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Tuesday, 8 July 2014

This Long Journey

The celebrations for the 70th anniversary for D-Day have come and gone, as has the wonderful Chalke Valley History Festival, where I successfully submitted my pitch to the Penguin Historical Fiction Writer's Workshop. It doesn't mean much other than as an introduction and a boost to my confidence, but at least it tells me that the story is a good one and that I am on the right track. There's still a fair amount of editing to do but in the peace and tranquility that is daily life at Bardies, I'm determined to get to the end of this long journey.

When I started, I envisaged a non-fiction book about the brave and largely unrecognised women of the French Resistance. It angered me that General Charles de Gaulle, a military man who loathed the irregular forces of the FFIs [the Forces Francaises de l'Interieure formed at the beginning of 1944 from the various armed resistance groups inside France] awarded only six Croix de la Liberation to women, out of a total of 1,061. He hated the communists so the brave women, and most of the men too, of 'red Toulouse' and Ariege, especially those of Spanish Republican origin, were relegated to the footnotes of history. Military hierarchy had no place for women.

There are a number of reasons for this, not least the reluctance of the women themselves to talk about their wartime experiences. It was not just the war that they wished to forget. It was also the horrors of l'epuration in the immediate aftermath. No one knows exactly how many people were killed but estimates range upwards of 10,000, an enormous number by any measure. There was also a high degree of sexual retribution, as if the cowardly and politically impotent men of Vichy could only exonerate themselves by turning on the women that they labelled les collabos horizontales. A schoolteacher resister noted that 'in the shaving of heads and so on...we touched rock bottom'. It is estimated that 20,000 women were publicly brutalised.

In the women's accounts, in the main, there was a desire to move on, to rebuild what had been broken. So many people were displaced, so many families were fractured and so many graves were in need of tending; France had paid a high price. There was also the urgent need for reconstruction. France received seven times the tonnage of bombs that the UK received during the Blitz. It was not just the towns of Northern France. Biarritz, Nice, Marseilles and many other cities experienced the effects of Allied bombing. Fifty-seven thousand French people lost their lives after D-Day.

Seventy years on, a more nuanced history has emerged from the oral testimonies of resisters, particularly the women. These accounts give us a flavour of the time. While they do not tell the full story, they help us to comprehend that resistance takes many forms. So why a fictional story, I am asked? The answer is a simple one. I want to give them a voice. There are few contemporaneous oral testimonies from the women of Ariege and Haute-Garonne. I can guess at the thoughts and words of these brave women but I cannot know what they actually said. In a work of fiction, one has the freedom to generate meaningful dialogue and to attempt to recreate the landscape of the time, both physical and emotional.

I am lucky to live close to the town of St Girons, from where a number of evasion lines over the Pyrenees operated, including the O'Leary line. Many accounts can be read in Ed Stourton's Cruel Crossing: Escaping Hitler Across the Pyrenees, which has stimulated a great deal of interest in our little piece of la France profonde. In his introduction, Ed writes of the genius loci of the place, the spirit that makes its story so special. Unsurprisingly, Ariege is called la terre courage on quaint roadside tourist signs. Napoleon Bonaparte designated it le pays du fer et des hommes. Life has always been hard here.

After the fall of Barcelona in January 1939, almost 500,000 desperate men, women and children of the Retirada walked over the mountains in brutal conditions to seek safety in France. Many died, either on the mountains or in the terrible concentration camps that were thrown together to greet them. A large number of them joined the Resistance. Others acted as passeurs, taking Jews, downed Allied airmen and other evaders over the smuggler's paths into neutral Spain, helped by a small secret army of women in safe houses who provided a hot meal and a bed for the night at tremendous personal risk to themselves and their families.

I hope that I can do these women justice. I dedicate my story to them. Now, as I work towards the final chapters, I have decided to use this blog to tell the stories of some of the real women of the Resistance. It seemed to me to be one way to resolve my dilemma about fact and fiction, and that difficult historical middle ground that Anthony Beevor desultorily designates as faction. One day, perhaps, I shall write that history but in the meantime I hope to pay tribute to their courage, their resolve and cunning, but most of all, their generosity of spirit.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Freddie Knoller: Living With the Enemy

Last week I drove almost a hundred miles to see someone special at the Chalke Valley History Festival. His name is Freddie Knoller and he is a spritely ninety-three year old Auschwitz survivor. He was born on 17 April 1921 in Vienna, the youngest of three sons born to Marja and David Knoller. His parents were born in Galicia, then part of Austria-Hungary but part of what became Poland after the First World War. The three brothers were musicians, the eldest brother, Otto, a pianist and the middle one, Erich, a violinist. Fredl, Freddie, was a cellist.

After the Anschluss and Kristallnacht, David Knoller was determined that his three sons had to leave Nazi controlled Austria, by whatever means. Freddie left for Belgium via Cologne and Aachen at the end of November 1938, entered the country illegally and made his way first to Antwerp, then Eskaarde, near Ghent. When l'exode began, with the German invasion of Belgium on 10 May 1940, Freddie found himself walking to France on roads crammed with refugees. In Lille, he came upon a solid blue cordon of French police. He was taken to a police station, forced to show his penis to prove he was a Jew, and put in a cattle wagon to the internment camp of St Cyprien, near Perpignan. He remains angry with the French for their treatment of foreign Jews fleeing Hitler.

Three months later he escaped under the barbed wire and made his way to Gaillac, in the Tarn, deep in Vichy France. There, he purchased false papers and returned to Brussels to rescue his cello and take the bus to Antwerp to find out what had happened to his friends. When he could find neither his cello nor his friends, he decided to head for Occupied Paris where he lived amongst the Paris demi-monde under the false identity of Robert Metzner, born in Metz in Alsace. In July 1943 he was picked up by the Gestapo for procuring girls for German soldiers. He blagged his way out of Gestapo HQ and hightailed it from the Gare d'Austerlitz to the village of Cardaillac, in the Lot, not far from Figeac.

Freddie was arrested by the French Milice on a train en route from Figeac to Bergerac on 5 August 1943. He was probably denounced by his angry, jilted ex-girlfriend, Jacqueline, to whom he had confided both his Resistance activities and his false, non-Jewish identity. He was an agent de liaison, a courrier who ran messages from one Resistance cell to another. 'I am not a terrorist!' he shouted under interrogation. 'I am an Austrian Jew from Vienna called Alfred Knoller. I am hiding from the Germans and have nothing to do with any Resistance group.'

His decision to betray his origins rather than his colleagues resulted in him being taken to Gestapo headquarters, put under armed guard and taken by train back to Paris. From there, he was taken by the French Garde Mobile to Drancy, in the quiet suburb of Bobigny, the assembly camp for deportation to the East. On 6 October he was put in a cattle wagon to Auschwitz. There, he was reduced to a mere number, 157103. Aided by his friend Professor Waitz who managed to get him extra food, he avoided the selections. In January 1945, as Russian artillery approached, he survived the death marches in temperatures of -20 degrees. He was liberated at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, weighing just forty-one kilograms.

'Every event in my story leads up to Auschwitz and no subsequent thought or action in my life is untouched by the memory of Auschwitz.....The person who stumbled into the cattle truck at Drancy lost once and for all his youthfulness, if not all his naivety.' The man on the stage, charming, amusing, witty and self-deprecating, was a careful observer filled with the will to live. His book, Living With the Enemy: My Secret Life on the Run from the Nazis details his story with no hint of self-pity, just an effusive love of life born of tremendous optimism. With each year that passes, there are fewer survivors like him to tell the story of what happens when a society loses its moral compass.

Freddie's story is one of many which concern the role of the French police and SNCF, France's railway provider. As Leo Bretholz, Freddie's friend and fellow raconteur, says, 'Wartime France was the most important and very venal cog in the wheel of Hitler's co-conspirators.' Undoubtedly, France is coming to terms with Vichy's complicity in the deportation of its own Jews. This process has been slow and painful. Where I live in Ariege, many local people are still unaware of the existence of the Le Vernet camp, the Drancy of the south, as well as the many other camps.

Perhaps they do not wish to remember. Many deportees were not Jewish and they struggled to be remembered too. One of them was Charlotte Delbo, in whose memory a conference which I attended was held at the Institut Francais on 18 March, the centenary of her birth. Charlotte's story, and that of the 229 other women of Le Convoi des 31000, is told by Caroline Moorehead in her book, A Train in Winter. I drove back to the Chalke Valley History Festival two days later to hear Caroline recount their tale, as well as the story of the villages around Chambon-sur-Lignon in the Auvergne which hid thousands of Jews. That story, however, is another blog.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Books, Barbed Wire and One of the Most Beautiful Towns in France

What has happened to the months since January? Despite trips to Chartres and Orleans, Paris and Compiegne, Biarritz and St Jean-de-Luz, and further afield, too, I have resisted the temptation to blog. I have, for once, turned off the Internet until dinnertime and put my expanding bottom firmly onto my chair at my desk, where I have written and rewritten 80,000 words of text for my book. Apart from a major hiccup with Dropbox, which left 20,000 of said, slightly different words, floating in cyberspace, I’m now on the downhill run towards my end of November deadline.

Nowadays, it takes a lot to get me away from my beloved Bardies. So when an email arrived from a friend in the Quercy telling me about a fledgling literary festival in the Tarn-et-Garonne, I thought for approximately five minutes before jumping at the chance to go and listen to other writers speak of their experiences and challenges. With a change in the weather, it provided just the ticket, metaphorically speaking because all the events were free. The lovely Occitan village of Parisot is home to a thriving community of readers and writers and a committee of five, French and English, put together a festival to compete with many a more illustrious rival. I gather that it is the only one south of Paris.

The festival opened on Friday evening with a musical and literary soiree, which, sadly, I missed. An absentee friend had kindly lent me her lovely house in Puylaroque for the weekend and I miscalculated the extent of Friday night’s traffic on the Toulouse Peripherique in a downpour. Saturday morning dawned even wetter, so I arrived at the salle des fetes in Parisot via a muddy and circuitous back route at 10.31 am, soggy, late and flustered. Straight away, my mood lifted with the warm and welcome atmosphere. Maree Gilles, an Australian survivor of the forced care system, kicked the day off with a harrowing account of her experiences as a sixteen-year old. A few years ago, Maree published a debut novel, a fictional account of the pain and trauma of her time in care. Its impact proved so devastating that it contributed to a class apology from the Australian government. We were off to a great start. Over the years, I’ve been to many literary festivals where I’ve squinted over the shoulders of someone a foot taller than me and wished I had better glasses and an electronic hearing aid. Oh, the pleasure in a small festival with no ubiquitous video screen!

After a splendid lunch with the invited authors, we continued with a session from Amanda Hodgkinson about her award winning bestseller, 22 Britannia Road. It was a privilege to hear her read in the three voices from her beautifully written book. I was minded of the great Edna O’Brien’s remonstrance that when writers have chosen their words so very carefully, the obligation is upon us, the reader, to absorb and savour them. Such it was with a true poet and wordsmith like Amanda. I am now the owner of two copies of her marvelous book, one for me, and one for my daughter who is following in the footsteps of our great Irish writers reading English at Trinity College, Dublin.

Afterwards, in complete contrast, the urbane, dapper and witty Guardian journalist, Martin Walker, spoke about his marvelous fictional creation, Bruno, Chief of Police. Also, dear to my heart, Martin talked about the riven history of France, as well as his passion for all things French, especially its food and wine. We await the forthcoming Bruno cookery book with relish. As someone who tends to avoid crime fiction, I am about to become a convert to Martin’s Gallic detective and his gentle portrayals of French village life. As this is France, his talk was followed by aperitifs and dinner at the l'Auberge de la Castille, to which everyone was invited. With Charlie, my Jack Russell champing at the bit in the car, it was with great regret that I had to wend a wet and weary way back to Puylaroque. Next time, I shall send him to the kennels.

Sunday brought a complete change of genre with a cookery demonstration by Anne Dyson of the Greedy Goose Cookery School in Ambeyrac, in the Aveyron. The delicious canapés and appetizers that Anne so effortlessly prepared were testament to her culinary talents. Her beautiful Green Goose cookery book has provided a fitting thank you present for my friend who so generously lent me her house to be here.

After lunch by the lake in Parisot, ex-pat, humour-writer, Victoria Corby delighted us with her de la coeur account of her literary family and how she managed to gain the confidence to become a professional writer, despite the little voice over her shoulder telling her that she wouldn't be good enough. With three books published over a decade ago, Victoria has now ventured into the burgeoning ebook market by republishing them on Kindle. As she gets a significantly higher percentage of the revenue this way, I’m happy to say that all three are now downloaded to my Kindle Homepage. I look forward to them with great pleasure.

My final session at the festival was with the formidable Colette Barthes, a journalist with La Depeche du Midi and a committed human rights activist with Lutte pour la Justice, which fights for the abolition of the death penalty in the United States. Colette is one of those rare women who change the air in the molecules around them, strong, vibrant, fiercely political and an inspiration to all women, young and old alike. She writes in many genres, including the novel, but she is most well known for her research into the plight of the Spanish refugees of the Retirada and the European Jews who were brutally interned in the camp of Septfonds, not far from Parisot. Her book, L’exil et les Barbeles, is a work of great historical importance. Hers was an inspiring session.

After two stimulating days of literature, it was with some sadness that I packed my car to drive southwards back to St Girons. They always say that a change is as good as a rest, and what a glorious change it's been. I am so full of admiration for the committee of the Festival Litteraire de Parisot. They have achieved something very special and I know that it can only go from strength to strength. Who knows, one day Parisot may be mentioned in the same breath as Hay? Actually, maybe no. Small is beautiful and I would hate it to become just another commercial event hijacked by publishers and PR professionals. It's perfect as it is - name me another literary festival where you get tea and home made cakes thrown in, and all for nothing? Name me another festival, too, where you get to have lunch and dinner with the writers, like members of one big happy family? With so many new found friends, I feel like I've become part of this warm, welcoming literary family of Parisot and it's a real joy. My warmest thanks go to everybody involved. Bravo tous!

I knew, though, that I couldn’t leave this lovely region of France without visiting Septfonds. I wanted to pay tribute to the eighty-one Spaniards who lie in the Spanish cemetery there and also to visit the memorial at the Camp de Judes, in the nearby hameau of La Lande. I was moved to tears. These were young men who did not deserve to die on this side of the Pyrenees, buried in lines in numbered graves, like sardines in a tin. They had lost everything fighting Franco and now France, to its shame, took the only thing that they had left.

Septfonds is not far from St Antonin, where Charlotte Gray was partly filmed. I have always wanted to see the ancient bridge over the Aveyron over which the tanks rolled in on 11 November 1942. There is something special about great movie moments, as if they fill the space in our heads where words once were.

Reading the plaque by the bridge, I discovered that St Antonin hailed from Pamiers, in Ariege. When he tried to convert the heathens of our disorderly part of France, they chopped his head off and threw him unceremoniously into the River Ariege, from whence he was borne by angels to the Tarn, before being deposited, miraculously reassembled, here in the Aveyron. The town that takes his name has indeed been blessed. St Antonin is the most beautiful intact medieval village I have seen since visiting Verona last year. I know that it’s a cliché but it really is as though time has stood still.

I scuttled around its tiny streets like a detective on the prowl. Some of them were so narrow, if I spread my arms wide, I could have touched the walls on either side. Around every corner, in tiny passages and courtyards as well as on the main streets, there were grand portals and corbels and carved coats of arms. I am sure that these fine architectural details were only added once the Catholic zealots of St Antonin had prized the vast Cathar and Protestant wealth from the heretics in their midst. The town was rewarded with the grand title of St Antonin Noble Val, which just goes to show that you only have to scratch the surface in even the most picturesque French town to find a history of bitter conflict.

And with that thought in mind, I climbed back into my car and headed back to my work on the Resistance. Enough of books, barbed wire and beautiful places, I’ve spent too much time on blogging. Again! I don't know what other bloggers think but this new format drives me nuts. Sorry for the whinge but editing a blog post is now more time consuming than writing one, so it may be a while before I'm back. It’s time to get back to the grindstone at Bardies before the autumn runs away with me and my deadline disappears. How many days is it to Christmas? A bientot.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Jean Moulin - A Hero's Hero

Seventy years ago, on 14 February 1943, Jean Moulin landed from France at RAF Tangmere, near Chichester, in a Lysander from 161 'Special Duties' Squadron. This was not his first visit. He had previously impressed the aloof and distant de Gaulle when he visited him during the general's darkest days, on 25 October 1941. As a man of some stature the ex-Prefet of Chartres not only provided information about resistance in France, he also offered him a means to exploit and rally these diverse and relatively isolated resistants to his cause. At that time, a small minority of French people, anti-Nazis, Jews, Communists and anti-Petainistes amongst others, were creating their own resistance but they had no leader on the ground in France. De Gaulle, tucked away in London's Carlton Gardens, was an ethereal voice on the radio with pre-determined views about invading France with his Free French army. Moulin single-handedly convinced him that he had tens of thousands of parachutistes sur place ready to serve him but that if he didn't take the leadership reins, then the communists would. He was successful in his mission and when he returned to France as the official 'Delegate of the French National Committee to the Unoccupied Zone' his real work began.

The second time he came to visit General de Gaulle, a great deal had changed. The Germans had invaded the southern zone, the so-called zone libre, on 11 November 1942 and the mountainous and wooded areas of the south, perfectly suited to guerilla warfare, were now firmly under German military control. Jean Moulin flew into RAF Tangmere with a strategy to unite the disparate elements of the newly emergent Resistance movement and rehabilitate the political parties around de Gaulle. This was no mean task after the attentisme that had followed the Armistice Agreement of July 1940 and the rewriting of the immediate past and the jockeying for position that was now, inevitably, taking place. De Gaulle's relationship with the Resistance was further compromised by the Allies' support for General Darlan in North Africa after the Allied landings in November 1942. With Petain in Vichy, Darlan in North Africa and a sulking de Gaulle in London, it was not at all clear who was to be crowned the sovereign leader of the French. When Darlan was assassinated, the USA and Roosevelt replaced him with General Giraud, a man untainted by even the slightest whiff of collaboration. De Gaulle's future depended on proving that Roosevelt's support for the newly appointed Giraud was misplaced and that only he, General de Gaulle, could speak for the whole of la belle France.

Fired up with the powerful notion of a united Resistance under the ex patriot general's leadership directed from London, Moulin and de Gaulle hammered out the idea of a single Resistance council. On 21 February Jean Moulin drafted the proposal for the new body, a Resistance council, which would encompass both zones and incorporate representatives from the different Resistance movements and the  estranged political parties. His first attempt to return to France with these precious instructions, took place on 24 February 1943. Due to fog, the Lysander, flown by Squadron Leader Hugh Verity, had to return to Tangmere, where it crash landed spectacularly. Miraculously, neither man was hurt despite the severity of the impact in a pea soup of a fog. A second attempt on 26 February also failed. It was not until 20 March that Moulin was finally set down near Roanne by 161 Squadron's Flight Lieutenant Bridger. Within weeks Moulin established the Conseil National de la Resistance.

It was a thankless task amongst the rivalries, vanities and hostilities of the different competing groups but it is a credit to Moulin that he was able to exploit all of these things to achieve his, and de Gaulle's, primary objective. The first meeting of the National Council of the Resistance [CNR] was held on 27 May 1943. His personal success was to be short lived. Less than a month later, Jean Moulin was arrested and brutally tortured by the notorious Klaus Barbie, dying shortly afterwards in a deportation car. The power struggles between the competing groups did not end with Moulin's death but de Gaulle's determination to shape France in his own image was given great credence by his sacrifice. When Andre Malraux spoke of him as being le chef d'un peuple de la nuit at the consecration ceremony for him at the Pantheon in December 1964, Moulin's legend, like the wily general's himself, was indelibly etched in the minds of all patriotic French men and women. On that bitterly cold winter's morning in Paris, he became a hero's hero. Vested in his bodily sacrifice was the resurrection of a nation. Despite Marcel Orphul's seminal film, 'Le Chagrin et la Pitie', which showed the ugly underbelly of Resistance mythology, France has not looked back since and Moulin's legend lives on.

I was privileged last weekend, on the seventieth anniversary of Moulin's first attempt to return to France, to be invited to a commemoration of Jean Moulin's secret flights to and from RAF Tangmere,  by the Friends of Chartres, Les Amis des Jumelages de Chartres and Tangmere Military Aviation Museum. A moving Service of Remembrance was led by the Rev Canon Tim Schofield in the Museum Memorial Garden, attended by many with connections to SOE, the Resistance and 161 Squadron, as well as the Deputy Mayor of Chartres and the Mayor of Chichester. It was followed by a tour of the museum and later, an RAF Operations Room Re-enactment at the Bishop Otter Campus at the University of Chichester, where the actual centre of operations for RAF Tangmere had taken place during the war.

This was followed by an enlightening film made by Martyn Cox, who interviewed Jean Moulin's first pilot, the redoubtable Squadron Leader, Hugh Verity, in 2001, not long before his death. Martyn, who lives in France near Saint-Antonin, where Charlotte Gray was filmed, has interviewed many SOE agents, including the women who were the real 'Charlotte Grays'. Afterwards we had an extremely entertaining and enjoyable illustrated talk by Pete Pitman of the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum entitled 'A Day in the Life of a Pick-Up Pilot'. Remarkably, out of 410 Lysander sorties and 218 Hudson ones, they lost only six pilots and thirteen aircraft. Two of the pilots died trying to land in severe fog at Tangmere, which makes Hugh Verity's crash landing with Jean Moulin on the 24 February 1943 even more significant. Who knows what the history of the Resistance might have been had Verity not got his plane down eventually?

The afternoon finished with a superb panel of experts discussing both Moulin and the Resistance: Julian Jackson, Professor of History at Queen Mary's College, University of London, and the author of 'France, The Dark Years'; Pete Pitman of RAF Tangmere; Harry Roderick "Rod" Kedward, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sussex and author of 'Resistance in France' and 'In Search of the Maquis' amongst many others, and Mathew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester and the author of 'Resistance'. The day finished with a showing of that great Resistance film from 1969, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, 'L'Armee des Ombres', starring the phenomenal Simone Signoret as the compromised resistant, Mathilde. The choice of film, which included a Lysander drop-off and pick-up, was a fitting tribute to a great Resistance hero and the men of the RAF who aided them. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

There Is Never Any End To Paris

.......with apologies to Ernest Hemmingway. I've just realised that it is two years since I posted 'I Love Paris Anytime', and four months since I posted a blog at all [but that's another story]. While I love the Paris of the Belle Epoque, and that of Hemmingway and his literary cohort, I am, as ever, always drawn back to the Marais. The Deux Magots, the Closerie des Lilas and the Cafe Flore of St Germain-des-Pres are full of tourists with loud voices, many of them wishing simply to relive a little bit of Paris's romantic past. There is nothing wrong with that, especially since Woody Allen did such a great job on 'Midnight in Paris', but there are better and cheaper watering holes in the 4th and 11th Arrondisements.

No matter how hard I try, I still find it difficult to forgive Jean-Paul Sartre for his ambivalence during the early years of the Occupation, not least because he was desperate to have his plays performed. Whoah! I hear you say. What else could he do?  I know it's a difficult one but it wasn't true of Andre Malreux, Albert Camus, Lisa Triolet, Jean Bruller [Vercors], Jean Cassou, Louis Aragon and many others. He finally justified his position, writing 'La Republique du Silence' in 1944. Camus defended him by saying that Sartre was a writer who resisted, not a resister who wrote, but methinks it was too little, too late.

The Left Bank is not that far from the Marais but during those dark years, it was a different world. Whilst Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were warming their hands on the pot bellied stoves of their favourite cafes and drinking ersatz coffees, their fellow citizens a short walk across the river were in fear for their lives. Jews had flocked to the Marais since the pogroms of the 19th century, taking up residence in the narrow streets of rue des Rosiers, rue Ferdinand-Duval and rue des Ecouffes. The Pletzl, as this vibrant, noisy and cramped part of the Marais was called, was decimated on 16th July 1942 when everything changed forever in the round-ups. Only a fraction of those deported returned, leaving appartments and shops there for the taking.

These days the Marais is once again a trendy part of town but the vestiges of its Jewish history remain in many of the food shops, many with a menora in the window or a star of David on the shop sign. There are patisseries, boulangeries, chocolatiers, butchers, cafes and restaurants mixed in with newer, trendy boutiques and the whole area, even on a cold, February Wednesday evening, is abuzz with local residents and adventurous tourists alike. I like to think that Paris has not forgotten this area's history.

The area is only a short walk from the serene and stately Place des Vosges, built by Henri IV in 1605, one of the most beautiful squares in Paris. Far too cold to sit and soak up the atmosphere, I couldn't resist the temptation to pop into the warmth and opulence of Victor Hugo's sumptuous appartment tucked into a corner here. It's about as far from the Paris of the barricades as it's possible to imagine but it's always uplifting to visit the residence of a successful writer, poet, musician or artist. It gives us lesser mortals hope. An unexpected bonus is that entrance is free.

Another free museum not far from here and well worth a look is the Musee Carnavalet, which houses an enormous collection dating from the Renaissance to the present day. It was opened to the public in 1880 and contains 2,600 paintings, 20,000 drawings, 300,000 engravings, 150,000 photographs, 2,000 sculptures, 800 pieces of furniture, as well as thousands of ceramics, street signs, coins and other artefacts from five hundred years of Parisian history. It was bulging so much at the seams that the Municipalite of Paris purchased the neighbouring Hotel Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau, to which it is now linked by a corridor of 20th century paintings. It is an enormous, elegant warren of a place where you never seem to know where you are. I constantly found myself gazing in awe at the unexpected, not least the complete reconstruction of the room in which Marcel Proust lay on his bed and wrote 'A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu', a stunning Mucha designed Art Nouveau boutique and everything you ever wanted to know about the demise of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, Danton, Robespierre and St Juste. For anyone with kids studying the French Revolution, I cannot recommend it highly enough - the sheer physicality of the exhibits makes the hairs on the back of one's neck tingle. If you like French antiques, this is better than any book or catalogue.

Close to the metro, the mighty Jesuit church of Saint Paul-Saint Louis, whose first mass was celebrated on 9th May 1641 by the most powerful Jesuit of them all, Cardinal Richelieu, is testament to the great power of the mighty educational order that educated both my brothers. Inevitably, their power waned with that of their benefactors and in 1762, the order was suppressed by the Parlement. On 2nd September 1792, five priests were hacked to death in the September massacres and on one pillar, there is a faded inscription from the 1871 Commune, Republique francaise ou la mort. Victor Hugo's daughter, Leopoldine, was secretly married here on 18th February 1843 and Victor Hugo donated the two lovely marble clam shell holy water fonts in commemoration. Also to be seen is Dalacroix's stunning painting, probably from 1824, of 'Christ in Agony on the Mount of Olives'. Sadly, it was the only Delacroix I got to see this trip because, the following day, the young 'jobs-worth' in charge of the Musee Delacroix [in St Germain-des-Pres] wouldn't let me in at half past four! Merde! Merde! Merde!

My hotel was close to Pere Lachaise cemetery, named after another famous Jesuit, Pere Francois de la Chaise, confessor to Louis XIV. After my trip to the Musee Carnavalet, I wanted to see the 'Mur des Federes', the Communard's Wall. There, 147 defenders of the working class district of Belleville were put up against the wall and shot on the last day of the Semaine Sanglante, the bitter end of a week's bloodshed that ended the 1871 Commune. I walked the length of the perimeter wall in freezing temperatures to find this monument, simply a stele with the date in front of a much repaired wall and not a bullet hole in sight. 

En route, though, I discovered the magnificent sculptured monuments to the victims of the various concentration camps and the graves of most of the significant communists of recent French history. It's amazing what you find when you are not looking, I always think. And, of course, I had to go and see what they'd done to Oscar and Jacob Epstein's sculptured tombstone since they banned the lipstick kisses. I was dreading the over-reaction that we've seen so often with other works of art [my pet hate is the glass case around Michaelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's Basilica in Rome, where you can no longer walk around it]. I have to say that it's not too bad - just enough to protect the lower part of the mellow stone [and the missing bits of the angel's vital parts] but not completely covering the whole monument. 

By now, I really did feel the urge to head for somewhere warm so a quick scoot on the Metro to the Left Bank, to the cafe les editeurs, my ideal cafe, full of comfortable seats, real tea and books galore.

There is nothing more stimulating than reading a good book or newspaper, writing a diary, a letter or five hundred words of a possible story with a good cup of coffee or hot chocolate on the table and the buzz of other like minded people around. Why do I have to come to Paris to do this, I wonder? Ah, well, any excuse. There is never any end to Paris............

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A Cinderella in St Emilion

An invitation to one of the wine producing areas of France is always guaranteed to test my willpower. No matter how much work I should be doing, the temptation proves too great and I am forced off my backside and onto the A62 as quickly as you can say cabernet franc. I am certainly no wine snob but supermarket plonk, no matter how passable, is no substitute for the real merlot. With the prospect of a Michelin deux etoiles dinner and a night of unadulterated luxury beckoning, so it was that I set off on a trip on a sunny Friday morning to one of the best hostelleries in Bordeaux region. A former monastery, the Hostellerie de Plaissance is set high above the medieval promontory which is the ochre town of St Emilion.

This beautiful medieval town is a UNESCO world heritage site that has been a centre for wine growing for two thousand years. The town is built of limestone which gives it its warm and welcoming glow. Here we were in the first week of October, parched and sleeveless, with no hint of autumn in the air. Daytime temperatures remained  in the high twenties and the purple grapes were still firmly attached to their vines. Most of the tourists had gone home and the narrow streets were pleasantly empty, so it felt strange to know that the busiest time in the winemaker's year was still ahead. It almost seemed as if the population of the town had evaporated, leaving a mass of empty wine shops, boutiques and bars, like a film set after the crew has left. Of the few inhabitants remaining, no one seemed to know exactly when it would be all systems go for the vendage. Some said this week, others next, a few simply shrugged their shoulders and looked up at the sky.

St Emilion has a Jurade, founded in 1199 by the same King John who signed the Magna Carta, whose members control the quality of the wine and classify it. This 'privilege' meant that English wine merchants had priority over everyone else when buying the wines of St Emilion. The French Revolution soon put a stop to that! In 1948, several of the town's winemakers resuscitated the Jurade in order to promote their wines and guarantee their authenticity and quality. Until 1985, those not in the know still remained somewhat mystified about the relative quality of different wines within their control. Now, much to many people's fury, there is a more stratified and transparent system.

The very best wines are classified premier grand cru classe A [the stellar wines of Chateau Aussone and Chateau Cheval Blanc] and premier cru classe B [Chateau Angelus, Chateau Beau-Sejour-Becot, Chateau Beausejour-Duffau- Lagarosse, Chateau Belair, Chateau Canon, Clos Fourtet, Chateau Figeac, Chateau La Gaffeliere, Chateau Magdelaine, Chateau Pavie, Chateau Pavie-Macquin and Chateau Trottevielle]. The rest are designated grand cru classe [around sixty chateaux], grand cru and AOC St Emilion. Furthermore, every ten years the list is now revised, with every classified property required to submit a new dossier to be re-included.

There are about a thousand producers in total, most of which are small, with between them about 5,400 hectaires under vine, constituting about 6% of the Bordeaux region's total. The key to St Emilion's wines is the merlot grape, which accounts for some seventy per cent of plantings and can constitute anything from eighty to fifty per cent of the juice. The remainder is made up of Cabernet Franc [called Bouchet here] and occasionally, a small percentage of cabernet sauvignon. Because of the merlot grape's capacity to rot, plantings of cabernet sauvignon were encouraged during the 1970's. It has since been discovered that they do not usually do well on the predominantly clay soils of St Emilion, preferring gravelly soils. Chateau Pavie, for instance, uses 60% merlot, 30% cabernet franc and 10% cabernet sauvignon. Unusually Cheval Blanc, because of its atypical terroir, uses an exceptionally high cabernet franc content [58% / 42% merlot] ] which is what makes it so distinctive.

The wines of St Emilion should be rich, deep coloured, with concentrated fruit and so little tannin that even non red wine drinkers are instantly captivated. In outlying villages, similar wines are produced and these are allowed to add St Emilion to the village name [St Georges, Puisseguin, Lussac and Montagne]. Many of these village wines are of excellent quality and value. The wine maker of Chateau Petrus, in nearby Pomerol, Jean-Claude Berrouet, is now the proprietaire of Vieux Chateau Saint Andre in Montagne St Emilion, where he makes his wines in exactly the same way as at Petrus, with marvellous results. We were given a bottle of his 2009 for Sunday lunch by a friend who knows him, which was drinking well now but could certainly be kept for another six to ten years.

The Hostellerie de Plaissance was once a monastery, which is not surprising as in the 8th Century a monk named Emilion, from Vannes in Brittany, chose to withdraw from the world here and devote his life to solitude and prayer. Obviously, he failed at his primary task, for word of his miracles was widely circulated and his reputation spread far beyond the Dordogne Valley. Many disciples flocked to Ascumbas [the original name of St Emilion] to be by his side. He must have had the 8th Century X Factor because his followers were so evangelised that they named what was to become a major monastic centre after him. He died in AD767 but the town of St Emilion thrived around his hermitage and became a place of pilgrimage thereafter. The Plaissance has had a much more secular history, having been an inn, then a restaurant with music and dancing and now a luxury hotel owned by the Perse family, the owners of Chateau Pavie.


Our bedroom required three lifts to descend, giving us a real sense of the architectural history of St Emilion. Between the first two, we walked through a gorgeous garden alongside the remains of a medieval cloister where the designer, Alberto Pinto, has carefully preserved the old catacomb behind a wall of glass. Over a wall was a tiny, ancient church tucked away from the outside world, worthy of the hermit himself. Another lift took us to our room where, in the peace and quiet, an early evening nap was to prove a fait accompli. Like Cinderella, refreshed and raring to go after a luxurious soak in assorted Clarins beauty products provided for our indulgence [no pumpkin oil!], we set off back upwards to go to the evening's gourmet dinnet.

Friday night's dinner was one of those rare occasions in life where the stars are in alignment and we give thanks for living in the best of all possible worlds. Fifteen of us had met up again after many intervening years, from San Francisco, Las Vegas, New York, London and Brighton. Most of our rather raucous group, suitably tucked away in our own private dining room, were on a 'Backroads' cycling tour through the region. It would not be possible to indulge otherwise, for we had ten courses excluding the delicious amuses bouches of snails, foie-gras and other tasty morsels to accompany the excellent aperros. The restaurant has two Michelin stars courtesy of its star chef and manager, Philippe Etchebest, named Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2000.

It would take too long to describe each course in the glowing detail that it deserves but I will try! Suffice it to say that we started with a creamy pumpkin soup with chestnuts and a hazelnut cream, then 'Sturia' Aquitaine caviar, a speciality of the chef, served with celery puree, green apple jelly, dill yoghurt, cucumber, caviar cream and tangerine oil. This was followed by the fluffiest egg dish I have ever tasted, flavoured with asparagus and tobiko wasabi, topped with a parmesan crumble, and served with a tiny tartine of bellota Guijuelo ham.

Then came a divine fillet of pan sauteed cod served with a crispy mushroom risotto, followed by oxtail in steamed spaghetti ribbons with lobster, aromatic herbs, button mushrooms and a creamy shellfish sauce.

A delicate cheese course led on to the most scrumptious chocolate dessert with a passion fruit sorbet.....and a raspberry dessert in a rose champagne jelly with a rose sorbet and a grapefruit mousse. I vowed that I wouldn't eat the petits fours, but I did, of course, and then finished the night off with cafe and fifteen year old armagnac on the terrace!

Philippe Etchebest popped in to say 'Bon soir' and very kindly let me be photographed alongside him. He is the epitome of the gentilhomme and rather like a French Heston Blumenthal.

The following morning, we managed a lie in, unlike everyone else who set off keenly en bicyclette at 9.00 am. They chalked up a good twenty- five kilometres before we met up with them at Chateau Beau-Sejour-Becot, one of the elite group of premier cru classe B estates. They produce 85,000 bottles and their wine is 70% merlot, 24% cabernet franc and 6% cabernet sauvignon. Surviving trenches carved into the limestone confirm that the Romans cultivated wines here. In medieval times the estate belonged to the monks of the nearby foundation of St-Martin-de-Mazerat, then to the lords of Camarsac. Due to its limestone caves, which provided the perfect hiding place, much wine was hidden from the Nazi occupiers during the second world war.

After a tour around the caves and a tasting, it was the perfect place for a picnic to finish off our part of the trip. Our friends were off cycling for four days, finishing up in Bergerac, but we had to head back home to our little doggie and a diet. It was a magical twenty- four hours in the most marvelous part of France. Adieu mes amis. Jusqu'a la prochaine fois. Thank you for letting us share a little part of your trip.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A Posher Part of France

Last weekend we were invited to the Gers for a long weekend away. The weather was perfect, with a slight breeze and a hint of autumn in the air, a welcome relief from the claustrophobic heat of the last few weeks. After the sweaty exertions of the Bardies kitchen, it was nice to ring the changes and hightail it northwestwards to a chateau in the Gers and the warm hospitality of good friends. It takes a lot to drag me away from my hearth, my garden and my 'potager' these days but an invitation to spend time with our dearest friends and our godchildren was very special indeed.

Our respective lives are always so busy and tomorrow is always another day. We think that life will remain much the same as it always has done and that time is an infinite commodity. Work/ life balance becomes an illusory notion. Sadly, 'Slow living' is for holidays and soon forgotten under the tyranny of the 18.45 from Victoria or the 19.05 from London Bridge. We trade and exchange our free time within the trivial and erstwhile demands of work, whether paid or unpaid. In truth, we allow ourselves to become shackled to the mundane. It is so easy to forget that true joy comes with a life shared lazily with friends and loved ones. A fortnight after a summer holiday has ended, as the last vestiges of the summer tan are washed away, we have forgotten those heartfelt resolutions made in the freedom of an August sunset and a shared bottle or two of Pays d' Oc rose. 'Let's meet up sometime soon' becomes the easy mantra that it always was.

Then, out of the blue, there is a shift in the landscape of everyday life when we are tossed, to quote the late, great Christopher Hitchens, into "the land of malady". A primary cancer diagnosis is a great leveller, a secondary one a bitter realisation of the unfairness of life. What seems so important when one is fighting fit, is of no consequence when one is battling the ravages of "Tumourville". And so it was with this knowledge that we set off up to the Gers to spend precious time with a group of people who have impacted so much on each others lives. One of our number, as brave and stoical as Hitchens, has had to face the the same dumb question, "Why me?" Hitchens provides the answer for her when he writes, "the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?"

I write of this because it changed the landscape last weekend so dramatically. The sky really was a cobalt blue, full of fluffy white clouds floating like angels' wings towards the horizon: the landscape was a verdant emerald, despite the 'canicule', reminiscent of a painting by Soutine or Cezanne, the sunflowers en route to our destination worthy of a table in an immortalised Van Gough room. Everything becomes clearer, sharper, more prescient, when faced with the reality of mortality. The small towns of St Clar, Lectoure and La Romieu were more beautiful than ever in the company of my dearest friend. Chateau Dehes, where we stayed, thirty minutes from Agen near the little village of Gazaupouy, provided a little piece of medieval Paradise not far from the ancient pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela. The irony of walking with the saints once again was not lost on us.

The sun rises and the sun sets each day but we don't see it because we are rushing for the bus or the tube, or writing that vital report or mopping the kitchen floor. Worst of all, the seasons change and we fail to see the people most important to us from one to the next; a postcard here perhaps, a text message there, an occasional email with a photo attached if time permits; even, God forbid, a Facebook message. We may follow the status of 'Friends' but we seldom allow ourselves the time for a big hug with them. We deprive ourselves of the warmth and embrace of human contact and we are the poorer for it. When days are numbered, we remember only those times when we sat together talking through the night as though our lives depended upon it.....and they do.

I wrote last week of us all sitting up until dawn playing music, like demented teenagers high on the joy of youth. I look back and think what a privilege indeed that night was, especially as J and O were not able to be there because of the ravages of illness. One needs a great deal of energy and stamina for one of our parties, it has to be said. "For me," Hitchens writes," to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one." We may not have stayed up all night in the Chateau Dehes but we crammed into what time we had there more conversation than we had had in the previous three years; that is one of the great joys of sharing a chateau together.

It is a most beautiful place. It dates from the 13th Century and is believed to have been built by the British during the Hundred Years War to protect their alien borders. The walls are one and a half metres thick and of local, rich and creamy limestone. The tower rises fifty four feet from ground to battlements, dominating the landscape all around, a warning to potential intruders to keep well away. Unlike Bardies, it is a masculine structure, although the present day soft, sensuous furnishings are distinctly feminine. The oak beamed first floor salon, with its extensive triple aspect views over the surrounding countryside, is the perfect place for drinking Floc de Gascogne, the local 'apperro', and after dinner Armagnacs, of which both flowed as freely as the conversation. Dinner was served by candlelight in the stone walled undercroft. The ambiance was as magical as the company. We finished the night off with hot, freshly grated chocolate laced with Armagnac brewed by my delightfully talented god daughter, a marriage made in heaven, I always think.

We needed bread so we all went to see the 14th century cloister and tower at the Collegiate Church of St. Pierre in La Romieu before dinner, a stopping point for the pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela and now, since 1998, a UNESCO world heritage site. It is an architectural gem set in a tiny town of just five hundred and thirty- five souls. The all- pervading power of the church of Rome dominates this agricultural landscape and our medieval forebears must have been tithed to the hilt to pay for it. Then, the following morning, we went for 'petit dejeuner' in Lectoure, a small but regal town dominated by the 15th century cathedral of St. Gervais and St. Protais, which sits high above the Gers river. It was once the base of the Comtes d'Armagnac and the capital of the Lomagne region between the Gers and the Garonne. Like La Romieu, it was also a stopping point for Compostela's hungry and thirsty pilgrims.

Such devotion certainly boosted the economy of this part of medieval France and the quality of the buildings is testament to their spending power. As a result, it is a posher part of France, now full of lawyers and financiers who have snapped up and renovated its many architectural gems. The tumbling exchange rate of the previous few years halted this second British invasion somewhat but everywhere there are signs that things may be improving once again. We heard many British voices as we meandered through Lectoure's flea market and little streets, a sure sign of a more realistic exchange rate. Whether Brits are snapping up property in the Gers once again is another matter. Running these old houses on a pension is an impossibility.

Personally, I prefer Ariege. The beauty of France is that each region has its own distinct personality and we choose accordingly. The Gers is an area of outstanding beauty and the food and wine a gourmet's delight. Its rolling hills and vineyards, maize fields, cypress trees and sunflowers shimmering in the hazy summer sunlight are a vision of order, permanence and tranquility; its colours and smells are the stuff of memories to be resurrected as the first chills of winter seep into our bones: garlic and prunes, melons and wine, Armagnac and Floc de Gascoigne.

But my memories this year will be more subdued. They will be of a house full of friends looking at the world anew, savouring each other's warmth and friendship and renewing vows of fidelity.

"I wept when I remembered how of-
ten you and I
Had tired the sun with talking, and
sent him down the sky."