Saturday, 8 November 2014
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
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
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.
Outside the Isirdi Gallery with Christine Isirdi
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
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
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.
Sunday, 12 October 2014
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.
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
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
"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
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...