Sunday, 30 December 2012

Winter sun

 
 
Blue skies and sunshine in Provence...this is what it's all about, especially after weeks of unending dreariness and rain in England. The sharpness of light and shadow takes the breath away and makes you feel as if you have Super-sight.
 
Just look at the colour of this sky! 

 
The cotton lavender and thyme are silvery among these bright white stones...
 
 
...and a rose in the courtyard still holds on to its leaves, now a sun-capturing yellow against the house.
 
 
Cosy though the Christmas through to New Year slump can be - though not for those suffering the floods that have scoured the British countryside so cruelly this year - there's nothing like a shift in the light to raise the winter spirits. Hope you are warm and dry wherever you are.
 

Monday, 24 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

 
Wishing all the lovely visitors to this blog a very happy Christmas - I hope you have a cheering and festive time wherever you are.
 
This Victorian card was produced by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, a forward-thinking organisation that advocated equal education for boys and girls even at the start of the nineteenth centure and was instrumental in the development of charity schools in Britain and overseas. The Society was founded in 1698 on the departure of the Anglican Thomas Bray across the seas to Maryland. Bray believed passionately in the power of words and books and the Society became one of the first educational publishers.
 
But they taught far more than Biblical knowledge: their model was to give a wide education in literacy and numeracy, with practical skills that would also enrich lives like woodwork and sewing and cookery. And I think that comes through in this charming example of an early Christmas card, in which the beauty of nature is celebrated. The humble ivy and bluebells (or are those flowers common lungwort?) give the comforting message that the joys of Christmas are around us for much longer than a day.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

End of term report

 
 
Michaelmas Term 2012
 
ENGLISH: A good term's work, covering much ground. Deborah is writing fluently but with occasional lapses of confidence. She is working hard to eradicate the flaws that sometimes detract from the flow of her narrative.
 
MATHS: Very satisfactory progress. A good understanding of business accounting has been achieved with publishers in London and New York and I am pleased to report substantial advances.
 
FRENCH: An obvious enjoyment of both language and literature continues to influence her work.
 
HISTORY: This term we have undertaken substantial research into the social history of the mid 20th century with special reference to Vichy France and London 1942-45.
 
GEOGRAPHY: Although Deborah often wished she could exert herself more by joining field trips to areas of relevant interest, she has unfortunately been confined to her study at home.
 
CHEMISTRY: Perfume and wine. Excellent work.
 
PHYSICS: Deborah now has a basic understanding of the Lysander plane and landing trajectories. She is not a natural scientist and has struggled with some aspects of this.
 
PHYSICAL EDUCATION: Most disappointing this term. Could try very much harder. 


Saturday, 15 December 2012

Gothic iced


Some eerie effects left by the heavy overnight frosts this week...here's a padlock on old shed door bound with iced cobwebs. My eye is drawn to the funnel-like hole above the bar - why does this seem the creepiest part of the picture? Possibly because the thickness of the web shows the door has not been opened in a while (what secrets are behind it?) and there are intriguing contrasts in texture between the rotting wood, the cold steel of the lock and the fragile white lace of the threads. Definitely one for the writer's notebook.

I found some even thicker ice cobwebs hanging from an outdoor lantern:


 
In fact, everywhere I looked I could see more filigree picked out by the frost as the sun struggled to rise through thick wintry clouds of cold air.
 


 

 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

If only...

 
If only...I had thought ahead enough to rummage through this selection of old French boxes when I had the chance. There they were in the washstand (or cradle for a Moses basket?) outside a quirkly little brocante in Céreste last summer - and they are just what I need now! Imagine the gorgeous gift presentations they would make, padded with tissue paper for homemade cakes, hand-printed notecards or a smart new diary.
 
This afternoon I'm tackling the wrapping of Christmas presents in readiness for a family Christmas party next week. And thanks to a fantastic Winter Fair in the village in Kent, I was able to buy many of my gifts a short walk from home. That appeals on many levels, not the least being that my self-imposed deadline of a first draft of the new novel by Christmas is fast approaching and I'm completely bound up in that.
 
But it's also a pleasure to be able to support small local businesses. The big players have so many advantages - buying and negotiating power, tax, whatever you want to name - that it's never been so important to buy from sole traders and start-up ventures. And these are people with vision and passion, usually offering specialist products. Wouldn't you rather receive an artisan piece of silver jewellery or aromatherapy oil than an item that had been produced in hundreds of thousands for the mass market?

Monday, 3 December 2012

Lantern in December


The romantic glow of lanterns in winter...candlelight cast on interior walls and white orchids...I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the weekend setting the scene for a party.

Unfortunately, the details were largely lost on the crowd. It was a classic teenage party: Maddy's old friends meeting the new ones, a lot of shrieking and a touch too much cider in some cases. After the last guests went on Sunday morning we took stock, shivering. The Rayburn range in the kitchen was one casualty, cold as the night, having been accidentally switched off. And we still can't find the kitchen rug. Though there is a last known sighting caught on iPhone camera. Ed is wearing it.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

A winter perfume



It would be hard to persuade anyone looking into a writer’s study  - desk, notes, books, cups of tea – that writing was very exciting when hard graft was in progress. At its best, writing can be a sensuous experience, a chance to retreat into an inner life and make connections from impressions and scraps of thought.
Invoking the senses while writing can be helped by playing music. I’ve always enjoyed background music while working and tend to have favourite soundtracks for each novel. The Lantern, for example, was written largely to Debussy and Fauré. This time, though, I’ve been less inclined to write with music. I don’t know why, but I’ve found myself turning the CD player off because it’s become a unwelcome distraction.

However, I have been working enveloped in a perfume. Liz Earle’s Botanical Essence No. 15 Eau de Parfum is a warming winter perfume described by its creator as a “softness and warmth like cashmere on the skin”.
I read the list of ingredients before spraying. I was thrown at first because I thought this must be No. 15 Vetiver. But no, the fragrance is a blend of all of these (and the clever packaging is based on old facsimile botanical drawings of all the natural elements in the blend):


The perfume begins to unfurl with a surprisingly citrus sparkle but it’s a Christmassy citrus that mellows into clove and cinnamon like a heady mulled wine. There are strong notes of pink pepper and musky cedarwood. This is a bold blast of oriental, the scent of red rooms and candles glowing. It’s spicy with a hint of blowsy floral and my favourite amber is plumped up with a rich base of vanilla from the tonka bean. The perfect scent for cosy days as autumn fades into winter darkness.
And thanks to the unique relationship between perfume and memory, this is the scent that will bring back the months of working on The Night Flight.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Autumn colour

 
Moss and lichen on a tree trunk - and a timely reminder that not all autumn colour comes in shades of fire. As I push on with the new novel, I'm trying to capture a sense of place and sometimes the most effective way of doing that is to confound expectation. A scene will be brought to life with small detail, and sometimes the most effective observations are the more subtle ones.
 
Rather like meeting someone again after many years of lapsed friendship. You find that it's the tiny personal quirks in their appearance - the particular stretch of the smile, the exact shape of the nose, that laugh - features that weren't necessarily memorable in themselves but are now the markers that spark recognition and connect your memories to the real person standing in front of you.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Songs of Blue and Gold

 
The hard slog of writing goes on, made grim by persistent migraine. It’s an all too familiar scenario. The grey skies and rain so conducive to sitting at a desk lost in thought are also a disincentive to the tough walks through the countryside that help keep mind and body in sync.

Despite the frustrations, I remain convinced that this is the most creative time of the year. Before I had this blog I wrote a piece for my website about the writing of my novel Songs of Blue and Gold, in which I tried to capture the moment when words catch fire in quiet times, and the chance reading of one book leads to another. Here it is, lightly edited.

"Inspired by the writer, poet and traveller Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), this is a novel about love and memory, identity and biography.

It sparked into life one gloomy winter afternoon when I rediscovered Prospero's Cell on the bookshelves of a bedroom at the top of the house. Opening it and starting to read was like injecting the grey with vivid blues and emeralds. A richly evocative account of Durrell's life in Corfu in the 1930s, it was first published in 1945 and purports to be a diary in which he is a serious young writer living blissfully in the sun, deeply in love both with his new wife and with the idea of Greece.

Durrell states that Prospero's Cell is a "guide to the landscape and manners" of Corfu but it never quite becomes this. It is a lyrical personal notebook, and what he leaves out is as poignant as what he includes. Its content is almost unrecognisable as the same ground his younger brother, the zoologist Gerald, covers in his famous Corfu book My Family and Other Animals, in which "Larry" lives with the family (which he never did) and is the 'diminutive blond firework' by turns pompously literary and hilarious.

And by the time he wrote Prospero's Cell Lawrence and his first wife Nancy had separated. He was already sadder and wiser, and living in wartime Egypt with Eve Cohen who would become his second wife.

I was intrigued. Further researches and a reading of several biographies soon revealed a complex and contradictory character - and a further two wives. His work, over a period of nearly sixty years - most famously in The Alexandria Quartet - was concerned with duality: love and hate; truth and fiction; memory and misinterpretation. And running through it all, the transfiguring effect of time.

Lawrence Durrell wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean - to Rhodes (Reflections on a Marine Venus), Cyprus (Bitter Lemons), the former Yugoslavia, and finally to the South of France (Caesar's Vast Ghost) where he settled for thirty years.

What was especially rewarding as I dug deeper was that he featured in so many other biographies and memoirs - each giving further insights - thanks to his enduring friendships with writers such as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, T S Eliot (who was his editor and mentor at Faber and Faber), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Freya Stark, Rose Macauley, Richard Aldington and Elizabeth David.

Interwoven throughout were his many loves and four marriages. He seemed to pack so many different lives into one! And while he was a comet blazing, what of the women he collided with along the way, I wondered? How did their stories end? And what of those he met, whose lives he changed but who did not rate even a footnote in the biographies? Soon, I was busy inventing a fictional version of Durrell - Julian Adie - and Elizabeth. 

 
Julian Adie is a fictional creation, yet I have been faithful to the settings of Lawrence Durrell's life abroad and his quest for "the spirit of place". The White House in Kalami, Corfu is, and was, as described. It is still owned by the Athinaios family, who were Durrell's landlords in the 1930s.

Durrell aficionados might be disconcerted by the way I've played fast and loose with his chronology, compressing and altering his travels and his wives' biographies to give an impression of the author's life without providing in any way an accurate portrayal. In this, the book has more in common with his fictional characters, his use of dualism and reinterpretation, than with real people. "All these writers [in my books] are variations of myself," he said a few years before he died.

 
For the last thirty years of his life Durrell made his home in the Languedoc, south-west France, where the herb-scented raggedness reminded him of Greece. There it was harder, initially, to find his traces. Time does seem to have reset the co-ordinates. The centre of the small market town of Sommieres remains much as he described it, but across the Roman bridge over the Vidourle, his old house is swamped by the present in the form of a Champion hypermarket and its parking spaces.

But in Corfu, the Shrine of St Arsenius - Durrell's "place of predilection" where he felt he was reborn as the writer he would become - is scarcely changed from the tiny waterside chapel on the cliff rocks where he and his wife Nancy dived and sunbathed naked, she 'like an otter…bringing up cherries in her teeth,' (Prospero's Cell).


As a reader of his biographies, I couldn’t help but wonder how is it that some people manage to live so many different lives in one, while others lack the courage to change. Does finding out that a parent or husband was not the person you thought they were change the way you feel about yourself, and colour your own memories?

The best biographies charm the reader into imagining they allow us an insight into what a famous person was really like. But how does this square with the difficulty we have in ever really knowing the people closest to us? Even the finest biographies are only one version of a life. What of the episodes that the biographer never discovers, or misinterprets according to his own prejudices and what of the people who are there only between the lines?"

For those who are still with me, here is the opening: of my novel:

By the time I reached Corfu, the season was in its last gasp.

Evening hung early over the bay when I walked the stony beach at Kalami and found the White House. It was just as he described: defiant on a rock, the sea clawing at its feet. On the headland behind, cypress trees pointed into a curdling sky. Pebbles crunched under my feet as I went closer, and waves sighed on grey stones. A brackish smell of nets and seaweed was sharp in the air.

This was how my search began. Looking for someone I didn't know, many years too late. And looking, at the same time, for someone I had always known, but trying to place her in a strange setting, reconfigured in some new history.


If you would like to read on a while longer, you can click this link.

Songs of Blue and Gold is still in print, published by Random House UK, and is available on Kindle.



Saturday, 3 November 2012

Quince in autumn

 
This glowing quince is the latest small masterpiece by Julian Merrow-Smith - autumn encapsulated in warm greys and defiant yellow with scattered leaves. If you haven't discovered his Postcard from Provence showcase of his daily paintings, you must, and tout de suite.
 
It reminded me that I was going to report back on our quinces left in a bowl in the hall, and whether the dying fruit really did release a sweet aroma. The idea was that we would be welcomed by the natural perfume of coconut and pear, guava, musk and violet, perhaps even a hint of rose. Here's the post: The fragrance of quince.
 
Well...sad to say the experiment was not an overwhelming success. We travelled more in hope than expectation, and though the quinces have wrinkled prettily, there's not a great deal of scent. When I hold the fruit right up to my nose there's a delicately pleasant smell of pear - perhaps with a hint of ginger - but that's about it. Perhaps some quinces are more powerful than others and these are just not the right type. Still, worth trying. And the bushy tree did look beautiful in the spring.
 
I'd love to hear from anyone who has managed to achieve a room full of fragrance this way.
 
  

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Wind and shadow, Croatia

 
The Lantern has another foreign language outing today - published in Croatia under the Italian title of The House of Wind and Shadow and the British cover design. 
Rather touchingly, the blurb reads (allowing for a few tweaks to the Google translation):
 
"British writer of poetic prose Deborah Lawrenson masterfully connects the real and the supernatural, past and present, in a brilliant book. A seductive blend of ghost story an modern romance set in the beautiful landscape of southern France is breathtaking and hypnotizes the reader. [An author] whose flair pervades a wonderful novel that has won the affection of readers and critics."   
 
Yes, yes, I know they want to sell as many copies as they can, but those are just the kind of words to spur on the author as she sits in solitude working away on a new book!
 

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Much life concealed

 
 
Shutters closed. An upstairs window open in shadow. No sign of life. I have an awful feeling this is what a writer's life looks like to the world outside. Certainly mine does while I'm working steadily on a new book. (And my shop window, this blog, is looking a little neglected and tired in the display area, with slow turnover of goods.) 
 
It can't be helped, I'm afraid. There are times when writers have to write and for me the most enjoyably productive way to do it is by retreating into my study and losing myself in the work for weeks on end. Hours vanish into days as the story takes shape and the search becomes all-engrossing for the right words to tell it, to build a compelling characters and atmosphere. Behind the closed front, there is much life concealed. 


Thursday, 18 October 2012

Vagabond Dreams

 
"There were fears in there too, of course. Fear of ending up with a conventional life. A feeling that I'd never really lived. And the fear that unless I did something about it, I would forever live my life in the third person, reading about other people's adventures without ever having one of my own."
 
Even as he struggles to get his bearings in Panama at the start of his Central American odyssey Vagabond Dreams, Ryan Murdock is travelling to test and understand himself as much as the world he has come to see. And what he wants to know is: how much of your life is really what you want and how much do you accept because it's easy? Is there ever a possibility of being a different person in a new place?
 
European Editor-at-Large for Canada's travel magazine Outpost, Murdock is an uncompromising adventurer. In other travels he has taken on some of the most inhospitable places, from North Korea to Mongolia. He's an engaging tough-guy lyricist, and his writing in this volume is as poignant and immediate as ever. In Costa Rica he paints a vivid word picture of a bus station, capturing the scratched plastic containers of pineapple dragged by vendors and the particular discomforts of heat and noise, sing-song sales pitches and harsh blaring horns of departure:  
 
"I'd slept in and missed the bus I wanted, and so I waited there for two hours, reading on a crowded bench of slatted wood, elbow to elbow with the other patient waiters. When I was finally able to leave, it was a one-hour ride to the Pacific Coast, past mile after mile of crippled cacti swept by the invisible serpents of a desiccating wind. In the fields, bony cattle grazed on patches of burnt grass: their hips stuck up beneath their skin like dinner plates covered by a towel on a dish rack. It was the end of the dry season and the land thirsted for rain." 
 
All along the way - the Mosquito Coast, Nicaragua, the tiny Corn Islands and on - he has full command of the telling sensuous detail: the sweet stickiness of mango juice in a dark kitchen, the dark icing sugar of windblown volcanic sand that sticks to the sweat of a body, the the metallic tap of the steps to board a plane.
 
 
The people he meets along the way are captured on the page with a novelist's eye. In the end, the strangers he encounters and befriends are the key, for they hold up the mirror to the changes in him.
 
"The greatest gift of travel is [the] ability to reinvent yourself. I had the freedom to try on hats and costumes of my own choosing because no one out there knew me. They couldn't shove me back into the context of my past."
 
Out on the road there are no boundaries imposed by well-meaning family, friends and associates at home. Murdock is a literary romantic who discovers that he can be at ease anywhere in the world when he is at ease with himself. "Central America had become a state of mind, a mental construct, a place of no fixed geological borders. It was something I carried with me."
 
This is a book that teems with life, not always pretty but vivid and painfully truthful at times. It will open your eyes, but take you willingly along for the bumpy ride to acquire "road wisdom". Because I think we all wonder, at times, what it would be like to dare to drop off the map and see what we find.
 
To find out more about Ryan Murdock's work, click here for his website.
 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Space to imagine

 
A weathered wooden door opens...who wouldn't be enticed by this glimpse of a courtyard beyond? There's space and light (so much more than expected), a sense of serenity, and possibilities too. Imagine it by night, glowing candles set in lanterns and a long draped table laid for a party...or early morning, when you could drink coffee and eat a perfect croissant under a tree to the sound of birdsong. What would you do if it were yours? 

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Céreste: Spirit of Place


The old heart of Céreste looks sleepy and unassuming. The quiet medieval part of the village occupies a small hill to the north of the main road between the market towns of Apt and  Forcalquier, seemingly set apart from the swooping thoroughfare with its grander buildings dating from Napoleonic times. Easy enough to pass by without even noticing the ancient stone houses hidden behind the main street's shops and cafés shaded by great plane trees.

In essence it can't have changed much since it was a secret Resistance stronghold during the Second World War, ideally placed to watch the activity of the occupying forces between the area's two main towns, yet with ready access to the hills. Céreste's narrow alleys twist down from the highest, oldest point like rivulets. Even in bright sunshine there is a maze-like quality to the calades, most too tapering to take a car. Imagine what it must have been like at night, seventy years ago, when all was silent and dark and every footstep was suspect.

The poet René Char, code-named Captain Alexandre, had a safe house here - crucially, a house with two exits, that was wrapped by electrified wire to alert him to any approach: it made the radio crackle.


The old village is still quiet, though the tumble of interlocking houses has been much spruced up even in the past decade or so. As I walked around with notebook and camera, taking advantage of an open-house art show that enabled me to go through doors that are normally closed, it wasn't hard to feel I was looking for ghosts of the past and finding nooks and crannies they might have known in courtyards and cool vaulted ground floor spaces.

When I write a novel, I want the setting to be authentic. I want the reader to feel he or she is seeing a place and inhabiting it with the characters. And to do that, I have to have been there myself, and to 'be' there as I write, to capture the atmosphere as best I can. Others have called it The Spirit of Place, and I think that's a perfect expression.

Of course, what we see and record is selective, especially if chosen with a particular creative aim in mind. And that morning in Céreste what I saw was light and shadow, the constricted, enclosed pathways that could be traps, and the sense of secrets held in stone.

 
 
 

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Night Flight: work-in-progress

 
Where have the days gone? The week has passed in an instant as I went back to the work-in-progress, the long-awaited return to desk punctuated with visits from pleasant chaps, old favourites all, who keep our domestic show on the road: the electrician, the plumber, handyman and chimney sweep.

The house glitches have been mended and secured. A new bookcase has been installed in my study so that I can see my current research books clearly in the shelves instead of having to hunt for them in the piles on the floor. From now on, there’s no excuse for not putting my head down.

You know you love what you do when work, no matter how intense, never really feels like work. All week, I’ve been in a good mood. I haven’t even achieved that much yet, what with all the interruptions and chats over cups of tea, but as the decks have been cleared I’ve been assessing and reorganizing what I’ve already written.

In response to the lovely messages - and curiosity about the subject matter - both in blog comments and privately, here is a little taster of what’s on the desk. There’s France, and wartime, but also England, secrecy and romance, a Mediterranean island and an impossible task. The working title for the book is The Night Flight.


I’m intending to take a bit of a risk with the structure of this novel. Regular readers of this blog who are interested in writing might recall that I began writing this book last autumn. About 30,000 words in, I decided to concentrate some of the material into a novella as it seemed too much of a diversion from the main narrative.

The novella took shape, and the original idea – agreed with agents and publishers on both sides of the Atlantic – was that it could be published as a free e-book, a marketing come-on for the new full-length novel. By the time I’d done the story justice, this novella, The Lavender Field, was a bit longer than intended but I was pleased with it and had some lovely reactions from my usual early readers.

Then came a long wait to hear back, during which time I hesitated to get back to the main novel in case I was on the wrong track. During the summer I was contacted by the London publishers. They loved the novella and thought it was too good to give away (hurray!) - would I consider expanding it into a full-length novel? (hmm…) I thought about that for a while, but decided that what made it work was that it held the right amount of story in the right number of words. It’s fairly fast-paced with a dash of adventure and anything more would just be padding.

So here’s the solution, and I’d be very interested in your reaction to it: it this appealing or not? The idea is that the new novel will be ‘a novel in three stories’, each the length of the novella (which is about a third of a normal novel). Each story will focus on a different character who has been introduced in the previous one, and although there will be a satisfying, self-contained plot and characters in each, they will add up to a whole picture, from the past to the present.

The Lavender Field would form the first part. It’s the story of Marthe Lincel, the blind perfume creator in The Lantern: what really happened to her in wartime Manosque, omitted from her sister Bénédicte's narrative – perhaps because she never knew. Here’s a short blurb and the prologue as a taster:

"When Marthe Lincel leaves the school for the blind in Manosque for an apprenticeship at the local perfume factory during the Second World War, she has no idea that the Distillerie Musset is at the heart of a Resistance cell operating in Nazi-occupied Provence. As secret messages are passed in scent and planes land by moonlight on a plateau covered in lavender, danger comes ever closer." 

 
From THE LAVENDER FIELD


Provence, 1944

   Not a word should be said. The scent was the word.

   Each week it was the same routine with only minute variations: the girl caught the bus coming down from Digne, no different from any other nineteen year old with a job to do. The bus drew in under the plane trees in the village of Céreste and she alighted. By a bench where she placed her baskets for a moment, she reached into her shoulder bag for the perfume bottle and carefully dabbed her wrists, rubbing the scent up her arms just to make sure. Nothing suspicious about this, simply attention to detail; a charming advertisement for the Distillerie Musset, makers of soap and scent. A blue scarf secured her hair and she wore the lavender print apron she would wear to serve in the shop. Then she picked up her two heavy baskets and made her deliveries: one to the hotel, one to the doctor’s surgery and one to the general store. She walked purposefully but would stop for a few minutes to pass the time of day with occasional customers. Then, when her load was lighter, she went on to various houses around and beyond the village and finally arrived at the café.

   She would order a small glass of weak wine, a little food perhaps, and greet the regulars. Acknowledge the Gestapo officers or the Milice at the best tables. Drink the wine, turn to leave and then hesitate by the man reading the paper. Go over to the Germans to ask if they had any special requests, a present for a girl perhaps. Give them a heart-lifting smile. Take a few paces back to the table where the man sits with his newspaper. He’s always there, a little unkempt, smudging his glass with dirty hands. Sometimes he reads, sometimes he stares into space. They all know that his spirit is gone. He drinks too much. Ignore him. Let the scent give the message. It has warmed now on her skin thanks to all the walking, and is released in sweet pulses. Lavender: come to the farm. Rose: we have more men to move. Thyme: supplies needed urgently.

   Stand there to take a note of any orders from these men who enjoy their new powers so much. Be pleasant though all instincts are to spit in their faces.

   Then a walk across the road to wait for the return bus. She times it well, glancing up at the clock on the front face of the Mairie to check her watch is correct. She does not want to hang around too long, does not want the eyes of the men in the café to linger on her face and body. On the other hand she will not risk cutting it too fine and missing the bus. Just a nice normal pace, all the way there and back.


Saturday, 22 September 2012

Writing and determination

 
"Closed like a box-wood shutter," wrote the poet René Char, "An extreme and compact fortune is our mountain range, our compressing splendour." This closed wooden shutter is in Céreste, the village where Char lived when he was leader of a Resistance cell during the Second World War. Plain and simple on the surface, like Char's words, but with something intriguing about it - that dark grape colour; the deep tactile texture of sun-dried cracks in the wood: the planks are aged but solid, and hiding who knows what behind. 
 
There are any number of metaphors it can stand for but right now, for me, it's the moment when I turn in on myself to return to the writing of a new book. At the beginning I stand outside, perhaps for quite some time, wondering what exactly I will discover. Though I have a few pre-conceived ideas of what lies inside the dark and dormant house of my imagination, I won't know what surprises are in store until I concentrate on entering. To sit at a desk and immerse myself is an adventure, a safe one, though it's always possible to lose control of events. And Char's mountain range can at times be there too, in the uphill battle to shape ideas and words into viable forms.
 
This summer in Provence I did my favourite kind of research: going to the places where a novel will be set, poking into corners and wandering with endless curiosity, though some might call it nosiness. I spend a couple of mornings in Céreste, exploring the winding streets. Another day I attended a little 'conference' under the plane trees which addressed the poets of the Resistance. It was all the more fun because I knew that sooner or later I would have to sit down and crack on - but I'd do so with a full scrapbook of notes and pictures for grey winter days.
 
This week I gave a talk about how I became a writer. It was a good time to think about what I was going to say, because I realised that I could do worse than to focus on what had really made the difference between wanting to write and be published, and being published. And then take my own advice.
 
The talk was held at an appropriate venue, The Poet at Matfield quite near where I live in Kent. It's a traditional old pub, now transformed into a fine restaurant. The eponymous poet was Siegfried Sassoon - born in Matfield, across the green from the pub - decorated soldier of the First World War and best known for poetry which exposed the horrors and stupidities of war.
 
 
When you read the works of men like Sassoon and Char, the experiences their words reflect, you realise that they set out all the important, the compelling subjects: life and death, love and betrayal, honour and dishonour, truth and lies. I should have said that while I was speaking, but I didn't. I was thinking more of what they inspire in a smaller, more personal way. Because a sense of purpose and determination is more use than high-mindedness.
 
And that was what I said. If it doesn't sound too trite in juxtaposition, you have to be determined to become a writer. You have to want to do it, and follow through. It's not just putting the words on the page either, it's about being sufficiently clear-sighted to junk what's not good enough. It's about reading widely to be able to gauge what's good and bad, always with a single aim in mind.  
 
I've always been stubborn, but when it comes to writing I simply will not admit defeat. Which doesn't mean I think I'm always right - far from it. Sometimes it means admitting I've got something wrong and working like a demon to put it right, engine humming with determination to reach the happy ending of a decent published book. With this novel I'm experimenting a bit more with structure. I'm excited about it, and so far my publishers like the idea that it will be different. It may not work, but if at first you don't succeed... I'm going in.   



Thursday, 20 September 2012

With the royals near Viens

 
In the fall-out from William and Kate's brief sojourn in Provence, a couple of things have been bothering me (not, not those...behave!). The royal couple probably wish they'd stayed in a real hideaway inside the medieval village of Viens, with its twisty enclosed streets and secret courtyards, or safe behind the strong iron bars of one of the beautiful strongholds like this one...
 
 
...rather than William's cousin Lord Linley's château up the road where the swimming pool terrace turned out to be rather more exposed.
 
It may be grandly named the "Château d'Autet" but the property, though a large house with attendant buildings, is a centuries-old hunting lodge with few features to distinguish it from the characteristic bastides all aroundsolid and imposing as they are. Still, I'm sure the name adds distinction for the wealthy holidaymakers who rent the place.
 
The other puzzlement on its website is the statement that David and Serena Linley were introduced to the area by Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. Again, is that just another marketing angle, to link it to a publishing phenomenon?
 
Because a little local knowledge tells me that David Linley was much more likely to have known the area through his own family. His mother Princess Margaret and father the Earl of Snowdon were great friends with the British entrepreneur and inventor Jeremy Fry, who had a summer home close to Oppedette, only a few kilometres away.
 
Fry's retreat was a formerly deserted hamlet called Le Grand Banc, hidden away on a hillside overlooking the gorge at Oppedette. In the sixties and seventies it was an artistic, intellectual and bohemian haven place for his many friends, including the Queen's sister and her husband and children. Nowadays, it is a small, very exclusive hotel - and the Gorge d'Oppedette cuts through the landscape in a natural barrier to even the most daring of photographers.
 
 
And Viens still has a bohemian vibe and a thriving artistic community, as I wrote during the summer here: Viens: a sunny bohemia.  

 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

A date in Cucuron

 
Another scene from A Good Year (see previous post on Ridley Scott's movie filmed in the Luberon)...is the great green bassin - L'Etang - at the heart of the quiet village of Cucuron. This is where Max takes Fanny on their first date, to an outdoor cinema in an almost impossibly romantic setting. Candlelight and lanterns flicker and the water shimmers beneath the leaves of two hundred year old plane trees that stand guard around the pond.
 
Actually, the romance of the place is real. The origins of the pond lie in a lake created in medieval times, fed by water sources from the Luberon mountain and used to power the local flour mills. The rectangular bassin we see now was constructed in the 19th century. Today it's a serene place but the deep green shadows cast by the trees give it an air of mystery. From any distance, all is surface reflection of the tall trees, restaurants and houses lining its banks, masking an infinity of depth.
 
 
Cucuron sits on the south-eastern side of the mountain ridge, over the col from the main Luberon valley where we are; this is the side of the Durance, the strong wide river that rises in the Alps and flows down to join the mighty Rhone south of Avignon. It's a village of farmers rather than tourists, though the two meet every Tuesday morning for a lively market with stalls placed all around the pond.
 
The fields around are full of vineyards and olive groves, melon fields and cherry orchards, vegetable and wheat fields, all set within the National Park. The long history of the village, from neolithic settlement through to Roman invasion and medieval ascendancy, is embedded in the ancient walls and quirky yet unassuming buildings. A gentle stroll through narrow winding streets takes you to dungeons and belfries and a lovely Romanesque chapel from the 13th century.
 
It strikes me that what Mediterranean countries do so much better than we do is allow the ancient and modern to co-exist. Even structures with an early industrial purpose have an element of beauty and are allowed to evolve, adapted and tranformed rather than destroyed. It shows a natural understanding and faith in the past.
 
And that too makes Cucuron a truly inspired place for a romantic first date.
 
 

 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Chateau la Canorgue - A Good Year

 
Sometimes we all need a bit of escapism - a book or a movie that takes us back to summer and long sun-dappled days. One of those movies for me is A Good Year, directed by Ridley Scott close to his house in the Luberon and based on a book by Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence, and an old neighbour of Scott’s.
 
The premise has its roots in many a cosy daydream: a young man (Russell Crowe) inherits a dilapidated vineyard in Provence after the death of his uncle. He has a high-pressure job in the City of London and can hardly spare the time from making money to take a non-business phone call – until he makes a flying visit to France to see it. The film also stars Albert Finney and Marion Cotillard…and the Château la Canorgue, a mile or so from Bonnieux.

It’s one of those films that may not have been a huge box-office success when it was released in 2006 but has become a quiet hit on DVD. And quite rightly so: it’s warm and romantic with gentle dollops of wine, food and country wisdom, the kind of film you find yourself watching again when you want some uncomplicated relaxation.

There’s some lovely cinematography of the landscape and anyone who knows the area will enjoy spotting the familiar sights of the castle at Lacoste, and the views across from the Café de France there over to Bonnieux, as well as the Café de la Rennaissance at Gordes in a key scene. 


Le Château la Canorgue makes a beguiling backdrop. The mellow umber faҫade of the main house slumbers under shady trees, a grand old lady of all our Provenҫal dreams. There’s nothing overdone here. The plaster flakes at the same rate as the bark on the plane trees.

In front of the house is an ornamental pond, which may or may not have been constructed for the film. Now it is clear and serene with a sentinel cypress overlooking the immaculate vines, in contrast to the atmosphere of tangled neglect in the scene from the film (below my photo).


 
 
In real life, the wines produced here have been going from strength to strength. The rosé, in particular, with its juicy strawberry notes and inviting pale peach colour, is a fixture on almost every restaurant list in the area. Winemaker Jean-Pierre Margan, whose family has lived and worked here for generations, has been named Winemaker of the Year by the Gault-Millau magazine.
 
 
When we went in to buy a case a few months ago, the cool of the wine cave was a tantalizing place to linger while outside the countryside was almost silent in the heat. The château itself itself isn’t open to the public but for the curious and romantic, I suggest a comfortable sofa, a nice glass of wine and a look around – especially the dreamy view of the terrace – by settling down in front of A Good Year on the DVD player. Santé!
 
PS: And if you've seen the film and are curious about what Cucuron - where the romantic date took place at the outdoor cinema set up over the vast bassin - looks like in normal circumstances, click here.
 
 
 



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