Sunday, 18 January 2015

The hardest deadline

When I returned from France in mid-September, I had a new book deal and a deadline. I thought it was going to be a bit tight, but there were exciting reasons why I wasn't going to argue. I would just put my head down and concentrate all my energies on writing, and I was sure that by the end of January, I would have a good first draft.

Sadly, real life intervened. I'd only been back a day when the first of several bombshells hit, and by the end of September I knew that looking after my mother was going to have to take precedence over writing. When she was in hospital, I got up early and wrote in the mornings before visiting time; when she came home for the end, I took my notes to work when she slept but usually failed to write a word.

January, new grit, I thought. I managed a week's work, still feeling terribly sad, but with time to concentrate, at least . My mother's memorial service was on January 8th. I managed to get to my feet to deliver a tribute I had written, but that very evening I came down with 'flu. Just reaction, I suppose. Last week I ploughed on with aching head and racking cough.

I put this out here not to elicit sympathy, though I know the loyal readers of this blog will be quick to offer it, both above and below the public wire, and they know how grateful I am. Actually, this is a post about writing. Sometimes it's not easy. I'm sure editors and agents would be understanding if I missed my deadline. But I won't do that because I pride myself not only in writing well enough to be published and paid for it, but on what that implies: being professional about my work.

I've written before about not having much truck with writer's block - I genuinely believe it's not much more than self-indulgence, an excuse to talk about writing without doing any. Of course there are days when I sit down at my desk with my head too full of other thoughts to find the right words for a story, or in a panic that I've literally lost the plot. But the mark of a professional is that you open the manuscript, take some deep breaths and go in. Then stick at it until the words come.

I'll let you know the state of play at the end of the month.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Happy New Year 2015

I wish all of you a very Happy New Year, and a profound thank you for all the kind and lovely messages that I have received since my post about my mother. They really have been very gratefully received.
In return I send you this acquarelle by the artist Brigitte Willers in Provence: Mes Amours en Cage. I like the way she has captured the strong sunshine and the sense of optimism it creates even as nature is dying and renewing. You can see more of her work on this link to her website: Brigitte Willers.

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.
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