Saturday, December 15, 2007

No such thing as a free lunch

It’s nearly time to say farewell to Wiltshire. It’s such a beautiful part of the country that I feel like a traitor, but let’s face it, we’re fair weather Wiltshirians and in just two weeks we’re out of here. As a young airman I spent the coldest winter of the last century just a few miles from here more than six decades ago - the camp’s entire plumbing system (with the fortunate exception of the cookhouse) froze solid and no-one washed for 10 days. It’s no place to spend a winter.
But, as you may recall from previous posts, we’ll have many happy memories of this county. We’ll miss the cottage, the cosy fireplace, country walks, the changing seasons, the pubs, the wild life, and above all the quiet – despite the occasional crunch of heavy artillery practising on Salisbury Plain.
Not all the memories will be happy ones: the Wiltshire Police, for example. We set off one day in late summer to meet with former father-in-law and dear step-mother-in-law in Winchester. We had a very pleasant lunch in that fascinating city with its beautiful cathedral – inspiration to Keats and Austen. (Did you know that Winchester is the home of England’s first library, cricket club, and lawn mower racing circuit? Neither did I.)
We had a very pleasant day before going our separate ways – they back to Spain and we to France. It was only marred about two weeks later when in the mail came a photo of the back of my car, with some numbers on the bottom saying I was accused of speeding in a 30mph zone, and if convicted could be fined up to £1000 or go to jail.
However, if I cared to give them £60 and take three points on my license, they would forget the whole thing.
I explained politely that, although I may have been distracted because I was on a strange, badly-signposted country road trying to find a cross-country route to Winchester, I would be surprised to have missed a speed limit sign,(adding the usual stuff: 50 years accident-free driving blah blah blah). They informed me that a speed limit sign is not necessary if the street lamp poles are closer together than 200 metres!
I resisted the temptation to point out that I don't normally carry a 200-metre tape measure, or to make the cheque payable to Winchester Police Revenue Enhancement Scam, but it probably wouldn’t have made a difference – they’re so awash with money that they haven’t bothered to present it yet. The most galling part of it all is that I’ve never seen Wiltshire Police doing anything that police are supposed to do. They’re probably too busy buying more cameras.
I'm sure we'll be back in the spring – but perhaps not in a Jag.

I've been quiet about Everton lately for fear of putting a jinx on them, but this headline from last week's Sunday Times says it all: ten games without defeat. It's out of date. It's now eleven.

5.15pm West Ham 0, Everton 2. Better make that twelve.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Remember Pearl Bailey

It's the day on which, on 1787, Delaware became the first state to ratify the Constitution. Did it call itself the United State?
The date also reminds me of a story Ronnie Scott used to tell about a Japanese racist who, every 7th December, attacked Pearl Bailey. Jazzmen can be funny. Humphrey Lyttelton, at 86, still chairs one of the funniest quiz shows on radio. Benny Green, who used often to play alongside Ronnie, said he knew an Indian cloakroom attendant named Mahatma Coat. Benny used to do a Sunday afternoon record programme, in which he was known to talk about my late brother Walter. That’s fame for you - I had a brother who was mentioned by Benny Green on a radio show. You can’t get much more famous than that: they’ll probably want me on I’m a Celebrity now. It was also Benny who said, bemoaning the disappearance of live jazz clubs, "Now is the winter of our discotheque". They're not writing them like that any more.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Reservoir Gods

After the success of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which has spent many months in the best-seller lists and has elicited so far no fewer than 657 customer reviews on Amazon, I thought it might be a good idea to piggyback on his theme and write a book about dog worship: The Dog Delusion.
The thought came on after a few months in Nice, where it seems that every sweet old lady sitting opposite you on the bus has, peering from a basket on her knee, the face of a tiny ferret-like creature.
Doggy faces on the bus and doggy faeces in the streets. The dogs of Nice are the least continent in the continent. Paul Theroux got excited about them in Pillars of Hercules. The municipal powers place plastic bags and special containers in the streets so that the animal on one end of the lead can collect the droppings of the animal on the other. In some villages the residents hang brightly-painted brushes and shovels on their walls as a hint – but sadly too high for the dogs to reach.
There are many parallels between the two forms of worship: the anthropomorphism, or the way even some non-believers think there’s nothing wrong with belief because it gave us great works of art and, well, it doesn’t do anyone any harm. (Try telling that to someone in Belfast, Iraq or Palestine.)
I know this guy who’s a magazine editor. Lovely chap, but he is to dogs what I am to cheese, (as my cardiologist once wrote to my GP: "This man’s problem is that he is inordinately fond of cheese".)
Well this guy is inordinately fond of dogs. No matter how hard you try to divert his attention, conversations with him will inevitably get around to dogs. If they don’t, he brings the subject into focus with some subtle, oblique reference – like "Do you have a dog?"
He did it the other day. I said, "Why do you ask?"
He said, "It’s just that I find that people who like dogs tend to be nicer people than those who don’t".
I said, "I guess I fail then, I just don’t like them."
He frowned. So I said, "But Hitler did".
He’ll never plug my book now.

Last weekend Nice celebrated the return of the tram after 50 years’ absence. They called it a Fête du Tramway and it was great fun. The “new” mode of transport was free for the weekend and – such is the public passion for freebies – packed. The streets were equally packed and there was a genuine air of celebration.
You bet there was – we’ve had four years of traffic chaos for this.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It’s launched!

Exclamation marks and sighs all around. The signings up and down the Riviera – from Cannes to Monaco - were fun, with the occasional funny moment. Like the American lady who came across me signing books in a Valbonne store and said, “What’s it about?” Drawing myself up to the full 1.70, I said it was about the lives of writers.
“I’ll take one”, she said, “I love trivia.”
Five years of research encapsulated in three words.

Curried pronoun We’re expecting guests for lunch and she’s in the shower. The oven timer goes off. So I shout “The timer’s gone off”.
“Just turn it off”, shouts shimmering shape from shower.
So I turn off the timer.
Some time later, there’s a scream from the kitchen. “Eeeek! You didn’t turn it off. The lunch is ruined!”
“Yes I did,” I say.
Things were tense. My attempts to point out that according to such distinguished authorities as Strunk and White, Lynn Truss and Fowler, a pronoun always replaces its most adjacent noun, did nothing to calm the situation. We got ready in chilly silence.

Among the many great curries that she has made, I would have to say that this was by far the most memorable. Jamie Oliver would slaver in envy. Michael Winner would have called it ‘historic’.
I swear it was those few extra minutes cooking time...


White lies, damn lies… Statistics - you either love them or hate them. I’m addicted. I don’t mean statistics the way politicians use them: Tony Blair’s famous ’45 minutes’, for example. Or the way they use them to get out of embarrassing corners, adding in a decimal point or two to give them an air of authenticity.
No, statistics can be used for useful things, like proving that the signs of the zodiac are a load of cobblers – or that John Terry passes back to the goalie 3.6 times more frequently when playing for England than he does when playing for Chelsea - or that Alan Shearer shouldn’t be a candidate for England manager just because he scored a lot of goals, since 62.4% of them were from the penalty spot.
Or the fact that the percentage of left-handed people being born in the world increases every year and if it continues we’ll eventually all be left-handed. Or that the percentage of boys to girls being born to Inuit mothers is decreasing every year, so that there’ll soon be no male Inuits.
Yesterday, The Times, as if to prove my point, ran a story about a Mr Beane who has taken some hickie baseball team, Oakland A, to victory against major league teams – with statistics. They’re the new steroids – and they’re legal.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Into each life...

A message to all of you Schadenfreudsters out there: it’s been wet and windy on the French Riviera for three days now and shows no sign of abating. You can barely see across the bay. Not torrential tropical stuff, no thunder and writing, but English type rain: dull, dark and interminable. DG and I, claustrophobic after three days of watching the stuff go past the windows, decided to venture out this afternoon. Kitted out like Captain Scott in the gear we bought for the transit of Cape Horn, we got as far as the gate. We’ll try again tomorrow.

I know graffiti is an Italian word, but until Naples I didn’t realise how widespread a practice it was here. Very few vertical surfaces remain un-tagged. This is the railway station at Herculaneum, the town that was buried under 21 metres of ash by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, and not found until nearly 20 centuries later. The Romans left their graffiti, too. After all, it’s only leaving your mark to show you came through.
Like blogging in fact.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

See Naples...

There are many fine churches in Naples. In fact the old part of the city is just a whole lot of churches with a few houses stuck in between. The churches have beautiful chapels containing poignant works of religious art. But the saddest altar of them all is dedicated, not to the Madonna, but to a Maradonna.
Diego Maradonna is an Argentinian footballer who played for Napoli in the 80’s – and helped them to win Serie A, Italy’s top championship, in 1987.
(In the World Cup of 1986 in Mexico, he scored two of the goals that eliminated England, the first by punching the ball past Peter Shilton, the England goalie, and the second – often called ‘the goal of the Century’ - after weaving past six England players. When accused of cheating by scoring a goal with his hand, he said it was "The Hand of God".)
The altar stands near the Piazza Nilo. It is painted in the colours of Napoli football club and bears such touching memorabilia as a plaque saying “Miraculous Chapel to Diego Amando Maradonna: Holy Year, 1987”; a bottle said to contain the tears of the Neapolitans when he left – and a notice saying that if you didn’t buy a drink [in the adjacent bar] you can’t take a photograph. I did both.

I name this book… Yes, it’s launched at last. It wasn’t exactly à la Harry Potter. First there was a rail strike, which prevented some people from getting there; others couldn't get in because of the traffic blockage that resulted - but phoned in orders. Finally, the main post office building - in the same street - started to drop masonry so the police closed the street. (We were wondering if a jealous J K Rowling had put a curse on us.) But apart from that Mrs Lincoln, the more determined fans got through and it was a qualified success

Thursday, November 15, 2007

We have books

Why, you may ask, is he sitting there with a beatific look on his face and a glass of champagne in his hand? Is it because it’s November 15, the Feast of St Albert the Great, philosopher, theologian and 13th century Wikipedia, who spent his whole life writing down ALL the knowledge that there was in the world at the time? (I’d like to see you do it today Bert.) No, he’s rejoicing because he arrived in Villefranche, switched on his answering machine, and heard an unmistakeable Australian voice saying that his books had arrived.
So for the benefit of those who were as worried as we were that we might have to hold a book signing without books, I’m breaking with tradition and posting on consecutive days. Thanks Indian Ocean, Rosie, DHL and Wells Fargo – I don’t have to sign pages of sticky labels after all. Cheers.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

B-day-minus-three

No, it’s not a small item of bathroom furniture: it's just that there are three days to go to Book-launch day. No, I’m going to go on about it today except to say that we (the bookstore owner and I) are getting nail-bitingly close to the launch – and the books haven’t arrived yet! They’re saying they’ve been delayed by monsoons in the Indian Ocean, but should be in the UK warehouse in precisely one hour from now. If they are, they’ve then got to get to Cannes by Saturday afternoon.
Worried - who’s worried?

Back from a week-end in Naples with a group of friends I first met in Padua almost eleven years ago. That was in February 1997, and most of us were in our last year of a course at the Open University, at the time doing 13th and 14th century Italian art. On that trip we also went to Venice, Florence, and Sienna – and in the course of our travels became very good friends – so much so that we resolved to continue our trips after graduation, and every year since then we have made similar trips to some European city. This year we went back to Italy for the first time.
It seems crazy now to have gone to Florence and Sienna, strictly avoiding anything to do with the Renaissance, but we did. We would lead each other firmly away from the Botticellis, Donatellos and Michaelangelos: they were ‘not our period’.
Ten years on, our artistic horizons have – like our shapes – widened, and we can now enjoy it all, from ancient Greek to Roman to medieval - to art deco.
Naples has all that and more. You go down a filthy, narrow street, able almost to touch both sides at once, dodging speeding scooters with wheezy horns. Washing - covered with plastic to protect it from the dirt - festoons the walls like political banners. You come to yet another Baroque church, encrusted with centuries of grime, open the door, and there in front of you stands a Caravaggio.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Better red...

than dead? There aren’t many things that the French Riviera doesn’t have. Even snow has been known. But it does lack sunsets: unless you’re very high up, the sun will disappear behind a mountain long before it reddens the evening sky. But the Atlantic coast has crepuscular views like this every evening across the Bordeaux Lake.

The Riviera comes good in the mornings: this was the sun this morning as it peeped over Cap Ferrat:

Our beloved PM, Gordon Brown, is supporting a Bill to prevent criminals from making profit from their crimes by publishing books about them. “Are there no lengths Brown will not go to,” said Matthew Parris in yesterday’s Times, “to prevent Tony Blair from publishing his memoirs?”

It’s Toussaint – All Saints Day - the long holiday weekend in which everyone buys chrysanths and goes to the cemetery to visit defunct relatives. A morbid way to spend a beautiful autumn day - if not as ghoulish as the Mexican dia del muerte, when the kids eat skull- and coffin-shaped candy - but a good excuse for a long weekend. The UK’s the only place I know where they don’t have any hols between August and Christmas - no Toussaint, no Yom Kippur, no Labour Day, no Armistice Day, no Thanksgiving. But there’s a lot of people not visiting necropoli - they’re here enjoying the sunshine; some are even swimming.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

You heard it here first

You did indeed: remember this?

BREAKING NEWS!!! This just in.
The Book – you remember the book? – will release on November 1, and launch in Cannes on November 17, followed by other events along the coast: in Antibes, Valbonne, Nice, Monaco and maybe Fayence, in the following week or so. Details later.


Well, it wasn’t true. I know I told you that today was the expected release date, but I just heard that my books are sitting on a wharf somewhere, and are not, as we speak, leaving the warehouse by the truckload on their way to eager readers throughout the English-speaking world.
So please do not queue outside Wally Storer’s bookshop in Cannes on November 16 in anticipation of his doors being thrown open at midnight, because unless someone extracts their digit very soon, the book won’t be there.
It’s difficult, once someone has broken a promise, to place any credibility on what they say next, but, as you might expect, it was: “But we can guarantee that they will definitely be there by the xth”. So I won’t say anything until I’ve seen them myself - except that I hope you’ll be patient and not accept substitutes. It does exist, (I have an advance copy), and it will be at any good bookshop near you – soon.

Nothing to lose but your chains Yes, Marx – Karl, not Groucho – was right – there’s a world to win. But not the way the book market’s going. I went to town the other day to do a bit of book-plugging in the two remaining bookshops – and found there was only one! A year or so ago, Windsor used to have four good bookshops – WH Smith’s, one small chain shop – small chain, not small shop - and two independents. Now, WHS has pulled out of the serious book market, and there remains only the mighty Waterstone’s. They took over the small chain and the others gave up and left. It’s not all big W’s fault: not only were the independents squeezed by Amazon, but then the supermarkets moved in on the best-seller end of the market, which was what paid the independents’ rent and enabled them to stock the less fashionable titles. You might be saying, “How hypocritical – he didn’t complain when the same thing happened to the town’s small family bakers, butchers, pet food shops etc. - 'good for the consumer', he said”.
Yes, true, but we weren’t talking about books then – this is about Choice. Fight book globalization, support your local independent – all you have to do is find one.

Franglais Over lunch with a French friend yesterday, she asked what, in English, you would say to someone who was holding you up, to show them that you were getting impatient. We told her: she wrote it down and asked us to check it, then decided she should try it out. A former teacher, she is fairly unreserved, and soon the whole restaurant could hear her stentorian voice saying, repeatedly: “What ze fuck do you seenk you are doing?”

Friday, October 26, 2007

What’s an ostréiculteur?


It’s the French name for a guy or woman who farms oysters – obvious when you know, of course. Not exactly a bird-puller, but it does roll smoothly off the tongue: “I’m an ostréiculteur actually – only in a small way of course. What do you do?”. You can ask me anything you want to know about oysters – but surprisingly no one ever does.
As you’ll remember from yesterday’s lesson, as you go north along the Médoc peninsula, on the eastern, or River Gironde, side, are vineyards. On the left or western side is the Atlantic Ocean, and the bay of Arcachon (pic), where 60% of the oysters eaten in France come from. As with Bordeaux wines, the initial consumers were the English –it was much easier to ship to England than to Paris. Parisians got their oysters from Britanny.

Oyster farming, or as we in the know call it, "ostréiculture", is labour-intensive and wet work, and it takes an average three years per oyster. (They are rumoured to improve one’s prowess in the boudoir - Louis XIV ate 150 at every meal.) Of course we had to partake of this delicacy, but for a different reason, along with the odd glass of Entre Deux Mers. The DG decided she didn't like oysters, so we did a trade. They were delicious.

What’s in a name? Plenty. What chance have I got with a name like mine when there are writers around with names like Peregrine Worsthorne, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Simon Sebag Montefiore? Imagine them in your class at school: "Where’s Simon Sebag Montefiore?" "I saw him in the bike shed with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Sir." "Thank you, Jones."

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

BREAKING NEWS!!!




This just in. The Book – you remember the book? – will release on November 1, and launch in Cannes on November 17, followed by other events along the coast: in Antibes, Valbonne, Nice, Monaco and maybe Fayence, in the following week or so. Details later.



Route Nationale 1215, which runs north from Bordeaux, through Médoc on the left bank of the Gironde, is the most mouth-watering road in the world.
Its road signs should be bottled – and often are. Haut-Médoc, Moulis, St. Julien, and Châteaux like Beychevelle, Lynch-Bages, (where the DG bought me a ’98 in the hope it will mature in time for a special birthday next year), St. Estèphe, Château Lafite (pic), Ch. Margaux, Ch. Latour, Ch. Mouton Rothschild...
At Lamarque there’s a ferry across the river which at high tide you can drive on (that's the boat, not the river - important) and come back up on the other bank: Côte de Blaye, Côte de Bourg, St. Emilion, Pomerol, (a bottle of whose Château Petrus can set you back $8000)...
We return full-stomached, but, apart from that single Lynch-Bages, empty-handed. And as I’m dreaming of what might have been, she says “Red or white?” – and I’m down to earth, with a plonk.

Sick Transit
My words are vines, the grapes they bear
Nurtured and harvested with care
Hence, then, my rage
When, on the page
The vintage is vin ordinaire

Friday, October 19, 2007

Two Cities

Bordeaux, the capital of the French wine industry - not the plural of bordel - reminds me of Liverpool in many ways. Unlike the cities of southern France, which face the Med, it looks onto a river that was once its life-blood, and it has a skyline.
Another link is the Celtic connection: many of the vineyards carry Irish names, like Château Lynch-Bages and the Châteaux Palmer, Phelan, Parker, Barton, Brown – mostly descendants of supporters of James II, who hoped, with the help of the Irish Catholics, to regain the English throne. Like most Scouses, I had forbears of both faiths: Irish Catholic ones in Drogheda, who used to take me to the site of the Battle of the Boyne and tell me sad stories of how James was defeated by William of Orange in 1690 - while in Liverpool my Uncle Bill would strut his Protestant stuff in bowler hat and orange sash every July 12 to celebrate his namesake’s proud victory.

Speaking in Tongues Why Bordeaux? I mentioned how we like to take French bus tours as a means of immersing ourselves in the language. The mistake we made on our previous “Total Immersion” was to take a French tour - of Sicily. As the guides were Italian, by the time the brain had unscrambled heavily Sicilian-accented French into something translatable into English, it had missed the next bit.
While it raised difficulties with the guides, the fellow-passengers, being French, presented no such problem, so it worked out well in the end. We learned a lot about the people, not much about Sicily. Still, we decided our next trip would again be a French one – but in France. Which was how we settled on Bordeaux, (starting from Marseilles: a pleasant 2½ hour train trip from Nice followed by a slurp of the local specialty – bouillabaisse). After living in Nice, the southern accent shouldn’t prove a problem, we thought.
It was. French as spoken in Marseilles is not just another accent – it’s almost another language. Those lovely people on the trip might as well have been speaking Martian as Marseillais. What’s worse was that although they could understand our French, we couldn’t understand theirs. So after struggling through meal-time chat three times a day, we finally started missing meals to spare them the embarrassment. Bad for our French, but good for the weight.
Once again it worked out OK in the end because unlike Sicily, the guides, being from Bordeaux, spoke understandable French, so we learned a lot about Bordeaux, but not much about our fellow-travellers.

In the middle of this confusion, England played France in the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup – and, to our surprise and embarrassment, won. Unlike the French press - with headlines like “England’s Vain Hope” etc., these people could not have been more gracious, and we parted with everyone wishing us bon courage for the Final on Saturday. We’ll need it.

Ah yes! Didn't mention the other kind of immersion: Wine. Next time.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Days of wine...

Won’t be posting this weekend because we’re going to Bordeaux. Which reminds me of an old joke:
Man: We’re going to Bordeaux
Friend: I’ve heard good things about Bordocks.
Man: No, Bordeaux – like Bord-oh?
Friend: Boll-oh.

(‘Er indoors hates that joke.)
It’s about the right time of the year – the wine harvest – but that’s not the main reason we’re going. It’s about French. French coach tours are the only enjoyable way we know of ensuring total immersion in French - and wine. No sensible English couple would think of doing anything so stupid, so it's more French than tour – wall-to-wall French from morn ‘till nightie. Does wonders for your French conversation and is disastrous for your self-esteem. There'll be more on Bordeaux.

I have this long-time Oz mate – we go back to January 1960 so a golden reunion isn’t far off. He’s quite normal in most ways, but, like most Aussies, has a blind spot where sport is concerned. I, on the other hand, have a perfectly normal, healthy attitude to sport: I am always happy when the better team wins – so long as it’s England.
About 25 years ago, friend and I did a tour of the Burgundy vineyards – a thoroughly enjoyable experience - in the course of which we made the acquaintance of the Châteaux Meursault, which produces one of the best white Burgundies you can buy.
In memory of that trip to Burgundy, whenever friend and I have a bet, the prize is usually a bottle of Meursault. Last Saturday’s quarter-final of the Rugby World Cup, was such an occasion. Although my brain was saying don’t be so stupid, my heart said take the bet because you owe it to your country. We now play France in the semi-final, so wherever we are at 8.50pm. on Saturday, we’ll find somewhere to watch the match to see if England are in the final of the Rugby World Cup – and, more importantly, to see if I’ve won another bottle of Châteaux Meursault.
Actually, result of all our bets when averaged out over the years, is about 50/50, so in fact the same bottle travels between Villefranche and Cannes several times a year. Burgundy not being a good traveller (which is why the English drink Bordeaux), when the CM is eventually opened it will probably be undrinkable

Friday, October 05, 2007

This is no book…

…Who touches this touches a man.
Yes, old Walt knew a thing or two. And it’s right here! A man on a motor-bike wearing a black helmet – not the bike, the man – just delivered it. It sits on the desk in front of me in its cellophane wrapper, unopened, (well, I know what’s inside) and pristine, and I can’t take my eyes off it. It’s beautiful. Excuse the self-indulgence, but the advance copies of my book just arrived. Bulk supplies won’t be in the shops until November 27 and the police are not expecting undignified midnight scrambles outside Waterstones. Neither have I (yet) been asked for an interview by John Humphrys or Jay Leno. But who cares? It’s here...

I’m trying to judge a short story competition. You can’t help but wonder at the number of people who want to write but who don’t read. I remember Gordon Ramsay saying once – he’s the TV chef who can only be seen after the 9pm kiddies-bedtime watershed because he’s so foul-mouthed. (Guess I should have wondered this before, but how do you have an evening watershed in the US with its different time-zones? It wasn’t a problem when I was raising kids there because in the US, TV obscenity is a relatively recent phenomenon.)
Oh yes, Gordon Ramsay. He said that lots of people want to be top chefs but they’re not interested in food. It’s the same with writing. Lots of people want be famous writers but they aren’t interested in books. It won’t work – it’s not what you get out of it that’s fun – it’s what you put in. It seems pretty obvious: after all, painters look at pictures all the time. Virginia said it right: “Books read us”.
But I digress – again: back to the judging. There is, as you’d expect, a wide quality range. It’s not just that some people write better: they may have been writing for longer, be better read (see above) or realised at the last minute that the deadline was almost upon them. But they all merit roughly the same amount of attention and comment, right?
You’d think this would mean that the better stories would be harder to critique, and that it would be easy to comment on a story that you didn’t like. It’s not what I’ve found. I could go on for pages about the bad ones, because I want to tell them where they went wrong, how I think things could be improved. Then I have to go over it all again to check I haven’t committed the sin that uncaring editors do dozens of times a day: discouragement.
So if you got a long critique, it probably means you didn’t win. But that’s not the point. I just hope it was, at worst, positive and encouraging, and at best inspirational. And that you’ll try again next time.

I've been coming to France a fair number of years - a fair number of decades actually - but there's one habit I can't break. This is, before I go into a DIY shop, doctor's surgery, anywhere, I do a little check to see if I've got all the vocabulary I need. Wall plug - cheville - biopsy - biopsie - OK, let's go. It's silly I know. When the phone rings you can't race through the dictionary to check you know every word they may use. You just wing it. But I still do it.
The other day I wanted a jubilee clip. It wasn't in the dictionary so I had to wing it.
Me: (in French) "I'm looking for this ring-like thing that has little ridges on the outside that you tighten up with a screwdriver." As I go into my impersonation of Marcel Marceau with screwdriver, the man interrupts.
Man: "Juibeelee cleep?"

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Equinoxial joy

It is post number 201 – there's a harvest moon and it's a time to make some new-century resolutions. I will try to be more positive. Henceforth I will not get annoyed when my book’s release date is postponed yet again – this time to November 1. (After all, some people do buy Xmas presents in January.) Even when my expensive anti-itch cream – please don’t ask – lists among its side-effects ‘may cause itching’, I shall not rant.
Neither will I complain that today’s Times, (printed on toilet paper in Marseilles), and costing three times more than the London one for a shadow of the original, does not contain a word about England’s spectacular win last night against Tonga in the Rugby World Cup, thus proving not only that it is extortionately over-priced and abridged, but out of date.
I will look on the bright side: there is some good news. Manchester United lost 2-0 to lowly Coventry; a kind Mr. Song of Hong Kong (reminds me that I once had a friend called Morris Boris Dorris) has promised to send me $7 million and all I have to do is send him my bank details. Like Candide, I will believe that this is the best of all possible worlds. Last night I called into the boulangerie for a slice of a tasty Provençal delicacy called pissaladière – a kind of onion tart. Nothing unusual there – it goes very well with Jack Daniel’s and would be a knock-out in Kentucky. Not quite hearing what the salesperson said, (she was very busy at the time, telling her colleague about the previous night’s date), I glanced at the cash register. It read ‘Piss: 2 Euros’.
That’s what you get for being optimistic - no more Pollyanna – curmudgeondom calls.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bicentennial Blues



It’s great to be back (pic by the Mairie). Funny how, after only a few weeks away, you forget how much smaller things are in France. How, when you make coffee for two average-size Brits, you have to fill the machine up to the “6 cups” mark or you get short measure. And garages: how pleased we were when the car rental company gave us a free upgrade to an Espace, only to find that once it’s squeezed into the garage, you can’t get out of the car. Still, makes for an early start next morning.
This was to be the post of posts: the climax, the masterpiece – for this is Post No. 200. But I'm not making a fuss because what was to be the pride of posts was almost the post mortem. Not blogger’s block – I just got too busy, and the blog found itself at the back of the queue. But I've been stung into action by the DG posting...
Never think that once you’ve written a book you can re-sharpen your pencils – 2B or not 2B – and get on with the next. Hemingway did, John Grisham does, because publishers are waiting eagerly to grab their drafts and to set the vast marketing machine in motion. But like 97% of writers, I do my own PR, ads, promo etc. What Emerson said about “If a man write a better book…” and the world beating a path to his door, “tho’ he build his house in the woods”, is crap. The to-do list just gets longer, that's all. (Or maybe it isn't a "better book").
But for today, it has been turned upside down. Today’s priority list goes: 1. lunch on the terrace at Chez Michel, our favoritest restaurant in Villefranche – or anywhere - probably on Dorade Royale, (grilled sea bream); 2. Sunday Times – a Marseilles reprint that’s a shadow of the UK version at three times the price but still addictive; 3. a post-prandial nap; and 4. the post. It’s a little reward for 200 posts and 94,000 words. Coming, Michel.
Tomorrow it’s back to the to-do list and things like setting up a wireless router (called a “livebox” here because they don’t like “English”? words – “My computer” is Poste de travail) using a French instruction book. A great start for the 3rd century.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

HTML Blues

I thought it was about time I updated my web site. In a flush of independence, I thought I could do it without troubling my good friend Mike, who built it and has done all the previous updates. I must confess that I never managed to come to terms with ms/dos, and am far from comfortable with WORD, (how do you get rid of that stupid paper clip?), so to kid myself that I would be able to master web design was straining my nerd-dom beyond its limits. Still, ever the optimist, I bought Microsoft’s FrontPage because, according to the sales literature, a five-year-old with learning difficulties would get the hang of it in ten minutes. The name Microsoft should have been a warning. The job security of the Seattle billionaires depends on their ability to write instructional material using a vocabulary that the purchaser cannot possibly understand. (Yes, even if he/she hits the Help button, since it is equally incomprehensible. What I need is a Help button to the Help button.) So I bought a book called FrontPage 2003 for Absolute Beginners, but it might have been in Swahili for all the use it was. So then I bought FrontPage 2003 for Dummies - with the same result. A Dummie, it seems, is a hirsute, leather-elbowed goon with a PhD in Comp Sci. What I’m waiting for now is the one titled FrontPage 2003 for Dyslexic Gorillas who are Absolute Dummies. Meanwhile, the web site stays as it is.

Q: Who led the Pedants' Revolt?* The question is prompted by the fact that the Times said someone's body "was laying on the ground". The pedants are revolting.

Talking about Seattle, I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights and the eyes are barely functioning. (Whatever its claims, Photoshop does not remove red-eye.) Blame Nice-but-Tim Henman. Having heard him say, after his great performance in beating Tersunov in the US Open, that if he played as well as he did in the first round, he would have no trouble against Tsonga in the second, we decided it would be worth staying up to watch. Well, he didn’t and it wasn’t, but by the time we knew that – New York being five hours behind - it was 1.30am. To be fair, Tim's opponent was irresistible. His second serve was faster than Tim’s first – not that we saw it very often: because at one stage Tsonga was getting 90% of his first serves in.
Watching Tim’s departure took me back to the time about ten years ago at the French Open, when we went to some remote back court to watch a skinny English kid get thrashed. And about five tears later, a bodyguard of the by then famous Tim pushed me roughly aside at the Monaco Open so that Mr Adidas could sail through the crowd unsullied by contact with the public who had paid to see him.
The only crumb of comfort is that this was Tim’s last Grand Slam, so no more red-eye.

Good news – Everton are second in the Premiership table.
Bad news – Liverpool are top.

* A: Which Tyler.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

No comment

Do you ever read a post that triggers an instant response in your mind - a comment that is witty, gritty and incisive, that you just can’t wait to post – and when you click Comments and read the others, find that every one is wittier, grittier and more incisive than yours, and end up not posting your comment? No, I bet you don’t. It’s a rare condition.
The disease is known in Blogdom as CCC – critically contagious commentophobia – a particularly virulent strain of which has already attacked the readers of this blog. It is significant – and worrying - that there have been only two comments on my last post (one of which was my own) whereas that of my spouse, which I’m sure she will agree was only slightly more comment-worthy than mine, attracted four. (No, I will not tell you which it is – find it yourself in the links.)
An unusual feature of this outbreak is that people in remoter regions seem to have genetic immunity. In west Texas, for example, people have been known to post nothing but comments, and no blog.
The condition has worried me for some time (ask ‘er indoors), but I have not spoken up earlier for fear that well-meaning readers might try to make me feel better by posting comments out of sympathy. You can imagine how embarrassing that would be.

Pub pretention One of Wiltshire's best features, that I regret not having sampled last time I lived here is its country pubs – but that was mmmm years ago when I was a young airman and didn't frequent such dens of vice. They’re picturesque: old, thatched, low-beamed, with names like The Millstream or The Wiltshire Yeoman. But a sad thing is happening to them – or those convenient to main roads.
They’re getting pretentious. Someone buys an old pub, does it up, and before you know it they’ve put in a chef, called it a pub/restaurant and the prices have trebled. Trouble is, they’re not what people come to the country for. We come to get away from pretention - we want yokels, fresh from a day’s honest toil, with straw in their hair, smoking clay pipes. At the above-mentioned Yeoman, the young local girls who deliver the food to the table aren’t allowed to say ‘chips’. They say ‘Ere, would you be wantin’ pommes frites with that’. Their ‘ploughman’s lunch’ is accompanied by marinated olives.
The pub we chanced upon yesterday had Liebestraum playing in the bar. There was no dartboard, no corduroyed farm labourers drinking scrumpy. No rotund, jovial mine host to greet us but a slim Zimbabwean telling us about the 'bidrums' he had put in – one called the Lion Room, with appropriate pictures and furnishings; the other is the Leopard Room, similar. We didn’t stay long enough to hear about the Health Centre. Fortunatley there are still enough traditional pubs if you know where to look, but it's a worrying trend.
It's the same in the fields: no weathered ploughman homeward plods his weary way. Oh yes, they’re out there all right, from dawn to dusk, sewing, reaping, gathering in the hay – but they do it sitting in air-conditioned Caterpillars and John Deeres – wearing shades.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Plus ça change…

There’s a guy who appears in all the quotations dictionaries – but he’s there only once. His name is Alphonse Karr, a 19th century French author and journalist, and his famous quote was ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’.
The phrase comes to mind during the second week of the football season as one listens to the post-match comments of football managers. Some have been relegated, some sacked – but the new guys are saying exactly the same things as the old ones did: ‘the lads showed a lot of character today’; ‘they gave me 120%’; and my favourite: ‘I don’t like to complain about refereeing decisions but…’.
They have a point. As the football world celebrated the retirement of ghastly Graham Poll, little did they know that deputies were waiting to don the mantle. Step up myopic Mike Riley, who managed to get three penalty decisions wrong in one match (I gave him the benefit of the doubt on the fourth.) and optically-challenged Rob Styles, who gave Chelsea a penalty when their man ran into a Liverpool player - when neither had the ball.
Mourinho said he didn't know if it should have been a penalty. And Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez said that Gerard has a sore toe and won’t be able to play for England on Wednesday – but he would be able to play for Liverpool today. Plus ça change indeed.

This summary (extracted from Ted Jones’s The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers - you may have heard of it) is for my loyal but mysterious reader in Auckland, New Zealand:

The New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) came to the Côte d’Azur in 1915 and stayed first in Bandol, at the western end of the Riviera, where she was grieving the death of her brother on the Western Front. The Villa Pauline, where she wrote Prelude, still stands, overlooking the Renecros beach. She chose Bandol in the misguided belief that the climate would be beneficial for her respiratory complaints. In fact, like her friend D. H. Lawrence a decade later, it was in Bandol that she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and, again like Lawrence, was to travel the entire length of the Côte d’Azur in a futile quest for relief.
She had left Wellington for London at the age of 19 with the ambition of becoming a professional musician, but the nearest she came to achieving her musical goal was a hasty and brief marriage to her cello teacher, George Bowden. It wasn’t so much a love match as a means of avoiding being in a state of unmarried pregnancy when her posh parents arrived from New Zealand. As soon as their ship sailed for home, she left Bowden and sold her cello.
But the bourgeois Mansfields had seen enough. Although the pregnancy miscarried, Mrs M., shocked by what she had seen as her daughter's Bohemian lifestyle, promptly cut Katherine out of her will.
Mansfield’s writing success began with her acceptance by the literary magazine, Rhythm. Her later marriage to its editor, John Middleton Murry, although punctuated by numerous infidelities by both partners, lasted for the rest of her life.
In 1920, she moved to Menton, at the eastern end of the Riviera, where, on the leafy hillside of Garavan, within coughing distance of the Italian border, she discovered the Villa Isola Bella, There, despite her deteriorating health, she enjoyed one of her most productive periods, publishing collections of short stories, book reviews, articles, and translations. She wrote from there that, when she died, ‘you will find ISOLA BELLA in poker work on my heart’.
Two years later, Mansfield went for a course to the pretentiously-titled Institute for the Harmonious Development of the Mind, in an old monastery at Fontainebleau, near Paris, but the northern winter proved less than harmonious with her body and she died there of tuberculosis in January, 1923, aged 34.
Her gravestone in a nearby village bears the quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV that she chose as the epigraph for her book of stories that she completed in Menton and dedicated to Murry: ‘Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety’. The village is aptly named Avon.
In Mansfield’s memory, the New Zealand government awards an annual bursary to a young indigenous writer allowing them to spend a year in Isola Bella, in the now renamed avenue Katherine Mansfield, but, with its faded sign and overgrown garden, the Isola is bella no longer.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Take a good look

This is the top level of the Premier League on August 14, 2007, courtesy of the BBC, after two matches played:

Barclays Premier League : Table
14 Aug 21:53

Team Played Won Points
1 Everton 2 1 6
2 Newcastle 1 1 3
3 Man City 1 1 3
4 Chelsea 1 1 3
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
5 Arsenal 1 1 3
6 Blackburn 1 1 3

Pardon me if I gloat - it may not last very long and we have to make the most of it.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The law is a ass


There’s a village not far from here called Urchfont. It’s a picturesque chocolate-box English village with manicured green, Tudor thatched cottages, a little pond complete with ducks, and a Manor. In the middle of the village is a signpost, around the base of which a local resident, 79-year-old Mrs June Turnbull, has built a tiny alpine garden, which she tends with love. That was until last week, when a man from the County Council spotted her giving it its daily TLC. They have now threatened to prosecute her for not observing safety regulations. She must, they said, wear a high-visibility jacket, have at least three of these signs,
ensure that the Council have certified that there are no underground wires or pipes - and employ a second person for ‘Health & Safety’ reasons.
In the true bulldog spirit that has made England what it is today, Mrs T., disabled with polio since youth, has said hollyhocks to the Council. ‘I’ll carry on gardening until they jail me’, she says. Pity they aren’t so conscientious about collecting the rubbish.

For those whose friends think they’re weird because they collect train numbers or Dewey decimal classifications, there’s hope. You are not alone. I confess to a more than passing interest in car registration numbers. (If you’re a regular reader you will already have had your suspicions about this aberration.) I read every one I see, check that it’s using the official Charles Wright font, note where first registered and when, and – what must be infuriating to the person I’m with - make some puerile comment, usually preceded by a pensive ‘Mmm’ – as in ‘Mmm, he’s a long way from home’, or ‘Mmm, that’s the third Devon registration I’ve seen today’ – which can be pretty unremarkable, especially if you happen to be in Devon at the time. But I have to admit I find them endlessly fascinating.
‘OK, but what use is it?’ I hear you say. Well first, everything doesn’t have to have a use, but suppose you’re on the M25, confused about which is the best exit for the north-west. There in front of you is a Mini with the unmistakable letters ‘ME’ in its registration. ‘Ah! Merseyside’, you say - 'we just follow him and we can’t go wrong. Unless of course the driver bought the car when he was at John Moores University and now lives in Swindon.
Or say you’re sitting watching Crime Watch one evening and Fiona Bruce says, ‘The gang made off in a yellow BMW believed to have been stolen in Bristol. Then you ring up and say ‘I saw a yellow BMW with a WM registration outside Woolworths in Staines at 11.23 on Saturday morning’, and they’ll say ‘We’d like to applaud the sharp-eyed Mr. Thingy for his public-spirited action’ and you’ll be on national television and probably get a medal – perhaps pinned on you by the fabulous Fiona. That is, unless the gang catches up with you first.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow

Chronologically, summer is half over, but meteorologically it started only last weekend. With the lambs having departed several weeks ago to rendezvous with some mint sauce and Beaujolais, the grass has grown nearly chest-high. So it’s mini-Harvest Time in Wiltshire, as the farmers happily (or is that an oxymoron) spent the weekend cutting, bailing and stacking the winter feed. We’re hoping that even our treacherous weather is going to ease up for what’s left of summer 2007. (Quote from this morning’s BBC weather forecast: ‘There’ll be dry periods between the showers’! What else would there be?)

Four legs bad I hope they didn’t eat all the lamb, because there could be a shortage of beef this year – you see they have these research laboratories in Surrey that were supposed to help us eradicate foot and mouth disease. But, rather than being the solution, it seems the labs are the problem, as the only outbreak has been in the vicinity of the laboratory. They’re pulling out all the stops, and hope to tell whether or not we’re facing national disaster ‘within the next 48 hours’.
Meanwhile there’s a total exclusion of movement of livestock, and people have to wash their boots and cars when entering and leaving farm areas – but the public footpath that runs through the exclusion area (including the infected farm) is open. 'We don't want to give the impression that the countryside is closed', said the ministers in charge this morning.

Funny you should mention that If you’ve got a copy of the original hard cover edition of my book - remember that? - hang on to it. You could get seriously rich. It is now officially out of print and is being paid Amazon’s highest accolade: they’re selling new copies at above full list price. But worry not – The French Riviera Literary Guide will be available in paperback next month (price $11.99 or $15.95) and can be ordered NOW. And I promise I won’t mention it again – for at least a week.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Exploring Wells


If you thought that publishers supported vast marketing operations so that authors, once they’ve finished one book, will be free to get on with the next, you can think again. You may also think that it’s a bizarre business concept to ask the creators of one's product to stop producing and put creativity on hold while they involve themselves full-time in the task of flogging said product – and you would be right. But that is indeed what happens.
Being a naïve sort of person, it took me some time to work out why this happens, and then it dawned on me: you have to pay marketeers, but writers come free.
I’m telling you all this because I think those few readers who have missed the blog deserve to know that I’ve been so busy with the preparation for the launch of the paperback that I haven’t had much chance to think about blogging – or anything else. Thus although I’ve no wish to commercialise my blog by plugging The French Riviera: A Literary Guide for Travellers (which, since you ask, is out next month, only £11.99), I'll just have to do it in the interest of art.

Here’s another story adapted from the aforementioned Literary Guide:
It took me more than a year to find Lou Pidou, one of the several Riviera love-nests of the English novelist and journalist Herbert George (H. G.) Wells (1866-1946). Wells, whose long association with the Côte d’Azur centred mostly in the countryside around Grasse between the Wars, was best known for science fiction novels such as The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, and for his many social novels like Kipps and The History of Mr Polly. In fact I didn’t find his house until after the book had gone to press. It was on my third pilgrimage into the foothills of the Alpes Maritimes that, lost in the maze of leafy lanes of Magnosc, I asked a postman for directions. He was so helpful that I decided to ask him if he knew where Wells had lived. He was not only friendly, but literate: Ah oui, l’écrivain anglais!’, he said, and took me to the house and introduced me to the concierge.

A serial womaniser, Wells left his wife Catherine and their two sons for long periods while keeping a constant string of mistresses. His autobiographical H. G. Wells in Love barely mentions love: it is a catalogue of his extra-marital dalliances, beginning with ‘a certain little Miss Kingsmill’ shortly after his first son was born in 1901.

While remaining married, he replaced his foreground lovers in ten-year cycles. His most famous was the English novelist Rebecca West - who wrote that the Riviera was ‘the nearest thing to paradise’. In 1923 he began the affair with an Austrian writer which he later called ‘the vociferous transit of Odette Keun’, and in 1933 Keun was discarded for a Russian Baroness, Moura Budberg, formerly – and sometimes concurrently - mistress of the Russian poet Gorky.

All this was against a background of transient lovers who included the wife of a New Zealand High Commissioner; the Irish writer Elizabeth Beauchamp; an anonymous American widow who lived in the Hôtel Negresco in Nice; and the trivial pursuit of what he called ‘women I had only a brief and simple use for’.

His succession of love-nests on the Grasse verges began in Magagnosc, followed by Lou Bastidon and the villa that he and Keun built to their own design. They called it ‘Lou Pidou’, Provençal for ‘The Treasure’, and above the fireplace they carved the words ‘Two lovers built this house’. Lou Pidou still stands, remote and hidden behind tall hedges: a plaque bearing these words is also built into its terrace.

Wells’s Riviera dream was to have, ‘hidden away in the sunshine, a home to which I could retreat and work in peace. I wanted a mistress to tranquillise me.’ But life at Lou Pidou was anything but tranquil: Wells said that Keun was ‘addicted to every extremity of emotional exaggeration’. A former Jesuit nurse, she was able to slash her wrists without doing permanent harm, and would make use of this unusual skill when thwarted.

His many works written at Lou Pidou included The Shape of Things to Come and The Book of Catherine Wells, a eulogy of his neglected wife. He based his novel Meanwhile in Hanbury Gardens at La Mortola, just across the Italian border.

He also found time to socialise with contemporary Azuréen writers, both at Lou Pidou, where he hosted novelists Aldous Huxley and Arnold Bennett; and as a guest of Somerset Maugham on Cap Ferrat In 1930 he visited D. H. Lawrence as he lay dying in hospital in Vence.

In an untypically chivalrous gesture, Wells decreed that his account of his voracious love life should not be seen until the last of his lovers was dead. It was not published until 1984. Before the postman left, he asked me not to tell anyone where the house was, lest the owner be pestered by tourists.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Old Father Thames

Taking the plunge My wife and I have separated. The logic behind the annual return to UK in early July is that in July and August, England’s weather is at its (unreliable) best. Bah humbug - last month was the wettest June on record, and since in one day - yesterday, July 20 - we had more than twice the average monthly precipitation, July looks like doing the same. So we are separated - by water. I came to Wiltshire earlier this week to do some work, the plan being for the DG to join me on Friday. I even prepared my speciality, a Chicken Cacciatore (it is also the only thing I can cook) and put a bottle of something fizzy in the fridge. But she is still in Windsor because the Thames Valley is awash. If she doesn’t arrive soon I too will be awash – with Chicken Cacciatore and fizzy.
Taking another plunge A strange epidemic is affecting the nation, the most worrying aspect of which is that it seems to afflict only women, with teenagers and the post-menopausal being especially susceptible.
It is called ME - mammaritis exhibitus. Its early symptom is an uncontrollable desire to expose portions of the mammary glands formerly concealed. The phenomenon was first observed in Roman times, when St. Agatha was reputed to have displayed her attributes on a silver platter. It was last prevalent in this country following the Napoleonic wars, but was completely eradicated during the Victorian era. Psychologists cleave to the view that the disease is delusional, since those with the least desirable appendages seem to be the most eager to flaunt them.
So far our new Home Secretary holds the booby prize: when making her inaugural appearance in the House of Commons as a Cabinet Minister, she decided to make a clean breast of the matter - which is more than her predecessor ever did.
It is feared that the disease has already infected the USA: Victoria Beckham, arriving in LA, stressed two points: that her appearance owed much to sartorial engineering, and that WYS was definitely not WYG. But whether or not the disease could flourish on the beaches of Florida is contentious: a scan of American women has revealed a divided front on the matter.

Riviera Writer's cramp Watching the shots in London last night of people who’ve been queuing three days for the privilege of buying the latest – I don’t believe it’s the last – Harry Potter book, I had to smile ruefully . The ‘rue’ is because I’ve finally got a date for my paperback. You’ll be excited to learn that it’s due out on September 26. Applause! To date, Harry Potter has sold 325 million copies. It’s an indication of my publisher’s confidence that they are printing 2,000. If you intend to queue don't bother with the umbrella - it won't take that long.
As a special treat for faithful readers and those too poor - or chintzy - to pay £11.99 ($24), I’m going to drop in brief excerpts from the book from time to time. Here’s a bit on D. H. Lawrence:

Vence is a small cathedral town - that is, a town with a small cathedral. Its eleventh-century church is among the smallest in France. The old town is a vaguely concentric maze of narrow streets protected on one side by monumental gates and on the other by medieval ramparts. Elegant, urn-shaped fountains play in sheltered squares, of which one served as the Romans' forum, and another housed the town guillotine in Revolutionary times. The beauty of the old town is now the traveller's reward for having negotiated the suppuration of hotels and ugly apartment blocks that surround it.
Vence stands almost a thousand feet up in the hills, about ten miles inland: two features that, in January 1930, caused the English novelist and travel and short-story writer David Herbert (D.H.) Lawrence to move there. In coastal Bandol, he had been examined by Dr Moreland, an English chest specialist on holiday in the area, who had told him that he should move to a higher altitude, away from the coast.
Lawrence finally, and belatedly, accepted Dr Morland's diagnosis: that he had had tuberculosis for many years. As Katherine Mansfield had done 13 years earlier, he left coastal Bandol for the last time.
He had hoped that his ranch in Taos, New Mexico, might better meet the doctor's requirements, but, apart from his visa problems, the doctor was sure that Lawrence was in no condition for such a long journey.
So he moved into what he called 'a sort of sanatorium' in Vence. When he got there he weighed just six stone - 84 pounds - and was close to death. The building had formerly been the home of a local astronomer, and both its name, Ad Astra (To the Stars), and its location - just across the road from the cemetery - now took on a grisly significance. Lawrence’s wife Frieda checked into the nearby Hôtel Nouvel.
It was not really a sanatorium. As Lawrence wrote on a postcard to Aldoux Huxley's wife Maria, it was just 'an hotel where a nurse takes your temperature and two doctors look after you once a week'. H.G. Wells, who was living near Grasse at the time, came to see him there, as did the Aga Khan. On 27 February, 1930, after only two weeks, he wrote to the Huxleys again; this time with a P.S. 'This place no good.'
The next day Frieda took him away from the home to a villa she had rented: the Villa Rochermond (later the Villa Aurelia) near the great 2,400-foot cylindrical rock of St. Jeannet.
Optimistically, she took a six- month lease starting on 1 March, and moved her bed into his room because he wanted to be able to see her. He was writing a book review when the Huxleys arrived, and he grasped Maria Huxley's hands and said, 'Maria, don't let me die.'
At 9 pm the next day, a doctor came from the 'sanatorium' and gave Lawrence morphine for his pain. He said, 'I am better now', and fell asleep. He died at 10.15 pm.
Lawrence was buried beside a south-facing wall in the Vence cemetery. In addition to Frieda and Barby, her daughter by her previous marriage, the small group of mourners included the Huxleys and their friend Robert Nichols, and English poet living in Villefranche.
At the time, no one thought that, exactly five years later, another small group would gather in carré 7 of Vence cemetery to witness Lawrence's exhumation.
In the time between burial and disinterment, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, on their way home from a holiday in Italy, had made a side trip to Vence to visit the grave - and, it being 1933, had found him in. In the meantime, the grief-stricken Frieda had been comforted by a number of lovers, at least two of whom had shared her with Lawrence while he was still alive.
One was John Middleton Murry, with whom she had had a passionate affair immediately following the death of his wife Katherine Mansfield in 1923. By the time Lawrence died, Murry had acquired another consumptive wife, whom he left with their children in his haste to fulfil his urgent mission to Vence to fill the void left by Lawrence's death.
It is uncertain who comforted whom: Frieda at 50 was still alluring enough for him to write later, 'You don't know what you did for me in Vence … you recreated me.'
The next to console her was Angelo Ravagli, the Fascist Italian army officer who had served as her occasional extra-curricular lover during her marriage, and was the reason for her late arrival at Port Cros some years earlier. By 1935, he and Frieda had moved to Taos. He had built a small mausoleum chapel there - a friend called it a 'station toilet' - in Lawrence's memory, and had been charged with exhuming Lawrence's remains in Vence and shipping them to Taos to complete the shrine.
Deterred by French bureaucracy from exporting a long-dead body, Ravagli had the remains burned and urned in preparation for their 5,000-mile journey. At the docks in New York, the ashes suffered - just as the living Lawrence had done - immigration difficulties, but they were finally accepted as unlikely to have subversive intent or communist sympathies, and were permitted to board the train to New Mexico.
The anarchic Lawrence would probably have enjoyed the rest of the story, as researched by his biographer Brenda Maddox. Distracted by the enthusiasm of Frieda's welcome, Ravagli left the urn and its incinerated contents on the train, after which their fate becomes confused. Either Ravagli went back to the railway station and collected them, or he was unable to find them at the station and bought another urn, which he filled with similar substance.
The disposal of the ashes has raised even more conspiracy theories. Some, including Maria Huxley, believe that the anti-Ravagli school suspected that he had built the Lawrence mausoleum in Taos with a view to charging admission to tourists, and they planned to thwart him by stealing the ashes and casting them to the desert winds. Frieda, hearing of this plan, tipped them into the mixer that was making the concrete altar stone for the chapel.
Twenty years later, a drunken Ravagli revealed that, immediately after the cremation of Lawrence's body in 1935, afraid of hassles with the French authorities over the export of the remains, he had tipped the original ashes out in Vence and replaced them with cindered wood.
Although this contradicted his earlier, already conflicting, statements, it seems to leave only three possible fates for the true ashes: they are either somewhere in Vence, or in a block of concrete in Taos, or in a left luggage office somewhere in New Mexico. And the one true tomb of David Herbert Lawrence is the one in Carré 7 in Vence cemetery, over which a plaque reads, 'David Herbert Lawrence reposed here from March 1930 to March 1935'.
Murry (without mentioning his relationship to Frieda) swore on oath that he had seen a will in which Lawrence bequeathed all his rights in his works to her, and none to his family, (which included a destitute sister) and Frieda and Angelo lived on in New Mexico, getting ever richer on Lawrence’s royalties. They married there in 1950, his Italian wife having given her consent for them to marry.
It was convenient that Italian law had not recognized Angelo's American divorce and marriage, because after Frieda died in New Mexico, Ravagli's wife was able to accept him back as her legal husband without further ceremony.
©2007

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sue us, Canal

For anyone still not bored into indifference by the subject, we have – if not exactly won the Great Canal War – won the latest battle. In my hysterical call (34cents a minute) to the laughingly-named ‘Help’ line, I at last heard them say ‘go to your Canal dealer and have them replace your decoder’. Not having a Canal dealer in our town meant a bus ride to Nice and an argument with a dealer who insisted there was nothing wrong with the decoder. I would have to buy a new TV because, he said ‘the solder in one of the connections must have come loose’. ‘Solder’? (I should add that our TV, if not exactly plasma technology, is only about four years old – so definitely post-Flintstones.) So I took it to another dealer, jolly-good-old-British-owned Darty - failing to mention my experience with the first dealer. Darty, without even testing it, gave me a new decoder.
I fit it with trembling fingers, fearful lest dealer #1 be right and the box be broke. And – joy unconfined! – we get the rest of the Wimbledon Finals in peace and can watch Swiss, French, Spanish, Serbians and Americans battling for the British title when the last Brit candidate went out in round two. And the tennis was great - not just the power game now, but power plus guile.

Garbage wars In the current controversy about whether councils should collect rubbish weekly or fortnightly, it’s worth mentioning that in Villefranche they take it away every night. Our garbage gatherers in Wiltshire, the Kennett Council, are much more sniffy. They collect fortnightly, and although they supply ‘recycle bins’, they will not accept cardboard, plastic bottles or anything with plastic attached, ie. most packaging. The bin men sort out the garbage at your doorstep and leave behind what they don’t want – which you then have to take to the council tip five miles away. As you can imagine, all these enforced tip trips cause increased use of petrol, greater CO2 production, and considerable traffic congestion – especially at weekends – so much so that they have to employ extra staff, not to mention a traffic controller. But they still boast a 50% recycle rate.

Minuty on the Bounty One of the great things about shopping in France is the food shops. OK, there are supermarkets like anywhere else, where you buy your toothpaste, beer and washing-up liquid, but the little food shops that specialise in different food and wines – that we in UK banished long ago – still seem to thrive there, as do the street markets, boulangières, fromagiers etc. On the other hand, we in the UK do have greater choice in wine: in the supermarket, in addition to the usual French, Italian, Spanish, etc., there’ll be departments for most wine-producing countries – Oz, Enzed, South Africa, California, Argentina and so on. But in France and Italy, under the heading ‘Foreign’, you won’t find much more than Ernest and Julio Gallo and Rioja. The wines of Provence are still the best-kept secret: Bandol might be getting a little over-exposed and over-priced, but our favourites are still good value - like Château Roquefeuille (only available in restaurants) and Château Minuty. As this is an anagram of ‘mutiny’ I can't supress a mental image of Charles Laughton wiping his lips – the original cinematographic ‘wipe’ – and saying ‘Minuty’s an ugly word, Mr Christian’.

Absinthe makes the heart go Before we leave, a last 45-minuty drive to San Remo in Italy for a seafood lunch and a farewell shop to top up on the Parmigiano, Olio Extra Virgine (truly Italian oil, not Algerian), pasta, shirts and booze. For this, the last stop is at the supermarket in Latte, a mile before the border, where Jack Daniel’s is 34 Euros (£22) for a 1½ litres and the Amarone de Valpolicellas and Barolos are less than 20 (£14). Most of the cars in the car park have French number plates: come to load up with (French) Pastis.
Then back to Windsor to watch the rain fall and wonder when the grass will be dry enough to mow. Oh yes, and we missed garbage day – guess we’ll have to take it home with us… That'll raise a few eyebrows in Security.
Talking about security, I just found out what's been happening to my lemons:
I'd know that arm anywhere.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sunblog

Heathrow bristled with cops, the departures lane was blocked by a Police 4x4 and the Fast Bag Drop was a misnomer, but we were delayed mainly because our plane was – as our captain put it – ‘broke’, and they had to ‘go and find another’. How do you find a B737? How do you lose one? – (To lose one 737, Mr Worthing, is a tragedy…) This put us late enough to have a prandial drink and observe the changing faces of BA flight attendants. Smile as you board – glued-on; smile as they serve first drink – always just as you’re finishing your meal - cursory; smile if you dare order a second – snooty (DG was so intimidated that she said ‘We’re sharing it’); smile when they’re selling the (so-called) duty-frees - expansive; and ‘thank-yous’ as you leave - glued-back-on.
But it’s nice to be back in the sun after the wettest June since Noah docked. Or it was until a person very dear to me who shall be nameless so no one gets hurt especially me is complaining about the heat and can’t wait for the cool 19º promised for tonight.
They’ve done a naff but cute thing in Villefranche: in the more picturesque spots, they’ve put up paintings of it by local artists. This is the Place de la Fontaine.


Canal Minus Watching the news on TV is like still being at home: it’s all about England. The 104th Tour de France bike race starts tomorrow in London for the first time, and, what with our new prime minister, the weather, the floods, the terrorists, Alan Johnson’s release and a wet Wimbledon, (now that France has 12 men in the top 100 they’ve started showing Wimbledon. Britain got one man past the first round), French Schadenfreude is rampant. But don’t get me started on French TV. (Warning: the rest of this paragraph is so boring it could damage your health.) The only remotely watchable channel, unless you like quizzes and 1960s reruns, is an encrypted one called Canal Plus, for which you pay 30 Euros (£20) a month - but for six weeks it has remained stubbornly crypté. You ring the techies (45 cents a minute – average wait time 12 minutes), and Presto! It works - for an hour. Next night you have to ring again. I wrote cancelling the contract last month, and guess what? It started working! They wrote apologising and offered me a new contract at 22 Euros (£14) a month. Foolishly, I accepted, and promised the DG she’d have Wimbledon in French. You can guess the rest: it’s crapté again. Last night’s call was 17 minutes – can’t wait for tonight’s. Remember the name – Canal + or Canal Plus.
But it’s nice to be RW again after a frenetic few weeks, to have your meals outside, exhume the tube of sunblock that’s long past its squeeze-by date, and go for a walk without an umbrella.

Brown sauce Say what you like about Brown – please – but you’ve got to agree he’s lucky. In his first week as PM he saved Scotland from terrorism, freed Alan Johnston and stopped dropping his jaw between sentences. No wonder his ratings are soaring.

Carbon dating Went to a sensational party before we left. It was an eightieth birthday party. But no Zimmer-shuffle this: the music was blue-grass and the dancing square. The hostess is one of our group of travelling companions who’ve been visiting European cities together for eleven years, (this year we’re off to Naples). Two days after we get home from Naples, the said octogenarian is off up the Amazon – by canoe I wouldn’t wonder. (More later on this wonderful group of Nomads whose collective age looks like a telephone number.) Happy birthday Maggie!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Writers' block

An item on this morning’s news said that the creative industries – arts, showbiz etc. - make a bigger contribution to the UK economy than the financial ones. I fear this will only perpetuate the myth that writers are rolling in it. A survey by the ALCS of 25,000 authors found that their average salary was 30% lower than the national average wage. Take your Dan Browns out of the mix and it’s a sorry scene.
A publisher I met at Hay told me that even if an author sells out a complete print run of 2000 hardbacks and 5,000 paperbacks he is unlikely to cover his advance. I’m not half-way towards mine yet – which means I worked three years at less than a pound a day. So you have to wonder who gets it - do publishers put their kids through college and pay off their mortgage on a quid a day? Fortunately, as the DG never fails to remind me, we don’t do it for the money.

Into each reign some life must fall. It’s the interregnum: the Gordon and Tony show. Tony, who, having taken the nation into two wars, committed it, on his last day in office, to serve the Euro-bureaucrats in Brussels – presumably with the intention of becoming one of them - and then went off to see the pope, seeking either absolution or sainthood. He should be in The Hague explaining himself to the International Criminal Court: 'well... y'know... I mean...' And, fresh from charm school, Gordon - our incoming PM, who, having devolved even more powers to Scotland, now wants to colonise England.

A market update item from Travelwriter Marketletter: 'Success magazine has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization'.
You just can't depend on anything any more.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Take the A train

The mantelpiece won’t look the same this Christmas. The only head of state with whom I exchanged cards died last week. You remember the Waldheims – he was Sec-Gen of the UN, then president of Austria. Like Richard Nixon, he absentmindedly lost a piece of his life, but whereas Trickie Dickie lost only 18 minutes, Kurt lost 18 months. When his memoirs claimed that he was in Vienna studying for his law doctorate, he was in Croatia helping the Fascists to line them all up. He wasn’t tried for war crimes, but then the prosecuting authority was the UN. No wonder he wasn’t there to meet us in Vienna.


For a train freak, it’s the ultimate self-indulgence – or the penultimate if you dream of taking the Trans-Siberian Express. As Noel, our dinner companion, said, it’s something you have to do once in your life. Not wanting to leave it too late - and fast approaching the age when More Than, my travel insurance company, will drop me for a younger model after happily accepting my premium for 50 years, we decided that this was that moment. Our flimsy justification was that it was both our wedding anniversary and our joint birthday gift to each other (I actually owed her two).
Instead of the two-hour trip out, the ride home took 28 – lunch in Austria, dinner in Germany, breakfast in France and brunch in England. The train is a French-polisher’s nightmare, its vintage coaches dripping with royal blue and brass. Liveried flunkies in light blue and gold anticipate your every wish, for – as the receptionist at the Vienna Hauptbahnhof put it - ‘From here on we do not schlep’.
It’s priced accordingly: when I selected the cheapest item on the wine list – a Sancerre at £44 – the Maitre d’ suggested ‘a much superior wine that is only slightly more expensive’ – at £79. The Sancerre was delicious.
The train itself is gobsmacking. Our coach was built in 1922: on the corridor walls are polished brass light fittings – to hold the gas lamps – and beside the beds are brass hooks so that the gentlemen can hang their fob watch and chain within easy reach (a little fur-lined pad below it prevents scratching of the woodwork). The Orient Express can take you almost anywhere in Europe - Vienna, Milan, Rome, Bucharest, Venice – and never stops anywhere for more than a couple of hours, so the crew don’t get home much during its travel season. Steve, our steward, lives in the Dolomites and is a ski instructor during the winter.
The train doesn’t go to London. At Folkstone a Dixieland band plays you aboard the Pullman for the last lap, a lap of luxury. Our coach, says the plaque, is used regularly by the Queen and was a favourite of the previous one. General de Gaulle left no comment.
Suddenly it’s all over. It’s raining as we schlep our luggage out of Victoria station, pondering the thought of take-away Chinese for the next month.

It’s good having visitors – instead of chasing around to new places, you get to see your own country. It’s like never seeing French people up the Eiffel Tower. Our guest from New York this week wanted to see Stonehenge. (Des. Res., Grade I listed, construct. approx. 4,000BC, full air cond. lintels needing attention.) Missed the solstice by a couple of days, but it’s easier to see when it’s less crowded. She also introduced us to Windsor Castle. Next time she comes she’s going to show us London.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Trapp shooting

This is Salzburg – the original Salt Lake City – and the hills are alive with the Sound of Mozart. If it isn't Mozart it's Julie Andrews.
As we’re walking (yes, walking) by the Fuschlsee, (no, that’s as in ‘foosh’), a bus passes bearing, in two-storey-high letters, the words ‘The Sound of Music Tour’. We are in deepest SoM country.
To promote this piece of naffdom, the Tourist Board produce a brochure which includes a factual history of the von Trapp family, the words of all those unforgettable SoM songs (including such gems as ‘Me, a name I call myself’, ‘La, a note to follow So’, and ‘Edelweiss, Edelweiss, you look happy to meet me’), and contains pictures of the garden gates of some of the actual castles seen in the movie. But apparently the climax of the tour - the pièce de resistance - is when, at the end of the tour, every passenger receives, completely free, a packet of Edelweiss seeds.

We stay at Hof – resisting the temptation to precede it with another monosyllable – in the Salzkammergut mountains. We take the cable car up the Zwölfterhorn, where the air is as intoxicating as the beer and there’s an amazing 360-degree view of mountains and lakes: Fuschlsee, Wolfgangsee and at least three other -sees.
Austrians look and sound German, but they’re smiley and friendly - everyone talks to you. And funny: when I ring for an early call the man says they have a special offer: if you request a call before 5am, they’ll give you another at 5.30 for free. Everyone says Grüss Gott, unless you say it first, then they say Guten Tag, unless you say that first, in which case they say Grüss Gott.
I’m afraid there’ll probably be lots more Austria later, but I have to go now. Got to plant my Edelweiss seeds.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Hay again


Hay was, as usual, mind-blowing, although at one point we did have a fleeting disloyal thought: is it getting too big? The festival used to be held in the village school but it outgrew the school some years ago and is now held in a tented encampment - that gets bigger every year - in a field on the edge of the village. (Which is fine until Hay puts on one of its spring monsoons as it did this week, and you spend your time ankle-deep in red Welsh mud, and the churned-up car parks resemble the Somme. That we stayed with it either says something about the Power of Literature or a fear of getting stuck trying to leave.)
The slightly suburban location means the audience is captive – especially when wet - and they can thus charge twice as much for food and drink as they cost in down-village Hay. But it’s worth it all if only for the company of fellow book-worms: snippets of conversation in queues – like the boy (passing a line of people clutching books, waiting to have them signed by their favourite writers), saying ‘But Daddy, what's it a Festival of?’
Standing at the bar in the Swan, I heard a voice I recognized. Standing next to me, in snow-white Afro and beard, looking like an octogenarian Jimi Hendrix, was Wole Soyinka, whom I had just seen talking about The Power of Literature. There aren’t many Welsh mountain villages in which can you share a pub counter with a Nobel Prize winner.
Another difficulty is in choosing what to see out of 416 events: we’re getting pretty good at it and this year had only one dud. Crime writer Ruth Rendell made it clear with her monosyllabic answers that she hated the whole thing and was only there because it was in her contract.
But, Rendell apart, it was canvas-to-canvas joy – so good that it’s difficult to identify highlights. Was it Simon Schama doing his impersonation of Simon Schama doing The Power of Art? Or A. C. Grayling on The Form of Things? Or Brenda Maddox on Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones; John Julius Norwich on Mediterranean History; Colin Hubron on the Silk Route; Roy Hattersley on Shakespeare; Terry Eagleton on The Meaning of Life; or my favourite biographer, Hermione Lee, on Edith Wharton (who once lived with Henry James in the house right opposite ours and whose parents are reputed to be The Joneses that people tried to keep up with? All, ALL, gob-smacking. Yes, I know they’re only 60-minute distillations of lifetimes of erudition, but what a waste it would be if they went unheard!
Oh yes, and an Aussie stand-up called Sarah Kendall, discussing linguistic problems between our two countries. (What we call 'flip-flops', Aussies call 'thongs' - so when she gets foot problems she tells the chiropodist it's probably from wearing thongs...)
We return heavy-laden with books – him 19, her 18 – and yes, we’ll be back next year, for the tenth time
So now I’m donning lederhosen and the DG her Julie Andrews habit and we’re off to the Austrian Tyrol to get our minds unblown. It has to be easier than Welsh.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Hay there


When Arthur Miller was invited to speak there, he asked what kind of sandwich it was. Hay-on-Wye is in fact one of the biggest literary festivals in the world, and is held every spring in a little market town on the Welsh border with England.
The town is called Hay and the river's named Wye. It sits at the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Offa’s Dyke, the ditch that divides England from Wales, runs through the middle of it, so you’re never quite sure which country you’re in - but it likes to think of itself as Welsh and natives call it Y Gelli (pronounced eeGETHlee). And it’s one of the most beautiful spots in Britain.
They call it a market town, but its main market is second-hand books. Hay is one big bookshop, with books occupying any available space: the former castle; a cinema: a chapel; a Victorian military drill hall. Bookshelves line the main street, with honesty boxes labelled ‘Hard backs 50p’. You pay what you like for paperbacks.
Hay has a population of 1300 people and 39 bookshops - that's one shop for every 34 inhabitants. You’ll find bookshops that specialise in anything: books about bee-keeping, about British birds, about WWII medals. One shop sells only new books at £1. Marijana Dworski sells books in Polish.

If that looks familiar, it's part of a post I did last May, updated. Well, it's May again and we're off to Taffyland this morning clutching our 'must find' book lists, for our ninth trip to the Land of our Fathers. (DG was born there and so was my great-grandfather.) The photo's by Justin Williams, who has to be another Welshman.
'My books are the tendrils of my soul', wrote another Riviera writer, Robert W. Service. I'm not sure I know what a tendril is, and even less a soul - but I agree.

Desert Island Disc N0. 7 It’s May 24, my Dad’s birthday. He was my earliest musical influence, but I’ve no idea where his own preferences came from. Neither his class nor his education could have exposed him to much other than Victorian Music Hall (Burlesque): Florrie Forde, Harry Lauder, Sandy Powell etc., and he remained a Music Hall addict all his life, taking my mother and me to one or other of the many Liverpool (and later Blackpool) theatres at least once a week. That’s why I know all the words to songs like Any Old Iron, My Old Man, Oh Mr Porter and My Old Dutch. (I met the Sherman brothers once - the guys who wrote the music for Mary Poppins - who amazingly turned out to be English Music Hall fans. They were massively impressed with my repertoire if not my singing and asked me to write down the words, which finally found their way into an exhibit at EPCOT. Sure beat Supercallifragilistic.)
Dad also loved the musical comedies of his day: Rose Marie, Maid of the Mountains, Student Prince, White Horse Inn and such. But the surprise was that he also knew the works of people like Mendelsohn, Offenbach, and Herman Darewski. We didn’t have anything so sophisticated as an electrically-operated gramophone when I was a kid – in fact we didn’t have an electrical anything – but we would spend hours winding up the old machine and listening to Dad’s records. They would run more slowly as the spring wound down until finally Jeannette MacDonald would sound more like Ronald.
Later, my older brother would get into jazz and the records would be of Louis Armstong, Jelly-roll Morton and Billie Holday - but that’s another post.
One of Dad's and our favourites - we were a railway family and it began with ‘steam train’ effects - was Darewski playing Beyond the Blue Horizon. The train motif was taken up by the orchestra, building up speed and slowing at the end with a steam release like a sigh. Or was that the spring running out? I was later knocked out by the Artie Shaw arrangement, so that's the one I'm taking to the island, to remind me of old Walter tapping his fingers on the sewing machine and listening to his train sounds and the words: 'Beyond the blue horizon waits a wonderful day'.