Wednesday, November 02, 2011

It's not all bad

Due to personal problems – of which I’m sure you’ve heard quite enough – I haven’t written anything for a while. Actually, I’ve been waiting for someone to set my car on fire and although I have had to rush down in the middle of the night a couple of times to drive it away from the blazing vehicles surrounding it, my car is still more or less intact. So nothing interesting to report there, I’m afraid.

And I’m certain you have no desire to hear how daily life has become a metaphor, rich in symbolism, for my state of mind. How computers, cookers and fridges have turned against me, how my piano no longer plays F # or A, how the shutter in the sitting room refuses to close while the one in the bedroom refuses to open or how the front door handle now comes away in my hand because somebody tried to break in.

And is it fair that in the third flush of youth, my body has started to fall apart? The ignominy of having to search for my glasses in order to read the small print on a packet of Cup O’ Soup! Gluten and nuts are devious devils…

As for my brain…well, I needed to do a bit of spring cleaning up there as it was getting a bit cluttered and I’m convinced this is the reason my memory is not what it was (as far as I can remember, that is). So I took myself and my arthritic knees off for a walk in the mountains.

The last time I went for a walk in the mountains, I nearly had to be carried down. Now, I have absolutely no problem walking up a mountain – in fact, the only reason I haven’t climbed Everest before is because I hate getting my feet cold. However, as I have developed arthritis in both knees, walking down feels like someone is sawing my legs off very slowly with a rusty cheese knife.

So I had to buy walking sticks. Cool, technical-looking ones, of course, so people will think I’m a seasoned hiker rather than an arthritic old bag.

And off I went to Chamrousse.

Chamrousse is a ski resort perched above Grenoble in the Belledonne range of mountains. It was first mentioned in 1260, when it was referred to as Culmen Rufus (Red Peak) and it appears on the map for the first time in 1744 although the discovery of Roman coins at the summit indicates that the Romans were familiar with the peak.

After the creation of the Uriage spa in 1823, curistes would regularly climb to the top of Chamrousse as part of their treatment. I’m not sure how efficient this was as the waters of Uriage are used to treat arthritis amongst other things. Perhaps it was just a scam by doctors to have their patients coming back for more?

The ski lift was built in 1952 and was deemed to be the safest and fastest in France, along with that of Courchevel. And of course, the Winter Olympics were held here in 1968.

My destination was the Lac Achard, a tiny lake above the resort and apparently named after a man who once owned a hut nearby. It’s an easy walk from the ski resort and at an altitude of 1 917 metres, the view is wonderful.

I sat in the autumn sunlight, contemplating the reflections playing on the surface of the water, and realised how fortunate I was to be able to enjoy such stunning scenery. My mind cleared and my problems suddenly seemed so insignificant…

Then I reached into my rucksack for the bag of delicious apples I had hurriedly packed for my picnic and pulled out…a bag of lemons.

Is Somebody trying to tell me something?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Au voleur

On Saturday morning, I was rudely awakened from my sleep by a neighbour shouting down the intercom “Madame, they’ve smashed your car, they’ve smashed your car! Get the police!”
As I was wearing a henna-stained nightie, two shower caps and a woollen bonnet, I couldn’t rush down immediately. However, once my Golden Oak locks had been rinsed and dried, I nervously made my way downstairs with a feeling of dread.
If I didn’t know better, I would say my car is cursed. The very first time I parked it in front of my flat, it got keyed. Then some drunken thugs backed into it, leaving a dent. Once, I had to call out the breakdown truck at two in the morning because the car just stopped as I was driving someone home. I still cringe at the memory of Mr Breakdown Man saying “Um – you’ve run out of petrol”. To be fair, I use LPG but nobody told me it needed petrol in order to run. Nobody ever tells me anything.
Then I had a violent tussle with a kerbstone in the rush hour and had to buy a whole new wheel.
And now this.

In fact, when I saw what they’d done to the car, I was relieved. Only the window was smashed and the radio-CD player stolen. Or rather, the façade had been stolen. I’m a bit thick when it comes to practical matters and I hadn’t realized that the façade was detachable and I was supposed to take it off in order to prevent people smashing the window to steal it.
I know now.
I took photos, like the police told me to, using the last of my precious ink to print them and photocopy all the documents they asked for. Then I spent two hours waiting at the commissariat and reading every single copy of Femme Actuelle and Auto Moto before a policewoman took my statement. She was far more interested in the fact that I’d been born in Cambridge than looking at my photos and kept throwing oddly inappropriate phrases at me in broken English.
I finally got through to the insurance company who told me they didn’t need the dépôt de plainte at all and that they couldn’t reimburse the radio or – and I swear I detected a snigger here - suggest how to extract the George Benson CD.
Thank goodness for Golden Oak Herbal hair dye, that’s all I can say. The stress of living here is turning my hair completely grey…

Sunday, August 07, 2011


I volunteered to play the piano in church last Sunday. I have no idea what possessed me to volunteer, given my previous rabbit-in-the-headlights experiences. Although I can play the hymns perfectly in the emptiness of my own sitting room, I am invariably struck by the musical equivalent of Writer’s Block in front of an audience.

Child prodigy I was not. My piano teacher was a lonely spinster (am I still allowed to use that word?) whom I could manipulate into telling me her life story for the duration of the lesson. By the time the following pupil arrived, I had managed to avoid the piano entirely. So I saw no point in practising.

Probably the best-known composer for the piano is Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849), who was Polish. His father was French though and Chopin himself came to Paris in 1831 and stayed there for the rest of his life.

Now, he was a child prodigy. Already composing at the age of six and giving public concerts when he was seven, he was frequently compared to Mozart and Beethoven. His success as a composer and performer led him to Europe, where he stopped off in Paris and settled there for good.

In 1836, Chopin met the feminist author, George Sand, at a party. He didn’t fancy her much at first – in fact, he found her repulsive and asked, in a way that would do Prince Philip proud:

“But is she really a woman?”

Nevertheless, they became lovers. Their relationship was difficult as Chopin was often depressed and always ill. In 1847, Sand published a novel where one of the main characters bore a strong resemblance to Chopin and the portrayal was far from flattering. Chopin went into a big sulk and before the year was out, the relationship was over.

He died aged thirty-nine of suspected tuberculosis.

Here’s a Chopin Nocturne: Opus 9, n° 1:

Camille Saint Saens (1835 – 1921) was another child prodigy and he was simply brilliant at everything. He had perfect pitch and began learning to play the piano when he was two. He wrote his first composition aged four and he was five when he first appeared in public.

Saint Saens had learnt to read and write by the time he was three. At seven, he was studying Latin. He was also a scientist, a mathematician, a philosopher, a poet and a playwright.

Oh – and he played the organ in church too, although I’m sure he didn’t stop half-way through a hymn mumbling “Hang on, hang on, I can get this bit…”

Saint Saens married a woman half his age when he was forty and had two sons, both of whom died within weeks of each other. He blamed his wife for the second death (the child had fallen out of a window) and left her. She never heard from him again. The fact that he was rumoured to be homosexual might have had something to do with it too.

He died of pneumonia in Algiers at the ripe old age of eighty-six.

Here’s the Andante from his piano concerto n°2:

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) studied music at the Ecole de Musique Classique et Religieuse in Paris. Camille Saint Saens was his piano teacher there and they became life-long friends.

He also earned his living as a church organist but he didn’t get on very well with the priest. This is because Fauré used to sneak out between hymns for a crafty cigarette and when he turned up dishevelled one morning after a night on the tiles, the priest asked him to resign.

In 1905, Fauré was appointed head of the Conservatoire de Paris where his ideas were considered far too modern for certain members, who promptly left. It was also around this time that he started to go deaf.

His love life was a bit of a shambles. Brought up by a wet-nurse and packed off to boarding school when he was nine, he wasn’t exactly familiar with normal family life. He married in 1883 but was hardly ever at home, due to his horreur du domicile. He also had several mistresses including the married singer Emma Bardac, who was also the mistress of Claude Debussy.

Fauré died of pneumonia in Paris at the age of seventy-nine.

The following clip should bring back comforting memories for those old enough to remember Listen with Mother. Here is the Dolly suite…are you sitting comfortably?

Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) was born in Paris. He started taking piano lessons at the age of seven and entered the Conservatoire when he was ten.

From the beginning, Debussy was a rebel. He rejected the rigid, traditional methods of composition in favour of unusual intervals and dissonances which shocked his teachers. I’m quite good at unusual intervals and dissonances myself so I can sympathise.

Between 1885 and 1887, he studied at the Villa Medici in Rome. He didn’t like it much there either and complained about the company, the accommodation and the food. He didn’t even like Rome and got quite depressed about it all.

But his turbulent love-life surely provided relief from all that boredom. He was a heartless womaniser, having affairs with all sorts of women, including married ones. He left one girl for her best friend, Rosalie, a fashion model, whom he married. She turned out to be a bit thick and Debussy got bored again and embarked on an affair with the ubiquitous Emma Bardac (see above). When poor Rosalie found out, she tried to commit suicide by shooting herself and consequently most of Debussy’s friends turned against him. Well, he only had himself to blame…

Debussy’s other claim to fame is that he was one of the first people to undergo a colostomy operation. He eventually died an unromantic death from rectal cancer at the age of fifty-six.

Listen to Two Arabesques:

Erik Satie (1866 – 1925) was born in Honfleur but moved to Paris when he was four. His mother was English (born in London to Scottish parents) and when she died in 1872, Satie was sent back to Honfleur to live with his paternal grandparents. When they died six years later, he went back to live with his father, who remarried shortly after.

Satie’s step-mother was a piano teacher. Either she wasn’t a very good one or – more likely – Satie was a bad student. When he began his piano studies at the Conservatoire in 1879, his teachers soon let him know he had no talent whatsoever and labelled him the ‘laziest student in the Conservatoire’.

He was sent away for two and a half years, but was readmitted in 1885. Unfortunately, he was still deemed to have no talent, so Satie stormed off to join the army. He managed to stick it out for four months and then, desperate to escape, he endeavoured to catch bronchitis by sleeping outside in the middle of winter with no shirt on. It worked and he was discharged.

He moved to Montmartre and began to hang out with all the arty types in Le Chat Noir café-cabaret. During this period, he started publishing his Gymnopédies – he was, after all, more gifted as a composer than a pianist.

In 1893, Satie met Suzanne Valadon, an artist’s model and an artist in her own right. After their first night together, Satie asked her to marry him. She wouldn’t and he became obsessed with her. She finally left him six months later and poor Satie was heartbroken. It appears to have been his only intimate relationship (so where was Emma Bardac when he needed her?).

He died, aged fifty-nine, of cirrhosis of the liver.

And on that cheerful note, I leave you with his Gnossienne n°1:

By the way, the piano playing at church went very well. There were a couple of moments where I inadvertently slipped down a semi-tone or two, lending an interesting jazzy element to What a friend we have in Jesus, but – hey - there’s nothing wrong with dissonance. If it was good enough for Debussy…

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Losing it

I’ve spent most of my life trying to lose weight and there’s absolutely nothing I don’t know about calories, ketones or cottage cheese.

I have consumed gallons of glutinous milk-shakes, swallowed fistfuls of fibrous pills and detoxed myself dizzy. I’ve even joined slimming clubs in the hope of humiliating myself into submission.

But nothing ever worked for long and it was all so boring and expensive…especially the slimming clubs.

French slimming clubs are no different from English ones. You pay to get weighed once a week by a celery-stick thin woman who clucks as she notes down your weight loss (or gain, in my case) while you stand there shivering with indignation and cold because it’s the middle of February and you’re wearing a chiffon sundress and no shoes. It’s worth a try but it fools nobody.

And while food is indeed an interesting subject, there’s a limit to the amount of enthusiasm I can drum up for endless discussions of fat-free fairy cakes, frozen yoghourt and Naughty Doughnuts. So I left the local slimming club before they threw me out.

However, I have finally discovered the secret to easy weight loss.

It started with nuts: peanuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts…anything with a shell. I found myself writhing in agony at the mere whiff of a walnut.

As someone who can finish a jar of organic peanut butter at one sitting, this discovery came as a shock verging on the anaphylactic.

And once my doctor had ensured, through a series of scans and examinations of various bodily fluids, that my intestines had not taken up macramé and my womb was not about to drop out, she came to the conclusion that I was suffering from food intolerance.

Gill Baconnier intolerant to food? That is one oxymoron of a diagnosis.

And it didn’t stop there.

I suddenly became intolerant to gluten, too, which seems pop up in the strangest of places: vinaigrette, chocolate, crisps, beer…in fact, I’m having trouble finding anything to eat at all.

The Health Food shop is no help. Their sad little stock of gluten-free products consists of urine-coloured pasta, bread the texture of damp sand and biscuits that are so expensive they should be chained to the shelf.

I could, of course, get an allowance from the Social Security to enable me to buy these ersatz products masquerading as food, but I haven’t got the courage to fill in all the forms. I suppose I’ll just have to do without.

And that’s the secret. Do without. I’ve lost ten kilos so far so it works well.

But what I wouldn’t give for a Naughty Doughnut…

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Le Plug

When my children were young, my idea of a fun-day out was to drag them around the museums of Aix, pointing out interesting monuments on the way. For some reason, they were never quite as enthusiastic as I hoped they’d be.

What I needed then was a book like Operation Cézanne. That way, my girls would think they were simply reading a gripping adventure novel, unaware that they were also learning fascinating historical facts about Aix-en-Provence. Sneaky, eh ?

I suppose I was a bit late in getting the book written and published as my children are adults now (they’re used to it: I still haven’t got around to making that doll’s house I promised them). Still, that doesn’t stop them from enjoying the adventures of Charlie Travers, Time Traveller, which they have described as Enid-Blyton-meets-Doctor-Who.

And I hope you’ll enjoy it too, even if you’re not aged between eight and twelve!

Operation Cézanne is the first in the series of Charlie Travers, Time Traveller books. The wonderful front cover was done by the talented Sybil Harris

You can find Charlie here:

Amazon UK

Bongo Publishing

and on all the other Amazon sites, of course.

You can read the blurb and the first chapter below.

Sometimes, twelve year-old Charlie Travers wishes he’d never been born a Time traveller. He never goes anywhere exciting, his mum makes him eat horrible food she brings back from the Middle Ages - and he’s still rubbish at history.

Then Charlie receives a mysterious plea for help from the past and when his parents take him back to Aix-en-Provence in 1902, he’s rather hoping he’ll find out who sent it. He has no idea he is about to embark on a breath-taking journey through Time, where kidnappers, dinosaurs and a stolen painting will be the least of his worries…

Charlie Travers, Time Traveller

Chapter One

Sometimes, Charlie Travers wished he’d never been born a Time traveller.

Having stomped as loudly as he could up the stairs, slammed his bedroom door and flung his schoolbag across the room, he now threw himself on to his bed.

“Aix-en-Provence,” he yelled at the closed door. “Boring, boring, boring. How come Ade gets to go to the Boer Wars and the French Revolution and I get to – to - to go to a stupid bath in Aix-en-Provence?”

Mrs Travers, who had been boiling something that smelt disgusting, was now coming up the stairs, humming to herself.

“Never mind, love,” she said as she walked into Charlie’s bedroom without knocking. “Have a nice bowl of frumenty, it’ll cheer you up.”

“It’ll make me throw up,” snapped Charlie. His mum was forever cooking stuff she’d discovered on a Time tour. In fact, she did most of her shopping in the Middle Ages because she said the food was better for him. Charlie couldn’t see how something that looked like sick and smelt like a cow pat could be good for him at all and he pushed the bowl away.

Mrs Travers sat on the bed next to Charlie and ruffled his hair with her free hand.

“Oops, sorry love,” she said, picking out the bits of soggy frumenty that had got stuck in his fringe.

Charlie scowled.

“Mum, can’t we go somewhere exciting for once? Like Egypt? Or China?”

Mrs Travers put the bowl of frumenty on the bedside table and rubbed her hands on her skirt.

“Well, love, you see your father’s got this nasty rash on his b…”

“Stop!” shouted Charlie, sticking his fingers in his ears. “Anyway, why do I have to come? You’ll only be gone for ten minutes.”

It is a common misconception that no time passes at all when you travel in time and that you always get back to the point you left. This simply isn’t true. And even less so where Chronic Tours was concerned, which was the Time travel agency used by Charlie’s family. You were lucky to get back to the same decade with them.

“Well, I know for a fact that that nice girl, Cynthia, is coming along,” said Mrs Travers as she stood up. “She’ll be company for you.”

That made things even worse. Cynthia was a stuck-up, bossy know-it-all and it was bad enough having to sit next to her in class never mind go on holiday with her.

Charlie knew it was no use arguing with his mum. He slumped back on to his pillow and muttered: “Old people with rheumatism and rashes. Fantastic. Can’t wait.”

Mrs Travers smiled. “Eat your frumenty before it gets cold, love.” She shut the door quietly behind her.

“Wish I had my own Time machine,” Charlie grumbled. Of course, that was practically impossible. Only multi-millionaires could afford their own Time machine and even then, the upkeep was beyond the means of most Time travellers. Charlie had tried to persuade his parents to consider a Time Share, where they would buy a machine with other families. But his dad said it was still too expensive and they’d only have the Time machine two weeks a year.

The problem was, his mum and dad never wanted to do anything exciting, ever. Even when they weren’t Time travelling, they didn’t do things other parents did. Ade’s mum and dad were Time travellers too but they took him hang gliding and canoeing and skiing in the holidays. Ade even went to summer camp every year with Chronic Tours but Charlie’s dad said Roman Britain was full of hooligans and he wouldn’t send his dog there. They didn’t have a dog but that wasn’t the point. The point was Charlie’s mum and dad treated Charlie like a baby and he was nearly twelve. He was fed up of it.

Charlie wished there were more Time travellers in Warpington. Well, more children anyway. There were plenty of oldies – he saw them regularly on Time tours. But the only children he knew were Ade and snotty Cynthia. If there were more, he’d never met them; then again, it’s not something you go around telling people. You’d get locked up if you did.

You had to be careful, especially in history lessons. All time travellers were good at history, obviously, but sometimes the history books got it wrong and if you started talking about stuff that wasn’t in the books, you could be in trouble. It happened to Ade, once. Ade wasn’t in Charlie’s class so Charlie hadn’t heard it first hand but it was all around the school at break-time. The conversation had gone something like this:

Mr Bradbury …and during the Battle of Hastings, King Harold was killed. How did he die? Ademola?

Ade: Um, he got his thumb caught in his hauberk and slid off his horse, sir.

Mr Bradbury: Don’t try to be funny with me, lad.

Ade (puzzled): I’m not sir. It’s true, I saw him…um…I mean…um

Mr Bradbury: Stay behind after class, Ademola. We’ll see who’s laughing then…

Ade had to write At the Battle of Hastings, King Harold was shot through the eye with an arrow five-hundred times and he was grounded for a week by his dad.

Charlie suddenly remembered he had some history homework to do for Monday.

“Might as well do it now,” he muttered, swinging his legs off the bed and grabbing his schoolbag. He had to write an essay on The English Civil War and as his parents refused to take him there, he’d have to look stuff up himself.

He was rummaging through a pile of books on the floor when something caught his eye. On one of his black trainers (that was on the floor too – he didn’t know where the other one was), a yellow patch was forming. It grew bigger and brighter until it resembled a post-it note and then – as Charlie had expected – letters began to form.

“Wow!” he said as he grabbed the note. “A Time slip!”

Charlie had never been sent a Time slip before. In fact, he’d only ever seen one once. It had materialised on the television screen one evening while his dad was watching the snooker. His dad was really annoyed because the Time slip appeared right in the middle and blocked his view of a particularly tricky combination-shot. It had been from Auntie Maureen. She was lost in a souk in Marrakech, in the fourteenth century and wanted to know if someone could please find her. Charlie’s dad had carried on watching the snooker but someone must have found her because she turned up the following Christmas with a box of Turkish Delight and a very deep suntan.

But this Time slip was for Charlie! He waited impatiently for the words to become clear then read them out loud:

“Aix-en-Provence, twelfth of June nineteen-oh-two. Help Perpetua fi…”

He waited for the end of the sentence but it didn’t come. What did ‘fi’ mean? Who was Perpetua? And how come the Time slip was dated the very year Charlie and his family would be travelling to?

Charlie grinned. He put the Time slip in his pocket and went downstairs, whistling.

For once, he was quite looking forward to going on holiday.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Travels with a donkey

I went for a lovely walk in the Vercors the other day, with a donkey called Marguerite. She was – naturally – a little stubborn at times, dipping her head without warning to chomp at the grass and refusing to budge, no matter how hard I tugged. But she was beautiful and sweet and I would love to renew the experience.

When I do, it will be to walk the GR70 in the Cévennes, otherwise known as the Stevenson trail. Robert Louis Stevenson set off in 1878 with the intention of having an adventure and writing a book about it in order to make the money he needed to be with the woman he loved. What a romantic soul…

He arrived in Le Monastier, a village about fifteen kilometres from Le-Puy-en-Velay and stocked up on food and equipment, much of which he would eventually have to throw away. He also had one of the first sleeping-bags made, which he designed himself. Then he bought a donkey, Modestine, for ‘sixty-five francs and a glass of brandy’. The villagers helped him to load her up (quite incompetently it would turn out) and he set off one bright October morning full of optimism.

However, Modestine soon put a stop to his good spirits. She walked so slowly that Stevenson found himself not so much walking as lingering on one leg, alternately. If he walked ahead or behind her, she would simply stop and start munching grass. Although he was loathe to ‘brutalise this innocent creature’, he managed to make her walk faster by hitting her with a cane. But this seemed to distress her (and him) so much, that he relented and resigned himself to shuffling for the rest of the hundred-and-twenty-mile journey.

Then he met a local peasant who, when he had stopped laughing, assured Stevenson that the donkey was just play-acting. He gave him a switch to use instead of a cane and told him to yell ‘Proot’ and he would have no more trouble. I do wonder if the peasant was pulling his leg as well – I mean, would shouting ‘fart’ at a donkey really help?

It didn’t. Modestine grew increasingly stubborn and no amount of prooting would budge her from her chosen path or pace. She led him round in circles and refused to go up hills until Stevenson was convinced she was ‘filled with the demon’. It wasn’t until another peasant offered Stevenson a goad – a long stick with a pin at the end – that the two began to make progress. Stevenson no longer had qualms about chastising the donkey, so exasperated had he become with her.

Stevenson finally arrived in Saint-Jean-du-Gard twelve days after setting out. He had always been regarded as an eccentric figure but this adventure had surely cemented his reputation. Nevertheless, he was one of the first to popularise hiking and camping as a recreational activity and over a hundred years later, people are still walking the Stevenson trail.

Stevenson was able to marry the woman he loved (phew!) and went on to write the classic novels that we all know so well.

And Modestine?

Well, he sold her, saddle and all, for thirty-five francs. ‘The pecuniary gain is not obvious,’ he said, ‘but I had bought freedom into the bargain.’

Well, at least I won’t have to buy my donkey…

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


My dad bought me my first computer. I remember the day well: my parents arrived from England (many years ago, in another life) and Dad announced that he’d got me a nice little typewriter for my birthday. It was a computer, of course, and since then – well, I wouldn’t know how to live without one…

In those days, there was no email or Google and I used it solely for writing excruciatingly bad short stories in lurid green Locoscript. I am so relieved my floppy disks are now obsolete ...

Dad loved his computer and when he died last year, Mum decided she might as well learn how to use the flippin’ thing and went on a course. Once she’d discovered how to switch it on, there was no stopping her. Her vocabulary’s a little shaky still – she ‘prints’ words in ‘Google’ and gets confused when everything goes ‘negative’ – but I do understand what she means (although I was a bit startled when she told me my sister had sent her coach tickets via ‘You Tube’).

And now, she’s my ‘friend’ on Facebook!

I immediately warned my children that they should think carefully about what they wrote on their Facebook page and that anything incriminating should be written in French rather than English. I’m a bit worried about some of their photos too – it’s all pouting, boobs and pierced tongues. Facebook can give you a nasty shock if you aren’t careful – and I should know as I’ve had a few myself.

Communication by email, text messages and telephone is quick and easy but don’t you hanker after a lovely, long handwritten letter sometimes? I can’t remember when I last wrote one, with pen and paper.

Before the advent of New Technology, people knew how to write a good letter. One of the earliest examples of correspondence in France is that exchanged between those tragic lovers, Héloïse and Abélard in the eleventh century. Peter Abélard was a French philosopher and was considered to be one of the greatest – and most controversial – thinkers of his time. He fell in love with his pupil, the beautiful Héloïse, who was the niece of Canon Fulbert. She got pregnant, they married in secret and…a very angry Uncle Fulbert had Abélard castrated. Héloïse ended her life as a reluctant nun while Abélard became a monk (well, he was going to have to live like one for the rest of his life so why not?). Héloïse wrote hundreds of passionate letters to her former lover who was rather less passionate in his replies. Here is an extract from one of her letters:

You know, beloved, as the whole world knows, how much I have lost in you, how at one wretched stroke of fortune that supreme act of flagrant treachery robbed me of my very self in robbing me of you; and how my sorrow for my loss is nothing compared with what I feel for the manner in which I lost you.

Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696) is probably the best-known letter-writer in French history. She was the widow of the marquis de Sévigné, who got himself shot in a duel. When her daughter left for Provence in 1671, she felt as if her 'heart and soul had been ripped out' and began to write her letters – at the rate of two or three a week – which were published posthumously by her descendents. There are over one thousand of them…here is an extract :

And what do you think I am doing, my poor dear? Loving you, thinking of you, giving way to emotion at every turn more than I would like, concerning myself with your affairs, worrying about what you think, feeling your sufferings and pains, wanting to suffer them for you if possible, removing anything unpleasant from your heart as I used to clear your room of any tiresome people I saw haunting it; in a word, my dear, understanding deeply what it means to love someone more than oneself.

Voltaire (1694-1798) was quite a letter-writer too. His famous Lettres Philosophiques are amusing and satirical essays about life in England (they would have made a great blog) but he also wrote more than twenty thousand private letters. Here are some lines from a love-letter he wrote from prison to Olympe Dunover:

I am a prisoner here in the name of the King; they can take my life, but not the love that I feel for you. Yes, my adorable mistress, to-night I shall see you, and if I had to put my head on the block to do it.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) wrote beautiful letters to his wife, Adèle. He certainly had a way with words…and with women, it seems. He had several mistresses and probably wrote similar letters to all of them. Here’s a letter he wrote to Adèle – let’s hope she was the sort of person who didn’t believe everything she read:

My dearest,

When two souls, which have sought each other for, however long in the throng, have finally found each other ...a union, fiery and pure as they themselves are... begins on earth and continues forever in heaven. This union is love, true love, ... a religion, which deifies the loved one, whose life comes from devotion and passion, and for which the greatest sacrifices are the sweetest delights.

This is the love which you inspire in me... Your soul is made to love with the purity and passion of angels; but perhaps it can only love another angel, in which case I must tremble with apprehension. Yours forever…

Finally, if you need a giggle, look up the coded letters of Alfred de Musset and George Sand. These letters are in fact fictitious and were written as a joke by somebody else. I haven’t included them because they’re a bit too rude (I’m getting prudish in my old age)…but they are rather clever.

Well, I’m off to check my email and perhaps I’ll send a text message to my daughter. You know the sort of thing: ur keys r here lol c u 2nite x

Well, it saves on stamps…

Monday, March 07, 2011

Spring Clean

I have a magnet on my fridge that says: My idea of housework is to sweep the room with a glance and another that quite rightly proclaims: Dull women have immaculate houses.

However, as my French Windows have been looking a tad grubby lately, I decided to do a bit of Spring Cleaning. Well, it is the school holidays so I can hardly use lack of time as an excuse.

Once I’d located the broom and the duster, I set to work. I unearthed a few surprises along the way: furry fruit, mummified pizza, unpaid bills, the phone, the cat…I also threw a lot of things in the bin. The experience was so traumatic, I started to have doubts about the benefits of this cleaning lark. Then I remembered the time I was rushed to hospital after I’d squirted concentrated bleach into my eye and how, more recently, I nearly broke my nose when I walked slap-bang into the French windows because they were so clean…and that settled it. Housework is far too dangerous for the likes of me.

So I turned my attention to DIY – which stands for Destroy It Yourself, as I’m sure you know. I’d been meaning to put up a shelf in the kitchen for over a year (I need more surfaces to pile stuff on) and this seemed like the ideal opportunity. I grabbed the drill...

Now, I’m a bit nervous of drills – I’m afraid they’ll somehow leap out of my hand and turn on me in a frenzied, unprovoked attack and someone will find me the next day lying perforated beneath the stepladder. So I was very, very careful.

I drilled the first hole. Almost immediately, a whistling, whooshing sound filled the kitchen (it wasn’t that loud, but it’s a small kitchen). What had I done? I put my ear to the wall: it sounded like I’d drilled into Hades. Would the wall fall down? Maybe the kitchen was going to explode. Maybe the whole block of flats would suddenly collapse!

Fortunately, the housing office is just around the corner, so I ran and told them what I’d done.

“You’ve drilled into the ventilation shaft,” they said with a chuckle. “Not to worry.”

Still, it put me off drilling any more holes. I resorted to my old favourites of glue and double-sided carpet tape for the rest of the DIY jobs and it all looks perfectly fine.

The next thing I need to do, of course, is Spring Clean my mind. There’s an awful lot of clutter up there and one or two things I really ought to get rid of…but perhaps it can wait. I mean, it’s not even spring yet, is it?

Sunday, February 13, 2011


To be perfectly honest, I’m not really in the mood for writing about love as I’m no longer sure I know what it means. And anyway, I’ve already written about it here

So I’ve turned my thoughts to poetry. After all, most poets have written about love so it’s a fitting subject for le Saint Valentin. The problem is, it’s also a vast subject, so I’ve had to limit myself to a handful of famous French poets, most of whom were tortured, angst-ridden, debauched souls with a penchant for drugs, alcohol and infidelity. So they obviously knew what they were talking about…

I wanted to begin with a brief description of poetic form. However, after several hours reading articles about it in books and on the Internet, I am thoroughly confused. I understand that most French poetry is syllabic and I know what an Alexandrine is (a twelve-syllable line probably named after the twelfth century Alexandrine romances in which Alexander the Great was the hero). But my eyes begin to glaze over when I read of mute ‘e’s being elided and hypermetrical when followed by vowels, and the significance of caesura, hiatus and hémistiches…

So let’s stick to the poets. And I apologize in advance that half of my post seems to be an html link. I have no idea why but I am not going to stay up all night trying to put it right. Just don't click - it will get you nowhere...