Flower Crime: a True Confession

uncancellable narcissi

In today’s Woke World where anything can be cancelled from Chaucer to cervixes, it’s good to remember the affirmation of the world’s greatest living painter :

Spring Cannot be Cancelled 

Having said that…

Extract from Chapter 28 From 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.

Where’s spring?

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.

Daffodils and narcissi The Backs, Cambridge

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.

King’s College, seen from the River Cam.
Photo Mike McBey courtesy Wikimedia https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cambridge_(49343363248).jpg

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?

Was it 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.’

Poppies in the fairy kingdom

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!

 #LoveBooks! #LoveYorkshire!

©Laurette Long 2022

 

 

 

 

 

 

Changing seasons, changing vistas

 

Opening the shutters

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.

Rolling vistas

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.

Apocalyptic sunsets

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.

Rolled 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.

les sanglots longs des violons

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.

A village half-way up the sky

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.

Arthurian mirage with Tuscan perspectives

“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.

Morning moon over valley

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.

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.’

Joyeux Noël!

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. 

©Laurette Long 2021

 

From dolce vita to Rabbit Hole OR How I became a human barcode

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 am a human

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.

Off with his head!

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.

Beware Shelob’s web

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.)

‘Right, next…’

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?’

‘Right. Finally…’ (deep shuddering breath) ‘has everyone got (gasp gulp) their PLF????? ‘

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’.

Huh??

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

Dolce vita in the Tarn

Fine dining on the ‘terrasse’ at Cuq en Terrasses

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.

View from the gardens looking up to the 18th century presbytery at Cuq

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.’

part of our bramble crop on mini-slope

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.

Looking down from our bedroom window October 2011

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.

A secluded spot beneath the pines, bring your book (photo October 2011)

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…).  

‘So, as I was saying, Lady Ottoline…’ (photo 2021)

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…)

Sunset looking out across the valley

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.

De-frazzling the nerves in aquamarine pool

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.

L’art de vivre

 

Merci Philippe, Andonis and the team! We will be back, hopefully before 2031…

 

 

 

 

 

Gardening postscript

Spring 2012. The bombsite is cleared, 250 baby plants go into the slope

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 novel Over 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.

From Nettles to Nightingales: July is the cruellest month

No Man’s Land

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.

Toasting the brambles

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.

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

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!

The 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.

Wikimedia Commons Frederick William Frohawk in ‘Birds of Great Britain and Ireland’, Order Passeres, vol. I, plate 13, PD-US, by Arthur G. Butler

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.

Thy plaintive anthem fades…past the near meadows..up the hillside…’

 

           ***

 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.

‘O, for a draught of vintage…tasting of Flora..and Provençal song…’ Artist Gordon Seward

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 😉

 

 

 


© Laurette Long 2021 

Proust, Hockney and Hawthorn

 

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.

In Search of Last Time Volume 1. Proust is mentioned in The Hare With Amber eyes (see links at end of blog)

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.

A Bigger Picture (Links to buy in the blog)

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.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao 2012

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.

Shades of the artist have followed me on my travels

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.

Unfurling leaves

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.*

Painting the November Tunnel YouTube video see links at the end of the blog

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.

Hawthorn coming into flower in the Tarn

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?).

André Szekely de Doba, Marcel Proust.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hockney read In Search of 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.’

Antidotes to the ‘sterility of despair’

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.’

Action week: Spring bursts out in the hedgerows

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 😉

Joyeux printemps!

BOOKS

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 film David 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Violets for Valentines

Violettes de Toulouse

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.

Bouquet of violets Edouard Manet, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Aréopostale flight Cap Juby Morocco 1932 Courtesy Walter Mittelholzer Wikimedia
Commons

“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 across the 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, the greatest 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…

 

French entrepreneur and aeronautical pioneer Pierre-Georges Latécoère (1883-1943).
Agence de presse Meurisse, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Aeropostale Moon Poster San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives – https://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/19477940245/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org

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!’

copyright Latécoère.com order from
http://www.latecoere.com/boutique.php

NB Vintage posters like this one on the left can be ordered from:

http://www.latecoere.com/boutique.php

 

 

 

 

 

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.

My Night With Saint-Exupéry – a Christmas Carol from France

Entrance to the Hotel Du Grand Balcon Toulouse

Goodbye 2020! You will not be missed. At a time when morale is low and with the prospect of a lonely Christmas for many, I’m hoping this blog will remind us of some of the things that make life worth living.  Its inspiration is writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In his most famous book, The Little Prince, banned, like his others, under the Vichy regime, he has written a story which has moved and comforted millions of readers since its publication in 1943. Its themes – love and friendship, loneliness and loss– strike a special chord today.

Le Petit Prince

‘On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.’  ‘It is only with the heart, not the eyes, that one sees clearly.’ Through the book’s best-known quotation and through the humanist philosophy expressed in his other works, in particular Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars), dedicated to Henri Guillaumet, Saint-Exupéry opens our hearts to the wonder of many things – the miraculous bond that grew between a small inhabitant from asteroid B612 and an aviator stranded in the desert; our planet and its place in a vast universe; our custodial duties towards it–the protection of nature, roses and gardens; our desire to go further, to explore, to learn, to surpass ourselves; the power of imagination which fires both scientific and artistic creation; the memory of where we come from, and the fact that all of us children of stardust must face an end to our earthly existence and the sadness of parting.

Saint-Exupéry’s connection to Toulouse is well-known. This was the place where he began an apprenticeship which was to make him into a great writer and a somewhat less-great aviator, the place where he forged unbreakable bonds with comrades who would help to shape his destiny. Pierre-Georges Latécoère was the visionary businessman who, in 1918, laid the cornerstone of French civil aviation at a small airfield on the outskirts of the city, launching what would become one of the world’s legendary airlines, the Lignes Aériennes Latécoère, later known simply as ‘La Ligne’, then ‘l’Aéropostale’ .  His head of operations was Didier Daurat, a man revered by those he trained in the importance of their mission – delivering the mail to France’s overseas territories and beyond. In the modern world where an electronic Christmas card reaches its destination in a second it’s hard to imagine how eagerly, sometimes desperately, letters were awaited by people living thousands of miles apart at a time when transport by road and sea might take weeks, months even.

View from Saint Exupéry’s room, Hotel du Grand Balcon copyright Gordon Seward

Daurat’s aviators were a larger-than-life bunch of daredevils who risked their necks daily on flights across the Pyrenees, Spain and the Mediterranean to West Africa in flimsy aircraft with rudimentary instruments and cockpits open to the elements (120 died in the service of the line). When, in May 1930, Jean Mermoz, one of the greatest pilots in history, crossed the Atlantic from Senegal to Brazil, a distance of 3450 km in a flight time of 21 hours and 15 minutes, the way was open for Aéropostale’s South American network. Passionate about their vocation, these men also had an appetite for life and l’amour (toujours l’amour), prompting Daurat to arrange for them to lodge at a respectable boarding house/pension, Le Grand Balcon, in the heart of the pink city. Daurat was counting on Lucie, Henriette and Risette Marquez, the genteel sisters who ran the place, to keep his young hotbloods in check. Instead, the sisters fell under the charm of their lodgers, and, seduced by their tales of exotic lands, vast deserts, jagged mountain peaks and violent storms, ‘forgot’ to charge them for their dinners and turned a deaf ear to the creaking floorboards as the aviators, their giggling inamoratas tossed over one shoulder, tiptoed to their rooms for forbidden nights of love from which they would emerge bleary-eyed at dawn to catch the no. 10 tram to Montaudran.

Left to right Saint-Ex, Guillaumet and Mermoz Salon of l’hôtel du Grand Balcon

In December 2017 I was able to test those creaky floorboards for myself. Santa (in the shape of the MDM) had brought me a marvellous present – a night in the Suite de Saint-Exupéry. As we passed through the foyer of the hotel  I heard the drift of a ghostly tango from the salon where the lodgers used to push back the furniture for impromptu dance evenings, and where today three huge photographs dominate one wall:  Jean Mermoz, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Henri Guillaumet, the most famous members of the band whose exploits, like those of their American counterparts years later – Chuck Yeager, Gus Grissom, John Glenn – became the stuff of legends (pause while I blow a kiss star-wards to the great Chuck, who died this month aged 97) . Mermoz was the poster-boy; nicknamed the Archangel after emerging unscathed from the wreck of a plane in the Andes; his wavy, swept-back hairstyle, ‘la coupe Mermoz’, became le must-have in barbershops the length and breadth of France (we have a dashing photograph of the MDM’s dad sporting it.)

His room was number 20, Saint-Ex was on the floor above in 32 where, on one notorious occasion, his workmates found him asleep in the bath, a book floating next to him, and had to drag him out so he wouldn’t miss the tram to work and incur the wrath of Daurat.

Terre des Hommes English title: Wind Sand and Stars

A propensity to forget the time was one his most notable characteristics; his absent-minded dreaminess and habit of jotting down notes for his books while flying led to many an incident; as Henry Alias, his unit commander in 1940, remarked ‘When the flight is normal, Saint-Exupéry is dangerous; given complications, he’s brilliant’; for the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, he was a man who came into his own  ‘to the degree to which he (ran) into danger.’  In short,  Saint-Ex possessed that quality known later as ‘the right stuff’– a coolheaded resourcefulness that got him out of many a scrape .

For his first, crucial interview with Didier Daurat in 1926, he turned up an hour late, a crime which would normally have led to him being sent packing but for some reason didn’t. Daurat, ex-fighter pilot and hero of Verdun, was a stern, inflexible man who believed in duty  and abhorred pride and pretentiousness. He was able, though his own unshakeable beliefs, to instil in his team the desire to surpass; his pilots were an elite, the brightest and best. Joseph Kessel wrote that, for Daurat ‘the mail had become religion.’ Saint-Ex, recalling that first interview said ‘I learned that any delay is a dishonour regardless of the reasons.’ He left an indelible portrait of him in his novel Vol De Nuit, published in 1931, bearing the  dedication ‘A Monsieur Didier Daurat’.

Mermoz, a pilot with 600 flying hours beneath his belt, never forgot the humiliation of his first test flight where he launched into a dazzling aerobatics display to impress the great man. Coming in to land, he saw no trace of Daurat.

‘You’d better pack your bags’ said Rozes, an old hand standing at the side of the runway.

‘What have I done?’ stammered Mermoz.

Seeing the chief coming out of the hangar he rushed over.

‘Pleased with yourself?’ asked Daurat. ‘We don’t need acrobats here. Get yourself off to the circus.’

Daurat relented, but not after giving the scarlet-faced young man a terrible dressing down which he never forgot.  Kessel later asked Daurat for his version of what happened.

‘I saw straight away that Mermoz was first class,’ he told Kessel. ‘But what he’d demonstrated was vanity and individualism. In order for La Ligne to work, we didn’t need that; it was a unity, a corps, not a showcase for individuals.’

Room 32 dans son jus

On the night of December 4th 2017, as the MDM unlocked the door to Room 32, I was remembering all those stories, and trying to keep calm at the idea I was about to  step into a page of history. I perhaps gave my gallant escort a little shove as I shot past – straight into a time-warp. The iconic hotel has been carefully modernised, leaving Room 32 dans son jus, as it was when its famous occupant left it.

the marble fireplace room 32

Floor-to-ceiling windows, bare floorboards, the bed with its original brass and iron bedstead, the ancient black marble fireplace complete with art deco clock, the mismatched nightstands and Art Deco armoire. And what was behind the wooden screen with its embroidered panels? A bidet, was what, with a retro washbasin on the wall next to it.

From an early age Saint-Exupéry had taken to the world of books like a duck to water, reading them, writing them and doings his own illustrations in the margins. In her fascinating biography, Stacy Schiff describes how he would write late into the night, falling asleep then waking at his desk, head on his arms. Looking around that night, our eyes were drawn to a writing table, set in front of a corner window with a view of the main square and the rose-coloured 18th century Capitole building. It was essentially the same view Saint-Ex would have seen, raising his head from his arms, except that the façade of the Capitole that night was glowing electric blue in the Christmas lights, and the lamplit square was covered in market stalls.

Anyone behind there?

The MDM was hoping for a ghost as the clock struck the midnight hour.  I’m not sure what I was hoping for (a man in a helmet and goggles?) The MDM swears he saw his  ghost. I didn’t get the man or the goggles but there was an undeniable frisson, something in the air that alerted the senses, a sort of psychic electricity… As the street noises faded and I drifted in and out of sleep I fancied there appeared among the shadows on the ceiling dancing black and white images from that golden age. There, in the old salon, three floors below,  was a nervous Saint-Ex on the eve of his maiden flight to deliver the mail, begging the help of Guillaumet, ace pilot of the Ligne, more skilled even than Mermoz. The two were plotting the route at a lamplit table covered with maps. The jagged mountain peaks, swirling clouds,  treacherous turbulence and magnetic storms which shook the frail aircraft like a leaf–all disappeared, magically transformed by Guillaumet, ‘the poet-guide’ who was showing Saint-Ex ‘his kingdom’,  the Pyrenees and Spain, and the path through them with its welcoming landmarks –  a row of orange trees here, a quiet brook there, a herd of sheep, a farmer on a remote mountain top.

In that moment a life-long friendship was born, and henceforth Saint-Ex would exercise his two passions, flying and writing, in thrall to the siren song of foreign landscapes, the vast remoteness of the Saharan desert and the harsh majesty of the South American continent, in the company of a fellowship of men who also had the stars in their eyes.

Il tomba doucement comme tombe un arbre

The idyll would come to a sordid end in the early thirties. The man who loved to write and fly would meet his death somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea in 1944. In an article in The New York Times, Schiff writes “rarely have an author and a character been so intimately bound together as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his Little Prince…the two remain tangled together, twin innocents who fell from the sky”.

It’s impossible to squeeze just a few of these inspiring adventures into one blog. They will pop up again next year, to keep things in perspective. But I’d like to finish with a reference to Vol de Nuit /Night Flight, and its unforgettable descriptions of the anguish of  men on lonely flights through the blackness of the South America night, racing to deliver the mail between Buenos Aires and Patagonia, Chile and Paraguay, and, fearing the worst, longing to see amid the claustrophic darkness a glimpse of dawn appearing on the horizon  ‘like a beach of golden sand’.

It’s a feeling we can all empathise with as 2020 draws to a close. But as another great Frenchman, Victor Hugo reminded us ‘Même la nuit la plus sombre prendra fin, et le soleil se lèvera.’

‘Even the darkest night will draw to an end, and the sun will rise.’

The Cowshed at Christmas

From The Cowshed on a Hilltop in The Tarn – here’s to the dawn of a new year and a brighter future. Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année to one and all – oh, I almost forgot my present to readers -Books 1 2 3 of the French Summer Novels are all FREE for a bit of sea sex and sun escapism (26,27 and 28th December) – just click on the book covers to the left.

PS A special thought for those who lost dear ones this year; and for the never-to-be-forgotten James Lawrence, who left us bereft one December night 24 years ago. Apart from being a wonderful father he was also a keen astronomer, who, one night, aged 70, in the service of his passion, shinned up a concrete lamp-post and affixed a homemade cardboard shade around its offending orange light so as to better contemplate the beauties of the constellations.  

 

Five years On: November 13th 2015

French flag

French Flag   Photo courtesy of François Schnell, Flickr. 

‘Je ne suis pas d’accord avec ce que vous dites, mais je me battrai jusqu’à la mort pour que vous ayez le droit de le dire.’

‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

This ‘quotation’ from Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694-1778), may be apocryphal but it illustrates perfectly the stand taken by this great philosopher of the Enlightenment  in defence  of one of our basic democratic freedoms – freedom of speech and expression (later enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution).

It is a tragic irony, therefore, that five years ago on November 13th 2015, in a Parisian boulevard named after Voltaire, 90 people were massacred by religious fanatics opposed to such liberties. These victims, and other ‘miscreants’, were punished in a series of three separate attacks, one outside the Stade de France during an international football match, the second in Paris, aimed at people sitting on café terraces and the third, mentioned above, at the Bataclan Theatre on Boulvard Voltaire where fans had assembled to hear a concert by The Eagles of Death Metal. In total, on that terrible night,  Islamist terrorists killed 130 people and injured 416 others .

Since then there have been numerous similarly bloody attacks and atrocities committed in the name of Islamic jihad, culminating in September this year with the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty and the stabbing to death, 12 days later, of three people inside the church of  the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice.

In an IFOP survey published on 2nd September this year, 74% of French Muslims under the age of 24 stated that they put Islam before the Republic. French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a brave stand against what he calls ‘Islamist separatism’, whereby children are brought up to reject French values and culture. A brave stand, and a lonely one. Here in France we are wondering what’s happened to our allies.  This is not a problem exclusive to one country. In Europe alone, the UK, Spain and Germany have all fallen victim to Islamist attacks.

In the Lockerbie bombing of 1988, a total of 270 people were killed – all the plane’s passengers and crew plus people on the ground. In the Madrid train bombing of March 2004, 193 were killed and 2000 injured. In the 2005 London suicide attacks (7/7) 52 were killed and more than 700 injured. In December 2016 at the Berlin Christmas market 12 were killed and 56 injured. In August 2017 on Las ramblas in Barcelona  and in the town of Cambrils , 16 were killed and 133 injured. And 2017,  one of the bloodiest years in the UK suffered four attacks (Westminster, London Bridge/Borough Market, Parsons Green and, deadliest of all, the Manchester suicide bomber who, in a similar attack to that on the Bataclan, targeted a pop concert at the Manchester Arena killing 22 people (10 of them under 20) and injuring more than 800, including many children.

Where are those brave enough to speak out and engage in the fight to defend fundamental tenets of western democracy, those universal values and principles whose importance should surely transcend, by far, local and temporal political issues and in-fighting? Douglas Murray, quoting Martin Luther King-‘In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends’-puts the question here, while, in his article,  Ed Hussain describes how political Islam attacks on three fronts.  Agnès Poirier, in a moving piece, talks about French secular education and the regard in which the French hold their history teachers. As for the mealy-mouthed reporting of terrorist atrocities in the anglophone mainstream media (such as The New York Times who chose the headline ‘French Police Shoot and Kill Man After Fatal Knife Attack’ to describe the beheading of Samuel Paty after a social media campaign had whipped up religious hatred against him against him),  Liam Duffy takes on the press here, asking why France is being portrayed as the villain.

In 2015 I wrote a blog in reaction to the killings of 13 November,  quoting the poem by Paul Eluard, ‘Liberté, j’écris ton nom,’  (Freedom, I write your name), re-posted below.

Resist

November 17 2015   

In July I wrote a blog about Paris. It began:

“Just back from two weeks in Paris, the most beautiful and evocative city on earth…City of Light, City of Love… the Seine and its bridges.”

I then went on to talk about a poem:

“…the melancholic poem about love and time by Guillaume Apollinaire that every student of the French Baccalauréat knows by heart, ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’.

On November 13 in Paris a gang of murdering cowards hiding behind Kalashnikovs turned their weapons on families and children enjoying an evening at the restaurant, on football fans enjoying a friendly game, on excited music fans enjoying a rock concert. Their aim was to turn the City of Light into the City of Darkness, the City of Love into the City of Hate and Fear.

It’s doubtful that these brutal, ignorant murderers had ever read Apollinaire’s poem, or indeed any other work of literature. They had surely never thrilled to the verses of Shakespeare, wept at the poetry of Homer; never shared the sufferings of Jean Valjean or Edmond Dantès.

And others like them, lashed to the ideology of terrorism and tyranny, will never, ever, understand why Allied planes, flying over occupied France in World War 2, dropped not just weapons to the maquis: fluttering down from the sky came thousands of copies of a poem, which would continue to inspire and uplift those men and women risking their lives in the fight against Nazi tyranny.

Its title was ‘Liberté, j’écris ton nom’ , Freedom, I write your name.

Written by poet and Resistance member Paul Eluard in 1942, its celebratory stanzas end with the following lines:

Et par le pouvoir d’un mot

Je recommence ma vie

Je suis né pour te connaître

Pour te nommer:

Liberté.

And through the power of one word

I begin my life again

I was born to know you

To name you:

Freedom.

This weekend the Eiffel Tower was cloaked in darkness as the world mourned the victims of November 13th. But the darkness was temporary.

Last night the lights came on again as the Lady put on the colours of the tricolor demonstrating once again the regenerative power of one word:

Liberté.

Paul Eluard Poésie

 

September 21st 2001: The Day Toulouse Can’t Forget

 

Memorial to the victims of the AZF explosion 2001. Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons, Author Kurema Sakura

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.

The site of the explosion
Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons City of Toulouse Archives

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 first day of the 2009 court proceedings in Toulouse (courtesy INA.fr archives)

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.

The ring road around Toulouse minutes after the explosion. Courtesy INA.fr archives

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.

Numerous press articles and books have been published over the years

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.

‘On ne peut pas oublier’
La Dépêche du Midi 21 September 2020

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.

©Laurette Long 21 September 2020