The Music of the Spheres

Cité de l'Espace, Toulouse
Cité de l’Espace, Toulouse

Visitors arriving by car in the city of Toulouse in south west France may be disconcerted to see a rocket ready to blast off just next to the motorway.

This is a replica of Ariane 5, rising 53 metres into the sky. Next to it is the Mir space station and Soyuz capsule, capable of withstanding temperatures of 1800°C as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere-remember the perils of Sandra in the last blog?

Toulouse, affectionately known as ‘the pink city’ and ‘the city of violets’ in homage to its brick architecture and floral emblem, acquired a third epithet in 1997 with the inauguration of its theme park: City of Space.

It all started at the end of World War 1.

As Toulousains sat on the place du Capitole, the main square of la ville rose, savouring the new peace and admiring the glowing geranium colours, something was happening at a small airfield just outside the city. Pierre-Georges Latécoère was dreaming: of a new airline, new pathways through the skies, and an air postal service which would link France to its colonies in Africa and South America. The authorities scoffed at the idea. Latécoère said: ‘I’ve done the calculations again, the experts are right, our idea won’t work. There’s only one thing left to do–make it work.’

In December 1918, in a plane that looked like a flying matchbox, he flew across the Pyrenees from Toulouse-Montaudran to Barcelona. In March 1919, he flew from Toulouse to Barcelona, then to Alicante and Malaga before arriving in Morocco, at the city of Rabat. He was welcomed by General Lyautey, to whom he presented a copy of the previous day’s newspaper, Le Temps, and to Madame Lyautey, a bunch of Toulouse violets.

The future of civil aviation had begun.

At the ‘Lignes Aériennes Latécoère‘, later known simply as ‘La Ligne’, then ‘l’Aéropostale’, the pilots became heroes, risking their lives on perilous missions transporting the mail to Dakkar and Casablanca, and finally to South America. One of the most well-known aviators was Jean Mermoz, ‘the Archangel’, whose pioneering flights in Africa and South America made him a legend. His wavy swept-back hairstyle, ‘la coupe Mermoz’, became the No 1 hit in barbershops the length and breadth of France.

Mermoz lodged at the hôtel du Grand Balcon near the place du Capitole. It was a small establishment, the unofficial boarding house for the Latécoère crews. Another regular, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, is probably better-known to English-speakers as the author of ‘The Little Prince’. In his novel ‘Night Flight’ (‘Vol de Nuit’, published in 1931 and dedicated to Didier Daurat who directed operations at Montaudran) Saint-Exupéry wrote unforgettably of those lonely flights through the dark skies of South America, where pilots braved the shadowy, unforgiving peaks of the Andes, racing to deliver the mail between Buenos Aires and Patagonia, Chile and Paraguay, yearning for the dawn ‘like a beach of golden sand’.

Back at the hotel in Toulouse, the three genteel Marquez sisters who ran the place tried their best to keep the returning young adventurers in check. Female visitors were strictly forbidden so the pilots would smuggle their girlfriends up the creaking stairs by the simple expedient of tossing them over their shoulders. The story also goes that the sisters had a soft spot for their penniless lodgers and often ‘forgot’ to charge them for their dinner.*

The hotel (http://www.grandbalconhotel.com/) has been carefully re-modernised in keeping with its historic past. You can spend the night in Room 20, former quarters of the Archangel, or, like Saint-Ex, lean on the balcony of Room 32 and look out towards the place du Capitole.

Mariage au Capitole
Mariage au Capitole

 

Artist Gordon Seward painted this view of the place du Capitole from inside Room 32, before the hotel was re-modernised. Long-time and future fans of Gordon have a chance to see his latest work at his annual exhibition in Toulouse (l’Espace Bouquières, 25 May-13 June). Less fortunate mortals will have to be content with feasting their eyes on his dazzling talent on line:

http://www.gordonseward.fr/

 

From those early beginnings at Montaudran, Toulouse developed into Europe’s foremost city of aviation and space. New and revolutionary planes were dreamed of and brought to life. The first European rocket launcher, Ariane, was developed. Streets in the city bear the names of the early aviators; road signs direct you to aviation giants such as the Airbus group and Europe’s largest space centre at the CNES.

On May 8th the Cité de l’Espace threw open its doors to celebrate ‘Le ciel en fête’. The festival opened with two special events, a show in the planetarium and a piano recital.

That’s how I found myself, along with a couple of hundred fellow passengers, setting off on a journey into space, and beyond. Semi-recumbent, transfixed, we gazed up at the planets as they sped across the giant 600-square-metre-dome above our heads. Saturn and its rings, Titan, the biggest of its myriad moons; Jupiter, largest of the planets, a Fabergé egg decorated with a Great Red Spot, Venus, swathed in clouds, Pluto, the to-be-or-not-to-be planet.

The wonder and magnificence of that ‘other’ above our heads was overwhelming. The earth wheeled, the music swelled, we shot to the southern hemisphere, became Australians looking up into their night sky at the fabled Southern Cross and the Magellanic clouds.

The show ended, the lights came on. We moved like sleepwalkers into the Imax cinema for the piano recital. In front of a very large screen was a very small stage with a piano. From the whirling immensity of space we descended to one person and eighty-eight keys.

Oliver Mazal was our pianist.** He came on stage, bowed and in a quiet voice announced the first piece, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, ‘The Moonlight’.

The first solemn notes fell on the air with a weight and intensity that were a perfect counterpoint to the firework show that had just ended. The music guided our imaginations:  to Pascal’s ‘eternal silence of these infinites spaces’, to the mystery of our origins. On the giant screen the pianist’s hands appeared, gently and precisely touching the keys, drawing us back to the reality of a live performance in all its singular beauty.

But that was just the beginning of this second journey. As the audience called him back again and again, Olivier took us further, recreating through the genius of each composer-Beethoven, Brahms, Fauré-and the empathy of the interpretative artist, all of the passion, the drama and the joy that we had experienced in the planetarium.

Saint Exupéry said that it is only with the heart that one sees the truth of things. (‘On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.’) That evening our hearts saw many things, many connexions. What links us space, to the universe, to exploration and the quest to go further. What links us to artistic creation, music, literature and painting. How imagination fires both science and the arts. How the past is important for the future. How we are linked to each other, all ‘children of the stars’.

The last word goes to a poet, connecting with us from two thousand years ago:

 

‘………………………………………..Then Iopas,

The long-haired bard, took up his gilded lyre-

Mighty Atlas himself had been his master.

He sang of the wandering moon and the toils of the sun;

He sang of the making of man and of the creatures;

Of rain and fire; of Arcturus and the Hyades

That bring the rain; he sang of the Twin Bears.

He sang why the suns of winter make such haste

To dip in Ocean, and why the nights are long

And move so slowly.’

Virgil: The Aeneid (translated by Patric Dickinson, Mentor Books 1961)

 * The story of the early aviators and the hôtel du Grand Balcon was first told to me by Laurent De Caunes. When I checked with him about the veracity of the ‘free dinners’ bit before posting the blog, I got this reply: ‘si la légende est plus belle que la réalité, c’est la légende qu’il faut imprimer!’ In other words, if legends are more beautiful than reality, go for the legends! The maître’s knowledge of la ville rose is vast, and he knows absolutely everything about opera, as you can discover on this link:

http://blog.culture31.com/2015/03/24/plaidoyer-pour-la-critique/

** Olivier Mazal at the Cité de l’Espace:

https://www.facebook.com/events/942740232444750/

 

PS: Oh yes–‘Hot Basque’ is out! You can download it from Amazon at:

http://www.amazon.fr/Hot-Basque-French-Summer-English-ebook/dp/B00XK2II3G

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hot-Basque-French-Summer-Novel-ebook/dp/B00XK2II3G

 

Ouf!

 

 

 

Ding Dong it’s the Avon lady

Yes, it’s time to bring out the free samples and aim for that shiny ‘Salesperson of the Year’ badge. As author John Dolan put it:

‘I didn’t know when I started this writing lark that I’d have to become a double glazing salesman’. (Fans of witty gritty noir thrillers with complex PIs check out John’s totally addictive series ‘Time Blood and Karma’ http://www.amazon.com/John-Dolan/e/B008IIERF0)

When Amazon introduced the idea back in 2007 that writers could become publishers, a revolution started. All of us who had a book somewhere in our head needed only (?) to write it, then follow the Kindle Direct Publishing guide and lo, our Word document shift-shaped into a digital book which could be read on any ebook reader, tablet, smartphone or computer. No more hanging about waiting for agents to decide whether or not the manuscript was ‘what they were looking for’ – almost certainly not – no more crushed egos as rejection slips dropped like confetti through the letterbox. A revolution indeed.

But don’t forget the fat lady.

You’re an indie author. You are happy and modestly proud. You’ve come up with the riveting plot, the unforgettable characters and the pithy dialogue. You’ve negotiated the steps in the KDP guide. Amazon has fired your oeuvre on to a cloud. Isn’t that the end?

No, because your book is sitting up there, sad and lonely, lost among millions of others.

is that one mine?
is that one mine?

How are people going to find it, let alone buy it? You don’t just want it to go drifting off into space like George Clooney in Gravity, never to be seen again, do you? (Personally I was disappointed to see George disappear so soon.)  So it’s up to you to get out there and find your readers. In other words you have to do the marketing equivalent of Sandra Bullock grappling with airlocks, activating undocking systems and launching herself at a speeding space station with a fire extinguisher.

First this means putting in hours of research on the internet finding out how to market. Then you have to apply the techniques to your magnum opus and hope your book shoots onto another, loftier, cloud, this one bearing the label ‘Top 100′. For the technologically challenged among us, this process also involves eyeball to eyeball confrontations with stuff you never dreamed existed. URLs, RSS feeds ASINs and bitlys. At the end, like Sandra, you’ll be down to your underwear, sweating profusely and holding a one-sided conversation with machines.  Note: For those who don’t like vodka, I can recommend sauvignon blanc.

And so to the subject of this blog. My first ebook, Biarritz Passion: French Summer Novel Book 1, will be on free promotion between May 4th (afternoonish if you live in Europe) and May 8th. Spread the word to your millions of Facebook and Twitter buddies! (I don’t have any).

N.B. Book 2 in the series, Hot Basque, is scheduled for launch shortly afterwards. I prefer not to give a specific date. All those clouds, not to mention stuff flying about in space. Remember Sandra saying ‘OK we detach this, then we go home. Piece of cake’? That was just before the space station was hit by flying debris and exploded into 500 zillion lethal fragments. Just suppose that while my finger hovered over the ‘Submit Hot Basque’ button a meteorite happened to bump into the satellite that provides our internet connexion. Or hurtled through the ceiling of my study and blew up my computer. Or –

Well, you get it.

Watch this space…

oh no...
oh no…

 

EDINBURGH

 

???????????????????????????????

Just back from a visit to this great city.

Initially surprised and touched  that the locals had laid on an exceptionally warm welcome for us, we quickly discovered the cheering crowds were for Nicola Sturgeon, woman of the moment, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, or ‘Queen of Scots’ as she was referred to in the press after winning the first TV election debate on April 2nd.

For those who have managed to miss the news, there will be a General Election in the UK on May 7th. Here’s how it’s looking.

The ‘cyberwar’ is now well underway, with ‘cyberwarriors’ engaging in ‘precision strikes’ and ‘carpet bombing’. (NB: a ‘cyberwarrior’ should not be confused with a ‘happy warrior’, e.g. Ed Miliband,* fending off attempts to destabilize him by Conservatives engaged in a ‘Kill Mill’ plot.) After the first TV debate, ‘Sturgeonmania’ swept the country, in spite of the Nikileaks scandal**, which ‘the nippy sweetie’ claims was all a ‘dirty tricks campaign’ (and in which the perfidious French were somehow involved). Her ‘cybernats’ have been busy ‘pumping out vines’*** on Twitter with the aim of ‘going viral’.

In case you’re wondering what on earth I’m blathering on about, I’m merely quoting expressions found in the UK press over Easter. Apparently social media will have a vital role in the election, so, dear ex-pat readers, it’s time to get out your vocabulary notebook and start adding new items on the ‘Politics’ page. Then you can slip them into casual conversation with the neighbours, using tactical cyberbluffing to ensure you continue to hold the political and technical high ground. ****

All very interesting, but personally I preferred discovering the fabulous cocktails at the Chaophraya restaurant while craning my neck from the rooftop terrace to try and spot the haunts of Edinburgh’s legendary detective, Inspector John Rebus.

 

cocktails at the Chaophraya
cocktails at the Chaophraya

 

‘…as he stop-started between the lights on Queensferry Road he thought maybe he’d go to the Oxford Bar. Not for a drink, maybe just for a cola or a coffee, and some company….he drove past Oxford Terrace, stopped at the foot of Castle Street. Walked up the slope towards the Ox. Edinburgh castle was just over the rise. The best view you could get of it was from a burger place on Princes Street. He pushed open the door to the pub, feeling heat and smelling smoke. He didn’t need cigarettes in the Ox: breathing was like killing a ten-pack….Harry was on duty tonight. He lifted an empty pint glass and waved it in Rebus’s direction.

‘Aye, OK then,’ Rebus said, like it was the easiest decision he’d ever made.’

(Ian Rankin, “Dead Souls”)

 

*Notes by Ed Miliband to himself were left behind in the TV studio; he reminded himself to appear as ‘a happy warrior’ (a Wordsworth quotation, also used by Obama in his campaign).

**Just after the TV broadcast, a memo was leaked to the press which stated that Sturgeon had privately told the French ambassador she would prefer the Conservatives to remain in power after the election in spite of her promises to Scottish voters that her party would not support a Tory government.

*** vine: a short video

****To understand these terms, we were fortunate in having an interpreter from the younger generation, great-nephew Brodie, who can be seen below.  Three months old, but already a genius. ‘After all,’ he told us ‘it’s child’s play’. Mum and Dad were interpreters.

'Not sure about the Happy Warrior, Ed.'
‘Not sure about the Happy Warrior, Ed.’

 

Endings

Haworth moor
Haworth moor

“I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor–the middle one grey, and half-buried in heath–Edgar Linton’s only harmonized by the turf, and moss creeping up its foot–Heathcliff’s still bare.
I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

THE END

So ends, in lyrical perfection, that great classic ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Endings are hard. And they often leave the reader with a sense of anti-climax, even disappointment. It’s as though the writer suddenly runs out of steam, or else, holding all the threads of intrigue in her hands, just can’t tie them into the perfect bow.
I was recently struck by the power of ‘the perfect bow’ after indulging in a ‘Mrs Gaskell binge’. It seemed to me that I had surely read all of those wonderful novels at least once before, but I must have been mistaken.
Galloping through the 720 pages of ‘Wives and Daughters’ I was quivering with anticipation to find out if little Molly Gibson was finally going to get her man. Or rather ‘how’ she was going to get him, as we had just seen him set off on a mission to Africa which would effectively keep him out of the plot for at least six months. But, dear reader, we know he is coming back, don’t we? This is a romantic novel. And does he not stop at the turn of the road, does his white handkerchief not float in the air one last time, a promise to our heroine that he will return?
He does, and it does.
So with a happy heart and a smile on my lips at the comforting certainties of Victorian romance I turned the page, ready to skip forward six months to Roger Hamley’s return and wedding bells in the little town of Hollingford.
What???
I was greeted by a message from the Editor of ‘The Cornhill Magazine’, informing me that ‘here the story is broken off, and can never be finished’.
Elizabeth Gleghorn Gaskell died of a heart attack in 1865 before she could write the ending of ‘Wives and Daughters’.
To say I felt a pang would be an understatement. How many thousands of readers since that day in 1865 must have experienced the same feeling of loss? Mrs Gaskell, meeting the inevitable ending that awaits us all, had left us with a fictional world where Molly will be forever seated in the window, forever watching the turn of the road to catch a glimpse of Roger Hamley’s white handkerchief.
This week, writing the final chapters of my second romantic novel, ‘Hot Basque’, my mind is necessarily on endings. Thinking of Molly eternally looking out of her window, I decided to pay my own respects to Mrs G, and include in the very last chapter a symbolic nosegay for hopeful heroines awaiting the return of absent heroes.
I started this blog with my favourite ending of all time. I’ll finish it by another favourite, that message of unquenchable optimism which every reader knows by heart:
“Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” Margaret Mitchell, ‘Gone with the Wind’.

The moors near Wuthering Heights
The moors near Wuthering Heights

 

Biarritz

Setting off with their buckets and spades, French families talk about going to ‘la mer’, the Mediterranean Sea, or ‘l océan’, the Atlantic. Two utterly spectacular and utterly different coasts. The wine-dark waters of the Med look eastward, towards the old world, olive trees and palms. To the south, an older world, camels, lions and elephants.

‘L’océan’ looks west. It rolls out towards the New World, immense and ever-changing. Here sky and water join in a spellbinding duet, offering up the entire palette of colours, dense and translucent, brilliant and dark. In the space of a heartbeat the colours fade, shadows fall from the sky, the wind freshens and stormy greys and greens whip in from the horizon like furies.

Continue reading Biarritz

Can you remember the first book that really captured your imagination as a child?

For me it was a story about a man called Mr Flop who was a flower collector. Mr Flop gathered up faded and dying flowers and whisked them off on a flying apple-tree branch (sort of prototype of Harry Potter’s Nimbus 2000) to the Kingdom of Flowers where they ‘regained their lost beauty and perfume and became more beautiful than ever’.

I loved the idea, but even more appealing was that Mr Flop whisked off the young heroine for a magical visit to the Kingdom on his flying branch. And what was the young heroine’s name? Alice? Dorothy? Wendy? No, they’d already had their fun. It was Laurette.

Continue reading Can you remember the first book that really captured your imagination as a child?