Sunday, 31 July 2011

Tonight's scorpion...

Found ten minutes ago by daughter on the wall outside bedroom door. Not the sharpest of photos - there were what might be diplomatically termed "urgent family discussions" about whether the taking of a photo was really the priority here, whether the flash was going to work, and who was going to jump in which direction if the scorpion decided to make a break for it...

Friday, 29 July 2011


Fat scorpions lurked malevolently as I began to clear the stew of wind-blown twigs and sodden tangles of ivy, rotted petals and grit.

                                                             From The Lantern

The first time I saw a scorpion in the house, I was chilled to the bone. A scorpion, surely the most dangerous stinging insect there is! How could this be, in a country so close to England? I’d been brought up on terrible tales of the scorpions in the Middle East where my parents lived when I was born, of the gardener who put his foot into a shoe without looking and was stung so badly he died of the poison in the scorpion’s tail.

When I told the first person I saw – the electrician – of this terrible discovery, he smiled and shrugged in the way the French do. “C’est normal,’ he said. There were always scorpions in old houses where there were lots of stone walls, he explained, but there was not much harm in them. The sting from these Provençal breeds was not much worse than a wasp’s.

That isn’t as comforting as it might seem, as there are some pretty heavy duty wasps around here in summer: as August wears on, great hornets imbued with the same dark threat as military helicopters appear. But we’ve learned to live with the scorpions, and developed our own way of dealing with them. Nature has her ways too.

One hot night a few summers ago, I was in the bathroom getting ready for bed when I noticed that a battle was raging under the basin between a scorpion and a spider. The scorpion was a reasonable size, about an inch and a half long (about average: the other night we found a fat three-incher, but there are also tiny ones of less than an inch; the one photographed here on an outside wall was about two inches long). The spider was rather smaller, and it seemed only a matter of time before it lost the fight. But on and on went the two adversaries.

I stayed watching for over an hour, unable to leave without knowing the outcome. In the end, the spider triumphed by patiently continuing to spin sticky web while avoiding the scorpion’s nipping pincers. Very good to know, and I am always most respectful of spiders now. 

Monday, 25 July 2011

The blocked-up doorway

One afternoon, idly looking down over the lower terraces at the stone walls, my eyes fastened on a wooden beam in the wall attached to the first stone arch. Moments passed before it occurred to me that what I was seeing was a lintel, and that there had once been a door underneath it. It was there, very faintly, in outline. Another room, possibly, blocked up with stones.
                                                     from The Lantern

When I’m writing a novel, I really enjoy describing what is really there. The story comes from the imagination, but what will make it vivid and plausible is being rooted in a real landscape and setting. So, although these words are supposedly written by Eve in The Lantern, they are my experience of being at “Les Genévriers”, our property as it features in the novel.

And it’s also possible to present a photograph of the place itself, just as I first noticed it a couple of years ago, and as it remains today. What was it used for, once upon a time? No doubt, it would have been something quite prosaic: for storing farm equipment, or just possibly for sheltering animals. The chamber cannot have been very big – at the most, only a few yards square – but why, and when, was it blocked up?

We took out the top row of stones to see if it was possible to re-open the entrance, but it seems not. There is another layer of stones, and rubble behind it. This is where those of us with over-active imaginations start to guess at all sorts of explanations. Of course, I couldn’t resist writing it into my story, and I hope those you you who read the book will be interested to see what might have formed other pictures in the mind, as it really exists. 

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Lavender country

The summer I was fifteen I went up towards the mountains for the lavender harvest. It was Marthe’s idea, she who persuaded our parents to let me go to see for myself how the ridged uplands had been transformed into purple carpets where the scent was born.

                                                             from The Lantern

The lavender harvest will begin in the next few weeks, so the end of July is the perfect time to see fields of purple. As the hills rise into mountains, the checkerboards of colour are grow more dense against the green and pale stone. The warmer the day, the more heavily the air is perfumed.

Ask anyone about lavender, and the chances are they won’t be able to give you a description of its aroma. But more often than not, they can give you some visual reference. Lavender is color, waving fields of purple, rich blues and faded mauve. It is the essence of blue and of the warm winds of summer, opulent against the yellow of the cornfield, mysteriously shadowed under the olives that are sometimes planted as its companion.

These fields are in Sault, in the great lavender-producing area of the north-west of Provence. This small town, built on a rocky outcrop overlooking the narrow plateau where the crops grow, seems almost entirely dedicated to its industry. Even the shutters and doors of many of the buildings are painted mauve:

Local produce in the butcher's shop includes pork with lavender honey:

There are lavender biscuits, and lavender teas...

And just look at the sumptuous purple of this tablecloth:

And shops entirely devoted to lavender and sunshine...

Monday, 18 July 2011

Voyage into the past

I always think of this beautiful piece of Art Nouveau designed by Victor Horta as a piece of my past. Many years ago I often stopped to look at it as I walked by, and I still think it is arresting, and a symbol of the city where it stands. Does anyone recognise this small but exquisite corner?

It’s in Brussels, where I lived with my family, at two different times, for quite a few years while I was growing up. It was where I learned to speak French, aged six, a lucky chance which has enriched my life. It’s also the city where I spent my late teenage years, for a while at an international school, and then returning every holiday from boarding school in England.

And last weekend I was in Brussels, at a celebration party for one of my nearest and dearest, Josine. A wonderful time was had by all, and the next morning we made our way to the rail station and the journey home via the Grand’ Place. The square of seventeenth century guild houses has been re-gilded – appropriately for the occasion! – and gleams newly minted.

On the corner of “L’Etoile”, The House of the Star, is Horta’s 1899 memorial to Charles Buls, pictured here in a wider view. Buls was a politician and a man of culture, a progressive of his time in that he fought to preserve and restore the dilapidated old buildings of the Grand’ Place, successfully fighting any ideas of redeveloping the site. If that were not sufficient to honour him, Buls was also a prolific author and travel writer.

Brussels is Victor Horta’s city, too. His name is synonymous with Art Nouveau, with its distinctive flowing elegant lines. One of the city’s subtle delights is the way this style is incorporated into doorways and windows and gates, in the most unexpected places. I can’t think of anywhere that echoes that style and era better.

So, layers of the past then: both the past of the place and my own. It’s always thought-provoking when you return somewhere you know well but haven’t seen for a few years, especially when you then add the memories of a friendship of more than thirty years.

Perhaps I’m too nostalgic but I’m always fascinated by the then and now, and how the two interweave. If I had known then what I know now - how my life would turn out, I mean – I would never have been so worried, quite so determined to push so hard. But then, of course, perhaps it all might have turned out differently…   

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A Marvellous garden

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

The Garden, written in the seventeenth century by Andrew Marvell is one of my favourite poems. I’m sure you can see why this verse sprang to mind when I opened the door to the bedroom terrace where the vines have overreached themselves…

Until I came to Provence, I thought Marvell’s overblown opulence here (“Stumbling on melons”, for goodness’ sake!) was pure amusement with a touch of bathos, as indeed it was probably intended. But now I’m not sure sure he didn’t have somewhere just like our garden in mind, where the excess does feel slightly mad, lightly crazy.

Like the old poet, I too love to sit in a green shade and think and simply be, comforted by the knowledge I have no pressing engagements or people to see. While I was at university, while I still hardly knew my own character – the real one, as opposed to the extravert carapace I’d spent years building as protective cover – I wrote a dissertation on Marvell and the conflict between private and public life.

Such is the power of poetry: it connects with the emotions rather than everyday logic. I must have felt this strongly myself, though it had yet to filter up through my subconscious. Though, obviously, my life was nothing like his public life as a politician, administrator, philosopher balanced with a private life of poetry, unpublished during his lifetime: it was more a recognition of his admission that the introvert can go out and achieve as much as the extravert but then needs time alone to settle the nerves and re-arm inner resources.

Marvell’s The Garden opens with some wonderful and intricate punning that cleverly captures the kind of frenetic activities that lead to the desire for seclusion:

 How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays
And their uncessant labours see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid
While all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

I love the way “vainly” means both “in vain” and “with vanity”; “amaze” has all the force of “amazement” but with a strong sense of being stunned, hit with force, and also of confusion: “a-mazed”, perhaps, trapped in a maze with no way out. The great honours are symbolised by trees, such as the bay (or laurel), but he would rather have the tree itself.

In the garden, the calmed mind finds its own happiness: Annihilating all that's made To a green thought in a green shade. 

You can read the whole poem by clicking here. And if you’re curious about Andrew Marvell now, there’s plenty more information about him on the same Luminarium site.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Signs of high summer

The sun is beating down, the narrow streets in town are getting more crowded, and the locals are muttering darkly in supermarket queues about the seasonal influx of foreigners, and worse - Parisians. British and American voices can be heard in passing at every market in Provence. On the roads, we remember just in time what masters of the unexpected Belgian drivers can be.

And on walls and in shop windows everywhere, posters have appeared advertising the summer's entertainments. There are village parties open to all, starting with boules tournaments, progressing to two nights of dancing under the stars and ending with vide greniers, the "attic clear-out" sales on the streets and village squares that provide such rich pickings of shabby chic artefacts.

There are serious concerts in superb settings such as the hilltop castles at Gordes and Lacoste, recitals in churches, and village bands in the squares under the trees. Then there are the food evenings, involving vins et fromages (wines and cheeses) and soupe au pistou (a soup with tomatoes, garlic and basil) accompanied by musical entertainments. Truly, there is something for everyone.

PS. For some reason Blogger won't upload any of my recent photos, and trying to do so is sending me mad this morning! But I'm so aware that my blogging has been patchy to say the least of late, so I'm determined to post something, even if it is with last year's pictures. I may revisit later and attempt a reconciliation with Blogger...

It's working! I'm going in to try for another!

Hurray! And when there's no more space for posters on walls and in windows, they're pinned to headless men who walk around town...

Friday, 8 July 2011

The sound of the south

You know summer has really arrived in Provence when the cicadas start whirring and chirruping. Their distinctive sound pulses, and as more and more join in the chorus the effect is like waves of mechanical toys fidgeting in the grass.

Although they don’t seem an especially pretty creature to me, the cicadas are immortalised everywhere in ceramic form, perhaps as the very symbol of sunny days. The first photo was taken at a brocante sale in St-Remy-de-Provence, and these examples are chunky yet rather well detailed. I’m not quite sure what you’d do with them – perhaps they are for the serious enthusiast and collector only.

Far more often, you see “Les Cigalles” in rough and colourful form as decoration on those “essentially Provençal” items without which no market would be complete in July and August: the perfume diffusers, as here, or gift-wrapped soaps, or jars of herbs.

I was wondering whether I could download the sound of these constant background companions that let you know you are in the south, but decided against it. It occurs to me, though, that with the advent of e-readers, it probably won’t be long until there is a soundtrack embedded in every e-book. And then images, too, no doubt, so that all the wonders of technology that we can use on our blogs will be brought to creating fabulously involving texts. It’s quite a thought, isn’t it?

Or are the words better left to speak for themselves on the page, allowing the reader to create the images? Just as they say about radio: the pictures are so much better than the television.

But I’m going to take a risk here, and post some more sound. In general, I’m much happier talking on the radio, as I did earlier this week on BBC Radio Kent, because I’m not having to deal with my self-consciousness in front of a camera. But here’s a tiny part of an afternoon of promo filming I did a couple of weeks ago, at home in England, so relatively relaxed (only relatively, mind…!). It’s a reading of the Prologue to The Lantern.  

Sunday, 3 July 2011

La Provence

      When the local newspapers weren’t full of financial worries, layoffs at fruit packing plants and the crystallized fruit factories, and falling prices for the farmers, they were reporting a series of local girls who had gone missing.
        We heard the talk and saw the headlines, but we managed not to register any of it. We took refuge in our foreign status, bound up in our own little world, where nothing could touch us. 
                                                                      From The Lantern

The idea of the blissful isolation – or ignorance – experienced by foreigners in a country not their own is neatly summed up in this picture of our local newspaper, La Provence. It is one of the “gifts from the house”: found objects we have kept and made part of the place again. I’ve cropped the picture so that you can’t tell, but it’s framed in pine and hangs in the kitchen.

The artist has taken the front page and used it as the canvas for a rather good painting of Lourmarin on the southern slopes of the Luberon ridge. It seems to have been intended as a wedding present, and 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.

This picture was found in the bergerie, the guest cottage across the track, sealed in behind a fabric bed headboard that we dismantled before we gave the room a new coat of paint. It seems odd that it was sealed in – was the present unwanted? Did one of the newly-weds hate it? Or had it never been given, but left by the artist, who decided not to hand it over, after all? Such are the delicious questions that arise when you find strange objects unexpectedly – tiny glimpses into other lives to which you will never know the answers.

So there it is, the out-of-date newspaper on which any news has been over-painted with an idyllic scene. It seems to stand for that feeling you have on holiday when you can give yourself space to be rather than continuously worrying about day-to-day responsibilities, which includes knowing what all those media reports say.
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