Monday, 16 February 2009

Quand les amandiers commencent à fleurir ....

Quand les amandiers commencent à fleurir ....
When the almond trees begin to flower you know that winter's truly gone, so they say in the south. They start to flower in February. I first found one solitary blossom on the trees by the old railway near La Résidence , the same trees I'd picked almonds from the summer before last. The next one I saw a few kilometers along the road to St. Gilles. The third was a huge tree, further along the same road.

Some other images – bird signatures in the sky at sundown,

a flashy sunset

a black dog asleep in front of a farmhouse with brown shutters,

posing horses

and the last sunset, that is, the last sunset I would see in France, before going home. I'd spent the afternoon at Didier's, the photographer, then at Jean's, the artist. I still had several kilometers to go to get home to La Résidence when I took this photo and I had no lights on the bike. But la piste verte is reserved for cyclists and people on foot, and I didn't meet anyone at all. Cycling in the almost dark between the old railway and the canal, with the rustling of the reeds, and the black needles of the protective cypress trees, was magical. I came off the piste at the point where it almost joins up with a track that wanders through the vineyards – crossing over the railway line, cycling beside another canal, past the solitary almond flower and through the fields to home. There was still just enough light in the sky to see the path.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Sunday at The Writer's Residence, Le Diable Vauvert

Life's Trivialities and its Moments of 'magical charm'

In Milan Kundera's magnificent essay The Curtain, he writes about the evolution of the novel, citing Fielding as saying that the 'realm of reality (which the novel) should illuminate, explore, grasp' is no less than 'an enquiry into "human nature"'. Kundera suggests that 'All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That - that is the raison d'etre of the art of the novel.' He talks about life's - and our - insignificance, but points out that 'the everyday' is not something to be despised or overlooked for as well as 'repetition, triviality; it is beauty as well...the magical charm of atmospheres...a strain of music heard faintly from the next apartment...'

I try to write a letter but my words are wearing much more substantial boots than the ones I wear on my feet. Hey ho go the word-boots, and chug chug goes the obstinate keyboard of this ageing computer. What can I say about what has happened to me in the past few days? A few steps into a stretch of water that should have been a dry road, with those less substanial boots wrapped in plastic bags in an attempt to keep the water out? (an absurd, hopeless attempt because the water got in and my feet were soaked, hence only a few steps.) The sight of a ragondan along Ragondan Route (or Bat Alley) - which dropped quickly into the water when it saw me coming, even though I tried to walk very quietly? The huge moon reflected in a pond which I could not photograph because my camera batteries had run out? My nuit blanche where I ended up getting out of bed and making cocoa in the middle of the night, then reading some of Dominique's poems for children, such as -

In my log cabin I will invite
all the animals I know...
Even the wild boar
that's still snoring on the staircase..
But not the stinkng skunk
that still han't washed itself.


the frog up its ladder
looks a little sadder...?

Cycling along la voie verte, with the old railway on one side, and a canal on the other? Or the joy, after searching through the whole town of Vauvert (it isn't big) and finding every single shop closed (for it's Sunday) the joy of coming across a boulangerie that's open and so being able to buy fresh bread? (baguette ancienne yes I know it doesn't sound very fresh but it was). Such is the everydayness of life, its insignificances, yet its beauty and magic too - the sight of a black dog curled up against the dun-coloured wall of a farmhouse, a horse grazing in the vineyards, having escaped from its field and its owner coming along and slipping a rope round its neck and leading it back and greeting me with a bonsoir, il a échappé and I reply bonsoir, il a échappé? as well. The bulls lying in the afternoon sunshine in fields which have returned to being fields after the overflowing lakes and ponds had claimed them.

Descartes, Nietzche and the Philosopher at Le Cailar

Alain Guiard and the café philo at La Maison du Peuple in Le Cailar last night. Le Cailar is a lovely village near Vauvert, with tree lined avenues and narrow streets, yellow-plastered old buildings and pale green shutters. The square is crowded with thick-boled plane trees whose roots make the pavements full of little bumps and ridges and in the summer the leaves rustle and the shade from their branches leans out over the street cobbles.

Last night the audience had spilled out into the square when we arrived. Dominique had to ask someone for more seats. Food and drink was being sold and the noise level was high. We took our chairs up to the front and set our drinks down on a table behind. I bet Alain is that older man over there, with the white hair said Dominique. That's what you'd expect a philospher to look like I suppose. But Alain was young, with close-cropped hair and he wore tight jeans, dark jacket and shirt and a blue tie. He also had a tattoo on the fingers of his left hand, a letter on each finger, spelling tout (everything). His only stage prop was a tiny blackboard with a duster draped over it. His mis-en-scène.

He launched into the most amazing performance, full of energy, gesturing and laughing, talking very quickly, cracking jokes. He pretended to spit out Nietzche's name, because he was trying to refute Descartes, and so it was a question of national pride for the French after all. He wrote his name, Nietzche, on the blackboard, and it took up the whole space, so there was no more room to write anything else. He used no notes at all but he handed out a piece of paper to everyone. The first line, the beginning of Nietzche's refutation, went: Il est pensé: donc il y a un sujet pensant (something is thought, therefore there must be a subject who does the thinking - from Descartes' cogito ergo sum). He then expounded on the ideas of thinking, what is thought - ideas, impressions, feelings, this stream of thoughts and perceptions - mais ou est le 'soi' qui pense? Where is the self who does the thinking? We say il pleut, it rains - but where is the subject, who is it who is raining? We think because language works this way, with a subject who is the doer of the verb, the world works in the same way - but it does not. He talks about the philosophers' attempts to posit worlds beyond this one to account for such anomalies.

He talked so quickly that I missed a lot of what he said but his performance was mesmerizing. The room was packed, there were perhaps 80 people there and the audience hung on his every word. There was nothing dry about this, he used humourous examples of two people falling in love and showing how if asked what it was they loved about the other person and they said his sensitivity or bits of his body, then it was those things they loved and not the person. And if she decided to be faithful to Roberto it was not him she was being faithful to but her decision, her vow, that she would be.

The delicious paradox of him saying there is no perceiver, there is no soi, no self that feels, thinks, gets angry, and here is this lean and energetic being, a consummate performer, witty humourous and agile, and the whole attention of the audience is focussed on him, listening to him, their eyes following his every movement. Philosophy, comedy and performance. His website is at

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Arrival in Vauvert

3rd February 2009

The trip south began on Sunday evening, on a coach from Edinburgh to London. On the stop on the way down, about three in the morning, the forecourt of the services had a light covering of snow. The relief driver was delayed. So we waited. When he finally arrived he described the motorway as reduced to one lane, with the traffic going at 30 miles an hour. London's at a standstill he said. Arriving at Victoria, the pavements were covered in snow and slush. There was no way I could make the airport in time for my flight, assuming there would still be any flights. But perhaps I thought, instead of trying to book another flight and staying overnight in London, I could see if there was a coach to Paris. And there was. The woman at the check-in said she was surprised that the coaches were still running and amazed that peope were still travelling today. A loudspeaker announcement said that no coach services could be guaranteed. The Gatwick and Brighton service was cancelled. No London city buses were running I heard on the coach radio, the M25 was blocked with stationary traffic, lorries stuck in snow on the A23, no service on the underground Central Line.

On the short trip to the bus stop outside Victoria coach station, my feet got soaked. On the Paris coach, I peel off my wet socks and boots and place them next to the heater, wrap my freezing feet in my jacket. A couple of hours later we're at the ferry terminal and my socks and shoes are almost dry. And the snow has turned to rain.

The sea is a greenish mustard colour as we leave Dover but it later becomes a more healthy looking green tinged with greyish blue; glauque is the only word to describe it, the word they use in the south, la mer glauque. I drink coffee, gaze out of the window. Because you can see that power travelling along beneath the water surface, pushing it up into waves, it seems as though the sea is covered by a skin, like material that is filled with wind making it curve and bulge. Like a sail, like an awning. The waves broken by the ship into white bubbles of foamy froth make it clear that the sea surface is not impermeable but it still looks that way when you see the movement and the power travelling underneath the surface.

Snow on the quai at Calais. Snow on the fields as we travel south. The radio says that many regions in the north and west of the country have been affected by the snow, Pas de Calais, Seine Maritime, Picardy.

Paris was a little dream -like. Was I really here? How wonderful to be here. The dream métro took me to République, change for Place d'Italie, get off at Austerlitz. Perhaps there would be a night train to Montpellier. Perhaps it would leave from here, though I didn't know. Tried to remember the names of other possible stations - Gare Montparnasse, Gare Lyon? But I was lucky. There was a train to Montpellier leaving in an hour's time and from Austerlitz. Change at Narbonne. I call Céline and she says she will pick me up at Montpellier at 8.30 in the morning.

And so I arrive here this morning at La Laune, near Vauvert, where it has been raining constantly since Saturday I'm told. The roads are covered with water, the fields have turned into lakes and the ditches into rivers, but tomorrow it will clear. So it is said. The brownish purple colour of the earth around the vines seems to be reflected in the sky. There was a tiny chink of light on the horizon earlier, but it's disappeared now. The bulls in the fields are wet and bedraggled and the rain has turned their coats into a pattern of tufts, wet curls, decorated with rivulets. They are hunched against the rain. The bulls in the lakes I should say, standing on sodden little islands.

It's getting dark now and a pale streak of pinkish yellow light is lying close to the horizon. The pond fields are reflecting this light. I can still hear little gurglings and pattering sounds of rain. And in the distance, faint bird calls, soft warblings, wavy sounds, and one or two hooped circular sounds, that rise and fall. The Camargue night begins.