Archive for the ‘personal’ Category

Crow’s Land   Leave a comment

Moux crouches under Mont Alaric at the most northern limits of the Corbieres, an arid mountainous massif 50 km wide and 50 deep. Flying over it at night, it is a black square : there are no towns, no main roads. Deep in its heart : wild boar and deer, red squirrel and pine marten, eagles and kestrels. The soil types vary: from pebbly terraces, sandstone and marls to limestone and the white schist screes of Alaric. In this season the sole colour comes from the rusting oxides of old iron volcanoes (the red-soil of rous-sillion) and the blackened greens of holm oak, cypress and pine.

Origine du toponyme Corbières : Corb c’est le corbeau en vieux languedocien. Une courbiére c’est littéralement un lieu colonisé par les corbeaux. Il y a bien longtemps, avant l’an mille le corb avait déjà laissé son empreinte dans les noms de ces petits pays, le Kercorb, Chercorb, Quercorb, Corbieres. Apparié à la racine ‘ker’ (pierre, montagne) on devine : la contrée des corbeaux.


Crow Alights from CROW The Life and Songs of the Crow Ted Hughes

Crow saw the herded mountains, steaming in the morning.

and he saw the sea

Dark-spined, with the whole earth in its coils.

He saw the stars, fuming away into the black, mushrooms of

the nothing forest, clouding their spores, the virus of God.

And he shivered with the horror of Creation.

In the hallucination of the horror

He saw this shoe, with no sole, rain-sodden,

Lying on a moor.

And there was this garbage can, bottom rusted away,

A playing place for the wind, in a waste of puddles.

There was this coat, in the dark cupboard,

in the silent room, in the silent house.

There was this face, smoking its cigarette between the dusk

window and the fire’s embers.

Near the face, this hand, motionless.

Near the hand, this cup.

Crow blinked. He blinked. Nothing faded.

He stared at the evidence.

Nothing escaped him. (Nothing could escape.)


Posted December 12, 2007 by Richard Williams in personal

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Maid in France   Leave a comment

I was first sent to France as a swotty, snotty and spotty teenager for a month chez les Docteurs Barritault. It was a rambling mansion in a two-centime village on the banks of the Loire. Madame la Docteure would give Cook her daily intructions on what to buy at market, and we were summoned à table by a gong. It was la France profonde : lateness was deplored, conversation was in French, hands were rested on either side of the plate (not in the lap) and meals took hours.
Madame B had a little bell at hand, while Monsieur B had a small hill of pills to be washed down with ceremony and a sip of watered wine. Meals usually started with a small plate – never small enough for me – of something cold and slimey. Something preserved in aspic-jelly, to delight or to horrify depending on one’s age and nationality. Usually something unidentifiable (how can one country grow so many unidentifiable things?) Or occasionally something familiar (why did they do that? I could have eaten that egg!)
When all hands were finally correctly at rest, the bell tinkled and la bonne arrived to clear and set the table again for the next course. The plates got bigger but the portions remained the same size: a large expanse of porcelain with a grouping of unknown vegetable-matter alone in the middle. A sauce dish was passed around sufficiently slowly and with such appreciative commentary that the tepidity of the dish was assured by the time it reached les jeunes at the bottom of the table. The sauce was not optional – it was central.
The bell, the maid, the wait, la conversation – and then the next set of dishes. It might perhaps be another vegetable, all all alone – or it might be straight to the meat or fish. Just that – in its sauce. There might be one potato. Or more likely an elaborate confection of them – au gratin, à la dauphinoise – requiring the bell the maid the waiting. And the waiting itself was obligatoire (essentielle!) for correct digestion. As were the various wines – always watered for the young. Not out of mercy for us who loathed these sourly poisonous potions – but as a safe entry-level to the adult world of the connoisseur. Was there then a salad course? I don’t remember. There was certainly a cheese course. Inevitably. There are as many French cheeses as days in the year, and I must have sniffed them all. It seemed then an elaborate and fiendish memory-game: how not to end up choosing that particular (those very many particular) cheese that made one want to pucker in revulsion and spit out the window.
Bell.Maid.Wait. Contented gastronomic silence among all adults save Monsieur whose pills had either not been numerous enough, or strong enough, to quell his rumblings abdominal. Apprehensive silence down our end (no whispering at table, s’il vous plait. We had politely slogged thus far: would the last course be heaven or hell?
At last – pudding. Only the French don’t do puddings. Not the splodgy, stodgy comforting heap that we know and love and regret eating too much of. This, au contraire, is le dessert. It was ‘afters’ raised to its lightest, to its highest pinnacle: it was a work of sugary eggy art. But not art as I knew it. It had strange fruits and liqueurish syrups often hidden below a billow of mousse, or within a pillow of pastry. Complete with a sickly sweet wine – to ‘try’ – alongside.
I learnt to tolerate French food. I learnt to appreciate the alcohol that lurked in the wine. I got a tan and the spots disappeared. I discovered that my stammer receeded when faced with the need to be funny and charming to French girls, girls who thought nothing of changing out of wet costumes on the river beach, a barely modest few paces away. I resolved to live in France one day.

Posted December 9, 2007 by Richard Williams in personal

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The present: tense. The past, presently.   Leave a comment

If there was a thread that ran through my reading last year, it was mediaeval history – specifically the transition from feudal life and the emergence of early Europe. It was sparked I think, by the chance finding of a big book in English, by an American, on the local French history shelves of the bookshop in Narbonne. It was ‘Ermengard. Countess of Narbonne’ by Frederic L. Cheyette. And it caught me, as well as the rest of the region, by surprise – the French had completely forgotten her (or utterly ignored her: she wasn’t a Count so she didn’t count. Ahem.No further play on words.) It was a super piece of detective-work, with masses of source material relating to everyday village life. Some of those 13th century family names are there in the local phonebook.

Intriguing as this unexpected treasure-trove of gossip might be, my over-arching curiosity concerned the interaction of the muslim world with the christian: the Saracen and the Crusader. The Believer and the Infidel. It was a search for some understanding of why the world is in this particular mess. However, one can only spend so long in that tangled web before succumbing to sadness, and ultimately, madness. So it was with some relief, late last year, that I found myself strolling through the Enlightenment of the 17th century. in the excellent company of Neil Stephenson and his Baroque Trilogy. These are also 1000-pagers (as is his wonderful Cryptonomicon) – so that kept me happy and sane for the rest of the year.

Now a 1300-pager has come into my life – a mid-winter present from our Jessica – and it’s back to those murdering Religionists: the Christianists and the Islamists. The book is The Great War for Civilisation, by Robert Fisk. It encompasses his writings for the Times and the Independent: thirty years in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Palestine, Israel and other beauty-spots become hell-holes in the name of all that is Unholy. The title comes from the inscription on the reverse side of the World War 1 Victory Medal, and is not to be taken at face value: quite the reverse.

I gave up after the Algerian bloodbath. Half the book remains. I passed it with relief to Mary who has been eying it hungrily. She’ll regret it soon enough. For while she has a seemingly bottomless appetite for philosophy, science, peak oil, sudokus, and murder-mysteries – she may find Fisk’s account of our inhumanity too much to stomache.

And so – what have I found to keep me happy and sane? Well it would have to be history of course – but now it’s very much more personal. During the mid-winter holiday I came across a old box of ‘papers’ in the attic. Scraps of stuff that in some way were related to the family that built the house in 1860. I had already found and read some old letters and inconsequential everyday items, and had presumed these were more of the same: old bills, childen’s notes, invitations to mariages in the area etc.

But there was more in this box: a small envelope with photo negatives. A letter from a captain near the Western Front in 1917. I soon found myself plunged into the world of the village a hundred years in the past. And looking again at the aftermath of the War to End all Wars, when the Great Powers divided up the spoils: carving up Mesopotamia and creating Iraq and Iran, colonising Algeria, mandating Palestine. Slaying one vast old monster only to produce the smaller complex monsters we live with now.

And now the problem is finding a way to begin. I don’t want to make a history lecture of it – because at the heart of it all is a love-story. Not one of the happy-ever kind – one of the unrequited-passion sort, with bitterness and disillusionment, a dead lover and a dead brother, a false gentleman and an impoverished poet, fast cars and mistresses, private religion and public fame.

… and what is it you do, exactly?   Leave a comment

There are some who ask themselves : what does he do all day? Apart, that is, from wandering around his decrepid village – drink in one hand, camera in the other – accosting senile villagers in an attempt to get the latest gossip about people dead a century before.
And there are others who persist in their phantasy that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, have never done a honest day’s work and generally lead a life of leisured enebriation.
The fact is that we pack a year’s work into six summer months : weeks on end of back-to-back 16-hour-days. It wasn’t really planned that way : there was supposed to be more mosaic commission-work, more paintings sold, less cooking and cleaning toilets. As it is we can cope with the frantically exciting and alarming summer schedule – balanced by the dull-as-ditchwater, living-like-church-mice winter regime.
There is still a great deal to do when our Summer People finally depart : I am gardener, groundsman, poolboy, carpenter, roofer, raker of leaves, professional composter and amateur pyromaniac.

There is still a great deal to do to the actual fabric of the place : the stables are full of rubble from a roof-collapse a few years ago – something has to be done with it before it kills some over-curious artist with a fatal interest in Rural Ruin.

But this has been my first winter not grimly working on a building site, here or for someone else. I have slowed down. I’ve started looking back. Enough to start writing, and to imagine another future. This venture has been the biggest I’ve ever undertaken : the largest house we’ve ever renovated, the most overgrown garden we’ve ever designed and planted – and the greatest business gamble. There won’t be anything bigger, in its sheer mass, in my life. But that doesn’t mean that there will be nothing greater, nothing more exciting. We are beginning to picture a leaner and greener and more streamlined existence, with less belongings – less bulk to encumber the life of the mind.
That’s why I’m carrying the camera. And the wine, I’ll have you know, is never uncorked before six.

Posted December 8, 2007 by Richard Williams in personal, village life

Alcohol and History   Leave a comment

Since I started on this research into the families of those who lived in the Big House, I’ve unearthed a great deal – often stuff I wasn’t even looking for. And I’ve discovered one underlying principle: alcohol and research go together most effectively. Particularly in France. Especially in this village. Specifically with me.
I visit la Mairie quite frequently these days : the secretary – subject to the approval of Monsieur Le Maire who somewhat resembles a benign Joe Stalin with a reputation for being un animal for ‘pastis’ (no surer way to curry favour than to offer him some unusual bottle of aniseed-flavoured booze) – has given me the run of the archives: boxes of photos and yet more postcards from before WW1 plus dozens of leather-bound registers of Births, Marriages & Deaths, known collectively as Etat Civil : the civil status of each citizen.
So when I am not here …

… I am out visiting some elder of the village who has tales to tell.
Now if the arrangement is for, say, 11am I arrive with a notebook and an expectation of un p’tit café. Three hours later I’ve just about managed to keep pace with his ‘petit peu plus de whiskee’ and have covered several pages with illegible scrawl that will take hours to decypher.
But the thing is – or are – the tangents. The way one is led down them. The way the way back becomes harder and harder to find. The way one stops caring about french grammar or pronunciation or vocabulary – or where we had got to in the reminiscence.
Meeting an old fellow who loves his history and his ‘aperitifs‘ is wonderful – we are both gambolling wildly down the byeways of time and memory: he, delighted to be given an opportunity to revisit – me enthralled at the immediacy of all this new information.
The trick is to keep writing – as you drink, as you ramble. And never mind the spelling. There’s time enough to be sober.

And as I heard one neighbour say of another – with such utter absence of sentimentality I mistook it for malice – as her coffin was being slid into the family vault : ‘Elle ne parle plus.’