Friday, 27 July 2018

La voie des Anglais

Coffee in Rouen

France is enjoying hot temperatures this summer, unusual, says P*, for the sun to shine in Rouen day after day, it rains almost all the time here.

The Jardin des Plantes is regularly watered and as green as ever, the flowers a mixture of colours, profuse and tended, a place of tranquillity and repose. 

By contrast, the city centre and its approach roads are loud with works, widening bridges, creating new cycle and pedestrian paths, and completely blocking vehicle access to the train station, as it’s being changed into ‘a green area’ for pedestrians only. The quartier Saint Sever has become completely pedestrianized since I was last here, with several shade-giving trees removed, and replaced with boxes filled with flowers, very aromatic but not shade-giving. Where are the men who used to sit on benches beneath the trees, playing dominoes and chess supposed to sit now? There are some stone benches but they are exposed to sunlight and the people sitting there have a slightly hunted expression, looking around them as if on the watch for possible danger. 

This is in marked contrast to the people sitting on shady benches in the Jardin des Plantes, some reading, some simply gazing at the greenery and foliage around them.

But the market has not changed, as busy and full of life as ever. I buy two pots of roses there, for P*’s garden.

The old town centre with its ancient and beautiful buildings is of course unchanged. 

And I discover something about the long straight road that I am so familiar with now, leading directly from le Jardin des Plantes to the city centre via quartier Saint Sever.

There are many starting points for le chemin St Jacques which, once in Spain, turns into the camino de Santiago de Compostella.
Several of the places in France I’ve spent time in have turned out to be on or very close to these pilgrim ways. The first was during a residency in St Mathieu de Tréviers near Montpellier. Just outside St Mathieu is the Pic St Loup, a wedge of rocky cliff, sheer on one side while the other is a slope covered with stocky thorn trees and spiny bushes, herbs and plants adapted to survive in a dry climate. The view from the top of Le Pic into the valley below and across to the rocks on the other side is remarkable.

Le Pic Saint Loup
Looking down on Saint Mathieu de Treviers from Le  Pic St Loup

Later that same year I spent time on the other side of the valley, in a house perched half way up the tree-covered slope, sheltered by the marble-grey rocks where the wild boars lived, and where the wind blew through the forests with a sound like the distant swell of the sea. 

I was told then that le chemin Saint Jacques passed along the road 

directly under the Pic.  A year later, in Paris, I was staying near la 

rue de la Tombe Issoire. My walking route to Saint Michel and the 

city centre was via la rue Saint Jacques which I discovered later is 

also the route of le chemin. (Yes the name is a bit of a giveaway!).


In 2007 and again in 2013, I spent time at another writers’ 

residency a few kilometers away from the small town of Vauvert, 

not far from Nîmes.
I was out on the bicycle every day, exploring the countryside and the towns and villages nearby, Le Cailar, Aigues-Mortes, Le Grau du Roi, St Gilles. The countryside around was mainly flat, and from a nearby point de vue, you could see on the distant horizon the promontory of le Pic St Loup. 
Le Pic Saint Loup on the horizon, just above the cream farmhouse, seen from near Vauvert

During the latter stay I found out that the chemin St Jacques went through Vauvert, being part of the same route that continued and passed under the Pic St Loup. I cycled along parts of it, following canals, along paths through shady woods, tracks alongside poppy fields and through sunstruck medieval villages (as recounted here).

This year, I took the train from Rouen to the port of Dieppe, on the north coast of France. I discovered that there is another route towards the Spanish camino de Santiago, known as la voie des      Anglais, which begins at the church Saint Jacques in Dieppe, and goes south through Rouen on the way to Chartres. And as I was walking back from the market at Saint Sever in Rouen, along the familiar street which goes past le Jardin des Plantes, I happened to look down and see something that must always have been there but I had not seen before. There at my feet, on the pavement in front of me was the sign of the pilgrim route, the coquille Saint Jacques. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Paris bridges, cafes, bookshops and parks

I took the overnight coach from London to Paris. It arrived at Paris Bercy gare routiere early in the morning, severely early, the driver was ahead of schedule, probably wanted to get home.

The station is vast, several coaches are parked there but few people apart from us who have just arrived. Some of the benches are occupied by people lying stretched out on them. Outside it's still dark, a few people clustered together, talking quietly. I wait till it's light then walk outside into the empty park, along a walkway, looking for an exit. 

There is that special early morning feeling, an overcast day just beginning to wake up. And I am in Paris. There is always something dream-like for me to be in Paris. I test the dream as I walk over an enormous passerelle, not flat but undulating,  giving the feeling of being on water, a gradual wave-like feeling increasing the  sense of unreality.

The bridge is made of thin wooden slats, some of them loose underfoot, and there are gaps too where you can see the water far below. I don't look down.  This is an enchanting bridge suspended between sky and water, you could imagine angels using this crossing as they mediate between the worlds.

I walk to gare d'Austerlitz and take the metro. I'm heading for boulevard  Saint Michel and the bookshops. But first, croissants from a boulangerie near the metro Maubert Mutualite. They won an award so I read for being the best croissants in Paris. And they are. Then to the cafe Village Ronsard, with market stalls all around, for coffee.

My search in the bookshops on Boulevard Saint Michel was hugely successful. I found the books I wanted, and others. By this time the clouds had dispersed and the sun was out. I have plenty of time before catching the next bus so I walk along by the Seine, back to the Parc de Bercy and the coach station.

Just next to the park there is a delightful garden with brick walkways, lots of flowers and an insect hotel.

Then I take the coach to Rouen.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Autumn Voices Anthology Launch and Midsummer Music

Robin Lloyd Jones had the idea for the Autumn Voices anthology 
– to interview writers over 70, about creativity in later life. As well as these interviews the anthology also includes extracts from their work, as well as the winner and runner up of a competition by writers over 60. 

The launch of the anthology was at Blackwell's Bookshop in Edinburgh with some of the writers – Larry Butler, Jenni Calder, Stuart Conn, Lee Gershuny, Diana Hendry and Pauline Prior-Pitt giving short readings from their work. Pauline’s poem was in response to the Russian government’s recent decriminalisation of domestic violence – a topic I too felt both sad and angry about, when I heard of it.

Pauline Prior-Pitt

I’ve just finished reading Masha Gessen’s book about Russia – The Future is History:How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what is happening in that country today. She presents the story of the country and selects a few individuals born during the era of glasnost and perestroika (one of them is the daughter of Boris Nemtsov) and tells their stories too. You begin to see it as a stage drama being enacted, directed by those who want to shape the country’s story on their terms, and played both by those who accept and believe the given narrative, and those who see through the manipulation and try to change things – entrenched habits and reactions as well as laws. She recounts the frustration of so many Russian citizens where to demonstrate can mean assault, arrest, heavy fines and imprisonment.

It’s written with intelligence and insight, as well as personal experience, as Gessen is Russian-American. (This book won the National Book Award for non-fiction, 2017). You begin to understand that for so many Russians, criticism of the government is incompatible with remaining in the country, if you don’t want to be fined or imprisoned and you want to stay alive.

The writers in the Autumn Voices anthology also tell their stories, all different – about their writing yes, but other activities too – music, drama, hill-walking, painting, gardening, bookselling, Tai-Chi  – their thoughts on the creative process and the currents of their lives.

Larry Butler

So far I’ve only read a few of these stories and extracts from their work, but here’s a couple of quotes:

Always you liked views that spoke of beyond -
those seascapes stretching out that didn’t stop at sky but went on…

(From Beyond by Diana Hendry)

And David Donnison quoted from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:
Traveller there is no path. Paths are made by walking.

The old Salt Route, Alpes-Maritime, France


After leaving Blackwell’s – so good to catch up with people I had not seen for a long time – on the way to the bus station I came across this Pipe Band playing in George Street. Backdrop of Georgian and modern architecture, an unexpected finale to a great evening.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Carlisle, Chester and Barmouth

Weeping wave and window, Carlisle castle

I was invited recently to read at a benefit evening for SHARE, an organization based in Mold, North Wales, that supports refugees and homeless people.

I travelled there by bus and train, and with some time to spare in Carlisle, I discovered that the Weeping Window installation of ceramic poppies, on tour throughout the UK just happened to be opening to the public that very day, at Carlisle Castle. This display commemorating WW1 has been on tour since 2015 and will end on November this year (2018). It’s at Carlisle until July so if you are in striking distance I would definitely recommend going to see it. 

After arriving in Wales, I went with my friends that evening to the beach at Talacre, Flintshire, with its old lighthouse, no longer in use, backlit by the setting sun. The walk from the road to the beach, through dunes and marsh ponds with the sound of marsh birds reminding me so much of La Laune in La Petite Camargue, with its network of canals and its many ponds and lakes, its birds and bats, and its fields of grazing white horses and black bulls.

This area in Wales of ponds and marshes, close to sand dunes, is also home I was told to the rare natterjack toad, with its distinctive call.

The event the next evening at the Lock Keeper’s, Chester, was a delight. All the work put into organizing the evening by Maureen and Paul paid off, both financially, in money collected for the charity, and in the enjoyment, shared by participants and audience alike. Splendid poetry and prose, songs and music and a lovely warm gathering, where I met up with several old friends.

Maureen Weldon and Paul Beech, organisers of the benefit concert at the Lock Keeper's, Chester

The next day, we drove to Barmouth, on the coast. After a spell of glorious weather, this was the first overcast day and the next morning was misty. The train bridge crosses the water to the peninsula and a pedestrian walkway runs alongside.

View from the railway and pedestrian bridge, Barmouth

In the afternoon, the mist cleared and we had another hot and sunny day. Walking through the town we saw a flyer for St John’s Gallery, and walked up the hill to the current exhibition of paintings in the gallery by Bernard Barnes, Reyna Ruston and Alexandra Cook. As well as housing the exhibition space, the artists’ studios, the gallery has weekly meetings of musicians, and hosts other events of interest to people who live locally or are visiting the area.

Painting by Alexandra Cook in the exhibition

The following day I made the long journey back, going across country from Manchester to York, to avoid the rail works on the tracks, and the inevitable replacement buses. And the sun still shone until we reached Berwick on Tweed, crossing on the railway bridge high on its elegant stilts over the water. The tide was out and the estuary exposed its banks of sand. From this vantage point I see the mist rolling in, great spools wound round spindles that came from far out to sea.

So the spinning spindles have unwound and all the coastline is covered now – the red rocks, the cliff paths, with wet grass – the mist has ridden in, on horses with soft-shod hooves. A damp curtain drawn across a shore. The train veers inland and sunshine spreads its fingers over land again. Sheep graze beside their dark twin shadow selves. North has a near monopoly on shadows or at least – a long discussion re cause and effect, investigations and opinions, a long literary history. Great gulps of gorse flash past on rocky rail embankments and on the woodland slopes beyond. Acres and yellow acres of it.

The sea at Barmouth

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Daša Drndić, Croatian Writer

Daša Drndić, pictured in 2009.  Photograph credit: Mavric Pivk/DELO
(from the Guardian article here) 
So sorry to hear about the untimely death of Daša Drndić. She was so full of life, fiercely committed, and in every photograph I’ve seen of her, she is smiling or laughing.

I’m reposting what I wrote after hearing her talk at the Edinburgh International Bookfest last year (2017).


Daša Drndić is a Croatian writer who has written several novels and her latest, Belladonna, has just been translated into English. When asked about the ‘story’ of her book, she says passionately ‘My book doesn’t have a story – I’m against this infatuation with a storyline!’ Her writing she says is fragmented, to reflect the reality of our lives. While her book doesn’t have ‘a story’ it is full of stories – ‘little stories about little people, who really make history’.  She has deliberately chosen a disruptive form – she is against linear construction. For it is not the form of a work, she says, but how something is written, that makes literature.

Passionate and refreshingly outspoken she says that literature should be offensive, should upset and provoke, should make people react. And while you cannot be a writer without empathy, she is not interested in reading love stories, for she is too troubled by what is happening in the world. She feels these ‘ugly times’ we are living in are reminiscent of the 1930s.

And while, she says, there has always been immigration, what we have now, the immigration from Africa and the Middle East, that’s a boomerang, what we did in the past is coming back to us.  The ‘army of impoverished people’ must not and cannot be ignored. People should react – within the law – she says, but she fears a new and bloody revolution is coming.

The extract she reads from Belladonna describes the shifting populations and territories in Europe – from Poland to Germany, from Germany to Netherlands, from Somalia to Netherlands, and shifting political ideologies too. Threaded into these movements and migrations is the question of complicity with regimes that oppress other people and the Nazi regime in particular.  And she says it is so relevant right now, to remember what happened in Europe in the 30s and 40s, for if we really remember – not the ‘ossified structure’ of history but the real history through the painful, upsetting and desperate stories of actual people, we can hopefully stop it from happening again.

When someone in the audience asks her what she does read, since she doesn’t read fiction she replies immediately, I didn’t say I don’t read fiction. (She had said that she didn’t read love stories.) What do you think fiction is? she asks, and then answers her own question. ‘What we call fiction is something that the writer has experienced or heard or has empathized with – it’s not an invention. And’ she says ‘I don’t believe in inspiration. Writing is solitary, it’s tough, and you work at it.’

She also mentions that she has been to Albania and talked to writers who were imprisoned as political prisoners. When I ask her if she met Fatos Lubonja she responds immediately, yes, I did meet him, he wrote the book Second Sentence about his experiences in the Albanian gulag. And she says that she is going to write about that in her next book. Now that is something to look forward to!

Daša Drndić at Edinburgh Bookfest 2017

You can read an interview she gave with Paris 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Casterton and Brigflatts

The Old Vicarage, Casterton, in Cumbria, England  
(previous visits are described here (2016) and here (2017)

Lucky to spend time again at Casterton, with its tended garden magical in May sunlight. Its tall trees taking your gaze up to the blue of heaven, lifted by the sawing sound of rook song.

We visit the Meeting House at nearby Brigflatts. In the garden, the hum of bees and insects. Time is worn into the rose bushes, lilacs, and white button blossoms, worn so deep it lines the stone pathways. And who has cut a track through the deep grass, ending in a mown circle? And who scattered pheasant feathers on this cut walkway? And broke a pale green brown egg further down the path?

Brigflatts garden

Brigflatts garden


The Brigflatts Meeting House was built in 1675. Its wooden beams are weighed down with its history, you can almost see it pressing from the gallery onto the space below.   

The poet Basil Bunting,who was born into a Quaker family, is  

probably most well-known for his long autobiographical poem

Brigflatts. He spent a lot of time here in later life, and is buried in the graveyard. The headstones are rounded – they are all the same in shape and colour. Someone has cut paths here too, beneath the copper beech and yew trees. They spread out across the wall, curl around the view, and the green flanks of the dales perform their function – distant view of heaven, backlit – no embers smouldering, no dark reminding of malevolence. It cannot exist here, in the curve of copper beech branch, in the open frame of yew.


Driving home to Casterton we pull off the road into the avenue leading to the house, shaded by fir and larch and holly.
I can’t believe we’re staying here, I say.

We are sitting in the garden. R shows us a painting from the book he bought, Chagall’s fiddler, with an unusual face. Rooks, he says, have conversations such as – this one feeds you, this one throws stones. Their problem solving abilities are those of a seven year old. 

One perches on the topmost twig of the Scots pine, calls to the other on the top twig of a larch. What they says barks back and forth then slows down, till the ruffle of the air sounds almost like a lullaby.

The garden has a field of blue forget-me-nots, patches of orange, peach coloured azaleas and specks of yellow Welsh poppies, just beginning to unfold. The azaleas spread out like a candelabra, the better to receive the light. Everything bends towards the sun. Or floats out like the honeysuckle from the wall. Timber building in the distance, taps out irregularly, already it’s too hot to lift an arm and swing a hammer. This should be siesta hour, surrendered to the rooks who hop languidly from one larch top twig to another. 

Somewhere else, cars drive on motorways, drivers open windows at the tail-backs at traffic lights, feel their pores swell and their goals diminish, scatter and melt in the heat. The temperature bursts green coverings over the damp and crushed red petals of the poppies. Heat unfolds the wrinkles on their scarlet skin, unfolds too, the crushed petals round our organ of time-perception, bursting threads that had it sewn up tight. What is its name, this time-measurer, time-trapper, this unfolded heart with black seeds or yellow pollen at its core?

The striking of the church clock missed a note. The clocks of dandelions listen for a breath of wind dropped maybe by the church chime – irregular and upbeat strokes of silence.


How lucky to be here, the beck waters laughing on their bed of stones, the bank shored up with new wood walls. The massive oak leans out across the water. How lucky to be here among the butterflies, far below the chatty rooks, closer to the birds bobbing on stones in the water that glitters in sunlight.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

1918 – 2018 To the Somme again Part 2

Detail of Thiepval Memorial, Picardie

Euston Road Cemetery was peaceful yes, but there was a strong wind, just as there was when I first visited it, in 2011. Like a reminder. Wind as presence, wind as monitor, wind as scribe too. Commentator. You won’t forget, not with this wind.

We drive on to Beaumont-Hamel where it is still windy, sun still shines. The fields and trees are green, their branches spread out wide and even. The trenches are green too, so different from how they must have looked 100 years ago. They curve, wind and zigzag between conifers and lime trees, planted since then, since 100 years ago.



The wind is here too, messenger and marker, the carrier of memories – some picked up, some delivered to your door, some distributed through all your cells, not just brain or sight or hearing, but through fingers, through the light hairs on your skin that react without your volition, before you have time to tell yourself it is just imagination.
And it’s gone.

And we go on to the Thiepval Memorial, thick and squat and solid. Dense as the forest of lives it names, those whose bodies were not found. On a slight rise, looking out over a valley. In a way, it offers shelter and support and it is vaulted like a place of prayer but it is also open to the sky.



The wind here is so strong you cannot stand up straight you have to lean into the brickwork.
Is it always windy in these places? The air howls and whistles around the dense, defiant towers. Red brick, furious. Golden sandstone, compassionate.

Does the wind always blow so hard, does it always moan and sing here as if the brickwork and stones form an instrument it blows through, a giant reed the air presses itself against, to produce this chanting and these rhythms and this song?


On to Albert where we stayed the night, with an excellent meal at the Hotel Basilique just across the road from the Church Notre Dame des Brebières where we saw an unexpected treat in the evening – a light show projected against the wall of the Basilique. This year 2018 is of course the anniversary of the 1918 armistice and it is being marked in many ways across France.


Sons et lumières  by Video Mapping Festival  are being shown in different regions and it just happened to be in Albert that week. It depicted the destruction of the Basilique in the war and the legend that when Our Lady fell from the top, (it happened in 1918) that would mean the end of the war.