Despatches and Hatches. Omens and Portents.

Au revoir 2015. Bonjour 2016.

Living in France sometimes has unexpected benefits. Like, for example, having the whole of January in which to express your New Year greetings. Yes, you can dally along, whistling, until January 30th then leap to the phone and cry: ‘Bonne Année! Bonne santé! Meilleurs voeux!’ to all those friends poised to cross you off their dinner invitation list.

So, in the time-honoured tradition of my adoptive country, and well within the deadline, let me begin this blog by wishing a very sincere Bonne Année to one and all. And another wish: may 2016 be a happier year than 2015. Foolishly optimistic? Perhaps. But looking out of the window on January 2nd this is what I saw:

Omen 1. Somewhere...
Omen 1. Somewhere…

There are other advantages to this tradition of month-long well-wishing. One is that it gives you a chance to get over the turkey fatigue, another is that by the time you’ve got to the last name on your Bonne Année list, one of the most depressing months of the year is drawing to a close. The garden may look bare and bleak, but there are invisible stirrings, you just know the worms and beetles are at it underground, Tolkien-like creatures tilling the soil and helping those elvishly ethereal snowdrops and crocuses to spring forth. No sign of green shoots as yet, but last week, a neighbour brought round a few sprigs of winter daphne, and the whole house was suddenly redolent of spring.

Omen 2. Daphne Odora. O Wind, if winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Omen 2. Daphne Odora. O Wind, if winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

So, January, it’s not all bad. In fact it has often been surprisingly productive for me in terms of writing, character and plot-hatching, and so forth. Of course there could be other reasons for this surge of activity aside from an atavistic urge to emulate worms and snowdrops. In January you can’t loll on the patio sipping pina coladas and waiting for the steaks to grill. Not in the Tarn anyway, where a lot of time is spent sitting by the fire, staring into the flames and letting your thoughts wander. But whatever the reason, the nouvelle année has nudged me into trying something new.

I should have been writing up the notes for Book 3 in the “French Summer Novel” series. But something was holding me back (no, this is not a feeble excuse about bionic hips and stoic suffering). That ‘something’ had been tugging at the curtains of my mind since finishing “Hot Basque”, a sort of Hamlet’s ghost moaning plaintively off-stage. It definitely moaned louder after the September anaesthetic wore off and in November the phantom finally stepped forth from the wings holding a lantern. The face was familiar. The apparition grew brighter and started to wave and suddenly I recognised Alexandra, mother of Caroline and Annabel, despatched well before the beginning of Book 1 in a fatal car accident.

‘Remember me!’ she quavered. ‘Tell my story! Time those skeletons came out of the family cupboard!’

I pointed out that I was busy planning a wedding for Caroline and skeletons were inappropriate guests but sometimes characters have a mind of their own.

And so the idea of a backstory gradually emerged. The ideas kept coming, Alexandra kept quavering, and I kept waving my lucky rabbit’s foot in the air and invoking Divine Eureka, she of the inspirational hot flashes. ‘Please Your Divineness let the light-bulbs keep popping on the cakewalk of the imagination! Thanks to your mercy I am now 20,000 words into “When Your Heart’s On Fire”, my…my…’ My what?

The backstory was more of a sketch than a portrait. Was it a short story? No, too long. A novel then? No. Too short. Maybe a novella? Er…what exactly is a novella?

A thousand light-bulbs pop on the Cakewalk, Ste Marie Pyrenées Orientales
A thousand light-bulbs pop on the Cakewalk, Ste Marie Pyrenées Orientales

Here dear readers permit me a fascinating digression. When we settle down with a book we know straight off whether it’s a novel or a short story. “War and Peace” is a novel. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a short story. But what about those things in between, novellas/nouvelles/short novels/novelettes, that inhabit what Stephen King described as ‘a really terrible place, an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic’?

If you look on the internet, you’ll discover an amazing amount of disagreement about what constitutes a novella, which is handy if you think you’ve written one and other people don’t. Artistic considerations aside (plot and character development, style, tone etc, a discussion which would run to several pages), one of the main problems concerns the length, particularly if you’re offering it to a publisher. Publishers measure in words, and publishers, writers and literary critics all have different ideas about how many words constitute a novella.

As I was musing on this in relation to Alexandra’s story the following link popped up:

This is a paper with suggestions about what might go into a high-school literature curriculum. The author, Ted Morrissey, looks at the length of various works, then, using definitions by writers and critics, establishes what he calls ‘some benchmarks’:

-short story: 500 to 15,000 words.

-novella: 30,000 to 50,000*

-novel: 50,000 words upwards.

So what does this mean in concrete terms? He lists some commonly taught novels:  “To Kill a Mockingbird” (104,250 words), “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (108,575 words), “Jane Eyre” (191,500); then two short stories: Bartleby, the Scrivener” (13,692 words), and The Fall of the House of Usher” (6,710 words), finishing with two novellas: “Heart of Darkness” (37,746 words) and “Wide Sargasso Sea” (45,499 words).

But what about the following?

“Death in Venice”. I had always remembered this as a novel. In fact it’s 28,770 words. OK, well it felt as long as a novel. A long novel. Next: “The Old Man and the Sea”. Hmm. Difficult, long time since I read it. Was it one of Hemingway’s short stories? No. Longer. 24,191 words. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, easy, that’s the novel they turned into THAT film, with Audrey Hepburn. Wrong. Only 26,433 words. Mathematically-inclined readers will already have their hands up, having spotted the numerical gap. These three works, ‘odd-ducks’ Morrissey calls them, fall between the 15,000 word limit for short stories and the 30,000 kick off for a novella. They are denizens of a ‘literary no man’s land’.

But time to leave all those fascinating internet discussions and go back to the question that started everything off.

Will Alexandra’s story turn out to be a novella? According to the above criteria it needs at least another 10,000 words before becoming a citizen of King’s ‘anarchy-ridden literary banana republic’.  Or will it be an odd-duck, waddling through the mud of a literary no-man’s land?

Something tells me I’m not really going to get a say in this. The final decision about when the story ends is going to be made by Alexandra’s ghost, shouting ‘Au diable with wordcounts, that’s it, curtain!’

And just how important are these literary labels anyway?

In a wonderful interview on the Southbank show (June 2015), George R.R. Martin talks about ‘genres’. For him, ‘a genre is a matter of furniture’ ; whether the setting is a castle with dragons or a spaceship in the future is not important; what really matters is the central notion of ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.

Better write that quote on a  piece of paper and pin it up over the desk. Labels, schmabels. Time to breathe a sigh of relief and get back to writing. Except…

Alexandra is not the only one involved in the new project, is she? What about Divine Eureka? It’s like the plumber having to work with the electrician to get the new bathroom finished. What if the Goddess gets into an Olympian sulk and throws the switch on all the light-bulbs? What if the cakewalk is plunged into blackness?

Help, where did I put the rabbit’s foot? ‘Oh, your Divineness, I was just going to sacrifice a goat but all I can see in the garden are bluetits, maybe the neighbour can …’

Just a minute…what does it say at the end of Morrissey’s paper?  Something about the publisher…there it is…No! Yes! Read it for yourselves…

‘This article first appeared in…. ‘Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction’…    😉

A really big Omen?
A really big Omen?







*Morrissey uses John Gardner’s definition, “The Art of Fiction, Notes on a craft for young writers” (Vintage 1991)

P.S. “Hot Basque”, in case you were wondering, is 104,700 words long, and all of them are FREE for download between 25 and 29 January! Talk about a pot of gold…

P.P.S. Trending! Trending! There’s a new picture relating to December’s blog! It’s a photo of the infamously famous Spot Bar, haunt of Dev Haskell, and was kindly contributed by one of the habitués of the neighbourhood in a rare moment of sobriety….

The Spot Bar aka Dev's office
The Spot Bar aka Dev’s office

Dear Santa, I’ll have mine black, hardboiled, with a yellow iris please.


Dear Santa
Dear Santa

Today’s blog gets passionate about three great 21st century Private Eyes to add to your holiday reading list.

In the beginning there was Sam Spade. The blond, yellow-eyed Satan. Then Philip Marlowe, the solitary knight pursing his own brand of justice. Hammet and Chandler begat the private investigator of the 1930s and 40s and the model for the hard-boiled noir post-pulp PI was stamped out in silhouette, wearing a trench coat and hat, smoking a cigarette in front of a pebbled glass door. The door led to the office, a desk with ashtray and a bottle-shaped drawer. Often the clients were pouty-lipped and misty-eyed, wearing silk stockings and tiny hats, clutching tinier handkerchiefs. Sometimes there was a secretary, sweet, feminine, loyal. When the chips were down and the tough guy got walloped by an angst-attack, she provided the back rub. She was the one who saw through the veils on the tiny hats, and knew that the lace-edged hankies were wet with crocodile tears.
We were hooked.

Private Eye
Private Eye

Other famous investigators followed, heirs to the originals, each with his own style: Lew Archer, Mike Hammer, Spenser, Travis McGee, Elvis Cole.

Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, here are my three favourite newbies. Stick the ice cubes in the whisky, drop the needle on a scratched Billie Holiday LP and take a nibble at the following goodies…

In 2014 John Dolan created David Braddock.  Ex-pat PI sans licence, therapist sans diploma, student of Buddhist philosophy and ‘marginal manic depressive’.

We meet him in the Mosquito Bar.

‘Oh, bugger. I had been hoping for a quiet evening.’
But trouble has a way of finding Braddock and his quiet evening turns into a bar brawl. There’s the familiar whiff of cheap booze, sweat, cigarette smoke, the usual fight over some dame in a red dress, the usual broken billiard cues and flying bottles. But this is noir à la Thailandaise. The dame in the dress is a guy; we are on Koh Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand. Here, in Chaweng, the narrow crowded streets ‘overflow with the invisible and innumerable longings of the human heart’, keeping our investigator busy following unfaithful spouses. Events take a nasty turn when he is called in by the police to help investigate a series of horrific burnt bodies; he will soon discover, as the opening quotation from Lord Buddha warns us, that ‘the whole world is burning’, including himself.
Aided by a supply of Bell’s, the collected works of Sherlock Holmes, the adventures of Alice in Wonderland and the cryptic utterances of his mentor, a cigarette-smoking Buddhist monk prone to speaking in riddles, Braddock struggles to connect the clues and ‘pierce the veil of reality’ in a world in which reality is fast unravelling. His different cases collide and rebound like billiard balls against a background of smoke, flames and tropical steam; he is haunted by erotic fantasies of his Balinese housekeeper, his flame-haired wife and his enigmatic married mistress, Kat; he becomes increasingly paranoid with the appearance of anonymous letters threatening to expose the affair to Kat’s husband.
“Kat and I are both such good liars, we really should be married. Either that or in politics.”
Things reach hysteria point when he is summoned before sinister Police Chief Charoenkul, the island’s Papa Doc. The Chief is worried; he suspects his wife is having an affair–will Braddock investigate? And so, shaken and guilty, Braddock embarks on his strangest case yet-‘the unreal experience of following Kat to Bangkok to try and catch myself sleeping with her’.
As with Hammett and Chandler, there’s all the action, suspense, sex and violence to make Everyone Burns a page-turner. But the main attraction is the characterisation. Standing out among a cast of compelling secondary characters is the lonely, Marlowesque figure of Braddock himself, peering into the fiery abyss of the human soul, fighting off karmic demons and keeping reality at bay with the help of various masks, his favourite being that of the smart-mouthed cynic. But occasionally the mask slips. Wandering the deserted beach he reflects on how much he loves Samui ‘in the wee small hours’, when ‘the broom of sleep has swept the revellers to their beds’. Then, he tells us, when ‘the moon-dusted sea murmurs in some long-forgotten tongue of the divine…my mind’s cynical crust cracks open a little…’
But reality kicks in.‘Fortunately I catch myself just in time before I dissolve completely into this schmaltz.’ There are cases to work, murders to solve, and justice to dispense, Braddock-style, as the story reaches its dramatic climax.
From Koh Samui to futuristic Gold Coast City, home to cognitives, repellers, snoops and telekenetics. Forget the flip-flopped inhabitants of Chaweng, the creatures walking these mean streets have cybernetic noses, red eyes and icicles sticking out of their bodies.
Helping to render justice unto the unjust is Matt Abraham’s PI, hard-boiled, soft-centred Dane Curse, who sprang into being in February 2015, tipping his hat to Hammet and Spillane, leaping off the pages with enough Ka-pows! Pops! and Whams! to make a tree sloth spring to attention. Dane has the hat, the coat and the bottle of whisky plus 21st C add-ons such as Special Powers that allow him to be thrown from tall buildings and bounce to his feet without a scratch, a shape-shifting car called Jane and a four-armed secretary with an unbeatable WPM rate. He’s been in the game for years, his clients the shadowy beings who can’t ask the cops for help, the dreaded Black Capes. Because Dane (a reformed Black Cape) believes that they’re people too, with mothers who love them and children who’ll miss them.
As in Playback, the story begins with an early-morning phone call and an unwelcome summons for our PI. In Dane’s case, it’s about a murder. But not just any old murder. The victim is Pinnacle, head of the City’s good guys, Leader of Team Supreme, Protector of the city, and Hero di Tutti SuperHeroes. Never again will Pinnacle worshippers admire his heavenly body shooting through the skies in its red and silver Wonderweave suit looking for wrongs to right and people to save.
And who’s the lucky guy chosen to solve the most difficult case of the century? You’ve got it.
Lined up against Dane is a team of formidable baddies: Apex predator Lynchpin, head of the Black Cape mafia, and his team of Super-Gorillas, crazy Director Humphries dreaming of paramilitary expansion, and new White Cape leader Glory Anna, out for..well, more glory.
In this race against the clock where the rhythm is thumpingly fast and classic retro meets sci-fi high tech we zoom through a city full of evocative echoes. Henchman’s, where ‘there are peanuts on the bar, hot tunes on the juke and somebody getting walloped every time the big hand hits twelve;’ swanky mansions where the guests wear tuxedos ‘as precise as Hong Kong math,’ places where ‘the smell of warm wood rot hung in the air thick like an old whore’s perfume’. When the saxo starts up and the femme fatale sashays in, she’s wearing ‘a long, tight black dress that pushed her fun parts up like a vanilla soufflé.’
We’re reminded of other places-‘the hallway had the same dirty spittoon and frayed mat, the same mustard walls, the same memories of low tide…’, and other dolls and dames-‘she was in oyster-white lounging pyjamas trimmed with white fur, cut as flowingly as a summer sea frothing on the beach of some small and exclusive island.’ (The Big Sleep)
But the ultimate question is–will Dane be able to solve a case with more twists and turns than a spiral staircase? This exhilarating, white-knuckle ride keeps readers guessing till the end. We find Dane in his office, indulging in a little morose philosophising and polishing off a bottle of whisky.
‘Outside my window the city, my city, was waking up.”
Once again his phone rings. And the staircase takes its final twist…

where is it?
where is it?

A wise gardener once advised me to plant one yellow iris in a bed of deep purple blooms. ‘That will make them all stand out’ he said. Maybe he was a former Buddhist monk.
Meet the yellow iris. Mike Faricy’s PI Dev Haskell is the oldest kid on the block, first on the scene in 2011. He’s a rule breaker. A Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby with psychedelic highlights. The soundtrack to his life is jarring heavy metal, gunshots, screeching tyres and orgasmic moans. He inspires the nail-biting reader with the same panicked impulse learnt as a kid yelling fruitless warning to Batman and Co: ‘Don’t do it! Look behind you!! Run!!! Noooo!’ He’s the one-man answer to the multiple neuroses of Everywoman. Mum wants to take him home, bathe him and feed him chicken soup. Minxy Mistress wants him to rip off her micro-thong and beat her on the bottom with a copy of Hustler. Feminatrix wants to plant her Birkenstocks between his shoulder blades and beat him on the bottom with a copy of Sisters Unite.
We meet him in Russian Roulette, striking a familiar note:
‘I was sitting in the Spot bar minding my own damn business.’
Delete ‘the Spot bar,’ replace it with ‘my office’ and you get the picture: the Spot is where you can usually find Dev and somebody usually does.
‘I saw her come in the side door. Her perfume wafted over me like a plastic dry-cleaning bag.’
This particular 38DD bombshell is called Kerri, but it could be Nikki Kiki Patti Heidi or Lola depending on what page of what book you’re on. Poor Dev never stands a chance. These dames sink their teeth into him like Russians weightlifters biting into a Beluga caviar buttie. If he’s not in the Spot, the bedroom’s another option, his or somebody else’s, a fair number of the action scenes taking place on or around a mattress and involving two or more players, though he is sometimes found in solitary recumbence:
‘I was awake, but in lounging mode.’
When not in a bar or bed, Dev is somewhere in TwinCity, St Pauls, wearing a Saints cap. Frequently he’s at the police station, wearing handcuffs, or at the hospital wearing bandages and splints. He also investigates, an activity which sees him wandering around razor-wire enclosed car lots, graffiti-covered offices and desolate car parks, getting ‘up to (his) ass in alligators’ and tripping over mangled corpses that breed and decompose exponentially as the plot thickens. And thicken it does. Dev gets stood up, locked up, beaten up, chewed up, tied up, banged up, stitched up, set up, held up and blown up. This often results in a self-pitying whine: ‘What’s new? How about I’ve been shot, chased, arrested, poisoned and still got whisker burn on my inner thighs?’
Cheer up Dev. Nothing a glass of Jameson’s won’t cure. Remember Phil Marlowe when Captain Gregory asks him how he feels?
‘Swell,’ I said. ‘I was standing on various pieces of carpet most of the night, being bawled out. Before that I got soaked to the skin and beaten up. I’m in perfect condition.’
But that doesn’t prevent him-or Dev, or Dave, or Dane-from ultimately getting his man. Or woman.
Phil sums it up:‘I needed a drink…life insurance…a vacation. What I had was a coat a hat and a gun.’ (Farewell My Lovely) and Sam, a liver-coloured bruise on his head, tells it like it is:‘I know what I’m talking about…This is my city and my game…I’m in business here.’(The Maltese Falcon)

Discover the new cities, the new games and the new guys with the coat, the hat and the gun:
Dave, Dane and Dev. Simply unmissable.

Joyeux Noël to one and all!

PS Just put Biarritz Passion and Hot Basque on special Xmas offer – 99 cents/centimes/pence each! Forget the turkey, kick off your stilettos and escape to the wild Atlantic surf of the pays basque….




French flag

French Flag   Photo courtesy of François Schnell, Flickr. 

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 wasLiberté, 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:


And through the power of one word

I begin my life again

I was born to know you

To name you:


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:


Paul Eluard Poésie
Paul Eluard Poésie


In memory of the victims of the terrorist attack of November 13th, 2015.


A complete version of Eluard’s poem can be read at:


The Hippy Hippy Shakes

Goodbye, sweet hip
Goodbye, sweet hip

Last week Britain’s oldest woman, 112-year-old Mrs Gladys Hooper, got a new hip.

I read the news with interest having recently gone bionic myself.

How, I wondered, had Mrs Hooper reacted to the idea of  being admitted to hospital, undergoing an anaesthetic, and having a new spare part fitted involving the use of drills, saws and files?

Naturally I had gleaned this information from Professor Google well before my own operation and was now a bit of an expert. Acetabular cups, femoral stems, greater trochanter, lesser trochanter-the vocabulary was down pat, I just needed to figure out how to put it into sentences. Hip surgery has apparently been carried out since the 19th century, but the man who revolutionised the technique 52 years ago was John Charnley, a surgeon with an engineering bent. His interest was piqued when a patient came to him with an unusual problem. He’d got a new hip, but each time he reached for the salt at meal times, his implant emitted an unpleasant squeak which quite put his wife off her dinner. Working at the Wrighton hospital in Lancashire, Charnley designed a new type of implant along with a surgical procedure that revolutionised the procedure and presumably saved a few marriages.

So there I was at my first hospital appointment armed with ten pages of incomprehensible notes. The surgeon gave a detailed explanation of what would happen (‘lots of blood’ ‘risk of embolism’ ‘staple up the wound’) while waving a model of a large ball and socket.

‘Any questions?’ he asked.

Hmm. Remember the opening scenes of Annie Hall? There’s Alvy Singer saying ‘I have a hyperactive imagination…my mind tends to jump around a little and have some trouble between fantasy and reality…’ It’s just after the bit where the young Alvy is taken to the doctor’s suffering from depression. The good doctor wants to know why. ‘Go on, tell him,’ says Mrs Singer.

Alvy:  The universe is expanding.”

The scene flashed through my mind, along with images from all those DVDs my nephew helpfully keeps me supplied with: The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, The Day After Tomorrow, Twister, Independence Day.

Any questions?

I had questions.

So, Doc, let’s see if I have it right. You’re gonna cut a big hole in my side, saw out my faithful old buddy of a hip and replace it with a cotyle insert fixed to the inner wall of the cotyle thereby forming one of the prothesis’s two articular surfaces in order to accommodate the femur head?

OK, Doc, let’s just suppose, as a matter of purely speculative interest, a fire were to break out in the middle of the op, just after you’d got the old hip out? So, the old hip’s in the rubbish bin covered in germs, you’re in the middle of chiselling down my lesser trochanter to a size four, and suddenly you’re engulfed in flames? And then I wake up hipless in the operating theatre and all there are all these firemen running around and a bunch of surgeons lying on the floor in singed gowns and an abandoned drill and a size four stem and ceramic head on the table just to my left?

Alright, so the inferno scenario’s unlikely, and I checked, there are no volcanoes in the vicinity, also the Med is 150 km away and I don’t think they have tsunamis down there, as for the little green men with antennae they seem to prefer New Mexico to the south of France, but, but–what about The Airport?? That would be Toulouse International airport with 70, 000 passengers and 8,500 take offs and landings per month? The one with the really big planes? Was it a good idea to build a new hospital just below the flight path? I’m just asking. I mean I was looking out of the waiting room window and boy, those close-ups of the A 380 undercarriage are pretty impressive, you can see every strut….

The surgeon was waiting.

‘No questions,’ I squeaked.

I may suffer from Singer Syndrome, but I’m also from Yorkshire, not Brooklyn. There are stereotypes to be upheld. Le flegme britannique, ‘If you can keep your head…’ etc. My hip was rigid, but so was my upper lip.

And so on September 23rd   I awoke to find I had a new hip. There were no signs of men in brass helmets or A380 debris. All had gone well. I was just one more happy statistic in a huge industry.*

Just over three weeks later, as was widely reported in the British press, another statistic was added in St Mary’s Hospital in Newport UK. But this one went down in the history books, with Mrs Hooper beating 102-year-old John Randall by 10 years. Her 84-year-old son reported that, following the operation, ‘the patient was ‘listening to music and chatting away’ while a BBC reporter added ‘Mrs Hooper said she felt ‘somewhere near 80’ in age.’

Hats off, Gladys, you’re an inspiration to closet disaster neurotics worldwide. All best wishes for a brilliant recovery.

Hanging by a limb at rehab
Hanging by a limb at rehab

Un grand merci to the Man with the Saw, Dr J.M. Combes, the Man with the Needle, Dr N. Hernandez, and the medical team at the Clinique Médipole Garonne, Toulouse, especially Fiona, Stefan and Sébastien, working 12-hour shifts with a smile and a joke (most of them about England’s performance in the Rugby World Cup, ouch, now that really hurt.) And another grand merci to physiotherapist extraordinaire, Adéline, at the CMRF, Albi, and my three companions in rehab, Hubert, Laurent, and Bruno, who proved that laughter is indeed the best medicine. A speedy recovery to you all. Last, but certainly not least, to all family and friends who kept my spirits up, you’re the tops. (Elizabeth, the trendy Desigual rucksack (see top photo) is a must-have for all hobbling hospital patients!)

*According to figures on the UK National Joint Registry site, approximately 160 000 total hip and knee replacements are carried out every year:


The Curious Case of the Missing Letter Boxes

Having recently found myself in the UK with a dodgy Internet connection and e-mails on strike in the Outbox I finally decided to resort to that Old Faithful, The Royal Mail.

I was in Manchester city centre. Looking round for those iconic British symbols, those big shiny can’t-miss-it red cylinders beloved of photo-snapping tourists, I had a strange sense that something was amiss. Not a red cylinder in sight. Where had they all gone?

Come to think of it, there weren’t any red double-deckers either. There were red, white and orange ones. And blue, white and orange ones. What about red phone boxes?

Allo Allo?
Allo Allo?

Well, I did spot one, in between a red, white and orange bus and a blue, white and orange bus, but you had to climb over a barrier to get to it. The barrier was red.

In fact the Council was big on colourful barriers. Roads were being dug up everywhere and turned into mazes built of giant bits of red Lego.



Not a letter box. But nice bee.
Not a letter box. But nice bee.

There were also numerous litter-bins. These were a shiny black with pretty gold bees on them.

At the end of Day 1, the letter was at the bottom of my handbag, creased, with something sticky on it. I didn’t investigate too closely, but chances are it was a bit of drizzle from a Marks and Spencers lemon drizzle cake.

Day 2, having de-stickied the envelope and flattened it under a book–it was to the bank, mustn’t give a bad impression–I set out to find the elusive scarlet cylinder. Ah! Just round that corner. No, it was a wheelie bin. A red wheelie bin. By lunchtime I’d bumped into several people–me head up scanning the horizon, them head down scanning text messages–and narrowly missed being sliced into salami by a fearsome Manchester tram. It was time for refreshment.

Over another piece of lemon drizzle cake in Marks and Spencers tearoom (when in Rome) I pondered the problem. What did Holmes say? When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Impossible to imagine that no-one posts letters any more. A covert inspection of my fellow cake-munchers was enough to convince me that there were those among them who were definitely not sending e-cards to wish Great Grand Son Dwayne a Happy Birthday.

Ergo, a) the government, in a devious plot to make the UK a paperless society, had gone in for a campaign of subtle dissuasion, painting all the letter boxes grey to blend in with the sky while sowing confusion by painting barriers and wheelie bins letter-box- red or b) somebody had stolen them all.

Back outdoors, changing tactics, I tackled a lady with a shopping bag and an air of local knowledge.

‘Excuse me, do you happen to know if there’s a letter box near here?’

‘A letter box?’

Her reply was on a par with the great Edith Evans riposte ‘A haaaandbaaag??’

OK, I’ve been out of England for a while, but surely the language hasn’t changed that much? Were they now calling them something else? I was beginning to think I’d  been abducted by aliens and was now on Planet Letterboxless.

Whipping the grubby envelope out of my bag I waved it in front of her.

Her face lit up.

‘Ee, she’s broken a record today, she has.’


We both gazed at the stamp, bearing the regal profile of our beloved monarch. It was September 9th.

‘Ay. Beaten Queen Victoria, longest reigning monarch. She’s in Scotland today, opening a railway, saw her on the news. Looking right smart she was. She’s a hard worker, I’ll give her that.’

We enjoyed a pleasant discussion about the stabilising role of the monarchy. I omitted to tell her I lived in a country where they’d beheaded their lot. Just when I was wondering if I’d have to show my credentials and join in a rousing chorus of God Save the Queen my interlocutor noticed the time and said a hasty farewell.

I like Manchester. I might have said that before.

Oh, and I did find my letter box in the end.

A lonely survivor?
A lonely survivor?

It was hidden inside the Post Office, behind a machine that takes photographs.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the letter boxes in Manchester.”

“There are no letter boxes in Manchester.”

“That is the curious incident.”

Not an exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Gregory in “Silver Blaze”.

Merci! Beaucoup! Perfick!

Just back from a trip to the North, in particular Manchester, a city I have a soft spot for, as may have been mentioned before. True, it has the disadvantage of finding itself on the wrong side of the Pennines, but I suspect one of those tectonic shift things could be at the root of that obvious geographical error. We’ll probably know more in years to come when archaeologists stumble upon prehistoric skulls of Yorkshire hominids in ancient burial chambers at the back of the Manchester United locker room.

But enough of that. My visit provided a fascinating subject for my next blog piece. I shall not however reveal what that will be, except to ask (or sing): ‘where have all the letter- boxes gone?’ Watch this space.

Today’s blog is in fact a ‘Thank You’ card. Two, actually.

Thank You Card No 1: To The Dentist.

Yes I know, not usually top of your ‘thank you’ card list. But this is not just any dentist…

September 10th:

As I was waiting for my regular check-up, chatting to Helen, the ever-cheerful super-cool receptionist, I happened to notice lots of cards on display.

‘Aha!’ I said. ‘Someone’s birthday?’

‘Oh no, those are just thank you cards from patients. Some of them have been there for ages, they probably need a dust.’

O shame on me. How many years have I been a patient at Kissdental, Manchester, the Nirvana of Dentistry, the Eden of Enamel, the Shangri-La of All That Is Teeth? Answer: many. And how many cards have I sent to convey my undying gratitude to all who serve there? Answer: none. So, a huge thank you to Kailesh, Fabergé of Dentists, Transformer of Smiles; to Vicci, Queen of Hygiene and Goddess of Gums, to Helen, afore-mentioned, keeping it all in order, and to all those other members of the team who help to make a visit here as enjoyable as a Champney spa break.

And to anyone reading this who is suddenly turning pale and getting flashing images from ‘Marathon Man’ and ‘The Little Shop of Horrors’, I have the answer. Put yourself in the capable hands of all at Kissdental, lie back, relax and before you leave don’t forget to pop into the bathroom to admire your gleaming gnashers in the mirror.

Thank you Card Number 2: To The Magic Elves.

Having been severely Wi-Fi challenged on my recent travels I was unable to get a good look at the review of ‘Hot Basque’ that appeared on ‘Areadersreviewblog’ on September 3rd.

The articles and book reviews on this site are written by two Magic Elves called Caroline and Tina. I know they are Magic Elves because they both have partners and  children, and are able to juggle washing, ironing, cleaning, school runs, spaghetti-hoop management and candle-lit dinners whilst also devouring huge numbers of books and then writing about them. What I’d like to know is–what are they on? Ginseng? High-dose Vit C? Royal Jelly? Or my very own favourite, a double G and T? Back in Wi-Fi land I’ve been looking more closely at some of their amazing output and I’m not talking three-line-copy-and-paste stuff. Every post is engagingly written, bursting with enthusiasm, and just what readers are looking for when choosing a book.

So, booklovers, sign up, read their reviews and select your next purchase to take with you, for example, when you go for your spa-day at Kissdental. (NB This tip is not for Magic Elf Caroline, who in her 11 amazing facts about herself notes that she has never had a filling…not fair.)

Up to now I have never written a blog piece without some literary reference or other. There is one in here. Clue: look at the title! Think of a ‘darling’ (clue!) character in a wonderful series of books that were turned into a wonderful TV series and featured a ‘budding’ (clue!) new actress who went on to become a Hollywood star.

And, as a prize to anyone guessing the title and author, you can get a free copy of ‘Hot Basque!’ Yes! That’s right, free!

(Actually… it’s free to anybody who wants to download it, starting Friday September 18th until Sunday September 20th  .  😉 Just what you need to transport you to a sunny beach next weekend without the hassle of having to put your sun cream and toothpaste into those little plastic self-seal bags that won’t.)









Euskal Herria

‘the green steep slopes of the Basque countryside’ Mark Kurlansky
‘the green steep slopes of the Basque countryside’ Mark Kurlansky

When I started out on the idea of writing a romantic novel with a French setting I hesitated between the Côte d’Azur/Riviera, so naturally beautiful in spite of hordes of tourists and too many fishing-net-draped restaurants, and the ‘other’ coast, the Atlantic.

Having spent many holidays there with friends who had Basque branches in their family tree I was lucky enough to get an insider’s view of this fascinating part of the world. I went to local festivals, listened to Basques singing a capella, went  up into the wild mountain region between France and Spain, was introduced to the local cuisine at small village inns.  It was there I was rendered speechless by my first hot Basque, the famous fiery red pepper from the town of Espelette. (Advice to culinary novices – proceed with caution.)

A village 'fronton' with 'pelote basque' players
A village ‘fronton’ with ‘pelote basque’ players

Many summer evenings were spent gripped by the drama of pelote basque,   invented here and exported under the name of jai alai. Pelote, in French, originally meant a ball (of string, rope etc) and today is used mainly to refer to a ball of wool. But the pelote used in the game is a far cry from the fluffy little objects nestling Granny’s knitting bag. Propelled against walls (frontons) by rackets, ‘baskets’ (chisteras) or simply  bare-handed (main nue), they get up to truly impressive speeds. They are especially impressive when glimpsed heading in your direction at 150 mph. (Spectators are protected by nets and partitions, but that doesn’t stop the ducking and gasping). Other evenings we’d join in the fun and thrills at a course de vaches landaises, the local ‘corridas’ where the bull gets to chase would-be matadors, and spectacular ‘bull-leaping’  is a key feature of the entertainment. (Also, the bull-a cow actually-doesn’t die, but lives to torment other hopefuls.)

So I made my choice. The ‘other’ coast it was.

In the first book of the French Summer Novels, ‘Biarritz Passion’, I was so enthused by the setting and culture that occasionally they threatened to take over the story (as one reviewer remarked). But how can anyone spend time in the Basque country and not be stirred by passion? What I learned about the Basques from friends was anecdotal and personal, but looking more closely into their history, it’s hard not be moved by the story of this ancient and mysterious people.

In  ‘The Basque History of The World’, a dramatic, encyclopaedic 400-page must-read, Mark Kurlansky dives into their origins and culture. The Basques, he reminds us, are very  probably the original Europeans, with evidence pointing to their direct descent from Cro-Magnon man, who lived 40 000 years ago. Their language, Euskera, which has no linguistic relative and is probably the oldest European language still spoken, is a defining element in their identity. Their land is called Euskal Herria, the land of Euskera speakers.

A set of laws, fueros, governed the way society worked. They were handed down through oral tradition until the 12th century, then written into a legal code in Spanish and regularly debated and amended . They were the cornerstone of Basque freedoms, remarkably liberal and progressive for their time, banning the use of torture, for example, and allowing property to be handed down the female line. As in other contemporary societies, the discussions and assemblies took place beneath a meeting oak.

The story of the Basque oak tree is a moving one. The original, planted in the fourteenth century, is said to have lived for three, maybe four hundred years (accounts vary). Part of the trunk of its ‘son’ can still be seen in the nearby gardens, and the third tree was a miracle. The oak under which the Basques had debated their  fueros for centuries was situated at the edge of the town of Guernica.  Somehow, this third tree survived the horrific destruction when the German Condor legion, helping dictator Francisco Franco, carpet-bombed the town on on April 26th 1937. It was market day. Hundreds of civilians were mowed down and the town reduced to rubble. But the fueros oak, symbol of Basque autonomy, still stood.

‘Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders…The whole of Guernica was soon in flames except the historic Casa de Jontas with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit. The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the young new shoots of this century, was also untouched. Here the kings of Spain used to take the oath to respect the democratic rights (fueros) of Vizcaya…’

Article by George Speer, The Times, April 27th 1937

The French Summer Novels are contemporary romances. When writing Book 2, ‘Hot Basque’, I wanted to keep the romantic element to the fore but felt that it was also important to touch on this other, darker, aspect,  the sufferings and adversity endured by the Basques during those decades of the 1930s and 40s. So when Antoine (our ‘hot Basque’) takes Jill to visit his native village, she learns that his grandfather was killed in the bombing of Guernica.

The sense of horror in the aftermath of the attack on the town was presumably felt even by the perpetrators, as every attempt was made to hush it up. But there were witnesses, the survivors, and the press, notably the British correspondent for ‘The Times’, George Speer, quoted above. When his account of this new weapon of terror reached the outside world, the revulsion was unanimous:

‘At 2 am today when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris.’

Pablo Picasso, hearing what had happened, took up his brush to create one of the most famous paintings in art history, ‘Guernica’. Its powerful monochromatic depictions of suffering with the enigmatic central symbol of the wounded horse have made the work a universally recognized expression of the horrors of war.*

Back to the written page. Having introduced the Guernica connection for Antoine, the question then became how to move on from that sombre period of history, how to get back to Jill and Antoine’s story and the more upbeat, romantic theme of the novel? The problem gave me a lot of sleepless nights. I almost changed the whole chapter, giving Antoine some whaling ancestors instead. They would have tied in nicely with the family restaurant and its seabream a la plancha.

But Guernica still niggled. 

Finally, one small detail  in Picasso’s painting  gave the answer and provided the perfect transition.

Later, as they lay together, hands entwined, he asked her if she had seen something in the painting of ‘Guernica’, a little flower.

‘A flower?’ She turned to him, eyes widening.

‘At the bottom. In the middle, by the sword. Just a small flower. It is a symbol. A symbol of hope, that life conquers death. And Picasso told us to remember the law of the corrida, a law which says it is the bull that must die, and the horse who lives.’

(Hot Basque)

*There are many interpretations of Picasso’s painting, but the one I chose for the novel comes from  brilliant art historian Robert Hughes. In ‘The Shock of the New’ he writes: ‘…it is a general meditation on suffering…the gored and speared horse (the Spanish Republic), the bull (Franco) louring over the bereaved, shrieking woman…’

A final word before signing off.

I’d like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Caroline for doing a promo post on ‘Hot Basque’ at AReadersReviewblog (run by Caroline Barker and Tina Williams, booklovers check it out; when do those two devoted ladies ever sleep??)

And another beaming smile to indie author extraordinaire, Matt Abraham, who re-blogged the post. Yey! All Private Investigator fans (oh how we love ’em) check out his site and meet The Great Dane  at:

The City of Love


Opera Garnier, Marc Chagall
Opera Garnier, Marc Chagall

Just back from two weeks in Paris, the most beautiful and evocative city on earth. (That should get some comments). It took me four hours to choose six postcards. Soft purple dusk at the Place de la Concorde. Art nouveau streetlamps glowing like bunches of luminous grapes. Notre Dame rising from the mist. The Opera Garnier, a dazzling jewel in a blaze of golden glory.

Grand staircase Opera Garnier
Grand staircase Opera Garnier
Raise your eyes to the heavens at Galeries Lafayette
Raise your eyes to the heavens at Galeries Lafayette

City of Light, City of Love. All those love-locks on the Pont des Arts must mean something, as the Mayor suddenly realised, ordering them to be removed lest the bridge take an unexpected dive into the Seine accompanied by a few startled lovers. (The taking of romantic selfies was proposed as an alternative but didn’t catch on.)

The Seine, and its bridges. The melancholic poem about love and time by Guillaume Apollinaire that every student of the French Baccalauréat knows by heart, ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’:

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

             Et nos amours…

Their Mums and Dads know it too, and even the Pogues had a musical version (‘Below the Pont Mirabeau/Slow flows the Seine…’)

Is Paris THE romantic city in which to set a novel? Or end one? (would love to hear your views on that). Even the name of the place is enough to start the ball rolling–the legendary Paris whose love affair with Helen (‘the face that launched a thousand ships’) triggered the siege of Troy and ‘burnt the topless towers of Ilium’. That one ended in tears, and so did I, reading the final scene of Jojo Moyes’ ‘Me Before You’. Hands up all those who were sobbing unrestrainedly long before Lou gets to Paris? There’s more doomed Parisian love in the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, Marguerite, she of the camellias, and don’t even mention ‘Casablanca’. But how about other cities? I’ve just turned the last page of ‘The Antique Love’ by Helena Fairfax, a beautiful, tender romance, and had to reach for the Kleenex again when Penny ends up in Florence. Florence, Venice, the Lakes. Yes, Italy’s a big contender.

Or you could go for something generic, like a garden. Or a heath. Take ‘The Nightingale’ by Kristin Hannah, another Kleenex-destroyer. That ended in a garden (Isabelle’s), and a wet T shirt (mine). A garden in the Loire valley, bells pealing out for peace, the scent of jasmine on the air.

Having talked about endings before (March 2015, ‘Endings’) I won’t repeat the final lines of ‘Wuthering Heights’, describing the graves on the moor. I’d like to repeat them. Actually I’d like to intone them, à la Judi Dench, arms flung out, standing by the Bronte waterfall in a raging storm.

But how about another Big Bronte Moment, another garden?

‘I am coming!’ I cried. ‘Wait for me! Oh, I will come!’I flew to the door and looked into the passage: it was dark. I ran out into the garden: it was void.

‘Where are you?’ I exclaimed.

The hills beyond Marsh Glen sent the answer faintly back–‘Where are you?’ I listened. The wind sighed low in the firs: all was moorland loneliness and midnight hush.’

Oh Jane, Jane.

Readers (thank you!) of ‘Biarritz Passion’ may have caught the echoes in the last scene, not to mention other nostalgic references to thrilling prose written by the Great Ladies of Literature. You may, for example, remember Caroline’s first encounter with Colin Firth Edward Rayburn in the grounds of Willowdale. In Book Two of the French Summer Novel series, ‘Hot Basque’, the final scene blows a kiss to Mrs Gaskell’s ‘Wives and Daughters’.

Which brings me nicely to the news that it’s on promotion next week! ‘Hot Basque’, that is.  FREE! Get your FREE (yes!) download on Amazon from August 3rd to 7th !(NB Amazon operates on Standard Pacific Times so check before you click)

Talking about writing that final scene in ‘Hot Basque’ once more, I was looking for a suitably dramatic setting, somewhere that would speak to readers fanning their cheeks and holding their breath for Jill and Antoine.

I chose, er, Edinburgh airport.

Hey, look on the bright side. It could have been Stansted.

‘Hot Basque’ is available on Amazon:


Welcome to the Hotel

It can no longer be put off. We have to sort out the atelier.

Atelier, in this context, is a hopeful euphemism for the room used to store wood, broken strimmers, old tins of solidified paint, bits of bubble wrap useful for protecting priceless antiques as yet unacquired, old trainers handy for sudden mudslides, wire coat hangers designed to deform hanging garments but just the thing when seized by the urge to do a bit of metal sculpture, strands of raffia to tie the 50 lavender bags languishing in a damp cardboard box since last summer, and other household essentials.
It’s when confronted with such tasks that you remember why Vladimir Nabokov chose to live in a hotel. ‘It eliminates,’ he said, ‘the nuisance of private ownership’, adding that it also confirmed him in his favourite habit, ‘the habit of freedom’. *
There are novels written about hotels–’The Shining’, ‘L’Hôtel du Lac’, ‘The Hotel New Hampshire’. But how many writers actually choose to live in a hotel to write?
The most famous example must be Nabokov, who moved into the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland in 1961 and died there in 1977. Uninterested in material possessions, attached only to memories, Nabokov, with his wife Véra, settled into a routine where the hotel staff did the cleaning, a lady called Mme Furrer cooked lunch and dinner, and Nabokov could get on with his work, starting each morning at his writing lectern in ‘the vertical position of vertebrate thought’ then sliding gently into more recumbent postures ‘when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves’.
It’s a seductive idea.
This year I’ve stayed in two hotels where I could happily settle down on a permanent basis. The Radisson Edwardian Hotel in Manchester has all the amenities, first class service, and general cosseting factors of a modern bustling luxury hotel along with resonant reminders of its historic past.

The Radisson Edwardian Hotel in Manchester, formerly the Free Trade Hall
The Radisson Edwardian Hotel in Manchester, formerly the Free Trade Hall

Step outside, and you’re in the middle of Manchester, a dynamic and vibrant city. If it’s raining (and it usually is) you can stay in, surf the Net, lounge on a giant Vertue mattress in a fluffy white robe, order champagne from room service and admire from your window the illuminated clock tower of the Victorian Gothic Town Hall. Alternatively you can wander down to the Opus Reserve Bar, sip a Hallé Berry cocktail, gaze at the dramatic Italianate colonnades and lofty ceilings and tune in to the historic echoes. For you are sitting in one of Manchester’s iconic buildings, the former Free Trade Hall.
Built in 1853 on the site of the Peterloo Massacre, its history encompasses different struggles for different freedoms. The original Renaissance-style facade with its stately arcades reflects some of these. A red plaque commemorates the Peterloo massacre**.

Plaque commemorating the Peterloo Massacre
Plaque commemorating the Peterloo Massacre

Carved shields denote those Lancashire towns active in the movement to abolish the government-imposed Corn Laws, in force between 1815 and 1846. Their repeal bolstered the development of free trade, represented by one of the emblematic figures depicted on the tympanum where the Arts, Commerce, Manufacture and the five Continents are also seen.
It was inside, in the public assembly hall in 1872, that Disraeli outlined reforms aimed at protecting working people and halting the growing divide between rich and poor in his famous ‘One nation’ speech. ‘A densely-packed audience…received him with a roar of applause’ while ‘the swelling strains of the organ rolled grandly forth’. *** It was here in 1905 that Christabel Pankhurst, one of the Manchester founders of the Women’s Social and Political Union, was thrown out of a Liberal party meeting, arrested and put in prison. Churchill made one of his finest speeches here, Charles Dickens acted in a Wilkie Collins play, and in 1858 the building became home to the beloved Hallé orchestra. A little less than 100 years after Disraeli’s speech, more musical history was made as the hall resounded to concerts by Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols and Bob Dylan.
Six centuries back in time and 1500 km away from the Radisson Edwardian is La Maison Bakéa.

La maison Bakéa, Cordes-sur-Ciel
La maison Bakéa, Cordes-sur-Ciel

This maison d’hôtes in the Tarn is perched near the top of the ancient citadel of Cordes-sur-Ciel. From the outside it looks pretty unassuming. Step through the door and gasp. Words spring to mind like ‘unbelievable’, ‘stunning’, ‘amazing’, and ‘wow’. You are inside a private house dating back to the 13th century. Two storeys rise up around a beautiful interior courtyard with half-timbered brick walls and galleried passages running along each side. Swallows swoop and dive through the atrium, bringing food to their young. A massive stone staircase winds its way up to the five guest rooms. More ancient stones await inside door; age-darkened beams cross the ceilings, coloured light filters in through stained glass windows, polished earthenware tiles gleam underfoot and bucolic tapestries hang on the wall. You can almost hear the minstrels tuning up. Fortunately for weary travellers the beds are big and modern and the opening of other doors reveals 21st century plumbing, no need to don a cloak and trudge up the hill to the village trough. You will however have to forego one modern amenity and resign yourself to a period of Smartphone withdrawal, 13th C builders being more concerned with keeping things out (like crusaders), rather than letting things in (like radio waves). Nor will you have concierges with gold keys and a fleet of attentive staff to cater to your every whim. Just your host and hostess, charming, knowledgeable, passionate about their house, ready to serve you a glass of sparkling Gaillac on the terrace high above the valley or welcome you to breakfast in the grand salon, where you eat in the company of a ghostly Spanish knight, whose suit of armour guards the vast fireplace.

Le grand salon, Maison Bakéa
Le grand salon, Maison Bakéa

Outside, the history continues, in the alleys and shaded squares of Cordes-sur-ciel.  This is Cathar territory. Centuries before Disraeli and Christabel Pankhurst were advancing the march of freedom in Manchester, Raimond VII, count of Toulouse, was preparing to defend the freedoms of the local population by building this rocky fortress. The Albigensian crusade of 1208 to 1229 had pitted the Catholic Church, supported by the kingdom of France and its barons, against the heretical Cathars of the Languedoc. The crusaders took various strongholds, including Carcassonne and Beziers, where an estimated 20,000 people were put to the sword. It was in Beziers that the commander of the army, Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury, asked how to distinguish Cathars from Catholics, gave the infamous reply ‘Kill them all, God will know his own.’
Standing on the cobbles of this picture-postcard town today it’s hard to imagine such bloody battles. The struggle continued after 1229, with the Church relying more and more on a relatively new and terrifying weapon, the Inquisition. Catharism was finally crushed; Toulouse and the surrounding areas brought under the heel of the French king. On a note of revenge à la ‘Game of Thrones’, one of the most hated and feared Crusader commanders, Simon De Montfort, was killed in a battle outside Toulouse. One version of how he met his maker claims he was hit on the head by a huge stone launched from the barricades by a woman. (Maybe her name was Christabelle? Please note I have refrained from putting a smiley here.)
Both the Radisson Edwardian and La Maison Bakéa are my idea of hotels conducive to a bit of vertical thinking. Alternatively, you could just loll about in them, read books, people-watch, indulge in gastronomic excess and cultivate ‘a habit of freedom’. Of course, you’d have nowhere to put your wire coat hangers and bits of raffia. Also, if you lived in a hotel all the time, could you really justify going to stay at others? Like that place I mentioned in Toulouse, where all the early aviators lived. And Le Grand Palais in Biarritz, with its Belle Epoque rooms and glittering chandeliers.
That one, by the way, is the next hotel I want to stay in. We just need to find a couple of gold ingots to afford the prices.
Maybe when we clean out the atelier?

*Read Nabokov’s wonderful1969 interview for the BBC:
**The commemorative plaque says: ‘On 16 August 1819 a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.’
*** published in The Manchester Guardian on the 4 April 1872:

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 ( 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:


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:

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


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