is thinking about the future.
Dusk was falling over the pink city as Pierre-Georges Latécoère stepped out into the immense square. Friday night, and la Place du Capitole, the heart of Toulouse, was busy. Children ran shrieking and laughing beneath the echoing arcades where cafés were filling up with workers and shop girls stopping off to enjoy a glass of Lillet or Dubonnet before catching the tram back home.
Rumours were circulating that the war that had dragged on for so long was finally reaching an end as the Allies continued to advance on the western front. It was a conflict that had claimed its toll of young men from the south and worn to the bone those who remained at home, struggling to make ends meet, eking out an existence between meagre rations supplemented by the fruits of the orchards and vegetables from the allotments that stretched out around the city.
But there was definitely something different in the air this evening, thought Pierre-Georges, something uplifting and joyous, like the fragrance of the Toulouse violets that he stopped to buy from the flower seller on the corner. Seize the day. That was his motto, even though those who knew of his dreams laughed and said he was crazy. But this ‘madman from the south’, a visionary and a humanist, working at his father’s engineering factory, had imagined a future after the war,one in which the winged machines of destruction designed to kill the enemy could be transformed for the benefit of mankind.
“L’aérien pour relier les Hommes”- aviation as a means of connecting people, linking them by pathways through the skies.He planned to make this vision reality at the small airfield of Montaudran outside the city, from where former military aircraft would set out on a new mission: carrying the mail acrossthe mountains of the Pyrenees to Spain; from Spain across the Mediterranean Sea to France’s colonies in North Africa; from there across 2800 km of inhospitable desert terrain to Dakar, Senegal, and after that…Pierre-Georges bent his head to inhale the fragrance of the posy tucked into his buttonhole. ‘La violette’, such a tiny, frail flower, yet with such a sweet and potent perfume. Yes, he mused, after that, thegreatest adventure of all. On to a third continent, across 3000 km of Atlantic ocean to South America; from Brazil down to Buenos Aires and then the final, the supreme challenge: crossing the mighty Andes, the chain of mountains separating east from west, and where his fragile birds, piloted by intrepid aviators, buffeted by unimaginable winds and raging storms, might one day break through the clouds and see below them the shimmering blue waters of the Pacific.
But first, a daunting challenge awaited, one nearer home, in a government office in Paris where the bureaucrats he needed to convince said his project didn’t have a chance…
Though the scene above is a product of my imagination, the essential details are true. Latécoère’s response to government scepticism was reported by his chief of operations, Didier Daurat:
‘Gentlemen,’ he told the team ‘I have re-done all the calculations. Our idea won’t work! Our one job now is : to make it work !’
(‘J’ai refait tous les calculs…Notre idée est irréalisable! il ne nous reste qu’une chose à faire : la réaliser !’)
On December 25th 1918 Pierre-Georges Latécoère completed the inaugural flight of the Lignes Aériennes Latécoère, flying across the Pyrenees from Toulouse to Barcelona in a Salmson 2A2, a tiny one-engine machine piloted by Rene Cornemont. The following March, he took off from Montaudran with pilot Henri Lemaitre. After an overnight stop in Alicante he arrived in Rabat, Morocco the next day. He was welcomed by the French Resident General Hubert Lyautey, to whom he presented a copy of the previous day’s newspaper, Le Temps, and, to Madame Inès-Marie Lyautey, a bouquet of Toulouse violets.
‘La Ligne’, the first transcontinental airmail service was born; an agreement was signed for eight weekly flights between Toulouse and Rabat. Though prevented from becoming a pilot himself due to the poor eyesight which had prevented him serving in the war, Latécoère, through his perseverance, spirit of enterprise, and humanitarian convictions, wrote the first chapter in the story of French civil aviation, opening the way to a golden era peopled by legendary figures- Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz, Guillaumet, Daurat and other heroes, many of whom gave their lives in the pursuit of this pioneering dream.
In a month which has seen severe floods and rising COVID infection rates here in the Tarn and where a catastrophic vaccination campaign by the EU has raised alarm at the WHO and prompted the German Vice Chancellor to utter a very rude word, there is perhaps a ray of sunshine on the horizon. After her mea culpa before the European parliament on Wednesday, Ursula Van Der Leyen announced the creation of a task force to ‘get rid of the grains of sand in the vaccine pipeline’, hopefully increasing the trickle if not to a gush, at least to a reassuring flow. Heading the force is a man with a cheeky smile and a hugely impressive CV in both public and private sectors: Thierry Breton–former French Finance Minister, Harvard Business School professor, CEO of several major companies including France Telecom, winner of numerous accolades and awards, and just to round out the picture, author of three highly-praised sci fi novels. Baptised ‘a turnaround whizz’ (Wall Street Journal) and ‘Breton the Bulldozer’ (Capital magazine), he is a demanding boss whose work methods are reputedly unvarying: ambitious objectives, detailed budgets, strict deadlines, weekly progress reports and transparent results. Arriving at the Astra Zeneca plant in Brussels last week, he told the press: ‘the time for arguments is finished; now it’s time for action.’
Can Breton bulldoze those grains of sands out of the clogged EU pipeline? Can the turnaround whizz get the Commission spinning on their heels? Is this perhaps the shimmer of the blue Pacific at the end of a turbulent ride? Chances are that Breton is familiar with the words of his famous countryman in 1918:
‘I have re-done all the calculations. Our idea won’t work! Our one job now is: to make it work!’
NB Vintage posters like this one on the left can be ordered from:
Happy Valentine’s Day to lovers past, present and future, masked and unmasked!
If you’re dreaming of a romantic virtual trip to exotic climes, the above bouquet of 3 French Summer Novels is yours for less than the price of a Starbuck’s cinnamon dolce latte, and free if you’re a member of Kindle Unlimited, no vaccination passport required.
Keep safe, keep sane, keep hoping 😉
This blog is dedicated to the memory of two generous and inspiring friends, Mercedes Quevedo who died in Providence, Rhode Island on December 16th 2020, and Andrée Lagarde, who died in Toulouse on February 2nd 2021 and whose garden had many violets.