Tuesday 29 April 2014

Two bikes and a baguette

OK, I should be working, but on the other hand, a bit of exercise is excellent for freeing up the mind...so it wasn't much of a contest. The Luberon Véloroute is a cycle track that snakes along the length of the valley and beyond to Forcalquier, a transformation of the disused railway line. April seems the perfect time to get pedalling, before the summer heat and tourists.
We hired some bikes in Apt and set off in the direction of Avignon (not that we planned to get anywhere close). There are the usual scenes of an industrial estate on the way out of town, but even then the height of the path on a old embankment allowed us to see a reclamation yard that we didn't know was there, and spent a happy ten minutes pointing out interesting archways and pillars for the fantasy garden.
In the photo above, I've stopped on the Roman bridge, the Pont Julien. Behind me to the left is the perched village of Lacoste. It was easy cycling through pretty orchards and farms, always with the Luberon hills rising above us. We got to Lumières, near Goult, to buy a picnic lunch with ten minutes to spare before the village shop shut. (Now that would have been a disaster!)
A baguette sticking out of the panier, some simple ingredients and a cherry orchard in blossom - what could be better for a classic French pique-nique?


Tuesday 22 April 2014

La source...after Jean de Florette

The flow of precious water through the countryside is the driving force of Marcel Pagnol's classic stories of Provence, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. When a water source is blocked in the arid hills, the subsequent tragedy and revenge exposes all life's follies, foibles and divisions. Here on our land, we have also had issues with water, but in this case, as we are not farming, the problem has been too much of a good thing.
On the path opposite the main buildings is an old stone fountain and trough, fed by a spring that rises higher up on the hill. Once it must have been used as a drinking bowl for horses and other animals, and a kind of all-purpose tap for the farm. It has been disconnected for as long as we have been here, but the spring bubbles up behind it and spills across the path. In the winter months and whenever it rains hard, it becomes a steady flow and then a stream down the ruelle between two buildings. To the other side, it threatens to wash away a drive we have constructed, and we have already lost one badly-positioned new fosse septique.
There are three wells, too. The highest is up on the scrubby hillside amid rows of large dog-rose bushes (planted, so our legend goes, by a previous owner who wanted to discourage the grazing of sheep by a neighbouring farmer). It looks very like a well that might grace Pagnol's landscape: a mound of stones topped by a rusty iron lid.

Inside, it is a long drop down - much further than the water level. Apparently, there is a brick tunnel that arrives from even further up the hill, obviously some kind of water culvert rather than for adventuring, but even so, quite exciting!

This well seems to have been built on the site of spring, and a pipe takes the water down towards the fountain. But obviously, it's not being well enough controlled, so for the past few weeks, work has been under way to divert this water from the source. Here's the old pipe, found after much exploration with a digger and cut so we can see what's going on. It is running, even if it's no more than a dribble these warm, sunny days.

Now the clever bit, using a neat green solution. The old - well, new really, it was only in the ground for a few months before it was overwhelmed by a flood - septic tank has been repaired and sunk into the ground and will be used to collect the spring water before it gets too close to the buildings. When the tank is covered over again by turf and connected up, the water can now be stored and used to water the garden.

Which should leave the ground in front of the house much less damp and rutted with the vestiges of impromptu water courses. Although there's one more piece of evidence, along with the enormous plane trees that must have been fed somehow underground, that lack of water has never been a problem for this old farm: the stone cistern under those trees. At some time it was built to store the overflow, and must have stood as a proud statement of how well blessed the hamlet was for valuable Provencal water. 

Sunday 20 April 2014

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter, everyone! If I could, I would send you one of these typically French flower and egg gifts that were displayed outside one of the flower shops in Apt the other day. Thank you all for the blog visits, and the kind, funny and insightful comments you leave - and I hope you have a happy, sunny Easter Sunday.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Marthe Lincel at Manosque

"The war had not yet begun when Marthe Lincel went to the
perfume factory for the first time. It was a visit organised by
the school for the blind in Manosque. If anyone were ever to
ask her, she would tell him without hesitation that it was the
day that changed her life.

She was eighteen years old, almost ready to leave the school,
when she took her first careful steps towards the long table
in the blending room at the Distillerie Musset, her hands in
the hands of other girls, one in front and one behind. The
girls walked in concert down from the school, through gusts
of dung from the stables, past the ramparts of the ancient
teardrop-shaped town, on past incense from the church and
into the tree-lined boulevard des Tilleuls. At the door to the
shop, a bell tinkled, and moments later they seemed to enter
the very flowering of lavender."

                                                        from The Sea Garden
The tree-lined boulevards of Manosque in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence still encircle the old town, linking its fortified gateways - one on the north side, one on the south - that date from the fourteenth century. The planes and limes cast welcome shade over the pavements, for even in this early in the year, the light is searing and on a cloudless day the heat can be intense. The gnarled branches and green leaves make a quintessentially French picture.
The fictional Distillerie Musset, in The Sea Garden, is situated on just such a street. It's not a grand shop front, but it has an enticing display of perfumes and soaps in the window and a presence on one of the main shopping boulevards. At the rear, accessed from the narrow lanes of the ancient town, is the courtyard and manufacturing shed. The entrance to this part of the business is discreet, also dappled by a venerable tree, rather like this:
                                   "In the blending room at the Distillerie Musset in town,
Marthe held a glass vial to her nose: a distillation of violet. She
breathed in slowly until it seemed for those few moments the
air was reduced to a powdery sweet- sharpness. Over the months
since then she had experimented with other ingredients to
intensify the fragrance, but now the addition of spicy acacia
wood had deepened its distinctive sweetness (the scent that
would always recall that first propitious visit to the Mussets)
to capture its shaded woodland origins and the shy purple petals
in the first shafts of spring sunshine." 

As many of you know, Marthe Lincel first appeared as a character in The Lantern, but seen only through the perspective of others. Writing about her in the third-person-intimate (in which the story unfolds only through the viewpoint of one character) was a particular challenge, because she is blind. Her story had to be told through other senses but the visual, and from her memories of sight as a child. In the event, I found it easier that I thought, given that I am normally a markedly visual writer.

Others will judge whether I have succeeded, but I found it hugely interesting and a spur to my own perception of certain circumstances. Of course, there is a certain irony in setting the scene in this way by posting these photographs, but the reading of a book has a great deal to do with the creation of pictures in the mind, and as a reader myself I always fascinated to see - and hear and smell and touch - the places that inspire books.

Saturday 12 April 2014

Le Weekend in Spring

I've brought the wrong clothes again - a new wool dress and a range of outfits to go with my boots - but who cares when the sun is this bright and the temperature is rising? It's not until we arrive here that I realise how low the grey clouds have been and how grumpy I have been for the past few months.
It's true, there is something very special about the quality of the light in the South of France. In Spring it's luminous rather than stark and it seems to light up the flowers and blossom and stone from within. At the market this morning, the displays of fruit and vegetables were given an extra dazzle by the sun. There were banks of stalls selling pretty linen tops and I choose one in gold-green. The accordion player (no French musical cliché unturned...) opposite the olive and tapenade stall made us want to stay outside forever.
On to the wine shop, V Comme Vin, for some cool, pale rosé - they give the best recommendations - and then was unable to resist buying some orange and pistachio macaroons that looked shiny but delectably squidgy. Lemons, fennel and tarragon to make a lemon chicken dish. White asparagus. A length of cheap material to use as a new tablecloth, and we are all set for the weekend!

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Shiny New Books

A shiny new book that opens to reveal an entrancing read...could there be a greater bibliophile treat? In this spirit, Shiny New Books has launched this week: an independent quarterly online magazine edited by some of Britain's most respected book bloggers. "At Shiny New Books, we think a bookshop isn’t necessarily the first place you want to hear about a new book, and that anticipating books, whether by new or established authors, is a particular readerly pleasure."

As well as reviews, the magazine will also feature interviews and posts by authors, explaining the background to forthcoming releases and giving a glimpse behind the scenes of the writing process. I'm delighted to say that I'm among those authors in the inaugural edition that features some prestigious names, including Sebastian Barry, Jill Dawson and Helen Oyeyemi. You can follow this link to the piece I wrote about an unexpectedly moving event during high season in Provence.

There's so much to read, with articles ranging from re-issues and a translation of the biography of Tove Janssen, to a masterly assessment of Emile Zola that I guarantee you won't be able to stop at one. The introduction to Zola - to mark Penguin's publication of a selection of his novels that have not been in translation for more than a hundred years - by Victoria Best, shows us exactly how high the standard is and why this new venture is likely to produce some of the best literary criticism you are likely to find anywhere.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

A purple lantern

This picture of a papier maché lantern pinged into my email inbox a few days ago. It was made as a symbol of my novel The Lantern by a high school student who sent me a message, out of the blue, back in February. "I am about to do a research project on your novel, being that we were allowed to choose a book. However, I have to cite my sources and I thought the best resource involving the author would be the author, herself," she wrote.
Well, as you can imagine, I was thrilled. I loved her approach, and the fact that she liked my book so much and thought there was something to say about it - and I wished I'd had her chutzpah when I was her age. We began exchanging emails, and she responded with more questions about literary conventions and inspirations and themes, which I did my best to answer. I was very conscious that I was once a student of English lit, and this was a fascinating reversal for me. All those essays about an author's intent and technique that I could only try to imagine when I was 18, and here I was giving a first-hand account. 
The project has now been completed and submitted for grading. It includes a visual: this purple lantern with a quote from the novel on one window; the photo of it sent with thanks for my help. Isn't that wonderful? If this doesn't get an A for effort, I don't know what will! 

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