Posts Tagged ‘France’

Very early one morning in the late 1880s two young men were trying, with a little difficulty, to make their home. They found themselves walking along the misty banks of the Seine. They were carrying on an animated but rather fractured conversation that had started up earlier that evening. In the distance they saw another man making as to circuitously pass them by.
This was difficult, due the staggering motion of their own walk.

The younger of the two hailed the man, Monsieur! Monsieur! The man looked over, a little reluctantly, Yes? He replied, What is it?

But what on earth can bring a honourable man like yourself out into the early morning, like this?

As you see from my uniform, monsieur, I work for Customs and Excise. It is my job to be out this early.

No, no, sir, what I see when I look at you, sir, is an artist, an artist I say!

You mistake me, sir; I know nothing of painting.

No, unmistakably an artist, sir. I see it in you.

I have never painted in my life.

It is written all over you, sir. Believe me, I know of these things. You, sir, are unmistakably, and without doubt an artist. And I would wager, a very fine one too!

The man hesitated, a look of confusion passing over his face. Then out of it, as a sun rising through the mists on the Seine, he smiled, amazed: Do you know, sir, I do think you are right! Indeed I do think you may be so! Your name, sir?

Jarry. Alfred Jarry, the younger man replied. And you, my dear man?

Rousseau, sir. Henri Rousseau.

Well, la douanieur, I expect to see your name everywhere from this day forth. Au revoir!

Ah, the legends of old Paris!

Here’s another Jarry one.

Here he resolved not to buck the system, that would be counter-productive, but to adhere to the rules as closely as humanly possible. He still ended up on report constantly.

One time when instructed to sweep the barracks square as a consequence of some misdemeanor, he was found still standing to attention, broom over shoulder, some time later. When asked to account for himself and his dereliction of duty, his reply was, I was ordered to sweep the square, sir. I was not told in which direction.

Laval barracks.
Jarry had spent some years of his childhood in Laval. And oddly enough Henri Rousseau was born there also. Is it possible Jarry recognised the accent? Is that part of the back-story?

For a period of time I was caught up in Elizabeth Kostava’s big-selling novel, The Historian.

Ok, I am well aware of its failings, that denouement in the crypt for one – I could not believe how perfunctory it was. And I hated that creaky, clumsy Darling Daughter postcard episode.

What kept me reading (twice!) were the descriptions of the east European villages, towns, cities.
The opening up of eastern Europe.
And there was the eastern European angle on the Dracula story. Got me scurrying through maps of Lake Snagov in Romania; to Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains, and following the route of the monks with their ‘cargo’.
One aspect of the story sees Vlad Tepes learning of the way of vampirism from a book. The book came from what was to prove Dracula’s/Tepes’ one weak spot, a monastery in the Pyrenees.
Now where could that be? If it really existed, and was not a mash-up of many.

The monastery in the book is Saint-Matthieu-des-Pyrénées-Orientales:


Then I came across this one. The Basilique St-Just de Valcabrere, in the Haute Garonne.

What is important about this place is it has a legend. The legend suggests this it was to this town that Herod Antipas, King Herod’s son, was exiled and died. Exiled due to his ‘association with the executions of John the Baptist and Jesus.’
It is not, of course, historically accurate by any means.
But what a hook!

On the other hand Pontius Pilate himself was said to have died in Vienne, Isere department of the Massif Central.
His body would not rest, and is said to have been relocated several times. The last to the tiny Oberlap lake on Mount Pilatus, Switzerland.

Take your pick.
Admit it, France and environs are rich in legends and inspiring sites.

La Source de la Seine

Posted: February 18, 2017 in Chat
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Many years ago I took a little time out. I only had little money so the options offered me were Turin, in Italy, or Dijon in France. I knew no Italian, but had a little school French. Not only that but the predominantly urban Turin, and the longer journey I found off-putting. I had also come across an article on the wooden statues found at La source de la Seine. So that was decided.

The day I went out to visit the sanctuary of La Source  was warm, wonderful, with occasional cooling showers of rain. I t00k l’autobus from Dijon, to Ste Seine l’Abbeye, and then walked from there. It was a mostly long straight Langres road.

As I neared the site I noticed the long lines of roadside trees seemed full of dark growth. Intrigued, I looked further: their crowns were thick with mistletoe. This occurred to me to be highly significant: I was approaching a sacred grove.

And then La Source de la Seine:



Whimsical, and 19th Century.


La Source consisted of a narrow cleft between lush and leafy tree slopes; the sun streamed in and was caught there. As the afternoon declined the air took more of the green colour from the trees, and the many-coloured pastel-shade pebbles in the bed of the water became more noticable.

Just how orchestrated was all this? Were the pebbles natural to the site, or chosen and laid? Was the mistletoe still the same growth from long centuries ago, or especially nurtured recently?
In a way the questions are superfluous: the early priests did no less when building up and commemorating this shrine to Sequana.

What if I had chosen Turin? The wonder of the Turin Shroud awaited me. Is it any less a mystery, not being what we thought it was?
Even the present whimsical Sequana caters to a need. It may not be a particularly elevated need. But then, we have to ask if ‘elevation’ is what it is all about. Is spiritual elevation a specifically Christian concept? Is it a generally monotheistic concept?
Is it a response to a Sky God, a reaching up out of ourselves, to something greater which we conceive of as therefore higher dimensionally, as well as ethically and spiritually?
Is this experience of elevation, or need for elevation, a genuine response of reverence?
Is ‘elevation’ an offering up of oneself?

The wooden offerings date from the Iron Age, and show a variety of physical ailments. We can surmise they were given as votive offerings, as the people appealed for help in some way with physical infirmities. We can also surmise that this was not the earlier reason for the specialness of the site.

I learned many things from my brief time there. One being to keep a tighter hold of one’s money. The other things, I am still discovering.

We go, travel, looking for the authentic experience. It may be that we confuse that authentic with the genuine, even the gratifying. These are mis-identifiers for the experience that is deeply moving, dare we say, elevating – that changes us?


First thing the change in air, the quality of light
on red, gold roofs above Dijon streets.
Then the aggression to my poor school French:
I was young still, ‘Youth is stateless, language
as eloquent as need!’ From l’eglise
de sainte Benigne to the marketplace, a circling;
Algerians spread floor cloths for tooled leather,
haggling I became their foreigner, fair game.

To flounder in language; to return to the hostel, perplexed.
A French-Canadian said, ‘Talk English, huh?’
That night with German students, language
on tongue-kisses, shared strangeness – that night
white walls of apartment blocks opposite
took on a rose-tinge, windows yellowing.
How our differences lit up in us, united us.

Was a time I lived for a period in Bolton, a Lancashire ex-textile town. In my time  there it was making the most of its ex-ness by becoming a hub of academia.

One consequence of this was its outstanding public library. Nor were Bolton’s credentials solely based on this remaking of itself: the library archives housed an extensive collection of letters from a Bolton literary society (before such corresponding societies were disbanded by Government order for suspected fostering of sedition in the long aftermath of the French Revolution). The recipient, and correspondent? Walt Whitman.  The collection of letters and photographs is housed under the heading of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship, as they styled themselves.

That public library had more wonders in store, or should I say ‘stock’: some I bought up as I left the area, and the library, like most, sold off stock to make way for new.

And for the overall depletion of library services; to turn into what we have now – a rather sorry service. Anything of note now has to be requested from the central lending library, for a fee.

You have to know what you’re looking for, and how to look for it. All those fortuitous finds of books, materials, you had no idea existed…all that surprise and wonder, has gone.

One of those ‘treasures’ was a book, “Notes from an Odd Country’, by Geoffrey Grigson (Macmillan, 1970).

Grigson was… an awkward bugger; but by design, I think. I could tell you things, but… another time maybe.

He started off well: in the 1930s starting with his wife the most important poetry magazine of the decade, New Verse. The library archives also had originals of this magazine too.

New Verse was the main podium for the most energetic and lively writing of the period, W H Auden, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender. Wyndham Lewis, pre-Blast, was a close friend. Anyone who was anyone…..

The story behind ‘Notes…’. was that circa 1968 Grison was driving through France to meet his family in Venice… No, re-wind, that was Seamus Heaney, same time or near enough, similar route too:

The smells of ordinariness

Were new on the night drive through France:

Rain and hay and woods on the air

Made warm draughts in the open car.


A combine groaning its way late

Bled seeds across its work-light.

A forest fire smouldered out.

One by one small cafes shut


(‘Night Drive’, Door into the Dark, 1969).

And most of those small cafes have gone now, sold up about ten or more years ago.

No, the Grigson family were driving across France (enroute to Italy?). What they found was a small side river off the mighty Loire; this was the Loir (no e), and the small village of Troo. Cliffside dwellings in Troo  appeared to be … cave houses? On closer inspection they were old and abandoned wine stores, carved out of the rock, and with new brick frontages: door, windows; the chimney was in the cliff top above.

G G was enchanted; they hired out every summer for years. The children attended the local school.

– It was here that Pierre de Ronsard took his daily walks;

– in this area that Rabelais first tasted delightful fruity Chinon wine (I’ve tried it, and it is!), and started out on the reckless career of Gargantua.

– around here that, newly released from long English arrest, that Charles d’Orleans had his chateau, his literary clique, and, it was rumoured,  that Francois Villon got to know the dungeons, following his banishment from Paris.

– It was also near here that Zola based and wrote ‘La Terre’.

– Claudel lived and wrote nearby.  “What do you think of Claudel in England?’ the woman asked Grigson, ‘ and without waiting for a reply she goes on and assures me that he is no less great than Shakespeare.’  Anyone who knows Claudel will know he was a Right wing bigot of a high order.

The book is illustrated with pencil drawings by Grigson.

So what is the book… about?

It consists of notes, expanded into meditations, observations, critiques. It is arranged into three sections: Spring, High Summer, The Fall. This is a device that helps record the locale of Tours, La Mans, Blois, Vendomes, the Beauce , the Loire and Loir, in all their variety and variousness.

It allows him to include his own translations of Ronsards’ poetry and memoirs of the region; of commentators on Ronsard and region etc.

Grigson records a visit and brief holiday by artist Ben Nicholson as he made his way to the opening of an exhibition of his work in Venice.

“The  convention of the rectangular canvas, which is the formalisation of the visioned space around one’s two eyes, upsets Ben, as a limitation. This… is one reason why he has admired Sunday painters… who combine their marks on a piece of cardboard, a torn box lid,……… There is a very real point here which reconciles me, almost…’

Always that ‘almost’, the last word.

Grigson glories in the balmy climate, the profusion of natural colour, flora and fauna – he was an ardent botanist, ornithologist… he was one of those who needed to know all about everything he encountered.

This being the time the Paris Riots of 1968 echo and resonate in the background. Occasionally they intrude; Grigson was enough of an old armchair socialist to be open to what was going on around him: the injustices as well the pleasures.

He was also enough of an old journalist to know to record all responses, both  Right (as he called them Gaullist) as well as Left, and middle, and the often frequent muddying of the two.

We read about the local character Maurice, wine growing: white wine (“few have the nerve for it now’ because it means leaving the grapes on the vine right until the last minute, just before the frosts hit.), and free thinker. Grigson uses him as a sounding board for many of his own explorations of the meaning of place. He records his responses even when he is distracted off-topic by something trivial. Tiredness, maybe. This brings out the multi-facettedness of the book, its glorying in variety.

“Swift: ‘I never saw, heard, nor read, that the clergy were beloved in any nation where Christianity was the religion of the country. Nothing can render them popular but some form of persecution.’

The resonance to Grigson of this passage must come from him being a clergyman’s son: Grigson senior was a wealthy Cornish (ex-Norfolk ) Anglican priest.


‘A pleasant noise in this old-fashioned and I think I must say still backward France: the clip-clop of hooves drawing a trap, which comes up at this moment from the other side of the river. I prefer horse-droppings on the road to smears of oil on parking places; a preference – they look nicer – not a sentiment.’

Other local sounds:

‘…I recall walking home and hearing with extra pleasure one of the special noises of Troo.

…this noise could be described as the slow hitting of a soft anvil.


A clear night, with three-quarters  of a moon, early summer, and here is this soft anvilling again – which is, in fact, the  noise of natterjack toads in unhurried conversation about their annually required sex.’

An incident with poet Roy Campbell circa 1944:

‘He fell out with me on account of something I had written about the poems of his friend Edith Sitwell…On the way from Broadcasting House to have a coffee, I encountered Roy in a ten-gallon hat stalking up the pavement. He raised a knocbkerry’ (walking stick) ‘, and threatened to crack it down on me… I dissuaded him, and he stalked on….’

The story went round and round. You know those office stories!

It was here that Jane Grigson first discovered the rich variety of local cuisines, and her second? career (gallery curator, wife, mother etc etc)  as cookery writer began.  In this connection:

“Last indulgence. We resolved to eat lark – petit des alouettes……… So how do they taste?…………extremely good, like roast pheasant in minature, plump ‘ (they are netted whilst fattening up for Winter in the wheat fields), ‘not at all like sparrows……..’