Thursday 28 August 2014

The Sea Garden: out today!

The Sea Garden is published in the UK today! The day is finally here after all the months of build-up. To look inside the book and read the beginning, you can visit the Orion Books site. And to celebrate here, a glimpse into the opening of the book: a real sea garden on the island of Porquerolles. A few steps away from the Place d'Armes in the village is the Jardin Emmanuel Lopez.

Exotic plants from the four corners of the world, from cacti to lavender, rosemary to palms, all thrive together in this sunny maritime climate.

The garden is managed by the National Park of Port Cros, which is also responsible for the seas around the "Golden Islands" of Porquerolles, Port Cros and the Ile du Levant. It was in this spot that the island's owner Monsieur Fournier, who had made his fortune in the silver mines of Mexico, had his garden laid out in front of his hacienda a century ago.

No dry Mediterranean garden would be complete without a display of bougainvillea - love the striking combination of these flower colours - and oleander, of course, all starkly cheerful against the bright blue of the sky and the sea close by.


Saturday 23 August 2014

Fete de la Liberation

It was 1944 again, for one night only, in the small town of Apt yesterday to mark the 70th anniversary of its liberation. Klaxons sounded as US Army Jeeps and trucks raced through the main roads, and the Stars and Stripes fluttered alongside the Tricolore. It wasn't one of the great set pieces such as those at Normandy and Toulon; the participants dressed as American soldiers were all French - but it was utterly charming. 
As ever, the joy is in the historical detail. Here is a truck used by the French resistance, with its hunting bag hanging from the driver's door, the member riding shotgun, and around the back, the jerry cans of black market petrol, shovels, ropes and the bicycles that were a vital means of transport and conveying messages between underground cells.


 Among all the uniforms, the ladies those riding in the vehicles had also dressed the part...

A plaque was unveiled at the top of the steps to the Salle des Fetes, while inside a US Army film ran continually, showing the progress of Operation Dragoon seventy years ago up through Peyrolles and across the Durance river by makeshift bridge, until the troops of the 45th Infantry Division, known as the Thunderbirds, were cheered through Manosque and took Apt on August 22.

Meanwhile, outside in the square a gigantic picnic was under way and a swing band played, followed by dancing.


Friday 22 August 2014

Liberation of Provence

Seventy years ago today, the American-led liberation of southern France reached the town of Apt. The previous day, the tanks and Jeeps had rolled into Aix-en-Provence (above), chasing the fleeing German army of occupation. But today is the day remembered in Apt, with a plaque on a small roundabout planted with cypresses and flowers where the main road, the old N100 now the D900, arrives from Céreste.

This plaque is no anniversary special; it has been here for as long as I can remember, passed daily by the locals as they go about their business, and the tourists who swell the town's life during the summer. It is a poignant reminder not only of the event itself, but that - contrary to myth - the French remember it with profound gratitude. In the villages and small towns of the Luberon, the wartime cooperation between the brave members of the resistance and the RAF is recalled with pride and enduring mutual respect. Should the war be discussed with visitors from Britain, the US and Canada, it is with a sense of shared history.

This was the starting point of my novel The Sea Garden, in which the story plays out against the background of the Liberation which began with the Allied invasion on the coast at St-Tropez. The settings in the book can be seen here: the island of Porquerolles just below Hyeres, and Manosque to the north-east of Pertuis.

For weeks, the local newspaper La Provence (from which this map is taken) has been telling the story day by day. Yesterday's page included a fascinating piece by Yves Reynaud about the day the Americans arrived in the village of Tour d'Aigues near Pertuis on the southern slopes of the Luberon mountains.

What the French noticed first of all was that the harsh sound of hobnailed Nazi boots had gone from the silent streets, to be replaced by the soundless rubber of the American footwear - and music! The "Yanks" chewed gum nonchalantly as they offered cigarettes and chocolate to the villagers - the French offered fruit in return. In the village centre, the whole population clamoured around the Jeeps and Dodges, vehicles so modern as to be curiosities in themselves. Upbeat tunes were playing from the Jeeps: songs they had never heard before.

The momentous day ended in the Café Innocenti - today, the Café du Chateau - with laughter, talk, drinking and dancing. One of the GIs sat down at the old piano and started pounding out Boogie-Woogie. Two days later the Americans had pushed on north, but the villagers continued the party by collecting eggs from every farm and smallholding. An immense celebratory omelette composed of more than a thousand eggs was cooked and shared by the whole community.

This evening in Apt, the town's liberation will be marked by two parades through the town with some of the original vehicles; the laying of wreaths and honouring of the dead; the unveiling of a new memorial plaque in the Place de la Mairie in the presence of Lieut-Col Tim Stoy and Captain Monika Stoy, representing the US Army; a showing of a newsreel film of the event; an aperitif outside the Hotel de Ville; and dancing under the trees to a swing band.

For more about the activities of the French resistance in this area, you can read more in these past blog posts about Céreste, and Samuel Beckett at Roussillon. More on Apt tomorrow.

Friday 15 August 2014

Lazy days

Summer in Provence, and the days are just slipping by...and suddenly it's ten days since I last posted. To be fair, I'd always intended to recharge the batteries this month before diving back into the work-in-progress but this feels like true laziness. Not that life has been entirely idle, you understand. It's just that having friends over for lunch feels like a major event, planning what to eat and drink to consider, cooling the wine and laying up the table under the vine canopy...

There has been lots of reading and consequent thinking under the fig tree to factor in (I loved A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz).

In July and August there are entertainments every night up and down the Luberon valley, from relaxed jazz concerts in the squares of hillside villages, to dancing at the fetes votives to the more formal performances at the castles of Lacoste and Gordes offering opera and famous names. This booklet has suggestions for every day of the week. And with it is my choice for an authentic Provencal scent for the warm evenings: L'Occitane's Ambre Santal, which is not nearly as heavy as it sounds, just sweet and spicy.

The lazy days that follow can be justified by a bit of heavy lifting in the garden, where there are always jobs to be done, like the clearing of ivy from the "secret" door to the old walnut wine cave that was starting to disappear again under a cloak of green. It was a tough task, that called for urgent rest and relaxation afterwards...

When we do rouse ourselves to go out and about, there are always brocante shops to be explored. These pots were outside one in Lourmarin.

And so the sun sets on another arduous day...I'm sure you can see why there's been no time for blogging... ;P

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Painting in the sun

I'm having a break from writing at the moment, enjoying the sun, reading and working in the garden. But the other day, the mood came upon me to get my paints out. I wanted to try something colourful and abstract, inspired by a conversation with an artist friend of mine who said that sometimes she just gets her brushes out with no picture in her head, and just sees where it leads.
So I found a decent-sized canvas, 18 by 24 inches, and set to daubing outside in the courtyard - I make no claims to mastery of painting - and this is the result. After a while it seemed like flowers and fruit to me, so I deliberately gave it a recognisable fig and slice of watermelon. Quite pleased, actually.

Saturday 2 August 2014

News of the lavender harvest

The lavender cutting has begun. When the wind catches the fields, warm gusts of scent rise into the air. And when the harvest is in, and distillation begins the other side of the hill from our terrace, the fragrance of lavender will get stronger.
I took these photos with a zoom lens from the track that leads to our property, when the crop was still blooming. We're not as close as it looks, but imagine what it would look and smell like to live in the hamlet with a vista like that sea of lavender!
"Marthe went to live with the Mussets at the farmhouse surrounded by lavender fields halfway between the plateau and the town." 
                       from The Lavender Field, part II of The Sea Garden

       "Iris pulled off the wrapping. It was a bottle of perfume: a voluptuous lavender scent with the label Distillerie Musset, Manosque.
          ‘Was there a message?’ she asked, desperately trying to damp down her hopes.
          ‘No card, Miss. But the gentleman who brought it did say something.’
         ‘This is from Xavier.’"
                               from A Shadow Life, part III of The Sea Garden
In the novel, the unexpected gift is wrapped in a tatty Francs-Tireurs propaganda sheet on which Iris’s name was scrawled. Today, the newspaper might be La Provence, on which the lavender harvest was front page news the other day: the "blue gold of Provence".
And the feature on the inside pages actually shows the present day harvest on the Valensole plateau, close to the location of my fictional farmhouse belonging to the Musset family. The rest of the caption reads: '...where the lavender fields spread out as far as the eye can see'. When there's such dreadful news in so many national newspapers, the sense of tradition and continuity is as comforting as the scent of lavender itself.
The industry is nothing like as large-scale around our way, but I wrote a post about the tiny Distillerie les Coulets, close by, a few years ago before The Lantern was published. You can find it here: The lavender distillery.

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