Saturday, July 21, 2007

Old Father Thames

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sue us, Canal

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 06, 2007


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

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

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

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