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.