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.

Monday 20 October 2014

A place to read

My UK publishers Orion have a new set of places where authors can interact with readers and give a few personal insights at One Book Lane on Facebook and Twitter. One theme that particularly appeals to me is their Dream Reading Rooms board on Pinterest. After all, writers have to be readers too.

As loyal readers of this blog will know by now, I'm not a great one for splashing photos of myself over social media, but I have posted pictures of my summer reading places in Provence, under the fig tree in the courtyard, and this hammock under a fig and an oak tree:

But the top picture shows where you'll find me, shoes off and feet up, with a cup of tea and a book at our house in Kent. Note the serious number of cushions! 
This sofa is next to French windows that open onto a little terrace, so fresh air - another vital component of happy reading - can circulate if required. And the yellow walls of the room make it look sunny even in the depths of a grey English winter. The big painting, full of vibrant colour is by British artist William Selby, originally bought for the house in France, but we liked it so much where it is that it has stayed there.
Where is your favourite place to read?

Sunday 12 October 2014

The lavender farm and distillery

Following on from the most expensive perfume in the world, here's my idea of scent heaven. In the hamlet of Les Agnels near Buoux in the Grand Luberon hills, lavender and the hardier lavandin crop is gathered and distilled in the traditional way to produce essential oils. For those of you who enjoyed the descriptions of the Distillerie Musset in The Lantern and The Sea Garden, here is the very essence of a modern version of the perfume and soap factory set in the lavender fields. 

Sheaves of lavender - and lavandin - are brought to the steam vats for the extraction process to begin. (Don't you just love the colour of the vats?) Some interesting local colour, too, in the protest sign propped against the far wall, saying, "Lavender is not a chemical product. No to EU ruling." Quite right, too.

Here is the basic product, after vaporisation and collection of the droplets of scented oil: no frills and a hint of the medicinal.

In The Lantern, Madame Musset was a herbalist, too, with a knowledge of the medicinal properties of natural oils. And here at Les Agnels, you can find the same old cures for ailments that she would have produced. A laurel leaf preparation for viral and dental afflictions, for example; lemon balm (Melissa) for migraine and digestive troubles.

Perfumed soaps, of course, and other beauty creams and tonics...

Then we get to the perfumes, lovely fresh scents made with lavender, and Luberon flowers, fig, amber resin, and a personal favourite for hot summer days, a Green Tea eau de toilette that manages to be light and fresh and sweet at the same time.

These fragrances are particularly expensive - in a Provence context, you could have two for the price of a bottle of wine in a restaurant, and the scent will last longer!

Then there are the room scents, all given names that lift the senses and transport you just to read them: Under the Lime Trees, In the Shade of the Fig Tree, A Wander through the Garrigue.

For more information and remote sensory indulgence, you can visit the Les Agnels website here. And for those who are entranced by the very thought of this place, the good news is that there are a number of holiday gites available for rent in the hamlet.

Sunday 5 October 2014

The world's most expensive perfume

This is an extraordinary bottle of perfume. Created by British perfumer Clive Christian for the opening of the Salon de Parfum boutique at Harrods in London, it contains his No1 perfume and has a price tag of £143,000. Yes, you read that right.

Under normal circumstances, the scent is marketed as 'the world's most expensive perfume' at £450 for a standard bottle of the fragrance. But this special edition features the signature crystal bottle covered in hand-crafted, 24 carat gold lattice-work and diamonds.

Called the No1 Passant Guardant, this scent is advertised as "uniquely 
expensive" and created with no reference to cost to contain "the most rare and precious ingredients". I'm sure there are some people in the world to whom this will appeal enormously. Personally, I'd be more interested in what these ingredients are and what the fragrance smells like but that information seems to be a closely-guarded secret on the retail websites.

All right, I know we should regard this as a triumph of marketing, and perhaps the bottle itself as a work of art. But I can't help but think I'd rather have a good artisan perfume, or a local distillation from the lavender fields. Something you can actually imagine before you even open the bottle to try it.

Friday 26 September 2014

Dangerous messages

"By 1943, the life expectancy of a wireless operator working for the French resistance and the British agents on the ground in Nazi-occupied France was down to six weeks. Sending and receiving vital messages between the sharp end and London to organize secret drops of agents and weapons, and provide the link between sabotage operations, was dangerous work."
This is the start of a post I've written this week, Communication in Wartime: Between the Lines, for the Reading the Past blog, written and curated by Sarah Johnson. If you'd like to continue reading a salutary tale of how, despite the part women were playing in secret missions, the opinions and instincts of the women who worked in the secret London office were disregarded, leading to fatal consequences, then click on this link.

Saturday 20 September 2014

Secret weapons

It's an extraordinary thing, actually to see the tools of the trade of the secret operations that took place in Nazi-occupied France. Impossible to look at them, as here at the Musée de la Résistance at Fontaine de Vaucluse, without imagining the fear and sheer courage that went with their use in the darkest days of World War Two.
Here is an SOE wireless set disguised as a small leather suitcase. Operators knew that if they were challenged to open the case during a security check on a train, for example, it was as good as a death warrant for there could be no other explanation for it other than the owner's occupation as a spy or active resistant. And neither spy nor resistant had the protection of a uniform under the Geneva Convention.

At the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum (see my previous post here), more mundane but still vital equipment is on display. The disguises were intricate and ingenious: a compartmentalised fountain pen contains a silk map and compass. Compared to the basic magnetised compass in the tip of a match it's a de luxe item - a precursor to James Bond's armoury, perhaps...

Special agents were issued with British-made imitations of French cigarettes and matches to make their "French" identities more plausible. Their pockets and bags were carefully checked before they set off across the Channel for any clues that would give away their true nationality. The fabric of their clothes, their buttons and jewellery and shoes: all had to be right. The British even cooked special soap with ashes to mimic the poor tablets that most French had to use during the war. 

But among the artefacts from a deadly serious time, there are still moments of humour. This one tells you a lot about how the British saw the ordinary French: a bar of French Menier chocolate "modified to produce a garlic odour on the consumer's breath"! A classic worthy of Fairfax and Carstairs in Allo Allo...

Monday 15 September 2014

The Bertrams of Bignor Manor

"These few flowers were picked by moonlight a few hours ago by the faithful friends you have in France."

During the darkest days of World War II when France was under Nazi occupation, it was inconceivable to most people that there might be an air service across the Channel. But there was, run by the secret intelligence services in Britain and the French resistance, and the start of the dangerous journey was often this house, Bignor Manor in West Sussex.

Nestled at the foot of the South Downs, it is more a pleasant-looking farmhouse than a manor house. It was rented in the 1940s by Anthony Bertram and his wife Barbara, who lived there with their two young sons and a menagerie of animals. An author and art critic, Tony Bertram had served in the 1914-18 war, and though he was too old for the front line this time, he was recruited into MI6 on account of his fluent command of French. Given the title of Major, he became the liaison officer for the French agents arriving and departing via the moonlight flights run by RAF Tangmere.

Barbara Bertram played a vital role, too. Resourceful and calm, she welcomed these men (and occasionally women) into her home. Often their introduction to her was over a breakfast she had cooked, using eggs from the chickens, at 4am. As the war went on, she found she was effectively running a hostel for spies and saboteurs, with little outside assistance and in conditions of utmost secrecy. No one in the village of Bignor was allowed to know what was happening - and neither, amazingly, did her children. When numbers grew, and the men became impossible to hide, it was put about that she was looking after injured French servicemen.

This led to some amusing episodes of light relief in what was always a tense situation as they passed the hours and days until full moon and the risky ascent in a Lysander plane to their renew their fight. The French and others involved in the operations would play darts in a local pub, the White Horse at Sutton (pictured below). During one match against the regulars, one of the French with an arm in a sling (purely for effect) astonished his adversary by a brilliant performance despite using his "wrong" arm.

More than two hundred French personnel passed through Bignor Manor during the course of three years. Throughout this time, the Bertrams offered practical assistance and the comfort of being looked after in the atmosphere of a spirited house party. The clandestine flights took place during the nights of full moon; between the moons, Major Bertram trained them in finding landing fields in France and organising operations on the ground there.
When the men wanted calm, they helped in the garden and relied on Barbara's sympathetic ear and understanding. When they wanted company, she would drop everything to make up a four at bridge, or play darts, or go for a walk. Her discretion and gaiety made her immensely popular. "The ones who were leaving were mostly there for two or three days; but they were nervous, short-tempered, impatient, and let's face it, scared stiff. Difficult guests, but so good was she with them that I have often heard them say, 'Our best memory of England was the time we had to spend in Mrs Bertram's house,'" recalled one high-ranking member of the Resistance.
One tiny incident illustrates why Barbara Bertram was so loved. When a group arrived off the night flight from France, their boots were often very muddy from the field where the plane had taken off. Barbara collected this mud and grew mustard and cress on it, to be able to offer the men salad grown on French soil.
This framed memento at the RAF Tangmere museum contains pressed lilies of the valley, long since faded, but the sentiments are still poignant, as is the reference to moonlight: Dear Mrs Bertram, These few flowers were picked by moonlight a few hours ago by the faithful friends you have in France. Hoping you will receive them in good condition. We remain yours devoted, Roddy and Armand.  

The National Portrait Gallery in London has two photographs of the Bertrams, both taken in June 1932. Almost ten years before they would be called on for their unique contribution to the war effort, Barbara looks classically serene before a religious background. There is a sense of quiet goodness in the picture.

Tony is serious, the man of letters at a desk, with a steely determination in clever eyes.

In The Sea Garden, I have changed the names of many of the real-life characters whose stories inspired the novel. But Tony and Barbara Bertram appear in cameo as themselves, in the real Bignor Manor, at one of the many jolly gatherings that took place when Sussex fog descended, blocking out the light of the moon and the possibility of night flight from Tangmere. It was almost possible to forget that they were involved in a risky game, that a silk scarf was a map of Europe and a leather purse contained a lethal weapon.

After the war, Barbara Bertram wrote a memoir of her experiences at Bignor, "when it was still fresh in my mind and going round and round in my head". It was finally published in 1995 as a delightful small book, French Resistance in Sussex. I drew on several of the incidents for The Sea Garden.

Thanks to Tangmere Military Aviation Museum for allowing me to take photographs of the exhibits there. Next post: The secret weapons.

Friday 5 September 2014


It began with the sparkle of lights on a distant hill. Every night we stared into the far distance from the terrace at the ripples of the Luberon ridge as it darkened and the lights coming on over the vast floor of the valley. With binoculars we could see Roussillon, with Gordes behind it on the northern rise towards Mont Ventoux. And on the furthest point of the Petit Luberon on the south side, was a collection of lights in the shape of a perched village - but which village was it?

At first, we thought it might be Lacoste, its castle lit at night for the summer arts festival with necklaces of streetlamps below. But that was geographically impossible; what we were looking at was a great deal further away. Maps were fetched and proved inconclusive, as did Google Earth. The only way to find out was to set a course west and go there.

We knew more or less where to start. First, to see a friend who lives in Murs, not far from Gordes, high on the hills opposite Bonnieux and Lacoste. From her garden, we strained our eyes into the rolling blue hills. We headed towards Les Taillades, which was our best guess; it was at the end of the Petit Luberon and was bolstered by some promising internet research. But when we got there, it just wasn't high enough to be a candidate. At Robion, also on the list of possibilities, the Vieux Village was higher than the part we usually dash through on the way to Cavaillon and Marseille airport, but again wasn't high enough. What we'd been seeing, was right at the top of the hill. A hill that had disappeared.

So we had lunch (always important on a quest) in Robion, and considered our options. The breakthrough was made when I asked someone to look at a blurry photo I'd taken. "That's Oppede-le-Vieux you're seeing, no doubt about it," I was told. "But what's the hill behind the end of the Petit Luberon?" I asked, "I'm sure that's where the lights are - but from here there doesn't seem to be a hill further on." This was true, and had been the subject of some heated debate. Perhaps it was another one of those French country mysteries, like the village that you never find again.

Another look at my photo. "That could be the Colline de St-Jacques at Cavaillon. It does have a chapel on the top and cliffs that are illuminated at night. But it won't be that - too far away. It's Oppede-le-Vieux." So that's where we went.

We did know the village, and it had been on our list of possibilities, though largely discounted because it wasn't in quite the right place, clinging as it does to the wooded cliffs of the Petit Luberon. A haunting place, with a melancholy atmosphere that still lingers in bright sunshine. It dates from the 12th century, when its position was defensive. In the bloody battles and religious turmoil of the middle ages, it was a stronghold as well as a seat from which atrocities were launched, but by the beginning of the 20th century it had been abandoned. It was north-facing: cold, dark and damp in winter, and too far from the farmers' fields.

Oppede-le-Vieux came back to life during the 1940s, when it was claimed by a commune of artists, including Consuelo, wife of the celebrated French airman and author Antoine de St-Exupery. These incomers began to restore many of the crumbling stone houses, but even now, as you walk higher and higher up the narrow cobbled paths to the ruined castle, there is a pervasive sense of mystery. What happened in this place of shadowy overgrown streets and steps that seem to climb nowhere?

The elegant 12th century church of Notre Dame d'Alydon is the reward at the end of the stony path, from where the panorama reveals the full expanse of the western Luberon valley and a sighting of the white stony peak of Mont Ventoux.

From here, you can see the village of Menerbes, with its characteristic shape of a ship run aground on the lower hills. The photo below was taken with a zoom - if you want to see it clearer, you can click on it to enlarge. At the far left end is Le Castellet, temporary home in 1950 of the cookery writer Elizabeth David as described in this previous blog post, and subsequently bought by the artist Nicolas de Stael.

However, it was at this point we knew the quest was not over. In the other direction is the end of the Luberon ridge, and beyond that, form this height, is just visible the hill we thought we had lost. It's a bit faint in this photo, but it is there on the horizon, far further away than we'd imagined. What we could see from our terrace couldn't be Oppede.

On the way down to the main part of the village, we discussed the implications...past this pretty small chapel, La Chapelle des Penitents Blancs...

...and this blocked-up doorway with the date 1721 carved into the stone lintel...

...until we reached the shady courtyard of Le Petit Café in Place Croix.

Some delicious mandarin and sharp lemon sorbets helped the thinking process. But it wasn't until we got home that the wonders of the internet helped us to the solution. Pictures found there of the Colline de St-Jacques that looms above Cavaillon, provided matching rock patterns and proof that this was what we had been looking for. On its summit is a chapel, lit at night above sheer rocky cliffs that are also illuminated. And amazingly, the night skies are so clear that we can see it from our west-facing terrace almost forty miles away.

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