Friday, 20 February 2015

A "Vignette" in France Magazine

A peek inside the March edition of France Magazine - Britain and the USA's     bestselling magazine about French life. I've written a personal account of a trip to Apt market with my daughter in search of the ghosts trapped in amber that you can sometimes see this time of year...
...when the stallholders selling the purest olive oil come to market:

As readers of this blog well know, I love writing and posting pictures about this market in Apt. I see that I described the town as a "scruffy old bear" but I meant it kindly, to imply the affection you might feel for a well-loved teddy rather than the threat of a starving grizzly. Though, if one such did ever make it here, there are more calming delicacies that you could shake a stick at.

If you haven't discovered France Magazine yet, I suggest you start with a visit to their website. You will find all sorts of delicious suggestions of new places that intrigue, as well as great photography and personal recommendations, recipes, history and even French language pages and puzzles. Make yourself a cup of coffee, sit back and have a little dream break.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Light at the end of the tunnel

Phew. I made the deadline and delivered the first draft of my new novel this week. I have no idea how good, or bad, it is. That's not false modesty, or disingenuousness; I genuinely don't know. Before I send it, I always print out the first draft because hard copy reads differently from the words on the screen. I don't know why that should be, but that's how it seems to me. No matter how many times I go over and over the text on screen - and I am a constant self-editor - I want to see it in the cold, hard light of day.
So I print out, only single-spaced so it looks more like a finished page in a book, rather than the double-spaced manuscript that publishers and agents want to see. Then I edit again on paper, as the world's most critical reader.
As such, I find some parts are better than I expected - and some are far worse. It's much easier to judge the pace and the amount of attention given to various aspects of the story when it's on paper. It may be different for other people, but this is how it is for me. I thought I had wrapped up the ending quite well, but last Sunday I ended up not doing a light polish of the text as I'd hoped, but writing 2,300 additional words to expand what now seemed rushed.
At this stage the book has taken over all rational thought. I consider the mundane necessities of life like going to the supermarket to be outrageous intrusions. I resent leaving my desk to answer the door or the telephone. All I can think about are the loose ends: the tiny plot and character issues that need to be tied up, the small mentions that ought to be recalled for proper satisfaction. I scribble these down on bits of ripped paper, newspaper, anything and put them in a pocket for decoding later.
At the end of this process, I make the changes on screen. It still seems extraordinary to be able to fit an entire book in a computer document, attach to an email and press send. It took me a whole day to print out my first novel, put it in the box the computer paper had come in, parcel up and take it to the post office!
So now I wait. (That part hasn't changed.) My editor in New York told me immediately that she is immersed in another project for the next few weeks, so not to expect a response for a while. I couldn't be happier. That's a fortnight's relaxation and decompression at least. As regular readers know, I have had a tough time to write through but now the pressure has lifted. It feels like a long time since the story began with a new place to explore and random observations in a notebook.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The hardest deadline

When I returned from France in mid-September, I had a new book deal and a deadline. I thought it was going to be a bit tight, but there were exciting reasons why I wasn't going to argue. I would just put my head down and concentrate all my energies on writing, and I was sure that by the end of January, I would have a good first draft.

Sadly, real life intervened. I'd only been back a day when the first of several bombshells hit, and by the end of September I knew that looking after my mother was going to have to take precedence over writing. When she was in hospital, I got up early and wrote in the mornings before visiting time; when she came home for the end, I took my notes to work when she slept but usually failed to write a word.

January, new grit, I thought. I managed a week's work, still feeling terribly sad, but with time to concentrate, at least . My mother's memorial service was on January 8th. I managed to get to my feet to deliver a tribute I had written, but that very evening I came down with 'flu. Just reaction, I suppose. Last week I ploughed on with aching head and racking cough.

I put this out here not to elicit sympathy, though I know the loyal readers of this blog will be quick to offer it, both above and below the public wire, and they know how grateful I am. Actually, this is a post about writing. Sometimes it's not easy. I'm sure editors and agents would be understanding if I missed my deadline. But I won't do that because I pride myself not only in writing well enough to be published and paid for it, but on what that implies: being professional about my work.

I've written before about not having much truck with writer's block - I genuinely believe it's not much more than self-indulgence, an excuse to talk about writing without doing any. Of course there are days when I sit down at my desk with my head too full of other thoughts to find the right words for a story, or in a panic that I've literally lost the plot. But the mark of a professional is that you open the manuscript, take some deep breaths and go in. Then stick at it until the words come.

I'll let you know the state of play at the end of the month.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy New Year 2015

I wish all of you a very Happy New Year, and a profound thank you for all the kind and lovely messages that I have received since my post about my mother. They really have been very gratefully received.
In return I send you this acquarelle by the artist Brigitte Willers in Provence: Mes Amours en Cage. I like the way she has captured the strong sunshine and the sense of optimism it creates even as nature is dying and renewing. You can see more of her work on this link to her website: Brigitte Willers.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Lilies at Christmas

Lilies at Christmas

In wood fire heat, in closed-door warmth, the perfume rises.

White petals, pearl-glazed by glints of winter sun, release their incense. Sweet breaths of history blend with spiced fragments of the festival: old-English puddings, dried plums and orange (ashes on the tongue this year).

The lilies bloom: Heaven-scent, the Holy Mother’s divinity; the green leaves are her modesty, the stem her piety; dew-on-snow succulence, symbol of purity and birth. The trumpets blow and saffron-furred stamens tremble as we dare to sing with cracking voices and cheeks stretched tight.

Cut from the tightly-furled bulb, remembrance, these lilies are for my mother.  

November bouquets (sent in hope) wilted to sad outlines in a lamp-lit upstairs window as her faith in the coming adventure grew stronger, the finest of her many journeys. She is over the border now, gone to her mountain paths and woodland gardens, dancing under pines and holm oaks.

The funeral flowers remain.

My beloved mother Joy died twelve days ago, and the funeral was on Christmas Eve. She was brave and dignified to the end, having decided against surgical intervention for the cancer that was discovered at the end of September. For the last six weeks of her life, we cared for her at her home in South London with the help of hospice and district nurses. She will be missed beyond words.

I wrote about her here, last year: Joy and my writing.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

A quiet hello

I'm still here, even if blog posts have been increasingly few and far between. I've been trying hard to keep up a business-as-usual front but it hasn't been the best of times, for quite a few reasons since the end of the summer. I usually try to give this blog a positive feel although - as I have sometimes reminded my fellow Francophiles and readers of my books - the pictures of Provence life and pleasure are true but not the whole story.

My return to England brought a major disappointment and a feeling of being badly let down. I'm not going to go into details here about this or the subsequent, ever harder, hammer blows that have fallen since. Suffice to say, this hasn't been a good year so far, and it's set to get worse. I'm sorry if a lack of proper explanation is teasingly unsatisfactory but I'm not someone who wears my heart on my sleeve in public and as all of this, one way and another, involves other people, I have to respect their privacy.

So I hope you will still check out this site from time to time. I will do what I can to put up some posts, and try to make them less dismal than this one, but at the moment this is the best I can do.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Isirdi: a Lourmarin artist

Some years ago now we found this picture. It's painted over the front page of La Provence, the local newspaper, and was hidden away in our bergerie. It is one of the “gifts from the house”: found objects we have kept and made part of the place again. Framed in pine, it now hangs in the kitchen.

The view is of Lourmarin on the southern slopes of the Luberon ridge and it seems to have been intended as a wedding present. We assume that Lourmarin was either where the wedding took place (or did it?) or where the couple lived. The date on the masthead is November 2000. Best wishes, it says, Long live love. But beyond the names Céline and Alain, the picture is a complete mystery. Or it was, until we had a wander around Lourmarin this summer.

Across a picturesque street, the window of the Isirdi Gallery drew us in, and we began to notice various stylistic similarities with the jolly painting we know well. On our return home, the writing we hadn't been able to decipher was now clearly Gérard Isirdi's signature.

I still didn't know very much about the artist, but imagine my delight when my blog friend Caroline Longstaffe of Shutters and Sunflowers asked if I would be interested in running a guest post, and offering this piece as a suggestion. Synchronicity! I certainly was interested. Caroline is an English girl who lives in California, and her love of Provence shines through.

Isirdi's picture, creating a special memory forever
By Caroline Longstaffe
A piece of art, the essence of a moment, captured with the stroke of a paint brush or crayon, through the eyes and perceptions of the artist. An instant in time becomes immortalized as a memory that will last forever. The ability to do this is a gift, a special talent that only a few hold, quite literally in their hands. The strokes the artist transfers to the canvas create indelible marks of time to be treasured throughout the generations. As the years slip away the human mind becomes frail and memories dim, but the artist’s record is eternal, even though it is a personal interpretation, once created, it endures for always.

Gerard Isirdi in Lourmarin, through his artistic talent, created for us a wonderful memory of our special time in Provence. We will be forever grateful to our friends, Sarmi and Jim, for commissioning Isirdi to encapsulate part of our story for always.

Sarmi and Jim outside The Isirdi Gallery, Lourmarin, Provence
Outside the Isirdi Gallery, Lourmarin, Provence, France
Their picture depicts us embracing a tiny part of French culture, drinking coffee at a street café, something we enjoyed several times a week. Different thoughts will spring to mind when someone looks at this painting based upon their own experiences of sitting at a café somewhere. Each time we look at it we will hear chattering French voices, and remember the personalities who served us and how we smiled when a car pulled up on the cobbled streets and the driver hurtled out into the bakery to grab their baguettes, totally heedless of blocking the road!
We will remember watching the season and cycle of the town, sometimes sitting alone and shivering in the quiet of the winter months, especially at the start of the week. As the week progressed we saw the cafés spilling onto the street after the Friday market, the numbers of which multiplied as the weather warmed up and the market grew in size. We will recall observing the precarious balancing of scaffolding as workmen replaced roof tiles, holding our breath as pieces of steel were handed up by hand to create a ‘safe’ framework, four or five stories high.
Isirdi's picture

Outside the Isirdi Gallery with Christine Isirdi With Christine Isirdi, outside the Isirdi Gallery Lourmarin, Provence, France
So much of life, unlike a piece of art, is but a vanishing moment. Like the puffs of a dandelion, which float before our eyes for just an instant, to gently float away and disappear, so too is the human experience. Our lives are made up of a complicated picture of experiences. Some are strong and enduring strokes of colour running through the whole canvas, like our health, our families, our marriages, each having the ability to become faded according to how the dye is cast. We all have a certain amount of choice in 'painting' our destinies, we can choose to add a brilliance of colour or walk a path shaded by duller tones.
However immense the highs or tragic the lows, our lives are a collection of occurrences, events and memories, many of which leave their mark or alter the course of our story and most become faded in the sands of time. A visual record, like this picture, makes an immediate statement and keeps the story vividly alive for always.

Admiring Isirdi's painting in the gallery

Of course such works of art speak to different people in different ways and not all art is created to encapsulate a moment. But each time we look at Isirdi's beautiful creation, we will smile and our hearts will be warmed as memories return to form a picture in our minds, reminding us of our treasured time in Lourmarin, a small, picturesque, corner of the Luberon in Provence, France.
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