Wednesday 26 June 2013

The verdict

A week and a half ago, the manuscript was handed over to my mother, Joy. In some ways, this is always the most nerve-wracking moment of any novel I write, because I can rely on her to tell it how is it. "Intriguing," she will say, "but it's not quite there yet, is it?"
When I was a child, I read because she was always reading. As soon as I was able to, I worked my way through her bookcases. I can't remember a time when she wasn't passing on books that she thought I'd enjoy - eclectic, fascinating books that I probably wouldn't have picked up otherwise, full of interesting matters for discussion. Even when I handed over my work-in-progress, I came away with four books to read.
This time, there was an additional reason to be nervous: one part of the novel is set in wartime London, a time and place she knew well. She's a Londoner from south of the river; she experienced what it's like to be bombed out, to come back from a shopping trip on a Saturday morning to find the family house was a pile of rubble after a direct hit - luckily, all the family was out. She was seventeen, and planning to join the Wrens (the Women's Royal Naval Service) when the war ended.
She's a little younger than the character I wrote, but a few of Iris's traits, notably resourcefulness and quiet willingness to swim against the conventional tide, as well as many of the observational details, are hers. I grew up with her - and my father's - stories of what it was like to live through the Second World War. But could I write about that time in a way that seemed authentic - and would Iris be credible? 
Well, I got a couple of V2 rocket matters wrong - the "doodlebug" flying bombs didn't have quite the explosive power I gave them (you see, this is typical of the war generations, they don't make a fuss when it's not called for, and they don't over-dramatize). But otherwise, she thought it was spot on. In fact, she thought the whole book was "a real cracker"! She loved the story and the way it was written, and the subtle links between the three sections. So, three cheers!

Here is my historical consultant, photographed a couple of years after the war, and on the left in the picture behind, with her equally-beautiful lifelong friend Daphne, who sadly passed away earlier this year. They both had interesting lives ahead when the photo was taken in the park, and five daughters between them. Joy was a career woman, who met my father abroad and went on to live all around the world, from Russia to Kuwait, China, to Belgium and Singapore, and several stops between. Here they are, in a favourite photo, taken at my wedding in 1989.

So, thanks, Mum, for everything.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Artisan soap from Provence

A few treats this week, to celebrate a pause in work on the manuscript. As I type this, my study smells deliciously of lemony verbena - verveine - from the handmade soap I bought from a stall at Apt market a few Saturdays ago. The scent burst into the air, redolent of freshness and lime, as soon as the clear film was peeled away.
This is a Frutadou, a clear soap that incorporates a slice of loofah, to "energize, activate the circulation and exfoliate", pictured above, and the verveine below. And I have to say, that although the soap is very soft, almost like hard jelly, the effect is gratifyingly tingly - though, for me, it's the fragrance that has the main energizing effect, every time.

What is so lovely about this kind of soap and associated products - these are by Savons du Sud - is the sheer exuberance of the scents and the fact that most of them are organic, made only of natural ingredients, many grown in the region.

Plants, fruits and herbs are combined using aromatherapy principles to promote well-being, and support specific issues such as heart health, relaxation and even the relief of headaches. There are soaps made of reviving tonics and gentle moisturisers. How can anyone resist these colours and pretty designs, either?

According to the leaflet that came with my purchase, Savons du Sud has a stall at Forcalquier market on Mondays and Lourmarin market on Fridays, as well as Apt on Saturday morning. If you happen to be there, it's well worth finding. If not, there is a website and online shop to look around.
And while the scent of any of the soaps will bring Provence to you, wherever you happen to be, this one is specially designed to keep us coming back: Night in Provence - to combat gloom (moroseness)? Cool and relaxing, with olive and lavender oil...

Saturday 15 June 2013

Printing the manuscript

I've just done it. After weeks of hard graft - and last week I hardly went anywhere except up the stairs to my study - I hit the print button about an hour ago and watched as all those words I crafted (agonised over in some cases) emerged on paper. Not a proper manuscript version for publishers, but a draft print for a trusted work-in-progress reader.

It's always a satisfying feeling - tinged with relief that the printer, at least, has actually worked. I can remember all too vividly the days when printing out the manuscript of a novel could take all day, churning and juddering and running out of ink, leaving you jumping around alongside with exhausted irritation.

When it came to the second novel, my husband heroically offered to print out the manuscript from a floppy disk at the office after work...the mega-printer there whooshed out the pages all right, but the after the first few pages, the files corrupted and all we had were pages of jibberish. More anguished phone calls. Another try. Tears of frustration at midnight...and back to home printing at the speed of a Roman scribe the next morning.

How far we have come...but the next stage remains the same. I'm going to drive over to my parents' house this afternoon and let my mother read it. Not only is she a lifelong reader, but she's a demanding one who pulls no punches. I made the mistake (well, I say mistake, but it was a lucky one) of showing her the first part of this book back in January before I had done enough work on it. I'd been telling her about how it was going, and she'd been more than usually interested in having an early peek.

So I gave her what I'd done. More than a week went by. Eventually, I cracked and asked her what she thought. "It's most peculiar," she said. "Far too much gardening, and you really need to explain things better." I had to go away and do some serious thinking. But an incisive reader at this stage is just what you need. Fingers crossed she likes it this time.   

Thursday 13 June 2013

In season

Preoccupied this week with revisions to the work-in-progress, so not much time, or head space, for blogging. So I'm sharing these pictures, taken at Apt market. Is there a nation on earth that can make vegetables look as appealing as the French? It's not just the way the structure of the displays, but the graduations of colour. And it all tastes so much better than anywhere else, of course.

Sunday 9 June 2013

A walk to La Source

It may be June, but the River Sorgue is high at Fontaine de Vaucluse this year, rushing and tumbling over the weirs, still full of mountain melt water that tints it glacier blue. On a summer's day, this would normally be a placid emerald pool where clear water babbles over green fronds.
But the cold spring in Provence has meant snow has lingered on the Alps - though we have escaped the terrible rains and floods of central Europe - and the rivers are still lively.

I've written on this blog before about Fontaine de Vaucluse, the village at the end of the "Closed Valley" from where the name of the Vaucluse department is derived. In The Lantern, Dom brings Eve here and they walk to the great wall of rock, at the base of which springs the source of the Sorgue. It's a very pretty walk, not far at all, out of the village past the shops and restaurants and along the river. Even when there are other people doing the same, there are always quiet spots along the way for reflection.

Approaching the source, the sheer force of water being forced up from the ground and pushed over rocks can be seen in churning white falls.

High on a promontory stand the ruins of the Bishop of Cavaillon's palace, giving a sense of power to the isolation...

And at the dead end of the valley is the source, with its fig tree that drinks but once a year, according to local legend. It's said that no one knows the depth of this pool; even today it is impossible to measure. This year, the surface markers on the far wall have been submerged, but the cold blue water that has filtered through hundreds of miles of rock still has an extraordinary quality of stillness as it gathers here.

Monday 3 June 2013

Fete de la Cerise

This is more like it...a perfect sunny Sunday in June. A hot sun shone on the Cherry Festival at Caseneuve, a charming hilltop village slightly off the beaten track opposite the Grand Luberon ridge. The whole of the Luberon valley is renowned for its soft fruit growing - apples, apricots, pears, plums, grapes, peaches, nectarines - but it's the cherry orchards that produce first, from drifts of white blossom in spring to the vibrant red dots swinging beneath pretty green leaves.
Stallholders came from as far afield as L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Gordes to showcase their fruit, and of course, in France you can't have a gathering of more than three people without a comprehensive spread of food available. The crowds wandered around tasting local wines and liqueurs, goats' cheeses, macaroons, honey and pastries, just enjoying the warmth and smells, as well as the spectacular views from high above the eastern end of the valley.


There were the obligatory lavender products, loose linen clothes, plenty of imaginative silver jewellery, and pottery - much on a cherry theme.

These tee-shirts were much in evidence among the stall-holders and helpers...

...and rather delightfully, the village committee's stall included a folder full of local family recipes for cherries. My favourite would have to be clafoutis, a baked vanilla custard-batter studded with the fruit and dredged with icing sugar when cooled. Hmm, now there's a tempting idea - we seem to have come back with an awful lot of cherries...

I really wanted to stay for the Grand Concours at 2.30pm: the Spitting the Cherry Stone competition. Exactly how far can a man or woman spit a cherry stone? Is there an acknowledged best technique - and does it seem a bit bonkers the first time you see it, a Fosbury flop of the cherry stone spitting world? Does the area have an unbeatable champ, identifiable by the historical red dribbles on his (or indeed her) lucky spitting shirt? Sadly, we will never know. We had to make our excuses and leave.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Chilling in Provence

Quite literally chilling, as it happens: the sun may be shining but it's unseasonably - unreasonably - cold here! At Apt market this morning, the locals were in their coats, muttering darkly. "Ce n'est pas normale..." "Bientot, l'hiver..."
We British are made of sterner stuff. After all, at least we can see the sun, which has been elusive on our northern isle so far this year. The Aptois warmed to our optimism in choosing an outside table for a morning coffee, and the stallholder from whom I bought a flimsy white shirt came close to a gruff embrace.

Best purchase was definitely the jumper, though. A pinky-grey confection with sparkles (very a la mode here) with all-important long sleeves. Not only will I blend in with my surroundings but I will be warm at last...

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