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

 

 

 

 

 

 

You say tomato…

Tomato time! 5 magnificent varieties, merci Fofo!

Today’s blog gets passionate about tomatoes and a Michelin chef.

It’s tomato time in France; kilos and kilos of the delicious fruit are appearing in gardens and on market stalls. They always remind me of an interview I did many years ago in Toulouse with Michelin chef, Lucien Vanel, for a paper I was writing as part of a university course on French culture.  The experience left me as exhilarated as if I’d knocked back half a bottle of champagne.

There’s a great picture of him on the site set up in his honour in 2008, which awards an annual prize (below).

The official site of the Lucien Vanel prize etablished in 2008

He was a man of passion.  ‘To step into the dining room of my restaurant, to see people enjoying themselves, appreciating the food – ‘je suis aux anges,’ he told me in that long-ago interview. ‘I’m in heaven. Cooking is my life. I don’t want to appear narrow-minded (un esprit borné) but I freely confess to preferring the music of my saucepans to that of a great orchestra.’

Marché Victor Hugo,Toulouse. The famous ‘Betty’s’cheese stall

He was an animated talker, jumping out of his chair and waving his arms about, and his enthusiasm and exuberance were mesmerising, even when he was describing the hard work demanded by his metier.  For himself and his team of three apprentices, the day started early and finished late, with a short break in the afternoon. He was up each morning at 4h 30 to visit the famous Marché Victor Hugo, prowling round the stalls, checking out the produce, mentally working out his menus before placing his orders. The true spirit of ‘la cuisine du marché’ – first select your ingredients, fresh from the market, then decide how to cook them.

Was he one of the chefs putting la nouvelle cuisine on the map? He embraced their ethic  of simple, healthy dishes without  heavy sauces,  he told me, ‘but -don’t expect me to banish  butter from my kitchen.’  He talked a lot about ‘l’art culinaire’, the art of cuisine; in his kitchen he would experiment, try out new combinations, expand his horizons.  I was intrigued by his library of cookery books which contained not just the latest recipes from talented new chefs, but went back 300 years to the original ‘masters’. His greatest pleasure, he told me, quoting Brillat-Savarin, was to welcome guests in a fitting manner: ‘Convier quelqu’un, c’est de se charger de son bonheur tout le temps qu’il est sous votre toit.’  (‘To invite someone for a meal means being responsible for their happiness as long as they are under your roof’ – an apt definition of ‘hospitality’.)

‘What do you do when you’re not working?’ I asked.

‘Then,’ he smiled, ‘I like to be the guest. I like to be invited by good friends, who have prepared one perfect dish…’

He pointed at me.

Not quite Vanel standard, but…

Ecoutez- moi bien – (listen carefully), when you invite me to your house, I would like you to make me  a  tomato salad. But! The tomatoes must be perfectly ripe, perfectly red, skinned and de-seeded; the hard boiled eggs for the garnish must be perfectly cooked – the yolks  must remain  ‘moelleux’ (slightly runny), the dressing subtle, but flavoursome. Then I’ll be a happy man.’

This wonderful chef and genial personality died in 2010. If you fancy entering the competition in his honour 🙂 be warned – in 2018/2019,  130 restaurants, 15 hotels and 9 cocktail bars took part in the ‘olympiade gourmande’. 

When I was creating the character of Madame Martin in the French Summer Novels, I had Lucien Vanel in mind.  The housekeeper of Villa Julia – Thérèse Intxausti Martin, to give her her full name – is a formidable lady who has been running things for the Etcheverria family for years. She’s seen two generations grow up; and is respectfully considered  as the true Mistress of the Kitchen, (if not of the entire house- don’t leave your wet towels on the bathroom floor!) In Biarritz-Villa Julia, the final book of the series, her famous tomato salad is the subject of a clash of wills between herself and a newly-arrived guest, Hibiscus (‘call me Hibby’) who is one of those people who has no boundaries and firmly believes her way of doing things is the only way. (Don’t we all know one ?)

Read on for wooden spoons at dawn…

 

Chapter 7 The Mistress of the Kitchen

‘Do you happen to have any honey, chère madame? Honey? You know, bees?’

Caroline stepped into the kitchen just in time to see Hibby stand on tiptoe and start to zigzag round the table, flapping the sleeves of her purple kimono and making a loud buzzing sound.

Madame Martin was backed up against the sink clutching a wooden spoon.

‘Ah, Caroline!’

Hibby stopped in mid-flight, a look of relief on her face

‘Yippee! The cavalry arrives in the nick of time! I’ve been trying out my French on poor chère Madame here. But I’m a bit rusty!’

In the middle of the kitchen table stood a large platter of Madame Martin’s famous egg and tomato salad.

On Caroline’s first visit to Biarritz she’d spent many a happy moment in the kitchen, absorbing the culinary knowhow of Villa Julia’s long-time housekeeper/chef. Her cooking was deceptively simple, limited to a relatively few dishes, but always, unfailingly, sublime. Madame Martin knew every stallholder in the market, had an unerring eye for the best cuts of meat and the freshest fish, and the happy residents of the villa were treated to the overflow from the kitchen garden she oversaw at her own house, tended by her husband, Pierre.

‘Seven minutes precisely,’ she had told Caroline, stripping the shells off the hard-boiled eggs and slicing them, revealing golden yolks perfectly poised between firm and runny. ‘And the tomatoes must always be peeled, even in summer, even though they have just come off the vine.’

The alternating rows of egg and tomato would be arranged artistically on a platter in an overlapping pattern. Just before serving, Madame Martin would pour over her thick, glistening vinaigrette. The simple starter was a perennial favourite, with everyone cutting extra chunks of crusty baguette to mop up the last of the vinaigrette, tomato juice and bits of yellow yolk.

‘I was trying to be a model guest, make myself useful and give a hand with lunch. Donner une main, chère madame?’

Hibby notched up her voice a couple of decibels, articulating each syllable so as to get the message across to chère Madame whose French, she was surprised to find, sounded a bit funny, probably the local accent.

‘Maybe-it-is-in-here? Ici?

She opened the door to one of the cupboards.

‘Yes! Found it! Tada! Miel de lavande.’

She grabbed the pot with the little bee on the label and advanced on the salad.

‘Lavender honey. Perfect. Just a touch in the vinaigrette to take away the bitterness.’

Madame Martin gave a jerk as though someone had stuck a pin in her.

‘Ah non, Madame! Non non non non non!

With cheetah-like speed Madame Martin sprang from her refuge near the sink and landed next to the table, interspersing herself between Hibby and the bowl of vinaigrette. Her wooden spoon was raised.

Hibby took a step back. Caroline took a step forward.

‘OK, c’est bon, Madame Martin! Tout va bien!’

She reached out to remove the offending jar from Hibby’s clutch, smiling encouragingly at Madame Martin on one side and Hibby on the other, her head bobbing between the two like a nodding dog in a car window.

‘Sorry Hibby, er, we don’t put honey in the vinaigrette, er, it’s Madame Martin’s special recipe, we never interfere, sorry, I know you were just trying to be useful…’

Hibby, crestfallen, peered out from underneath her orange fringe.

‘Oh dear, I do apologise. I just wanted to help, you know? Je suis désolée chère Madame !’

The Mistress of the Kitchen, still bristling, gave a small nod, took the jar from Caroline and sidled over to the cupboard, her eyes never leaving Hibby. She opened the door wide and stood back.

Pe-tit-dé-jeu-ner,’ she said, employing the same syllable-hammering technique as Hibby. ‘Brekkfust!’

She placed the honey next to other jars, an array of home-made jams, all neatly labelled. Apricot, strawberry, mirabelle.

‘Brekkfust!’ she repeated. ‘For put on ze bread, for put on ze yaourt. Yes! Good! For put on tomatoes–’ she sucked in a deep breath–‘Nevvair!!’

Having exhausted her linguistic skills, Madame Martin sagged, turned to Caroline and fell back on the exquisite language of Racine and Moliere.

‘Mademoiselle Caroline, please explain that in French cuisine a vinaigrette is made with olive oil and red wine vinegar. As you know, I use a little mustard–Dijon–to thicken, but that is all. It is however permissible to dribble a judicious amount of honey–’ she stressed the word–‘over a sharp goat’s cheese baked in the oven and served with a crisp green salad. Dressed with a vinaigrette. Not something I care for myself, but allowed, under the rules of la nouvelle cuisine.’

Caroline led a deflated Hibby out of the kitchen.

‘Right Hibiscus, Hibby, why not sit outdoors and relax while I bring you a nice cup of coffee?’

‘So sweet of you, Caroline. As I said, I was only trying to help. Now just let me check I understood back there, no sugar either? In the vinaigrette?’

Hibby’s voice floated into the kitchen. Madame Martin’s eyebrows went up. Sugar? Du sucre dans une vinaigrette? She would have to have a word with Mademoiselle Claudie, take her on one side, warn her what to expect if she got married to Pete and this woman became her mother-in-law.  Claudie was becoming a top-class chef, a natural. Plus she knew all about nutrition and these new techniques, molecular-whatever, personally Madame Martin was not yet convinced that chocolate and caviar were a happy marriage, but that was beside the point. The point was that on no account must Claudie allow that woman into her kitchen. She could turn her back for a minute and when she turned round again her mushroom vols-au-vent would have icing sugar and candles on. How was it possible that Monsieur Pete, such a lovely person and such an astonishing chef, had grown up with a mother who put honey on her tomatoes and sugar in her vinaigrette? Maybe that was why he’d gone in for pâtisserie

The French Summer Novels are all free to read with the Kindle Unlimited scheme on Amazon.

On sale this weekend

Book 1, Biarritz Passion, is reduced to 99p/ 99cents this weekend (e-book)  It’s also available in paperback for £7.99/$8.99.

 

 

 

 

 

Bonne lecture, bon weekend, bon appétit – and don’t put sugar in the vinaigrette !

Bon weekend!

 

 

Life in the Time of Coronavirus: post-confinement reflections on markets and movements

 

Market on the Med

Down at the Big Blue for the first time in months it felt strange to be out of the small world of our small hamlet. In post-confinement France there are mixed opinions about social distancing, mask-wearing, legal size of public gatherings, definitions of public gatherings, fines, and the rest.

At the local market- a dozen or so stalls set up along the edge of the beach -there were few customers, none wearing masks, although the traders were fully equipped.  Stopping to buy cheese, we fell into conversation with the young stall-holder.  He was from the Savoie, plying his trade in the different markets, morning and evening, of the Pyrenées Orientales , working with local members of the market fraternity. Each week he returned to the high mountains to pick up more cheese before driving back across country, a 1200 km round trip.

melons and fromage de savoie

Further along, another young man was selling melons. Not local ones he told us, but from Provence, the town of Chateau Renard near Avignon.  His story was similar. Shuttling between the markets of the coast and the farm , 250  kms away. As they smiled and chatted, offering us samples of their wares, sweet chunks of orange-fleshed melon, the huge wheels of pale Alpine cheeses I was impressed by their dignity and courteousness, the way in which they appeared to be not just happy with their hard and precarious metier, but proud of it.  I would have liked to buy up every single melon and every scrap of cheese and taken them home for a slap-up lunch.

We don’t have French TV at The Cowshed so one of our treats here is to watch the 1 o’clock news on TF 1 with Jean-Pierre Pernaut. This French newscaster has been wowing the public since 1988 (Le Journal de 13h has more viewers – 6 to 7 million- than any other European lunch-time news programme)  and this month the bespectacled 70-year- old with the Cheshire cat grin was voted France’s  No 1 favourite TV personality by the public. A hilarious poke in the eye for those self-satisfied, woke presenters who spend most of their time sucking in their cheeks, grooming their egos and rudely interrupting their guests.

Why is Pernaut so popular? Although famous for occasionally letting rip, Andrew Neill style,  about an  event hitting the headlines, he’s more likely to start with an image of almond blossoms, budding vines or lavender fields baking under the sun. This is a programme which, for the most part, turns its back on the madding crowd, focusing instead on the regions of France in all their wonderful diversity and stunning natural beauty, highlighting their history, culture and the people who live there (just hearing the accents makes you feel as though you’re on holiday).

French markets

Though sniffed at by intellectuals as being boring, provincial, redolent of ‘mucky clogs’ (‘sabots crottés’ –Liberation), even xenophobic,  the formula has proved to be a winner for many weary of political harangues, moral lectures and the existential problems of metropolitan elites unable to find supplies of Kobo beef at Le Bon Marché.   It has a similar sort of appeal to Rick Stein’s Secret France series. The other day, flocks of sheep were being taken up to the mountains to munch on all that sweet summer grass – the famous transhumance – followed by  a trip to France’s ‘Emerald Isle’ – a bit of Ireland in Brittany – followed by a reportage on eco pasturage – an ancestral method of maintaining green spaces by allowing sheep and goats to graze freely.

Ah, forget COVID and its rising death toll for thirty minutes, listen to the sheep bells and breathe in the bracing odour of sabots crottés

One of the most popular campaigns launched by the programme three years ago is the competition to find ‘the most beautiful market in France.’  Last year more than four million people voted. The winner, Montbrison, a small medieval village in the Loire, is famous for its fourme de Monbrison, a cheese mentioned on the UNESCO site for its part in French gastronomy – ‘an intangible world heritage’. The competition is fierce with each region defending its favourite. This year’s winner will be announced on July 8th…(cue music from Jaws).

***

Reluctantly leaving behind cheeses and lavender fields…even in our hermit’s cave it’s been hard not to miss the BLM demonstrations.  Normally I don’t comment on world events on this blog, but I have previously mentioned two difficult subjects: the plight of  Christian girls in Nigeria taken as Boko Haram ‘wives’,  and that of Yazidi women and girls taken as slaves by Islamic State. The details of their suffering have been well documented by different sources including reports submitted to the UN Human Rights Council and are available to read by anyone with access to the Internet.  I am not going to repeat them here. Suffice it to say they are the stuff of nightmares and anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating need only watch the testimony here of Amal Clooney, speaking to the UN in September 2016 on behalf of one of the Yazidi victims, Nadia Murad.

Nadia Murad Wikimedia Commons By U.S. Department of State from United States – https://www.flickr.com/photos/statephotos/42733243785/, Public Domain

Watching the BLM UK demonstrations I was struck by the huge groundswell of outrage sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Although the BLM movement, started in 2013,  had  a specific aim – to protest against incidents of police  brutality in the US against unarmed Afro-Americans- the latest protests  seemed to indicate something bigger, with more diverse aims; that they were more about human rights than civil rights, about the wider subject of exploitation of certain races by others. A lot of attention was given to the Atlantic slave trade, abolished in the UK (as all school-children know from their history lessons I hope), in the 19th century, thanks to the efforts of William Wilberforce and other members of the Anti-Slavery Society. This organisation, founded in 1823, gave birth to the current day advocacy group, Anti-Slavery International, the oldest international human rights organisation in the world.

William Wilberforce, British politician, philanthropist, and abolitionist who led the parliamentary campaign against the slave trade. Courtesy Steve F-E-Cameron https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Commons

What a great  opportunity, then, after recalling shameful events of the past, for BLM UK to continue in the honourable tradition of Wilberforce and other reformers by turning a probing searchlight on the even more shameful  abuse still being perpetrated today, in the 21st century, on the most vulnerable members of the BAME community- women and children?

The estimates for the number of modern-day slaves are staggering – literally millions.  Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that ‘No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.’ Amal Clooney spoke out against what she called ‘a bureaucracy of evil on an industrial scale’,  referring to the slave markets, live and on-line  using encrypted mobile applications (eg the 4Sale app). Here, girls and women ‘get purchased like barrels of petrol’ (UN envoy and human rights champion Zainab Bangura) and prices for choice specimens go as high as thousands of dollars.

BBC report on slave markets

Only four months ago, Rebecca Sharibu, mother of 16-year-old Leah Sharibu,  abducted by Boko Haram two years ago,  took part in a protest outside the Nigerian High Commission in London. Nigeria has been named by UNESCO as one of the leading countries in human trafficking. Commenting on the case, Lord Ahmad, the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict said ‘The UK has made repeated calls for the release of all those abducted by Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa (ISWA), including Leah Sharibu. We are appalled by and condemn her reported enslavement, forced conversion and pregnancy.’

As I write this, the trial is taking place in Germany over the death of a slave kept by an Iraqui-German couple, a 5-year old Yazidi child chained to a window in searing heat and left to die of thirst after wetting her bed.

Boko Haram wives The Guardian Oct 2018 ‘Where is Leah Sharibu?’

Has there been any mention of these victims during the current protests? Where are their names? Where are their pictures? Where are the banners, where is the fury, the outrage against those committing  such horrors?  As Clooney said ‘we know who the perpetrators are’, adding ‘I am ashamed as a lawyer that there is no justice being done’  with states  failing to act  ‘because they find their own interests get in the way.’

Cleaning the Cenotaph

Not just states, it would seem.  I watched in disbelief as some demonstrators, instead of turning the force of righteous wrath (not to mention baseball bats) on real live human traffickers, preferred to attack inert, 300-year-old statues (take that, you villain)  and to daub memorials to those who made our history something to be immensely proud of –  men and women who sacrificed their lives to defend a liberty without which no protests would be allowed.

What a terrible, lost opportunity. ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’ said Dr King. One can’t help thinking that if someone with his vision, humanity and courage had been around to provide wise leadership things might have been different, and the moment would have been seized to draw attention to what is going on right under our noses. If I were a cynic (Goddess forbid) I might even be tempted to imagine that sinister strings were being pulled to do just the opposite. Cherchez les idéologues.

After all, we in France have watched since November 2018 the story of les gilets jaunes, a genuine grass-roots movement with huge public support uniting people from across political and other divides, from truckers to grandmothers, brought to an end by blatant hijacking from the violent  ‘casseurs‘, wreckers, Black Blocs and the like . And as every French person and student of history knows, the glorious revolution of 1789 was followed by the Bloody Terror of 1793.

So what’s next for the true believers? The Jews have already been lined up, as usual, and in a praiseworthy reaction by Sir Keir Starmer, a shadow cabinet minister who should have known better has been sacked for retweeting an anti-semitic tweet. Country-dwellers however, might have been surprised to find they too were in the firing line as they ambled along in their wellies: ‘many BAME groups see the countryside as a white environment’ according to BBC’s Countryfile . And for heavens sake let’s not forget the literary villains. Salman Rushdie may have been punished, but what about that ‘notorious genocidal racist’  Charles Dickens? Fortunately  former Green Councillor  Ian Driver put the record straight by painting  ‘Dickens Racist’ on a museum in Broadstairs.  A statue of Cervantes also got the red paint treatment (the genius with the spray-paint obviously didn’t know the great author had spent 5 years as a slave in Algiers).  Publishing houses are purging their authorial lists.  Perhaps a spot of book burning ?  Now would be a good moment,  with cries to #Defundthepolice and  more than 140 officers  injured dealing with protests and illegal parties in the last 3 weeks  according to Cressida Dick.

Funny how these defunders have conveniently forgotten Barak Obama’s caveat in 2015. He defended  BLM but added  “I think everybody understands all lives matter. Everybody wants strong, effective law enforcement. Everybody wants their kids to be safe when they’re walking to school. Nobody wants to see police officers, who are doing their jobs fairly, hurt.”   Thomas Sowell put it more succintly: ‘ If you are not prepared to use force to defend civilization, then be prepared to accept barbarism, ‘ 

Meanwhile, those in their safe houses and safe democracies will continue to  run around with evangelical zeal bravely toppling statues and painting graffiti on war memorials.  It will remain for the quiet few, extremely courageous people, mostly unknown to the public, many of them women, who are genuinely risking their lives to speak out on behalf of the real victims of slavery and exploitation  today. Hats off to them and shame on those who turn a blind eye because they find their own interests get in the way…

You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.’
― William Wilberforce

 ‘As long as we were desirable enough, and not yet dead.’ Nadia Murad, Nobel Peace prize winner, first Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking of the UN,  former IS  slave, beaten, raped, burned with cigarettes.

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.’  Martin Luther King

‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’ George Orwell, Animal Farm.

‘I was a girl once, but not any more.’  Edna O Brien, Girl

 

Life in the Time of Coronavirus: in your heart you know it’s flat

 

Biarritz: la Plage du Phare
The lighthouse built in 1834 on the cap Hainsart

Last week I held in my hands a real copy of Book 1 of the French Summer Novels, Biarritz Passion. The relief was tremendous. Since uploading the manuscript from my PC on April 6th I had prostrated myself daily before the altar of Thoth, (scribe of the gods according to Wiki). Could it be true? Was there really a paperback out there, being virtually born? In between the click of an on-screen button saying ‘Publish’ and the emergence of a physical object with pages and a cover from a printing press in Eastern Europe, who knew what cyber- catastrophe might strike? The worst-case scenario popped up in a dream.

Dead Sea Scrolls the Damascus document https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/scrolls/images/damasc-b.jpg / CC0

The book had finally arrived! I tore off the wrapping and looked inside. What was this??? The first dozen pages were covered in fading, fragmented hieroglyphics, a bit like the dead Sea Scrolls. As I recoiled in shock, these fragments grew clearer, became legible: regurgitations from the bowels of my computer, pleading letters to the taxman, links to internet sites promising instant weight loss, adverts for haemorrhoid relief.  ‘Deep embedded code is never entirely deleted,’ droned a sepulchral Cyber-Inspector in a peaked cap.  ‘It can surface at any moment. Anywhere.’ (OK, I’ve been watching a LOT of Netflix. )

Waking up in a sweat from nightmares like this is the moment you know that, deep down, you really belong in the 19th century. There’s something eminently normal and logical, eminently ‘in the order of things’ as the French say*,  about the process of throwing down your quill, making a neat brown paper parcel of the ink-stained pages, tying the whole together with a length of butcher’s string and heading out to the publishers through the gas-lit, cobbled streets.

Hands-on heaven

The first book I published was a text book. After many happy hours kneeling on the living room floor cutting and glueing and scribbling notes in margins I sent it off to the publishers who duly sent back proofs to correct and the next thing I knew I was holding a real book. Very hands-on, very touchy-feely.  My first venture into e-publishing, six years ago, was a revelation. Not being of a scientific bent, I underwent the kind of mental torture necessary to acquire new (technological) faiths that ignorant 15th century landlubbers must have experienced, watching ships sail into the sunset and seeing them drop off the edge of the earth only to have them pop up somewhere behind them four years later.

Painting of Christopher Columbus on the Santa Maria 1492 Wikipedia Commons

The temptation of holding a real book in my hands was irresistible. Two years ago, I had a go at converting from e-book to paperback. But in spite of Amazon’s step-by-step instructions (which are now better than ever, and accompanied by amazing tools) it soon became clear that this was a much  bigger alligator to wrestle.  Help was needed.

So there are now two more people to go on my Red-Cape Rescuers ‘thank you’ list. Since that exciting day in 2014 when I uploaded the first e-book, this list has grown steadily–friends, advisors, beta-readers, bloggers, reviewers, generous authors and readers already mentioned in previous blogs and on Acknowledgements pages. All have made the writing adventure even more exciting and enriching,  and, though I only know most of you in a virtual sense, in this particular instance I am totally convinced of your  lovely realities.

Biarritz Passion new cover by Jacqueline Abromeit at goodcoverdesign.co.uk

For the paperback, Alligator Wrestler Jacqueline Abromeit at goodcoverdesign.co.uk produced two wonderful designs for the cover, making it difficult to choose which one was more impressive (thank you helpers). I finally went for the one with the lighthouse on the headland, and the setting sun streaming through a woman’s hair (‘weave, weave, the sunlight in your hair’). Alligator Wrestler Steve Passiouras at Bookow has a magic programme which allows you to put sausage meat  your Word document manuscript in at one end and produces a  Saucisse de Toulouse Label Rouge a paperback pdf at the other.

Thanks also to Jacqui Brown (no stranger to these pages) for permission to quote, and to a Wise Man from the East  who helped with the very last steps of this particular miracle – he knows who he is 😉

As for the marketing mastermind who decided it would be a good idea to bring out a paperback just when the world is in lockdown and the earliest postal delivery date for non-essential items (like Biarritz Passion) is January 2021 – that would be me.

My next task is to learn to believe that an invisible, sputnik-shaped object covered in reddish warts really does have the power to bring the world to its knees…

Stay safe, stay sane, stay inventive, stop binge-watching The Walking Dead and hang on to your sense of humour 😉

Amazon paperback link uk here

Amazon paperback link US here 

*little factoid for folk who like that sort of stuff: ‘dans l’ordre des choses’ – an illustration of this expression can be found in a letter written in June 1871 by the great Gustave (Flaubert) who says: ‘As (Adolphe) Thiers has just done us  great service, within the space of one month he will be the most hated man in his country; it’s ‘in the order.’

(Comme Thiers venait de nous rendre un très grand service, avant un mois, il sera l’homme le plus exécré de son pays ; c’est dans l’ordre.’)

Thiers had negotiated a peace treaty with the Prussians who, after defeating  French forces at the Battle of Sedan (September 1870), had invaded northern France. But many Parisians were against the armistice, and the famous Paris Commune was formed to resist it. Thiers sent in the army to put a stop to the revolutionaries, uttering his famous phrase: ‘The republic is the form of government that divides us (the French) least.’ The terrible fighting of Frenchman against Frenchman continued until the end of May, when the Communards surrendered. Flaubert’s Voltairean observation was right in principle if not in date: Thiers was president from 1871 to 1873 , but on May 23rd 1873, he was toppled by a vote of no-confidence and resigned the following day.

 

Life in the Time of Coronavirus: Keeping Up Morale

Spring in spite of everything

It has been a cataclysmic few weeks. A December butterfly flapping its wings in Wuhan caused the entire world to shake by the end of February.  Europe is now the epicentre of a pandemic. Here in France, as in other countries, we are contemplating a Sunday without the usual choice of pleasures – sitting on a café terrace with coffee and croissants, getting ready for a special lunch with friends, as recounted in my last blog of February 7th (how things have changed…)  As I wrote that, we were also getting excited about  a much-anticipated UK trip at the end of the month to see family and friends and join in  a once in a lifetime event – all of which we finally cancelled.

If, like me, you are a neurotic control freak, your reaction in such circumstances is an irresistible urge to fling yourself into a total Madame de Récamier lie-down-with-hand-to-brow for the foreseeable future.  This gets boring after a while, though. So, struggling upright, I turned to the wise words of others who have faced daunting prospects. Faced them, and survived. Pinned up next to the desk is a poem famous for its inspirational message. It was said to have been a favourite of Nelson Mandela, locked up for 27 years on Robben Island and still able to come out doing his Madiba dance.

The Man, dancing

W. E. Henley’s poem, Invictus, was featured in an earlier blog. Written in 1875 when its author was 25, it has become a cultural touchstone for those facing adversity. Henley was at the end of an eight year ordeal during which part of his left leg had been amputated and he was recovering from a series of interventions to save his right foot.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

So here’s a suggestion. Intoning those thrilling lines- I AM the master of my fate, I AM the captain of my soul- and Madiba-ing round the house,  try keeping up morale by inflicting some order on your domestic universe. Oil that squeaky hinge! Pick up all those clothes in the bottom of your wardrobe! Scrape off the bits of old cheese and tomato sauce stuck to the sides of the fridge! In the Cowshed we wheeled out the big guns and turned our control thunderbolts on la buanderie.

Roughly translated, ‘buanderie’ means ‘laundry room’, in our case the small room off the kitchen where the washing machine lives. The MDM and I had been meaning to tackle this damp and dismal space ever since we moved in. Eight years after that move, the butterfly spurred us into action. In this unrenovated part of the house, the 200- year-old earthenware tiles were in a sad and sorry state, chipped, cracked and covered with cement. Just contemplating how to deal with them made us feel equally sad and sorry, not to mention chipped and cracked around the knee area. Hence we kept putting it off. In our new bid for control however, we needed a helping hand. Fortunately this was before the quarantine measures came in, so for the nastiest part of the job – removing 3 mm from their surface by means of an ear-splittingly loud machine – a cross between a drill and a plane – we fell back on the services of our trusty local magician with youthful, unchipped knees, Monsieur Barleycorn.

Wearing a hazmat suit, goggles, and a mask, Monsieur B. spent 8 hours transforming la buanderie into planet Mars. Three millimetres might not sound like much, but the results were spectacular. Within minutes of his attack, clouds of red dust billowed into the lane through the open window, the grass turned a rusty orange and the post-lady’s yellow van got a surprise sprinkling of paprika.

Useless precautions to keep out the Martian dust

In spite of precautionary measures –sealing up communicating doors and covering everything in sheets – walls, surfaces and insides of cupboards in the adjoining kitchen were swiftly covered in a thick, sticky film of ancient tile-dust.  Monsieur B cut a striking figure as he staggered out of the buanderie for his lunch break. Even after a lengthy shower and the contents of two bottles of extra-strength gel, he still looked like an extra in a sci fi movie– one of those alien life forms emerging from the shimmering atmosphere of the Martian mountains and causing the not- so-intrepid earthling astronauts to drop their laser guns and beat it back to the mother-ship.

The Maître De Maison, meanwhile, wading through the flotsam of buanderie items which had washed up in the kitchen (sink unit, washing machine, ironing board, step ladder) had somehow got to the dusty cooker and the dustier frying pan and rustled up a hearty repast of saucisse de Toulouse et frites, where every gritty, squeaky bite brought back memories of childhood picnics on the beach.

Several days later there was light at the end of the tunnel. After countless sessions of vacuuming, hosing down, re-grouting, re-mopping and re-painting, the formerly dismal little room was emerging, pristine and spring-like after a 200- year-long winter. It’s still not quite finished. The tiles – a becoming shade of deep Martian red- still need repeated moppings before we can apply the final treatment, a wax that will transform them into glowing rubies.

Glowing rubies on the way

We have our eye on other projects. There’s a sagging arch over the gateway to the 200-year-old courtyard, formerly an extension of the Cowshed. It would be ironic if 20 tonnes of ancient masonry fell on our heads just as we were emerging from quarantine. There’s the garden shed, and its colony of mice and spiders to be re-housed. There’s an energetic star jasmine,  which, having covered its trellis, has somehow launched  itself across a gap of one metre and got itself seriously involved with a Japanese maple.

And of course, there’s the writing…more news of that in the next (I hope) blog.

Meanwhile, a Happy Mother’s Day to Mums in the UK, and bon courage to readers everywhere, especially those stuck in cities, and those brave souls on the front lines. Keep washing hands, keep taking the Vit C, keep Madiba-ing, stay safe, stay sane …

#stayhome #s’ensortirsanssortir #laughterisgoodforyou

Full of beans in the Tarn

a breath of spring

As February arrived last weekend, a breath of spring wafted across the valley. Stepping outside, we experienced one of those thrillingly uplifting assaults on the senses that signals earth’s awakening after a bleak winter. Near the door, a spectacular winter honeysuckle was in full bloom, its delicate flowers exhaling a sharp fragrance. We looked around, a little dazed. To one side, a country lane winding through bare-branched trees which two weeks ago had been glittering with frost; to the other, the gently undulating hills of the Tarn’s ‘little Tuscany’. And all around, a crescendo of birdsong from the hedgerows, a peculiar sweetness to the air and a softer, hazier radiance to the light.

No wonder poets go mad in spring.

Frosty mornings in the garden

Of course it’s not yet spring, and there are more frosty mornings to come. But last weekend was a foretaste, and it seemed appropriate that we should celebrate such a lovely day in the company of good friends, enjoying a dish which is part of the history of the region–le cassoulet. We were also keen to seize the moment–our hostess is inspired by the cassoulet genie only once a year. Ouf. Thank goodness we were at home when the spirit struck, and not, as sometimes happens, on a Ryanair flight sampling the delights of cheese melts and wilted lettuce.

Le temps de vivre Illustration from French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David

More treats are in store ten minutes later as we arrive at our destination, a handsome 300-year-old maison de maître set in a sheltered hollow with views opening out across the countryside. As it faces in a different direction from our house, the perspectives it offers are interestingly different and more dramatic. We stand on the steps in front of the sunlit façade, gazing at the spectacle and thinking yet again how lucky we have been to end up in such a beautiful corner of France. The cat, sitting one step above, surveying his kingdom with a look of majestic approval, obviously agrees. We are ushered through the door and immediately start to salivate. In a luminous salon where a fire burns under an immense copper hood stands a low table surrounded by comfortable sofas where the aperitif is served: champagne in old-style coupes, foie gras maison and smoked salmon canapés. The guests raise a toast and catch up with the latest neighbourhood and family news. A chance to take things slowly, to savour le temps de vivrele plaisir de vivre. Not a smart phone in sight…

Pierre-Paul Riquet, French engineer, responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi. Source: from http://www.canalmidi.com/anglais/paulrigb.htm

I’ve written about cassoulet in a previous blog about Pierre-Paul Riquet, the 17th century genius who built the Canal du Midi, thus linking France’s Atlantic coast with the Mediterranean. His fifteen-year project was unimaginably gigantic for the time; his workforce numbered 12 000 men and women, peasants, stonemasons, blacksmiths, engineers and other technical experts. Riquet was an exemplary employer, paying good wages, granting holidays and sick leave and-naturellement-making sure his workers bellies were full.

The town of Castelnaudary, 60 km south-east of Toulouse, is the main port on the canal, and as those (many) foodies among you will know, it is one of the three places (along with Toulouse and Carcassonne) which claims to have invented this typical Occitan dish. Each time we drive past, I like to imagine a battalion of 17th century cooks stirring cauldronsful of it, ready to be ladled out to the work force. As Napoleon supposedly said, an army marches on its stomach; perhaps Riquet’s army was sustained in its advance towards Sète by the fat geese and ducks of a hearty cassoulet.

Bon appetit!

Different recipes exist, along with different champions of each version, but our hostess had used the authentic basic ingredients: preserved duck (or goose), Toulouse sausage, couenne de porc (smoked pork rind), and of course, those famous beans. There are different contenders on the bean front, but Sunday’s version had been made using haricots tarbais, dried white beans from the town of Tarbes in the foothills of the Pyrenees which are sometimes planted in between rows of corn or maize so that the stalks of the cereal provide a support as they grow (merci Cathy D for this information😉). In his blog here, American chef David Lebovitz describes them as ‘the holy grail of beans’; aficionados buy the handpicked ones at 19 euros a kilo. Even after lengthy cooking (up to 7 hours including the different stages), they retain their shape and their ‘croquant‘ (slight crunchiness) rather than ending up as a sad and sorry bean mush.

The preparation of the ingredients and the order in which they are added to the earthenware cooking dish are vital steps in achieving your masterpiece. Our hostess had prepared everything the previous day – this is a dish which tastes better re-heated. The beans are soaked for 12 hours, then put on to cook in water flavoured with onion, garlic, salt, pepper and a bouquet garni. Once they are ready the ingredients are assembled in layers: the beans, the previously cooked sausages and preserved duck, then a final layer of beans. Then everything goes into the oven for a long slow simmer (140° C in our hostess’s oven).

In the Riquet blog, I quoted the great Elizabeth David and her classic book French Country Cooking which contains the recipe I would recommend for those dedicated cooks in search of the true cassoulet grail (haricots tarbais can be ordered on the internet). She recounts a wonderful anecdote by Anatole France in which he describes the famous cassoulet served at Chez Clemence, a small tavern in 19th century Paris.

French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David

We know that in order to bring out all its qualities, cassoulet must be cooked slowly on a low light. Mother Clémence’s cassoulet has been on the go for twenty years. Occasionally she throws in goose or pork fat, sometimes a piece of sausage or a handful of haricot beans, but it’s always the same cassoulet.’

When, on Sunday, ‘le cassoulet de Denise’ was placed on the table, there were cries of admiration. Although I’m pretty sure it hadn’t been on the go for twenty years, it was one of the best I have ever tasted, a true labour of love. It also ‘caressed the eye’, presentation (or ‘food canvas’ as it’s sometimes called) being another element of success, as fans of Masterchef will know. In order to achieve this wonderful ‘look’, the chef must take out the dish every half hour and push down the crust which has formed on top into the cooking juices.  The result is a unique colour, described rapturously by Anatole France, as ‘a rich amber hue similar to that found in the paintings of the great Venetian masters.’

Behold le cassoulet de Denise with ‘the rich amber hue of the Venetian masters’

I leave the last word to Prosper Montagné, famous chef and gastronome from the Languedoc, who declared ‘Cassoulet is the God of Occitan cuisine. A God in three persons: God the Father, the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the Son, the cassoulet of Carcassonne, and God the Holy Spirit, the cassoulet of Toulouse.’

Amen!

PS You may add  homemade breadcrumb topping for your last layer of cooking if desired.  Also, put a bottle of good vinegar (Banyuls or wine vinegar) on the table if your guests wish to alleviate the well-known side-effects of too many beans…

PPS Visitors to the Tarn may explore its wonders while staying in one of the comfortable bedrooms in Denise’s gracious house. She offers  B and B (‘chambres d’hôte‘),  serving a delicious and copious breakfast using local organic products, and driving to the boulangerie 5 km away to get the croissants, chocolatines etc fresh from the oven! (No evening meals)

Contact:  denise.serin-aycaguer@orange.fr

La maison de Denise
Le petit chat

Dear Santa, please bring me lots of books

The Rylands Library, home to a lot of books

In one of my notebooks of random jottings I have written the following: ‘In 2018, 63 million books were sold in the run-up to Christmas.’ Not sure where I got this factoid or if it’s true.  But in case it is, and you’re wondering just which of the 63 million to buy, here are my suggestions, spotlighting five authors whose books I particularly enjoyed  this year.

Dear Santa

My first ‘Dear Santa’ book list appeared in 2015, the year I started blogging. It featured three authors, all male, all writing in one particular genre-the detective thriller–and all starring the type of complex, edgy, dodgy, sexy, hero-but-anti-hero homme fatal I have been unable to resist ever since falling for those men in trench coats as a teenager.

This year it’s the ladies who get the laurel wreaths, five of them, not a private eye in sight, each one impressive for different reasons. Sheila Patel made me laugh, Jill Kearney made me cry, Helena Whitbread made me bow my head in reverence, and Pamela Allegretto and Deborah Swift took me on incredible journeys.  Here’s how they did it, starting with the last two. (Click on their names to go straight to the author page).

Roman vista

Cities are fascinating places. I lived in a flat bang in the middle of Toulouse for ten years, until the exhaust fumes and seedy bar downstairs lost their charm. But although home is now a beloved four-house hamlet deep in rural France, the allure of the great metropolis still lingers. Allegretto and Swift bring to life two iconic cities at momentous periods in their history: WW2 Rome and 17th century London. The authors share an ability to conjure up the startling realism that a dreamer sometimes experiences, swept away on a night journey where, as in a film, the perspective shifts between panoramic aerial shots to voyeuristic close ups. From vistas encompassing houses, bridges, spires, monuments, wide rivers, vast skies and surrounding countryside,  the camera zooms in to the tobacco stains on the villain’s teeth, the nuance of grays in a puddle, the whole accompanied by a full-on, sensory onslaught of smells, colours and clamour. As I found out more about these authors’ backgrounds, I was struck by another thing they had in common–the way those backgrounds influenced their work.

frescos unrolling

Pamela Allegretto is an American artist of Italian descent. As I started to read her book, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams, the scenes unrolled like frescoes across the screen of my mind. It’s 1938 and we are in an idyllic cherry orchard in southern Italy, home of the Lombardi family for hundreds of years. But this enduring, bucolic way of life is about to be shattered, signalling the end of an era and the beginning of an exhausting struggle by one woman, Angelina Rosini, to protect her young daughter in a country torn apart first by the poisonous ideology of Fascism, then by the invading armies of the Allies. The action moves from the countryside to the cobbled alleyways and ancient monuments of Rome, where Allegretto transposes her ‘pictorial eye’ to the written page, creating an arresting canvas of a war-torn city where the inhabitants, in particular Jews and resistance fighters, live in constant fear and deprivation. In the foreground, two women battle it out on a personal level in a combat as full of primitive emotions as the classical dramas of antiquity: Angelina, the artist heroine, and her driven, harpy-like sister-in-law, Lidia. Who will be the winner?

The Great Fire of London1666 anonymous courtesy wikimedia commons

From Rome to London, where a different but equally deadly foe, is spreading terror – the plague. In Deborah Swift’s trilogy, Women of Pepys’ Diaries, the famous diarist is getting up to all sorts of mischief and mayhem. The author started her career in the theatre, working as a set and costume designer, and there’s a dramatic immediacy in her writing similar to that we experience at a live performance. Indeed her third book is about a woman who becomes an actress, Elizabeth Knepp, who, like the other strong female leads, is based on a real person mentioned in the diaries. Pepys, the man of the title, and inspiration for the novels, is an inveterate womaniser who gets up to the sort of sexist manipulation and exploitation typical of the time, but the way in which he is portrayed by Swift endows him with a sort of irresistible attraction for the reader, much like that of Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.  All the books are terrific reads but my favourite is A Plague on Mr Pepys, with its heroine Bess Bagwell, who sees her ambitions for herself and her husband, Will, crumble under the random blows of fate and the devious machinations of her brother-in-law, Jack. As her circumstances become more and more desperate, she is obliged to turn to the powerful Pepys in an attempt to save herself and Will. The psychology of their relationship, and the way it develops, is gripping. Bess teeters on a dangerous seesaw in which the necessity of reeling in the only man who can help must be counter-balanced by her desire to keep him at arm’s length. Will she succeed?

The Piece Hall, Halifax

From London and Rome to the north of England.  My next two authors hail from my birthplace, the west riding of Yorkshire (chauvinist, moi? Heh heh). Helena Whitbread is the only non-fiction author of the five, and she has already featured here, in my May blog, along with her 19th century soulmate, Anne Lister, who became world-famous this year in the TV series Gentleman Jack. But Anne’s story may never have reached such a wide audience had it not been for the astonishing devotion and talent of the woman who said of her efforts: ‘I was just the back-street scribe.’ In 1983, Whitbread was looking for a research topic for a Ph D. Wandering into the Halifax Archives, she happened upon the diaries of a 19th century local landowner and secret lesbian, Anne Lister. ‘From that day,’ she writes, ‘I … found myself engaged in a literary, historical and cultural adventure…Halifax, for me, became two different towns. Physically I moved around…twentieth century Halifax. Mentally, I lived in the small nineteenth century town.’ She set out to reveal the Anne hidden in the diaries, decoding and transcribing 27 volumes and 4 million words, of which one sixth are in code with no punctuation. She writes: ‘Curiosity, allied to the thrill of an intellectual challenge, gripped me.’ But her achievement does not stop there. The two books which resulted from her research, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister and No Priest But Love, consist of her final selections from the diaries themselves linked by explanatory passages and further clarified by detailed footnotes. The sensitivity and justesse of her selections and the lucid passion of her explanatory passages communicate a striking empathy with a woman who lived 150 years previously and who, on the surface, could not have been more different from her 20th century amanuensis.

‘Have you noticed you never see a cow laugh?’ This was one of the more notoriously sibylline pronouncements by my Yorkshire grandmother one Saturday as we took her on a drive through the countryside. Those cows had obviously not come across Sheila Patel’s series of books set in contemporary Bradford, The Magic Vodka Wardrobe.  This is definitely not Bradford as you know it, and definitely not as my Yorkshire grandmother would have known the grimy old mill town.  But, along with the cows, Grandma would have been singing and dancing and shaking from head to toe (or horn to hoof) with mirth at ‘Ar Sheila’s’ depiction of the Singh family and life in their corner shop, backed up by a mind-boggling cast of friends and neighbours who  would make Damon Runyon’s eyes water: Mad Mush Martha,  Tattoo Tony and his Rottweiler, Knobhead, Joginder the goat, Graham the pigeon, Dammit Janet, Gyppo Bob, and Guru the Wedding Horse, to name but a few. They feature in a series of outrageously hilarious vignettes which have the same freshness, originality and addictive surrealism as those of Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the 70s.

Is there a glitter ball in there?

Patel was the seventh child of a traditional Punjabi family who grew up in the same period as The Flying Circus (is there a link?) 1970s Britain. Her writing, she says, was inspired by ‘all the funny things that Indians do daily to adapt to the British way of life’.  Centre stage are the Singh family: Father, Mother,  her two sisters Lady Fatima and Sheila (‘short short skirts, four husbands’) and the three daughters Kirsty (rich husband), Shaz and Trace ( ‘both accountants, both thin, with no scary moles and nice cars’ but- to Mother’s chagrin- still husbandless).  Another important character is Bachitaar but to meet him we have to step out of the fourth dimension of life in Patel’s Bradford and enter a fifth dimension, accessible only through a magic wardrobe,  consisting of a 70s disco bar complete with glitter ball and non-stop musical soundtrack (Douglas Adams, anyone?). Bachitaar, complete with turban, can be found behind the bar serving up endless vodka shots while lending a sympathetic ear to Sheila, Trace and Shaz who take refuge in the wardrobe when life, love, bamboo bikes, spam samozas and the news headlines all get too much. Until the time comes when Santa can supply magic wardrobes to all of us, don’t hesistate to join Sheila and the girls in theirs!

Finally, after the laughs, the tears. It’s a well-known fact that no Christmas is complete without a Miracle on 34th Street.

Jill Kearney, like Sheila Patel, was inspired to write by her real-life experiences. These included being a dog rescuer and in-home care provider. Her book The Dog Thief and Other Stories, set in a rural pocket of Washington State, features humans who are poor and dispossessed, animals who share a similar fate, and those often-hapless individuals who try to help out. In this divided society with its ‘separate realities’-the affluent owners of oceanside homes at one extreme, the survivalists and hippies running meth labs and puppy mills in the woods at the other – it would be easy to moralise, and hold our noses at people like Beverley, an MS sufferer who rejects the relative comfort of the reservation in favour of a squalid existence in a collapsed trailer with a swarm of feral cats, and who spends her social security checks on alcohol and cat food.  Good Samaritan neighbour, Jim, inwardly railing at her stubbornness, tries to save her from total decrepitude, attempting to fix her broken toilet, hauling out overflowing buckets of excrement while literally holding his nose (‘the smell…smacked him in the sinuses.’). Writing in a deceptively low-key, unsentimental style, Kearney gets her message across by delivering unexpected knee chops. She possesses that rare knack of picking out the perfect detail in a myriad of possibilities, the one tiny raindrop that reflects an entire, staggering world, halting us in our tracks as we read, making us laugh out loud or burst into uncontrollable tears. Her alter ego, Elizabeth, features in several of the tales, driven to desperate devices (such as stealing dogs from abusive owners)  in order to right wrongs, while simultaneously trying to grasp the meaning of her own unorthodox life, where poignant remembrance of time past vies with a recognition of the importance of seizing the beauty of the moment. Like that other quintessentially American writer, Carson McCullers, Kearney the story teller pulls off the magic trick of getting us to empathise with her variety of creatures great and small, to suspend our judgement, to enter into their lives with wonder and humility and vow to do better ourselves.

And what better Christmas message could there be than that?

Happy Christmas from the Cowshed

 

 

To bookworms around the world Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année from the Cowshed!

 

Book news, book news, books news!!!!!!

Terry Tyler published her new book in the Project Renova series, Blackthorn, in November.

Paulette Mahurin has just announced the release of her latest book, The Old Gilt Clock, about WW2 Dutch resistance fighter, Willem Arondeus.

Miss Moonshine is back in her emporium with Christmas goodies…

And John Dolan has been invited to take part in a multi-author boxed set of crime thrillers to release in 2020, Notorious Minds. Watch this space.

Coming on my blog in 2020:

A visit to the magnificent John Rylands library in Manchester, more on the Anne Lister theme with a visit to  Lightcliffe Church cemetery where Lister’s ‘wife’ Anne Walker is buried…. along with twenty or so of my ancestors! Also an update on my abandoned project Christmas at Villa Julia, which is now busy turning itself into a new historical series, The Etcheverrias, starting in 1898 with A Wedding in Provence… too nervous to say any more in case the Muse goes on an extended holiday without leaving a forwarding address 😉