Marx, Engels, and Christmas at Villa Julia (or: why you’re not going to be reading my next book with your turkey and mince pies)

The reading room, John Rylands Library

On a recent trip to Manchester the MDM and I visited the altogether incredible, stunning and awe-inspiring John Rylands Library. I’ll be raving enthusiastically talking more about this astonishing building and its history in a later blog, but, as we stood amazed in its cathedral-like reading room, my mind wandered to other reading rooms, and things that had been written there, and their consequences on an unsuspecting world.

So dear readers, here’s a little reading room quiz:

Question 1: Who wrote The Communist Manifesto?

Answer: Right! It was indeed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Question 2: In which reading room did they work together in the 1840s?

Answer: Wrong! It wasn’t the Rylands (I thought it was until our visit). However it was in Manchester, at another famous library, the Chetham, the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. (See why we like Manchester?)

Question 3: In the year The Manifesto was published (1848), how many revolutions took place in Europe?

The window alcove at Chetham’s where Marx and Engels worked Courtesy of user KJP1 Wikimedia Commons,_Engels_alcove.jpg

Answer: Wrong! There were 603 million. (OK, I’m lying, just wanted to check you were paying attention). It is however true that during that momentous year (known also as The People’s Spring) populations all over Europe took to the barricades in an unprecedented wave of revolutionary fever (most of them hadn’t heard of the Communist Manifesto).  Not just France, but Poland, Austria, Germany, Italy, Sicily , Denmark and elsewhere, people rose up demanding the downfall of traditional rulers and the implementation of social reforms such as the right to vote, to strike, the freedom of speech and the press etc.

Final Question: what on earth has all this got to do with Villa Julia?

Answer: It all started with Jacqui Brown...

When this admirable Francophile bookworm and blogger reviewed the final volume in the French Summer Novels Series, Biarritz–Villa Julia, back in May, she wrote:

‘I was sad to get to the end and realise there will be no more,’ (Aw!) ‘What next, Laurette?’

I hesitated to reply with the unvarnished truth–‘I intend to assume a recumbent posture on the terrace, a chilled margarita to hand, and listen to the song of the nightingale.’ It didn’t sound very professional. Also, she had touched a chord. I too was a bit sad. I opted for a cagey response:

‘What next? Well (coy smile) it was supposed to be The End, but lately I’ve been wondering what that first Christmas in 1899 would have been like at the Villa, with the arrival of the young Provençale bride for whom it was named, Julia herself…

The terrace beckons the Mollusk

Even as I flopped on to the chaise longue and the first notes of the nightingale reached my ears, its melody was drowned by a nasty creature that popped into my head waving a placard and shouting ‘Don’t forget the Protestant Ethic!’ before continuing a rant about hardening arteries, belly fat, safe alcohol guidelines, and dying brain cells ‘Get back to the computer and do some work, you mollusk!’ it finally shrieked.

Though I womanfully ignored it, a little seed had been planted. Soon the seed sprouted leaves. Olive leaves. In its branches, insects sang (crickets and cicadas) A perfume rose up, wild thyme, lavender, juniper and sage, suspiciously like the Mediterranean garrigue.

Everyone to the barricades! The Cambridge Illustrated History of France by Colin Jones

And so the Mollusk arose, trudged off the terrace, fired up the laptop and started reading all about France in the 19th century. The word ‘revolution’ appeared on virtually every other page, interspersed with monarchy, republic, and Empire, rinse and repeat.

What a joy to put aside the history books and re-plunge into the wonderful world of fiction. I dusted off my paperback copy of Volume 1 of Les Gens de Mogador (why has this never been translated into English??) Elisabeth Barbier’s thrilling saga of a Provençal family from the Second Empire to WW 2.

Though years had passed since I first read it, the heroine, Julia Angellier, had stayed in my mind inspiring the name of the first mistress of Villa Julia, carried over the threshold in 1899 by her mustachioed Basque Beau, Raoul Etcheverria.

I began to hit the keys.

At the end of Chapter 1, I was in a sweat.  Did I seriously think I could write a historical novella without mixing up all those kings and emperors called either Louis, Philippe, or Louis-Philippe? Not to mention bringing to life a bunch of characters wearing cache-corsets and redingotes, who, instead of saying ‘See you later, babes,’ intoned ‘Alas, Mademoiselle, I must take my leave, my cousin is expecting me for luncheon and I have matters to attend to before my departure for the capital’? Said characters would then give a deep bow, stride across the creaking parquet in glossy riding boots and jump on foam-flecked stallions/mares/geldings/fillies, which were either bays or roans or chestnuts or greys.

Heroes (mustachioed) and heroines (crinolined) of Elisabeth Barbier

According to my coffee stained synopsis, the story would begin in 1898, with the thirteen desserts of Christmas Eve and Provençal santons under the tree, to end triumphantly with the usual champagne and candlelight in 1899, under another Christmas Tree, this one in the pays basque.

Ploughing on, heading deeper into the writing tunnel meant abandoning the outside world–family, friends, emails, favourite bloggers, social media, not to mention the MDM confronting single-handed the Napoleonic army of bindweed marching across the garden.

The history books piled up, full of interesting facts. Did you know that, after a late start, the French railway system covered 40,000 km in 1900? Julia had to get from Provence to Biarritz somehow. Also, that the ancestor of the nippy little Twingo in your drive was born in a garden shed near Paris in 1898, in the shape of a Voiturette Type A built by Lois Renault? (Raoul buys one of these).

But it was the fiction authors who brought to gorgeous, glowing life the Provence of the late 19th century.

Pagnol et copains

Marcel Pagnol’s memoirs of spending summer holidays as a boy in the hinterland of Marseilles were in the air as Julia’s father, Monsieur Peyrissac sets out at dawn to hunt. Pagnol’s version ends with the capture of the mythic bartavelle, a rare variety of partridge, bringing ‘the glory of his father’, but I kept Monsieur P’s catch to a couple of rabbits.

Describing Julia at her coiffeuse, I heard the singing syllables of Frédéric Mistral, iconic Provençal poet, describing his heroine, Mirèio, and her ‘beauteous hair, all waves and rings of jet’. Mirèio is an altogether entrancing creature who, at one point, tucks a brood of baby blue-tits into her bodice as she sits in a mulberry tree with her amoureux, but tempting though it was to embroider on that charming episode I decided to keep Julia’s bodice firmly laced up (most of the time).

Alphonse Daudet, in his Letters from my Windmill tells the tragic story of Jan, who threw himself off the roof of the family farm for the love of the woman he could not have, the coquettish Arlesienne (who inspired Bizet’s opera of the same name). Though my characters are somewhat more restrained, there’s a fair bit of emotional anguish about. Fortunately star-gazing has always been a consolation for the lovelorn, so Julia’s stable hand, young Loic, can sigh as he looks up at those same brilliant Provençal constellations– the Chemin de Saint-Jacques, the Char des Ames and the Trois Bêtes– which comforted Daudet’s lonesome shepherd dreaming of la belle Stéphanette.

How to do justice to the natural beauties of Provence, and Malaret, the family home of the Peyrissacs, with its extensive gardens and park? Writing of a house further north, Colette’s idyllic descriptions of her mother’s garden in Saint-Sauveur inspired the wanderings of Julia through the family domain, where the delicate perfume of roses and lilies gives way to the aromatic onslaught of the shrubs and bushes of the garrigue.

More goodies

The big guns of the literary world at that time–Hugo, Flaubert, Balzac, Zola, Proust and company–provided innumerable dazzling frescoes of Parisian life  necessary for the creation of Harald, the blond, curling-lipped Cad from the Capital who seduces Julia with his cosmopolitan ways and penchant for Symbolism, ending with…well, I’m not going to tell you, am I ? Roger Martin du Gard recounts in painstaking detail the tortuous machinations of the Dreyfus Affair. (For those interested in finding about more about this crucial period in French social history, read Paulette Mahurin’s brilliant To Live Out Loud.)

But, leaving the world of fiction, back in real-life October 2019 in the Tarn, I am gradually waking up to the fact that it ain’t gonna happen. No way can I write the remaining forty thousand words in time to meet the Christmas deadline, let alone tackle the revision (i.e. deleting half of what’s already been written and writing it again).

So, what now, dear readers/fellow authors? Should I wait for Christmas 2020, and get back to the margaritas (though it’s now too cold to lie on the terrace and the nightingale has gone to Greece)? Should I set a new deadline, and modify the title–Easter Eggs under the Christmas Tree at Villa Julia? Maybe I could write to the matières grises in Brussels, still debating the thorny issue of whether the clocks go forward 2 hours in summer or not, and ask them to move Christmas to March while they’re at it?

All suggestions welcome (no more than 140 characters please), and the lucky winner will receive a packet of pine nuts and a garden gnomette wearing a Provençal skirt.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend reading lots of good books, perhaps some mentioned above?  And for those who haven’t got it, Biarritz-Villa Julia is FREE to download on the 26, 27 and 28 October here and here.

Biarritz-Villa Julia

PS While in Manchester we called at M and S for our usual teatime treat of their lemon drizzle cake. Alas the restaurant was closed for renovations But as we left I was reminded of Karl and Friedie once again. In an apocryphal story about the famous Leicester University Sociology Department in the nineteen sixties and seventies, it is said that one of the essay topics proposed for students sitting their final exams was the following:

‘Marks and Spencers has done more for the working classes than Marx and Engels’ Discuss.’ 😉



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.)









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.

Bienvenue à la Maison Bakéa Welcome to the House of Bakéa

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: