Tuesday, 23 February 2021

I'm reviewing Quiet Corners of Paris...

 ...by Jean-Christophe Napias with photographs by Christophe Lefébure...

I happened upon this little gem by accident.  I was searching for a completely different title and, because I'm such a terrible typist, the computer came up with the next best thing.  Once it was on screen, I just could not help but look at the blurb and within a couple of minutes it had been bought.  I did then go on to undertake the search I had really meant to make.
About a week later the package containing this book arrived and I was even more enthralled with it in real life than I had been when I saw it on screen.  The photograph on the cover was much more attention grabbing than it had been on screen - Amazon take note, your listing for this book needs a better copy of the cover, the washed-out version on your page does not do the book justice!
Paris is a city that I love to visit, and I haven't had the chance recently.  So, to fully enjoy this experience I ensconced myself on the settee with a coffee and my detailed street map and started to read.
The book is organised by arrondissement beginning with the 1st - Louvre.  Not every arrondissement is included; presumably because they don't all have these special little places of calm and quietude.  The author provides detailed information about the location - how to access each park, square, cloister or whatever - along with information about the nearest metro stop and the hours of opening where appropriate.  In that respect, this book is the travellers' perfect guide.
Along with the practical detail are interesting little facts about each location - sometimes the history, when the place was created, often, where it is a building, who of note is associated with that location.
In each instance there is a photograph.  Even if you can't be bothered the read the text, you can spend a happy hour just gazing at the stunning pictures imagining yourself strolling through a park, along a quiet street or through the cloisters of a museum or hospital.
As I worked my way through the book I quickly realised that my street map wasn't enough.  I moved to the desktop in my office and loaded up Google earth.  As I continued to read I visited as many of the locations as I could, using street view when it was available.
This little book is a keeper and it already has a space on my shelves with all my other books about France.  One other little practicality is that it's not an especially large book, which makes it an ideal travelling companion and it will easily fit in my little backpack.
The book is informative, well written and beautifully illustrated.  As an antidote to lockdown I can thoroughly recommend it.  I can also say that it will be coming with me on my next visit to Paris.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

The power of imagination...

… is vast and, in many respects, incomprehensible to a non-scientist such as me.  It is also the principal tool of my trade…

Portrait of Ellen Terry by G. F. Watts NPG
I believe it was the Shakespearian actress Ellen Terry (1847-1928) who said that 'Imagination, industry (hard work), and intelligence - the three I's - are all indispensable to the actor, but of these three the greatest is, without any doubt, imagination.'
As an actor myself I whole-heartedly agree with her.  However, I would go one step further and say that a writer has an equally pressing need for not only imagination but intelligence and industry too.  Just to muddy the water further, there have been numerous debates about how Ms Terry's pronouncement may be applied to other creatives within theatre, film and TV. I'm definitely on the side of those who say 'it's not just actors'.
I have always believed that imagination is an incredibly powerful tool.  As such, it needs to be used wisely and applied with appropriately differing degrees.  Just as I would never put a whole tub of butter on a single slice of toast, I don't always let it be known where my mind is going when a friend says something that sets my imagination soaring into the wild unknown. To do otherwise could mean certain death to the friendship!
Similarly, as a writer and a life-long lover of stories, I constantly employ my imagination.  When I'm writing my central character, Jacques Forêt, I think in his voice and with his fabulously gentle accent.  At any moment in the manuscript, I know how he behaves, how he's dressed and I can see and hear him in my mind.  Of course, not all of that minutiae needs to be added to the text.  Does any reader really want to know that Jacques wears Pierre Cardin underpants?  No, I don't think they do.  But I know and that level of detail helps with the portrayal of the character.  As the stories progress I actually feel his pain, his frustration with his colleagues or his suspects and his restrained joy when he finally concludes his case.  Similarly, I understand his phobias – not because I have the same ones myself, but because we all have our own quirks and I know how mine affect me.  It’s not that difficult to work out how Jacques’ phobias affect him.
My secondary characters are with me just as vividly as Jacques when I’m writing their scenes. And some of the best scenes to write are where I have a number of characters all contributing to a conversation at once.  The mental agility required for that can be draining sometimes. Mentally hopping between one character and another as I draft does slow me down a little, but it is always satisfying to get to the end of a complex scene of that nature – even if the words are not necessarily all in the right order!
Reviewing and revising a draft is part of editing which in turn is integral to the writing process as a whole.  That’s the industry that Ellen Terry mentions.   I know she was talking about learning lines, remembering positioning on stage and attending rehearsals and character research.  But the writer does those things too.  The first draft is the rehearsal for the second and so on.  The edits are the equivalent of the director’s improvements until the draft is good enough to submit.  The final draft is the dress rehearsal and the launch of the published story is the first night.
Ellen Terry was right in her contention that imagination is the greatest of all three traits.  Once the book is done, the imagination is there working on the next.  Once the plod of going through the manuscript is complete the imagination is still available at all times for any task we choose to give it to do.  Once we stop writing altogether, for whatever reason, the imagination will still be there to take us anywhere we choose.  And when we choose not to travel in our heads of our own free will, there will always be books to prompt our ageing imaginations back into life for an hour or two if we want.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Ever wondered about Valentine's Day…

 …well, it's origins may not be quite what you think.  Read on…

Valentine's Day comes around every year, the shops are full of red flowers, hearts, depictions of Cupid etc., but have you ever wondered where all this started?  No?  Oh well, I guess you will stop reading at this point.  But for those of you that are still with me, I've done a bit of research, and I was quite surprised by what I found out about today and its history.
The first thing that surprised me was that a St Valentine did exist.  Born in 226 in Terni in Italy, he became a Christian priest - or a bishop depending on which ancient text you read - who administered to persecuted Christians.  Third century Italy being the beating heart of the Roman Empire at the time.  On a visit to Rome, Valentine was captured, tortured and executed.  His remains were hastily and roughly buried.  On what was then the equivalent of our February 14th, his followers recovered his body.  They reburied St Valentine in the Christian Cemetery on the Via Flaminia just north of Rome in 269.  From the 5th century (496 to be precise), February 14th has been recognised as the Feast day of St Valentine.
The name Valentine comes from the Roman family name of Valentinus which in turn is derived from the Latin word valens, meaning 'strong' or 'healthy'.  So there are no love connections there!  From here on, things get a bit confused.
Geoffrey Chaucer's (1340-1400) poem Parlement of Foules may have created a connection with Valentine's Day as we know it.  His poem tells of the narrator's dream about birds gathering to choose their loved one - generally believed to be in mid-February in medieval England - and ends with a song to welcome Spring.  As there is some doubt about the date/year the poem was written, we can not be sure that it was February 14th that Chaucer had in mind.  However, the poem's text does refer to 'seynt Volantynys' day, and the link with lovers is quite clear in the text.
Chaucer's lead in love poems was followed by many - Duc d'Orléans writing from the Tower of London to his wife in 1415, for example.  We have Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene from 1590 where it is thought the original version of our 'Roses are red, violets are blue…' may have originated.  Then there's Shakespeare and a speech he gave to Ophelia in the play, Hamlet.  John Donne also got in on the act when he created a poem to celebrate James I's daughter's marriage on February 14th, 1613.
We now move forward to the 18th century and the various writings of some eminent antiquarians who pin our interpretation of Valentine's day quite firmly on dear old Chaucer.  In addition, there were several collections of old romantic verses published at this time.  Here in the 21st century, we know these earlier antiquarians to have been a little wide of the mark.

The Victorians took St Valentine and his romantic connections to another level.  With the creation of the penny post in 1840, it became possible for anonymous cards to be sent.  The 19th century witnessed the designing and printing of love missives in thousands every year.  If you would like to see some, there is a fabulous collection from across the centuries at the Museum of London.  In the 19th century, St. Valentine's Day finally became the industry that we recognise and perpetuate today.

So, there you have it!  Enjoy your day...

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Just wanted to say...

… to the doctors, nurses and staff on the Day Surgery Unit at Bassetlaw hospital… 

Thank You

Very recently, I had to undergo surgery to remove a lump from my right hand.  'So?' you might be asking yourself.  Hmm, it doesn't seem such a big deal when you take into account that I'm a natural-born South Paw - left-hander.  A South Paw to such an extent that the world has always seemed to me to be back-to-front.  Add into the mix the fact that I'm a complete wimp when it comes to blood and guts (I have to look the other way every time I have a blood sample taken).  Perhaps you may be able to appreciate my dilemma last Thursday as I sat in a Day Ward waiting for the inevitable to happen.
My little corner of the ward was Bay 1.  That meant I was closest to the exit - an open and waiting escape route if my fears got the better of me.  There were moments when the opportunity to escape seemed to be challenging me.  And, yes the possibility of just getting up and walking out did cross my mind.
However, common sense prevailed in the end.  When I was taken to the theatre I was allowed to plug myself into my iPod and some Chris Rhea.  Eyes closed so that I couldn't see the white wall, the static clock and the strange medical machine on my left, and I handed my conscious mind over to the safe haven of my imagination whilst the doctor and his assistants carried out their work. As the music played in my ears, I let my mind wander through the Cévennes with its stunning scenery on an azure bright summer's day.  Then I was travelling the Corniche and powering through the hairpins on the D986 down to Valleraugue.
A little later, when the surgeon recalled my attention to the place I really was, I was strolling along the rugged coast of the island of Sicily.  He wanted to let me know the procedure was 'all done'.  'Just a dressing to put on,' he said.  I took the opportunity to slip back to Sicily for a few moments longer.
I have no doubt that I was the patient from hell last Thursday.  But the very kind and supportive attention I received from everyone on the ward enabled me to get through an experience I had been dreading.  Next hurdle, the stitches coming out… and I'm just not thinking about that until I absolutely have to!!

Thank you, NHS

Oh, and just in case you were wondering, this post has been an exclusive South Paw production!

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

I'm cycling the Canal du Bourgogne...

...today.  Come and join me...

Fellow travellers on the canal!
I'm camped at Lézinnes, a small village the sits beside the river l'Armançon which feeds the canal.  The Canal de Bourgogne (Burgundy Canal) stretches from the western side of Migennes, where it empties into the river Yonne, to St Jean de Losne.  St Jean is a small town that sits on the river Saône, west-south-west of Besançon.  With a population of just over a thousand people, it would easy to mistake the importance of St Jean.  But, the sleepy little town has been fought over many times and I'll be exploring its history at some point in a future post.
Construction began on the canal in 1775 and its 242K length was finally completed in 1832.  This canal is the link that enables boats and barges to cross France from the Mediterranean sea to La Manche, the English channel.  Boats enter the waterway system just west of Marseille, travel the Rhône to just north of Lyon where the river meets the Saône.  Once boats leave the Canal de Bourgogne at Migennes they follow the Yonne, and its attendant Canal de Nivernais, until it converges with the Seine which empties into the channel at Le Havre.  That's a journey of something approaching 1,450K in total.  Floating through all that fabulous scenery must be nice work if you can get it!
The Canal de Bourgogne's lowest point is at its junction with the river Yonne at Migennes, just 79m above sea level.  From there it rises steadily until it reaches its highest point at Pouilly-en-Auxois, 378m above sea level.  That's a lot of locks - 189 to be precise.
Here at Lézinnes I'm starting at Écluse 85 and I'm taking a steady trip to Ancy-le-Franc.  By road the journey is just 7K, but the canal meanders here and the trip is probably more like 10Ks each way.  It's September and the hedgerows are full of rose hips and elder.  I pass a couple of elderly ladies with baskets who are collecting the fruit.  Some wine, I think or possibly some syrup.
At Écluse 83 - Pacy - a large boat is struggling to move away from the lock gates and Madame Éclusière has a very worried look on her face.  I stop for a drink of water, but really I'm just being terribly French and watching the excitement.  With no progress after 15 minutes or so, I carry on with my journey.
As I'm approaching Ancy-le-Franc, Écluse 80, I see a fisherman, all settled on the bank, rods in place and baited.  What I can't see until I draw almost level is the grey heron sat right beside him.  Monsieur Pêcheur tempts the bird wth a fish and I just free wheel by, not wishing to interrupt the creature's dining.
Ancy-le-Franc is my destination for the day.  I leave the canal and take the couple of hundred metres along the D905 to the edge of town and some shade.  Lunch is partaken under the cover of the trees in the fabulous gardens of the chateau.  The afternoon will be spent in the relative cool of this stunning 16th century chateau.  But more on that next month...

There will be more from my trip along the Canal de Bourgogne on March 9th