Monday, December 17, 2012

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star

Here at the top of the house, thoughts are turning towards Christmas.   

Mostly they are thoughts such as, what on earth are we going to eat? (No idea). And will the sitting room floor be done in time to put up the tree? (Yes. So I’m told.) 

Every commune worth its salt forks out for a few Christmas decorations to light up the streets;  and it’s a tradition to take the children for an evening drive to see them all. Here in our tiny village, which has a mainish road as the high street, there are star-bursts attached to four lampposts; and there are coloured lights round the church door and windows. The star-bursts are new this year, and when first hung, only worked alternately. Now, after the electricity people have had the cherry picker out again, they all shine in the darkness. 

One overhangs the carriageway a little too much, right on a bend, so there’s a bollard to force the taller traffic away from the building and into the middle of the road. So far it has only been a cause for oohing and aahing, not aargh-ing. 

I can see this one from my house. In fact I have discovered that my bathroom blind which I have been assured is opaque, isn’t.  This gives me pause to wonder to what can be seen from outside on a dark morning when the light is on, but it’s a bit late in the day to be modest after two years. 

However, all this lighting requires wiring; and wiring is expensive. So expensive is it that every week there is a story in the newspaper about the theft of reels of the stuff from telephone companies and railway yards. Copper is the new gold. 

There has always been a worry that, when the petrochemicals run out, so will the plastics, and with them everything we use to communicate. Well, long before that happens, there will be a world shortage of copper. It’s in high demand here, there and everywhere. 

So highly prized is it, that in many countries mines which were long considered uneconomical to run are being re-considered.  All of a sudden, people are beginning to think that their lovely local area could once again be laid waste by mineral extraction, and they really don’t like it. 

It would be like telling Cornwall that the tin mines will all be re-roofed and the wheels at Wheal Jane will turn again. TheTamar valley would have arsenic production killing the landscape, as it did 150 years ago. 

Now, France needs income. There isn’t enough employment from relying on the tourist industry or farming. Chicken production is down, pigs are being sold off so cheaply that farmers will go under without state aid. You can import food from everywhere in the world, so why pay to produce it at home? But you can’t go on importing metals, when there’s a world shortage. We need/demand/want more and more technology, and that means, for the foreseeable future, wire. 

If you want Christmas to be bright and shiny for your children, maybe there’s a sacrifice to be made: there’s gold in them there hills, and copper too, and someone, sometime soon, is going to want to get at it. 

Now, where did I put those candles?

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Unkindest Cut

There is a town which used to be known for the making of a particular kind of knife. It had a high quality steel blade which folded neatly into the bone handle. It bore the name of the town where it originated. 

Recently I read that the name of the knife, which is also that of the town, was bought by a businessman, and was now applied to an entirely different product range made in the Far East and imported. The locals are up in arms: if someone owns the name of their town, then where do they live? They can’t (or don’t want to) put it on their addresses, as it’s a trade name. They’d be advertising. They can’t make their own knives under their own traditional marque, because they don’t own it anymore, so their name is now associated with what they consider an inferior product. 

Niort in the Deux Sèvres was famous for the production of slippers. Now, you can’t possibly understand the relationship a French person has with their slippers. These aren’t just things you slip on inside the house to ease or warm your feet at the end of the long working day in clogs or wellies, or to preserve the parquet from your stilettos. A good pair of slippers is to be cherished, lived in, worn in public. One elderly chap drove one of the original silver 2CV vans to the supermarket at Vouillé every week, dressed in his best corduroys (even in summer) and his navy jumper and his beret, and on his feet would be his traditional slippers. He was a happy man from the ground up. Well, you know yourself: unhappy feet can really spoil your day. 

But times change. Even the most traditional item can be made cheaper elsewhere, so a couple of years ago the last slipper-maker in the Deux Sèvres closed down. People check out the ones on the market stalls, and tut over them, and complain about the materials and how they only last five minutes, whereas their old pair did faithful service for ten years and more. 

Back then, people didn’t earn much. They knew the value of what they bought, and expected things to outlive them (which is a mean feat in France, as I’ve mentioned before). A man bought a knife, and could hand it on to his son: the maker might never sell another to that particular family. A chap could go to his grave in his slippers, stepping comfortably shod into the hereafter. 

Now people earn more money than their parents ever dreamed of (well, I don’t: I’m a writer. I didn’t think up the story of a Boy Wizard in time, and am therefore broke); but as the man from the former knife-making town said, young people say they haven’t the money to plant a few leeks in the garden, whilst texting on their mobile phones and cranking up the volume on their mini-music devices. 

There’s no point in making things that last. Why go to the bother of having your old knife sharpened, and its spring replaced, when you can buy a new one for half the cost? Why keep your slippers in pristine condition when you can just chuck them in the bin when they look a bit grubby and pop back to get another pair? 

So the traditional industries close down, and people haven’t got any money, and they have to buy the cheap imports because they can’t afford anything else.  Someone’s been asset-stripping, and thrown out the bit of the product they don’t need – the people behind the name. We can have anything we want, dirt cheap: but at what cost? Ask a Frenchman with a blunt knife and sore feet. 

©lms 2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

Still wearing my other hat

And it's live and lovely!

The One Word Challenge Anthology by Talkback Writers is now available (e-format only) from:

There - no excuses! Get it on your Kindle, download a pdf, but please buy it!

It is an amazing feeling, you know, to have your words not only published but out there in the real world for sale. There are previously published and hitherto unpublished writers in this anthology, but you won't see the join.

I'd never written Flash Fiction until I started the One Word Challenge each month, and it's quite astonishing how much you can fit into so few words. Rather like Hemingway and his 'iceberg' style of writing, it's what lies underneath, implied, shadowed, known but hidden, that fills out the story. It's a snapshot of a moment in time, but a moment that the character has come to from somewhere, en route to somewhere else.

I'm not poet, but I'd love to try, seeing what can be said by these talented writers in only 40 lines.

One word, but the possibilites are endless.

With many thanks to all involved with the publication - you may now relax!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Wearing my other hat

I'm taking a step sideways today to blog about something not to do with France.  

In my other life I’m a writer (what do you mean, you couldn’t tell?) and something exciting is happening there. 

On November 12th, an e-book is being published: One Word Challenge, by Talkback Writers. This is an anthology of poetry and flash fiction written by the members of the Talkback forum of Writing Magazine (UK). The pieces are all written in response to a monthly challenge: a word is chosen, and we have to write about that word in any way we like, within strict limits - 40 lines of poetry, or 200 words for fiction. The winners of each month’s competition choose the next word, and judge the entries. 

We have decided to bring out a collection of some of the entries, with the intention of raising funds for a charity, inspired by a very special little dog. This is Medical Detection Dogs. 

The charity trains dogs – not any particular breed, but chosen for their intelligence and their ability to learn – to accompany people with certain medical problems. Our little friend, Lola, lives with poet Liz, who suffers from diabetes. Her blood sugar can drop without warning, even with all the modern aids available. Lola, with her heightened senses, can tell when it is about to happen and will warn Liz, so that she can take glucose and stop herself from falling unconscious. You can read more about Lola (and Liz) here. 

This is vital work, and could help a lot of people with Liz’s condition. The dogs can also be trained to help with other illnesses, and possibly even to sniff out cancers. We’d very much like to help them, and so 10% of all proceeds will go to supporting them in their work. 

I hope some of you will think of buying the ebook ; it will be for sale through Amazon and Smashwords, but also direct from the publisher at where it will be 99p. I am proud to say that I have four stories in there, which I hope you’ll enjoy. 

If you’d like to read more, there will be an article in January’s Writing Magazine, in the shops on December 6th.

Go on – that’s a good read for under a pound; and it could help a lot more people to live normal lives.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


It’s that time of year again: the weekly publicité tells us that every supermarket and garden centre everywhere is stocked to the roof with chrysanthemums. Empty shops will open just to sell them by the pot. Markets will have stalls dedicated to them. It’s nearly All Saints, and on that day, November 1st – a national holiday – people everywhere will be placing these flowers on the graves of their lost ones.

Hallowe’en has become a new and not totally trusted event: it’s for the young. It's lost its original significance. All Saints is for the older generations. It used to be celebrated in England, in a sombre fashion, as an exclusively religious day. Here in France it belongs to everyone who has someone to remember; and failing that, it's a day off work.

One of the many things that perplexed us since coming to France is the lack of old graves, and indeed graveyards. Where are they all? In England, burials traditionally took place within the churchyard; historically, disposing of the bodies and souls of the dearly departed was the purlieu of the Church. You can walk amongst these tombs, in various stages of upkeep, in just about any village and town.
In the Poitou, this is rare. The cemeteries are detached, often on the edge of the village, with no religions building in sight, and on inspection, you will find nobody commemorated from before the late 1800s. 

South of Poitiers there is a Protestant burial ground in a forest, dating from the 17th century. It had to be hidden away because the believers couldn’t, wouldn’t, be buried according to Catholic rites. They were outcasts in life and death by virtue of their religion. But that is one of the oldest sites of common people’s graves still in existence. There will always be the grand tombs in Cathedrals and city churches, but where were the ordinary people laid to rest? Where is the old hallowed ground? 

What’s missing is the sense of time, of continuation. Earlier generations couldn’t afford engraved stones to mark their passage through history, as was the case in England too; but there aren’t any monuments to local lordlings or constables, either.

In Brittany there are churches with attached burial grounds, still in use. One of these, at a tiny village near here, has an ossuary. This is a small stone building with open sides, like a miniature market hall; and inside are jumbles of old bones. 

The graves are occupied as long as there are people to pay for their upkeep. Once this lapses, a notice will be attached to the headstone, warning that if there is no contact from the relatives of the deceased within a certain time, the plot will be cleared and made available to someone else. It’s a pragmatic approach.   

With the publicité for shellfish, and wine events, and chrysanthemums, that comes to the mailbox every week courtesy of La Poste, there will often be a leaflet advertising funerary monuments. Look at our range of stone! Look at our carving! Want your loved one’s name in Gothic script, picked out in gold? Easy terms available! 

You can have your place in history for as long as there’s someone to remember and to care: which, when you think about it, is the simple truth. 

Perhaps fame should be measured in chrysanthemums. 

©lms 2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

If Music Be the Food of Love

What did history sound like? 

I can hear something working on a farm somewhere; I can hear a motorbike, the occasional jet, passing tractors and grain lorries. It’s tempting to think that history was quiet in comparison.
It wasn’t.  

Every year in Quintin there is a celebration of the linen industry that made this part of Brittany important. During the fête, it’s possible to wander lanes that are usually hidden behind closed doors. These were the poor, dark houses where women twisted the threads into a yarn on a hand-held spindle. They would sit outside as often as possible, in heat and cold, just for the light. There would have been several women, with their children around them, chatting, singing, working their fingers for hour upon hour.

We went for a walk (and lunch, naturally) yesterday at Ile Grande, on the Côte de Granit Rose. It’s a peaceful place. The tide was out, the seabirds wheeled, and the masts of beached boats chinked in the easterly breeze. It’s so easy to think that it was always like this, but it wasn’t. This little island was riddled with stone quarries. In the 14th century, stone from here built Tréguier Cathedral. Right up until the 19th century stone was taken out on barges, loaded at low tide and floated out when it was deep enough to do so. Men worked with hammers and chisels at the rock in all weathers, and the island would have resounded with their rhythmic tapping.

Animals lived close to the farms – inside the longhouses, in the winter months. There would have been axes chopping trees and wood, the slow turning of soil. This would have been no silent countryside, but a place of agricultural industry day in, day out. 

Times may have changed, but the past can be heard, all over Brittany – in the music. 

Breton music echoes the rhythms of the workers who sang the simple songs as they spun their thread, or as they sat at the end of the day with the endless tapping of metal on stone still inside their heads. It’s often a sort of question and answer form – a theme played on one instrument, repeated on another. In the same way, a woman might sing a few lines, and her neighbour copy her, along the hidden lanes and back again. 

There are bagpipes here, but they are nothing like the Scottish ones: even though they were really only introduced in the early 19th century, they have come to sound like Brittany, and at any fête you can almost guarantee a bagadou – a band of pipers and drummers walking through the streets. The cornemuse as depicted in medieval church grotesque sculpture is an early form, and far closer in sound to the Breton version than to Scottish pipes. 

The main instrument, though, is the bombarde – the thing that looks like a clarinet, and sounds medieval. When you hear Breton music played by a small band of men and women, with a drum, a violin, and a bombarde, you hear it in your feet. You want to dance. You know the tune after a couple of verses, and you hum along. 

There are so many fêtes in Brittany, all through the year, all with their own history to honour – linen weavers, onion growers, horse traders, fishermen. At every one of them, you will have the old music and the dancing of people in costume; black based, heavily embroidered jackets (and it was often the men who did the embroidery), lace head-dresses. There are clubs where you can learn the steps, in many towns and villages. 

I don’t know what it is: the Celt ancestry? The working day, the need to get through by any means possible, whilst counting the hours in verses? The hills, where you can’t see the next clustered farm, and each one was a little hamlet all to itself? 

Whatever it is, it’s still there, and it still calls. 

History sounds like toes tapping, hands clapping, and a bombarde, piercing, slightly raucous, and heart-stirring, as a band passes through a stone-built street. It’s the sound of the people who worked with their hands and their backs, and who still had a need and the time for music. 

It’s a question and an answer in the same song: yesterday and today. It’s Brittany.

©lms 2012

Saturday, September 1, 2012

La Rentrée

It’s September 1st, and someone has turned the sun off. 

The schools go back on Tuesday; the shops are full of mothers trying to decide which really is the best calculator, and not the one Child wants because Best Friend has the same model. The mannequins in the clothes stores are wearing wool and raincoats and boots. The colours have turned dark. 

July was wet and ruined the tourist trade’s balance sheets. Now, you have to wonder at people not coming to Brittany because it was raining. If you are going to choose the far north-west of France, the bit that sticks out into the Atlantic, for your main holiday of the year, you know to bring your umbrella. Apparently the financial squeeze made people demand more for their money: sunshine, or the deal’s off. It rained; they stayed at home and sulked. 

I never really got the French grandes vacances until this year. Down south, where half the time we huddled behind closed shutters, fanning ourselves and mopping our brows with wet flannels, we didn’t really see any tourists. They were either at the beach, near La Rochelle, or in private villas with pools. The roads remained quiet. 

Here there are beaches a-plenty, and events organised for every day of the week. There are music festivals – Les Grandes Charrues, which draws people like Bob Dylan, and 180,000 spectators, and Le Petit Village, a couple of kilometres from here, where they have all manner of French artists. 8000 people turned up, and we never heard a thing. Sea-shanty festivals at the coast, rock, pop, punk, folk, jazz , classical – it’s all here. 

There are the son et lumières at ruined abbeys like Bon Repos, and night-time hikes. There’s walking chest-high through the water across the Bay of St Brieuc. There are cycle races, and old car races. Our next village had a speed trial and hill climb round the fields of maize and up the roads and through the farms. (We didn’t hear that either.)This weekend there is a vintage car race round St Brieuc itself – Model T Fords and Porsches and anything in between. 

It’s been an amazing summer. It’s been so hot that I couldn’t sit up here under the roof to work.  We’ve lived in shorts and tee shirts, which we never did down south, where covering up was the name of the game. I even dug out my swimsuit. (Rather like having a wasp in the room, I like to know where it is. I may not do anything about it, but I feel one should keep one’s enemy in the sights.) 

Today, I am back in cardigan, long trousers, and a scarf to keep my neck warm. It’s as though the weather’s giving a nudge to the rentrée, a little kindness to say that it’s time to stop playing now, and get back to work and school. Our Parisian neighbours had a wonderful month, with lots of visitors staying, getting fit and tanned and happy. They went back last weekend, in the rain. 

So now Brittany is ours again. There are still foreign cars around – English, German, Belgian, and some from other départements, but in the next few weeks, they will wander off home, too. The beaches will be empty though the sea will be warm; no-one will be there to see me in my swimsuit, should I be so brave as to put it on. 

There will still be music: this is Brittany , and music is what we do. There will be more festivals all through the year, whatever the weather, because there always have been. 

It feels like the end of something. It feels like the start of Autumn. Now it’s time for the ones who are left behind, when the tourists fade away, to make the most of what we’ve got, just for ourselves.
The bright, noisy, excited visitors have left us, and we will sit back and enjoy the quiet once more.

Maybe I’ll just tuck the swimsuit back into its drawer. It wouldn’t be fair to disturb the peace. 

And I wouldn’t want to make it rain.

©lms 2012