Wednesday 22 May 2013

The Luberon Garden: river of lavender

The Chelsea Flower Show in London this week - under skies like a grey woolly blanket - reminds me of a happy coincidence involving an iconic garden and some satisfying elements of detective work that I’ve been saving to share here.

It begins with a book, as most of my trails do. The Luberon Garden by veteran landscape designer Alex Dingwall-Main, is a rip-roaring good read about his years creating gardens in Provence, crammed full of useful information about plant-growing in the South of France.
It’s one of those books that’s written by someone who shoots from the hip, who wants to tell a story – lots of stories – without literary constraint, and frankly is all the more enjoyable for that. There’s a real sense of a larger-than-life personality behind the jokes that occasionally misfire, the all-too-honest assessment of tricky situations and the frustrations along the way behind the garden successes. 
His own house and garden are described in detail. “The house we finally settled for was an old mas that lay in a hammock of land slung between the medieval villages of Catholic Bonnieux on one side and Protestant Lacoste on the other, slightly favouring the latter with its position. It was a tired old place that had had the top floor renovated thirty years before we saw it in a style much appreciated by the paysanne.”
There were holes in the roof and walls that were not as solid as they appeared. “In fact, the house told boundless lies, deceived us with false promises of strength and sniggered at us behind our back as we became ensnared by its capricious charm.” He and his wife would look down on it from the terrace of the Café de France in Lacoste above, and marvel at how it could look so tranquil.

And so it was, at about this time last year, that I found myself on the same terrace, taking in the panorama – when I suddenly realised I was looking down at something that I knew about: one of Alex Dingwall-Main’s most memorable design features, the river of lavender he made as the centrepiece of his own Luberon garden. I’d long been curious to see it but never thought it would be possible. So I took a couple of photos to compare with the passages in the book.   
“The ‘river’ started at the top of the highest bank, zigzagged its way down the slope, flowed on through the quince orchard, and finally arrived at the ‘wine lake’. That’s what I pretentiously called our remaining forty vines. I had been certain that if we were going to use lavender in the garden then it had to be applied in a slightly different style.”

You can clearly see in this photo the lavender’s flow through the quince trees in blossom and the vines at the bottom. (If all this seems intrusive, I will just say that Dingwall-Main no longer lives in Provence, and moved on from this house many years ago.)

He wrote: “Owing to the soil varying in consistency over the route, it flowers stronger in some places than it does in others, which increases the effect. I wish I had added white lavender to give highlights; it would have been quite subtle and easy to do, but it was missed, so there we are. The whole thing is maintenance heavy and only has a life span of seven or eight years and I doubt I’ll have the energy or inclination to do it again, but meanwhile it is most welcome.”
Well, The Luberon Garden was published in 2001, and the events described largely took place in the 1990s, so either the river lasted far longer than he expected, or – perhaps more likely – subsequent owners have been inspired to keep it flowing.

If this has piqued your interest and you want to see more of his work, you can visit Alex Dingwall-Main’s garden design website here.

Thursday 16 May 2013

A writing update

"So how's the book going?" friends ask when I emerge from my study, and I'm never sure how much they really want to know. They probably could do without the re-enactment of the knotty plot crisis in section two, which involved pacing up and down the kitchen while stabbing a biro into my own head. An account of 'flu survival while being unable to work for two weeks will probably suffice. They can be spared details of the cold sweats and near delirium after the phone call from my editor in New York who only asked some basic, logical questions.
But one of the attractions of writers' blogs, whether reading or writing them, is that there is a core of honesty. Otherwise, why would you bother doing either, right? I find it interesting to know how the process works for other writers, how fast they work, what interventions and constraints there are in producing a new novel. Sometimes, there's an element of reassurance. There's a useful sense of how long it takes from first idea to finished book.
So, for those who are interested in such matters, here's how it's going. I had an end of March deadline to deliver the first draft of the book I've been writing since September, incorporating a novella I wrote earlier in the year - delivery to my literary agents in the first instance; delivery to publishers was fixed for the end of June. I am extremely lucky to have two literary agents these days, one in New York and one in London. It's quite the dream team.
I sent the manuscript in mid-March and enjoyed my freedom, not expecting to hear anything until a few weeks after Easter. Over lunch in London in mid-April with both my agents Stephanie and Araminta (who are great friends and colleagues) I was given the great news that they thought the first draft was good enough to go straight to the publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Hurray, champagne all round - we were ahead of schedule by two and a half months!
Perhaps it was partly relief after all the intense work that brought me down with the 'flu, perhaps it was the busy social time the following week. At any rate, I was knocked out for a fortnight and came round to find that editorial work was already starting. When the call came from my editor at HarperCollins in New York, my brain was so foggy I couldn't even remember the names of my own characters. A few days of panic ensued, during which I had to take a long hard look at the nuts of bolts of my plot - marvelling at my editor's laser focus on the crucial issues. (It's astonishing how the asking of a very simple question can open up weaknesses.)
I'm feeling much better now, in all senses. The editorial process has begun, while waiting for more notes from the UK publishers, Orion. I'll keep you posted.  

Sunday 12 May 2013

The Beckoning Silence

It's been vile, this bout of 'flu. I've been wiped out for two weeks and am still not quite right. But while I was breaking into a cold sweat climbing the kitchen stairs with another mug of Lemsip, I raised a reddened eye at the bookcase as I paused for breath, trembling, and saw exactly the companion I wanted: Joe Simpson. Possibly because the stairs in our house felt like the North Face of the Eiger at that moment, only the perspective of a mountaineer would do.
Simpson is the master of the adventure and endurance tale. Touching the Void, the story of his extraordinary survival against the odds after a climbing accident on Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes, made his name. But he is a compelling writer who has gone on to write several other books that examine the psychology of the human spirit in adversity and under pressure.

The book I reached out for on the stairs was The Beckoning Silence. It's a sombre read. In other hands, it could be anything but inspirational. In it, Simpson reflects on his climbing career and the accidents and near-misses he has been lucky enough to return from. He intersperses his own experiences with the accounts of the daring ascents that inspired him to start climbing, and the tragic outcomes that awaited the bravest of them all. The world opens up: from the Himalayas to an avalanche in Bolivia, paragliding in Spain, and extreme ice-climbing in the Alps and Colorado. As he writes:

"There is something about reading that takes you beyond the constrictions of time and space, frees you from the limitations of social interaction and allows you to escape. Whoever you encounter within the pages of a book, whatever lives you vicariously live with them can affect you deeply - entertain you briefly, change your view of the world, open your eyes to a wholly different concept of living and the value of life."    
But along with the extreme climbing, it's the extreme honesty that makes this such a thrilling read. For Joe Simpson is not sure how much more fear he can face, how long his luck will last. Along the way, too many friends and motivational figures have died. He tells their stories, too, as he plans one final challenge: to climb the hooded, mile-high North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland before giving up his beloved sport.

Well. The stories in these pages are so terrifying, the writing so tense and dramatic, that after a while it was hard to tell whether my clammy skin and rapid heartbeat was the result of empathy with the doomed climbers caught in storms in inhospitable places, or my own imminent demise from foggy headache and racking cough.

The legendary route up the Eiger is marked by chilling names. Death Bivouac. Traverse of the Gods. Difficult Crack (Blimey, if these stony mountain men think it's must be Absolutely Bloody Impossible.) Climbers have to spend at least one night roped to an almost sheer face on their way to the summit. When I couldn't sleep at night, I focused on thinking how much worse my situation could be on Death Bivouac in a snow storm...

On the Eiger, the mountain face can transform in an instant. Simpson watches from a (relatively) safe shelter as the rock wall becomes a confusion of small avalanches, waterfalls, hail, and boulders skittering down, any one of which can kill. Here is Simpson's description of what happened to two other climbers on the Eiger during his own ascent with his climbing partner Ray:

"The fall was slow, almost lazy. He stepped across his left foot with his right and planted his feet parallel to the ice field. Then he fell. He wasn't hit by falling rocks and there was no indication of a hard impact, no sudden, violent loss of balance. His feet simply slithered away beneath him and he went down onto his right hip and then onto his flank.
   It seemed to be the fall of a tired man - a typical slip that every climber has experienced at some point in his climbing career.
   The figure twisted round swiftly onto  his stomach, raised his ice axe and aimed a hard blow at the ice field, to little effect. The band of soft snow absorbed the ice pick but gave no purchase. Immediately he swung with his other axe but it cut through just as easily as the first. He tried again with the axe. Nothing happened. He still seemed to be sliding down with deceptive, almost languid slowness. As he made a final swing with his axe - more hurried as if with the first hint of desperation - his body moved onto the snow-free hard ice and he accelerated away with brutal abruptness."

As the first man's fall becomes unstoppable, the momentum pulls the rope connecting him to his partner, snapping him away from the wall. There is nothing than can save them.

Even if you don't have an outdoor bone on your body, I highly recommend Joe Simpson's books to open up the world and take an unflinching look at its big questions. At the first sign of a sniffle, take one immediately.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Not so great...

I'm back. (Just about.) I wish I could bring you tales of exoticism and intrigue, but I've gone nowhere you would want to follow. I've had the 'flu. This chap knows how I feel. I've been beached on a sofa, watching Homes Under the Hammer, feeling the homes were not the only things under the cosh.
I will spare you the details, though only because I can't be bothered to write them out again after Blogger just wiped what I'd spent half an hour writing - the Law of Feeling Wretched insists that no mercy is shown. So this is just a feeble wave rising from the tissues, sinus spray and cough syrup, but life is stirring. I will return. 

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