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?
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.
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.
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”.
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…
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.
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.)
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.)
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 devaches 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.’
*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…’
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:
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.
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.
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.
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**.
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.
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.
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:
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 duCapitole.
Artist Gordon Seward painted this view of the place duCapitole 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:
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 belleque 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:
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.
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 –
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.
‘…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.
“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.”
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.
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’.
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.