Tuesday 22 June 2010

Return to La Guinguette

La Guinguette 001

Allan and Nira Allan and Nira,  who own the Maison d’Estella ,cycle along the river to meet us for lunch at la Ginguette. (See last year’s Post Last Walk To La Ginguette). This is the unique the open air cafe  situated where the silLa Guinguette 004ver-green River Hérault joins a spur of the limpid green Canal du Midi. The Café  has a small stage and a tiny dance floor and we talk, eat and drink to the mournful heartfelt romantic songs of, among more contemporary singers,  the French chansonniers – the traditional singers who are said to be the last vestige if the medieval troubadours.

On the walls are poster images of singers and crooners from across the world but an especial place is saved for louche retro images La Guinguette 018of great French chansonniers such as George Brassens and Jacques Brel. I searched the walls of La Guingette for an image of Jean Sablon, a favourite of my mother’s. I have some scratchy memory of my father singing one of Jean Sablon’s songs  -J’Attendrai – to my mother when I was small. As my father died when I was nine and couldn’t speak French this should be impossible. But if it’s a false memory it’s rather a nice one.

Whether that is a true memory or not here on wall are images  of these  fabulist singers  talking and smoking with a sophistication lost in our own age,

As it is lunchtime rather than evening at La Guingette, there is no dancing,  and the music is on tape.  But still it enhances the raffish atmosphere generated by the posters and the  distinctly  improvised decor as we eat from plastic tables among  rustling greenery.

Adopting something of a louche style ourselves we enjoy the food and wine and talk about books we’re reading, exchanging titles and favourite writers as readers do.  La Guinguette 014We share news about current creative projects and family events. Nira talks about the new novel she is reading; Allan is developing a new painting studio; I’m writing my new book; Avril’s thinking about her new poem; Debora’s writing her excellent articles and thinking about a book; Sean and Bryan are talking about our journeys; we hear stories of  Allan and Nira’s son Tom who working as a crew member on a luxury yacht taking a three year journey round the world.

Nira says she’s  waiting for my new novel Starr Bright to come out, as it’s set in this,  her town, in the Maison d’Estella, the house where we’re staying. (One day a group of tourists peered through the big wooden door and the leader asked about the novel  – whether it would be available in a French edition...) I’ve been thinking I might change the title but more news of in another post.

Later in the afternoon Allan comes over to the house  by arrangement, so he can tell me a very interesting true story from his home ground of Somerset, set at the turn of the twentieth century. I ask lots of questions and we record his story on my radio recorder for future reference.

I find myself listening to a wonderful intergenerational tale emerging from a small run-down fishing port in Somerset. It involves generations of seafaring men and their widely interlinked families. Into the lives of these ordinary people an important artist comes. There is even a prince involved.   And at the core of this story, in my view, there is this surprising coincidence to do with painting and art and this practically minded  sea-going family.

Although he is sceptical I suggest to Allan that he himself, in a way,  personifies somewhat that coincidence: a painter first and foremost, he is an accomplished sailor – although he insists it is the aesthetics, not the athletics, of sailing that he enjoys. And  it occurs to me later that the kitchens of their houses here - which he develops himself – seem to me to have the polished wood and shipshape design of a boat’s cabin.

I don’t know that he agrees, but it’s an interesting thought.

Will Allan’s Somerset tale make a novel? Surely. There’s only the matter of the four or five years it would take to research and develop it of course,

One thing’s for sure. Stories pop up everywhere in this place.



Monday 14 June 2010

A Tale of Three Boys and Diving for Treasure

The courtyard is in shadow but the sky above is bright blue. My problem is that  the wonderful Agde sun waited to come out out until the day my friend Pat caught her plane home.001  I’ve spent the week telling her that usually it’s warm and very bright here in June: protesting in defence of my favourite French town.

At least on the morning of her departure as the sun started to show its face and we made it to the picturesque Pezenas market. We sat drinking pezenas 12 June 2010 012 coffee and pastis watching ladies try on hats at the hat stall. We decided that it would be rather nice if we renewed the  custom of wearing hats every day .  It would get rid of the problem of  bad hair days but I suppose would present the challenge of wearing hats with jeans.

The rain and glowering sky had not prevented us -  on - Tuesday from visiting the exceptional Museum of the Ephebe, close by in Cap d’Agde. 

The Ephebe is a   stunning near life-size bronze of a post-adolescent boy which was plucked out of the River Herault in 1964 by submarine archaeologists.

On the wall in my study at home I have a giant poster of the Ephebe, brought back from my first visit here.That first time   I was fascinated not just by this exquisite bronze  treasure  but the moving portrait of this beautiful young man who who was alive thousands of years ago. At that time there was no information about who this elegant, thoughtful person might have been. P1150826But I do have my own thoughtful, intelligent boy and my poster always reminds me of A, the boy who likes chocolate,  He is alas, not staying here this year.

My poster came into my mind on later visits here when I became fascinated by St Thibery, another young man emerging from Agde (his father was the Roman Governor of Agde)  early in the fourth century AD. Thibery was a gifted boy, a healer of the insane who cured people in the name of Jesus Christ.  He and his beloved tutor Modeste were  martyred and executed in the small Village of Cessaro close to Agde.

Renamed St Thibery, this village became a place of pilgrimage throughout the middle ages, for those seeking a cure for insanity.

These events inspired my new novel Starr Bright*** which considers madness and serious depression in the present day. In the novel we see a troubled woman in the present day who experiences the joys and ultimate sorrows of  intimate contact with Thibery and his charismatic tutor Modeste.

So it is that this  whole novel started with my fascination with the Ephebe those years ago. In the years since archaeological scholars have concluded that this formerly anonymous figure is in fact a portrait of a young Alexander the Great. How wonderful.

This habit of diving for treasure is an old one here. This town has been a port for more than two thousand years – at one time a crucial Greek and then a Roman port  - for exporting and importing all kinds of goods between Gaul and the countries around the Mediterranean basin.

There were battles , pirates, great storms and flooding – here called les inondations. In the last century archaeological treasure seekers started to dive for all kinds of treasure – treasure with both intrinsic value and historical fascination - from swords to nails,002 from intricate tripods to  cooking pots and votive treasures. And there are  so many amphorae – terra cotta jars of every size which carried everything from wheat to wine, from oil to cloth. (Pat says they are like the cardboard boxes and packing cases of their times.)

Whatever their size, amphorae  were  usually pointed at the bottom so they could lie snugly together in the hold of the great sailing ships, like piglets snuggling in rows. And there are glasses and bottles -  whole and in fragments – alongside bowls and cooking pots demonstrating a thousand years of the potters’ craft.

All this treasure was hauled from the river by twentieth and twenty first century adventuring submarine archaeologists who are named and described with pride on the walls of the museum. They are an essential  part of the whole story.

Another part of the story are the citizen-beach-combers who, on a rare very low tide on the estuary,  harvest  their own collections of finds and fragments which reflect this same history. This house where I am writing is sprinkled with a number of these objets trouvé which make  me feel I am living in history - as does Estella in my new novel Star003r Bright.

As a footnote my fried Avril, says these  glass and  pot fragments  remind her of ‘boody’  which I mentioned once on my Bishop Blog.  Perhaps that’s our country’s archaeology although  so far the the River Wear had never offered up our own Ephebe.

I suppose, really,  writing novels is a kind if diving for treasure…



So what about…

Starr Bright?

……You might find it strange that through all this mad time I still did my astrology columns, recycling old stuff, free-basing new stuff, making new money to prove I was alive, adding it to the stash that came from my dear mother’s foresight. I worked through the night and slept through the day, only rarely catching sight of a perplexed Philip. I cut down on my antidepressants because there was the possibility that the numbness might make me renege on my deadlines. And I realised that they were giving me suicidal inspiration and I wanted to stay alive to see Siri again.

On many nights I would cast and recast Siri’s chart for the time then and the time now - for the day of the murder and for this same date - one, two, three years later. And again and again I would stare in the mirror and wonder why, why on that day I should have told her, ‘Yes love. You go and get some fresh air!’ What I should have done is shackle her to the fridge, the bed, the washing machine. Anything.’

I looked at her constellation Virgo in the night sky and willed it to bring her through to me from whatever fog she was in, so I could see her. These days, angry at the man called Ludovic who started it all, |I no longer sought out The Great Bear in the night sky,

Even worse, I was perpetually seething with anger at Philip for just being normal. This anger and my nocturnal habits drove an ever widening wedge between us. Where there had been kindness there was now rancour. Where there had been tolerance there was blame and disbelief. He saw me as crazy and incomprehensible. I saw him as hard and unfeeling….



Friday 11 June 2010

Settling into The Maison D’Estella

The town is unchanged. But then it’s only a year since we were here and the town has been here for two and a half thousand years, give or take.

002 The Maison d’Estella still has its star picked out in stones on one wall and - like the town of Agde - still shows its own layers of time,  here so carefully uncovered by its owner Allan, who restored the house and brought up his  family here.

We managed one blue sky’d fine day when we went along the estuary to the sea at Grau d’Agde where we walked along the wonderfully kitsch Adge June 2010 063promenade,  ate  highly specialised ice creams and watched men who looked like pirates disentangling their fine nets from the detritus from the last trip. They could have the right bloodline. Real pirates were a feature of life here in the seventeenth century.

But the wind whistles round the courtyard and we keep protesting to our friend Pat, who is with us this year,  that the weather has not been itself. The skies have been grey and lowering, T here has even been a patter of (warm…) rain. We have been looking out our wraps and  jackets. We keep telling Pat how usually in June it is fine and bright. Honestly.

My friend Avril arrives on Wednesday to complete the party and tell us that it is raining cats and dogs in England.

But despite the lack of blue sky it’s all still wonderful here. Yesterday was the big market day. I sat on the corner and watched again the kaleidoscope of faces and types. Lots of children. I smile at a  glorious cherub and he pulls his tongue out at me. I go with Debora and Sean to the food-market  and am dazzled again by the colour and variety and freshness of the food laid out there with artistic precision and artisan pride..

A very handsome young man with dark curly hair selects large tomatoes one by one for Debora, who tells him she’s making stuffed tomatoes for our dinner. She buys courgette flowers which, she says, she will stuff with cheese and deep fry for starters.

There’s talk in the house of football and some concern that the referee for one of the England matches who has a questionable reputation. There is the problem of where to watch the matches significant to us –  on the small French TV in the house or out at the Sports Bar down the street, among the French fans.

(I might have an eye to the football but really I’ll be reading Wolf Hall, a reward for ploughing through The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo with mounting disbelief.)

Things are looking up. Last night before dinner we walked along ancient basalt pavement of  the quayside through the heavy scent of Jasmine 001 a  fantastically blossoming jasmine. We went  to the cafe on the Place de La Marine for a pastis. whose owner  recognised us from last year and gave us a hug, pleased that we had returned.

Later we had the courgette flowers (stuffed with cheese, covered in light frothy batter) and the stuffed tomatoes. There was applause.


Next – another walk to la Ganguette..

Adge June 2010 072

Friday 4 June 2010

Away To France

Away to France at 4am. Here are some not-quite poems that I wrote last time. clip_image002 There will be more this-time writing…

Agde Haiku

The sound of swallows

Clouds salmoning the morning

Coffee steams gently

A Child Stretching

A child stretching

Hauling up the base of her spine

Through her shoulders

Along her arms

Right down

To her fragile wrists

More cat

Than anything

Striding with Bread

They all do it -

Young, not so young

Smart, not so smart

Morning and afternoon

Carrying long loaves

From the artisan baker


Greek Frieze

Trim measured borders

Three figures under arches

Framed with rays of basalt light

Crudely carved and very potent

One is a draped

A pious creature turns to one side

His features all scratched in

A garland on his head

The next one is naked, all

voluptuous, curved breasts

and copious belly

She holds flowers

The third is naked too

But moves briskly to the left

Like a business man in a hurry

To get to work

The Painter

She walks with a cheetah's grace

Her face golden, her drawn back hair

The colour of gleaming putty

Her smile as ancient as the town

She says she paints while keeping shop

Splashes of deep ochre and Agde yellow -

Airy spaces, unfinished figures

Brief encounter

With colour and light.

(Photo Thank you Sean)


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