Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas in the Pyrenees

Where I live, in Ariège Pyrénées, Christmas and New Year are delightful, hearty, warm, and even quirky; just hours after dinner, we have a mid-night oyster feast.

The oysters come from Arcahon and on Christmas Eve, in our local town of St Girons, a charming, timeless picture is one of people, booted and wrapped up incoloured hats, scarves and gloves, collecting their oyster boxes before heading back to the villages and hamlets in the hills to begin the celebrations.

This being the ‘Grand Sud’, tradition is everything; life is lived according to the seasons and oysters and Foie Gras are the big ones for the festivities.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, the French may seem to work shorter hours and take more holidays, but what they don’t do, is down tools for a massive two weeks of revelry at this time of year.

Christmas begins on the 24th, with dinner very much a family affair. Foie Gras toasts are served with aperitifs and may appear again later, flambéed with fruit. Some people attend late night Mass; others take a stroll around the village. Around midnight, everyone will come together again, often with neighbours, to eat oysters and drink white wine, the feast going on into the early hours.

Christmas day lunch (magically organised, despite the midnight feasting) will have the extended family from grandparents to babies, enjoying a large and lengthy lunch that begins at mid-day on the button. This five course meal, with more Foie Gras, then Guinea Fowl or Capons for main course, will continue until late afternoon.

And that is that until New Year’s Eve. The 26th is not a holiday here, so it’s back to work.

The 31st is when family and friends get together for serious partying and for the Réveillon, Champagne is always the drink of choice. Whether a large lavish dinner or a servez-vous buffet, it is splendid, with more Foie Gras on the menu. Young or old, tradition is observed. 

We are in the Couseran hills; this is the land of top quality Foie Gras.  I love the way these customs are preserved here; the respect for old ways and for the food produced in the area.

Living in a remote part of Francethe foothills of the Pyrénées, is not for everyone. But the place has enchanted me; I love writing in my little study, with a view out over the hills.

And I’m not the only writer in the room. On my wall hangs a framed collection of notes I treasure. They are from a mega-star writer, who, in her study, takes time out from writing best-sellers to send me encouraging notes. I doubt you know her; she’s timid, not a great talker and has no opinions or advice to offer anyone, ever.

Happy Christmas from my hamlet in the hills. 

Sunday, 12 December 2010

After National Novel Writing Month - Art!

Oh, the joy of being finished with National Novel Writing Month. 

I, like all my crazy fellow writers, who hope that having written 50,000 words during the month, will go on to turn those words into something special. Hopefully a full length novel may emerge. Whatever, it won’t be for the lack of effort. 

But now, after all my efforts to write the novel, (or any book) I want to mention a really special book; it takes little effort to read because it takes the reader in straight away, and it gives massive enjoyment from page one.
I had to pack an overnight bag for someone and, feeling it important to shove in a book, I took a novel that promised a good, fast-paced read, set against the background of World War Two. Perfect.  

What if my bag needed packing, I wondered. Would anyone know the right book to pack?

There is only one book - and it’s also my Desert Island Disc book - so that’s sorted when Radio 4 calls.

I opened Professor Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, began to read the preface, and a breathtaking, wonderful feeling told me that this book had been written for me. That was as a teenager, back in the seventies, when I was, at least according to my own sense of style, ultra trendy, permanently dressed in black, smoking Consulate on top of buses, beginning to collect hats and doing an Art course at night.

The book is part of my life and is always near to where I sleep. First published in 1950, The Story of Art has outsold every book in the genre, and today the Professor continues to introduce students, artists and scholars to the world of art and the artist.

One of the greatest works ever written, by one of the world’s greatest authorities on the art world, the Professor’s way of approaching his subject has enlightened millions of us, as he draws us into the world of art and the artist. Following him, our lives are enriched.

This remarkable, unassuming man, with his conversational style, his constant use of the word ’we’, gives us the impression that he too is learning, is accompanying us on this great journey.

It is a very, very clever approach and by using it, he creates a feeling that we are standing together studying the great works, as we companionably walk through the ages.

Starting with early drawings in the caves of southern France, we study the Egyptians, the ancient Greeks, travel through the centuries, through the Renaissance years, right up to the late 20th century.

We feel we are in the easy company of someone who, even though we know his knowledge is way beyond ours, is inviting us to look with our own eyes, to think for ourselves.

The Professor explains how human life evolved through the centuries, illustrating, through the world of art, how societies developed. Without ever ‘dumbing down’, he suggests how man, from our origins, lost in the mists of time, came to where we are today.

This book goes much further than merely describing works of art. Using some of the greatest masterpieces ever produced, be it a Mayan alter stone, a Rembrandt self portrait, or a Jackson Pollock action painting, Gombrich takes us on a thrilling journey,  inviting us to delve into the world of the creative spirit with a view to understanding.

While we are being educated about the lives and works of the great artists, the writer suggests that for the greater good, we might accept and tolerate the beliefs and ways of others.

My interest in art and the world increased as I studied everything from the ancient to the modern. Along the way I naturally felt an affinity to some, and found myself less than interested in others.

Professor Gombrich meant The Story of Art to be for teenagers, an age group just beginning to look at that world. He had reckoned that that particular age group would quickly detect any pretentious jargon or bogus sentiment, and so he avoided using such language. His rallying cry to students - the very reason so many found him liberating - was: ‘There is no such thing as Art, only Artists.’

Even now, years later, the Professor still nudges me to examine again some of the works I did not study in sufficient detail, to look anew at something I may have decided was not for me.

The Story of Art has been with me a long time, although the volume I treasure now is not my original. That one I foolishly lent to someone who promised to look after it carefully, saying ‘Art is my God.’ They then disappeared, trekking to the East in an effort to find themselves.  I never saw or heard from them again.

This copy is not for hire, lend or sale because I need this book near me; I read and re-read this much loved, cherished work of art (which it is) more than any other.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

My Imaginary Dinner Party - a welcome break from Novelling

I signed up for the lunatic craziness that is November; National Novel Writing Month. So, for all of this month, every day is busy, fun, gruelling, back-aching, but very, very rewarding as the word count goes up each day. By mid-night on the 30th, all of us ‘Wrimos’ aspire to have 50,000 words written; a possible novel in the making.

It is a solitary pursuit, but something I love doing. Writing is never a chore to me and here in the hills of the Ariège Pyrénées, I try hard to make the time to write, and not allow too many interruptions during the month. (I learned to do this from my last disastrous effort, when writing took second place to everything else, and I ended up with the word count done, but what a load of rubbish it was; I never wanted to see it again.)  

This month - two more days and we’re half way there - is going so much better; it was worth making the effort to move my writing up to the number one spot.

When the word count has been achieved each day, I tend to sit back, blink a bit and do nothing more than think about what I will eat that evening. Since I live in a fairly remote part of southern France, my nights tend to be simple, quiet affairs. With the big oak shutters closed, a merry blaze in the wood burning stove, a bottle of red open and my television programmes for later chosen; all is well with the world.

Or is it? I’m doing other writing projects as well, and I am determined to get them all off my desk before year end. I need to be spurred on, by a few heroes and heroines. I feel a mad urge not to have quiet evenings. Au contraire, I am in need of a large table, full of people I have long wanted to meet. 

My group will inspire me, egg me on, boost my confidence, entertain me with hilarious stories, play music, dazzle me with their sparkling wit, be glamorous, lovely to look at, and the one or two I might be in awe of, well, they would surely have a humbling effect; never a bad thing?

So, my twenty people at my imaginary dinner party reads - in alphabetical order - Maya Angelou, Melvyn Bragg, Gay Byrne, Billy Connolly, Jilly Cooper, Judy Dench, Frankie Dettori, Edge, Stephen Fry, Ian Hislop, Richard Ingrams, John Inverdale, Joanna Lumley, Oprah, The Queen, Maggie Smith, Keith Richards, Meryl Streep, Terry Wogan, Keith Wood.

When I look at that list, put together fairly quickly, it occurs to me that perhaps I’m up there with the great Elsa Maxwell. When it comes to mixing a group of people, as well as a decent Martini, I’m not too bad.

In the group, although I didn’t intend it, are people who will immediately find they have things in common, can plunge right in and chat away.

Let’s start with the Queen. She meets people all the time and has done so all her life. She is at ease everywhere and even if she wasn’t, the chances are she has already met lots or even all of my guests. Perhaps Frankie has been to Windsor for lunch? We can safely say that Her Majesty will not feel out of place with this lot, having met everyone who matters in the world during her wonderfully long life.

I‘ll take one end of the table; Joanna can take the other. I’ll have Melvyn and Billyon either side of me, and we’ll put big John and big Keith, the two rugby men, on either side of Joanna, to keep her safe from Ingrams and Wogan. 

Obviously Maggie and Judy will entertain us with tales from the theatre; just hearing their voices is heaven to me. And Jilly and Stephen will no doubt, feel the need to exchange and maybe give us, some juicy bits of gossip over the aperitifs.

Two of the world’s greatest guitarists will surely have lots to discuss, hats included. 

If Maya Angelou and Oprah haven’t an affinity with each other, then I’m a Banana, as Ian famously remarked back in 1989, when we all dug into our pockets and sent money so that Private Eye could keep going.

The most sued man can congratulate Richard on his soaring readership over at The Oldie. The link continues, with Joanna having (ridiculously!) been voted Oldie of the year. Introducing her at the lunch was someone she freely admits to adoring, as we do, the great man, Sir Terry. The connection carries on with Terry knowingGay from years back, having worked with him in Irish Radio.

Gay Byrne. What’s left to say? Except that he brings my table full circle really, in that he is right up there with the Queen, having met everyone of note during an illustrious career spanning decades. It’s a fact of Irish life that if Gay ran for President, the other candidates might as well stay home. He will be unfailingly polite and have a word for everyone, but, and it’s a big but, with Meryl there, I don’t fancy anyone else’s chances of a long chin-wag.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Black Princes of the Ariège

Brilliant news - the article below featured in the November issue of Ireland's Horse and Pony    The magazine (Ireland's only monthly journal for the horsey world) is available at Eason and Tesco outlets. 

The piece is about the Mérens, the beautiful breed of black horse native to this region of France; the glorious Ariège-Pyrénées

Two of the Savignol families magnificent ponies
Where I live now, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, southern France, the hilly, rocky landscape sometimes reminds me of the west of Ireland, if on a much larger scale.

Just like Connemara, a special breed of horses, native to the region exists; the beautiful, jet black Mérens, known as the Black Princes of the Ariège.
Their origins can be traced back to prehistoric times, through thousands of years of evolution. In the famous cave of Niaux there is a drawing of a horse which is said to represent a Celtic pony and it does look extraordinarily like one of the splendid, Black Princes.

In Oughterard, a long time ago, I was lucky to meet the Geoghegan family, who, with passion and years of knowledge, bred wonderful Connemara ponies.

Here in the Ariège a very special family dedicates their whole existence to the breeding and conservation of the Mérens. The Savignol family own the stunning Haras Picard Du Sant, the only Mérens horse breeding farm in France to be classed AB (Agriculture Biologique).

They are the first Mérens breeders in France to use organic farming practices; the entire philosophy of the Savignol family is based on preserving the race and original characteristics of the breed. Everything is done in harmony with nature and is to the advantage of the horse, not the owners. No chemical intervention whatsoever is used; the horses are treated with osteopathy and homeopathy and raised following the principles of the Pat Parelli method.

During winter this area gets heavy snowfalls and temperatures drop, but because of their general sturdiness and heavy coats, whatever the weather the Mérens remain outdoors all year round, with foals being born in spring. Just hours after birth each foal is handled, so it grows accustomed to a human presence and touch, resulting in a healthy, gentle and docile horse.

Jean Louis with one of his foals
As they are growing, they are handled for about four hours each day. Such close, regular human presence ensures that the human becomes like a familiar animal to the horse. 

High summer, when the grass dries up with the heat, is a time of great adventure. In early June, the Mérens are brought right up to the high mountains for summer grazing. This is called the Transhumance and it takes three days to walk them up to the mountain pastures. It is a spectacular sight to see the Black Princes, walking mostly in single file through the countryside, using ancient paths, old roman roads and high mountain trails, headed for five months when they live in complete liberty in the mountains.

Now a natural hierarchy develops within the herd, as the dominant horses teach the younger animals the basis of how to behave in their society. Once each week the breeders make the trip up to check that all is well.
The Savignol horse farm sits in a pure picture postcard, hilltop village in the Ariège region, in the heart of the Midi-Pyrénées and on a sweltering afternoon just before the Transhumance, Jean Louis Savignol took me on a tour of the surrounding countryside to see their horses. I first met one of their stallions, some mares and foals and on our arrival in the field, most of the horses immediately headed for Jean Louis.

After a bit, I too handled the foals, was playfully nipped by them and nudged by the mothers, and all the time the Stallion stood, quietly grazing, hardly taking any notice of us. Pure serenity at high levels.

Just a few kilometres away, we found the bulk of the herd - no foals or stallions here – in a massive field, standing under some enormous oak trees, finding shade from the intense heat. 

Once again, most of them came straight over to nuzzle up to Jean Louis, who explained to me that the horses choose to be with humans, not the other way round. They are not afraid, nor are they looking for treats; neither he nor I carried any ‘rewards’ I our pockets. I was obviously accepted too and suddenly I was in the middle of the herd; the feeling was pure magic.

I was ecstatic with delight; I might have been seventeen again and I was catapulted back to a day, in Connemara, having climbed into a field, when a pony suddenly appeared, crashing through jungle-like green and gold high ferns. The shiny coat, the strong, muscled body, the striking head held high, with long black mane and tail flying made an awesome sight. This wasn’t your usual, ordinary pony; but a pure star, still unbroken, the stuff of dreams and, even in those days, worth a fortune. He had the magic; it seemed as if he possessed the spirit of all that had gone before.

Now, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, daft as it sounds, I felt the same spirits, the same magic, surrounded as I was by thousands of years of history.

Having witnessed, over the years, so many different ways of getting a horse to do what we want, it was extraordinary to me, to hear Jean Louis explain the Savignol family’s approach, and indeed their success. Nothing, he assured me, absolutely nothing is done to interfere with the natural life of their herd of Mérens horses.

The Haras Picard Du Sant sells ponies for riding and driving; each one is entered in professional competitions to validate its potential as a leisure horse. They already have the characteristics of being dependable, loyal and trustworthy, with solid strong bodies and big generous hearts. They possess a quiet assurance and a calm approach, are sure footed and patient.

How thrilling to find these beautiful, magical animals here, linking me with a memory of a wild landscape and another ancient breed of horse; a special, fairy-taleConnemara pony.

I thank the Savignol family for allowing me to use the stunning pictures of their horses. They, and their herd of Mérens can be found at:

09230 Lasserre 

Tel : (33) 05 61 66 65 34

Monday, 1 November 2010

Remembering Gerry Ryan

Yesterday, 30th October, I remembered it was exactly six months since I received a text from a friend in Dublin telling me the saddest news; that Gerry Ryan, larger than life Irishman, general Good Egg and astonishingly talented broadcaster had died suddenly that morning.

I, living in the hills of Southern France spent most of the following week listening to Irish radio; it was fantastic to hear so many people reminding us of what Gerry meant to them and just how much he contributed to Irish daily life.

I loved the music they played. A lot of it brought me back to a long time ago; I hadn’t heard many of the songs in years. Apart from U2 and the other biggies, it was fabulous to hear songs like Lilac Wine – one that surely sums up so many of those lost, wild but wonderful nights as we grew up?

Gerry and I were only two years apart in age and we both grew up on the north side of Dublin. While I never said more than hello, having come across him in a club or two over the years, I felt like I knew him really well. We probably both went to The Groovy Grove, but would have been in different groups, due to the age gap. Cool behaviour.

The reason I felt I knew Gerry was a really good old fashioned Dublin one - both our mothers, before they were married, worked together in Burke’s, the then famous Theatrical Costumiers in Dame Street. My mother often regaled me with mad stories, hooting with laughter as she described herself and Maureen prancing around the store, trying on the outfits, sticking their heads out from the rows of taffeta and velvet, mimicking some unfortunate large lady in the shop to hire a Valkyrie helmet and plaits.

Their ‘working’ days seemed to be full of happiness, shrieks of mirth, and very little stress. They appeared to go shopping and have their hair done quite a bit. Who says the fifties were grim?  Obviously for two young ‘gals’ in the Dublin Theatre World those years were the greatest fun.

I never met Maureen, but I feel that Gerry and I were lucky, having warm people, as it seems the two of them were; mothers who saw the funnier side of life, women who laughed at the crazy bits and were clearly modern girls, while being old fashioned, cosy, keen on things like table manners at the same time. 

Along with Gerry’s gloriously eccentric, oddball way of seeing the world, he possessed boundless energy, never spared himself, never needed to conserve his energies like the rest of us.

He had a capacity to draw in hundreds of thousands of people into his world and fully engage with them for three hours, five days each week and he did it for years without seeming to draw breath. 

The range of stuff Gerry could cover is mind boggling for most of us. To do this every day, under public scrutiny, is something only truly remarkable people can manage. He possessed, along with a fine intellect (a quality he carried lightly) a thoroughly sound knowledge of how the world works and a keen interest in a vast range of subjects.

Then there was - possibly what made him such an attractive personality - his uncanny and deep understanding of people. He became, over the years, an expert on that most basic subject, one that affects all of us; how families work, how we live and interact with each other on a daily basis.

Couples coping with the inevitable changes occurring between them over the years, facing into the storm as children go from adorable babies to teens; Gerry’s programme covered the swings and roundabouts of life for a whole generation.

And he didn’t go home and sleep afterwards. Gerry’s world was one where every day seemed to be 48 hours long. He knew everyone, was invited and went everywhere, wined and dined all over the world. And all the time he never stopping talking, laughing, absorbing knowledge like a sponge and most of all, something echoed in all the tributes, making other people laugh.

Edge from U2 summed him up wonderfully in his dignified tribute, with the words: “You shone bright and you made people laugh.

So, even though we never formally met, I say thanks to Gerry for a particular period in my life when things seemed so bad they couldn’t get any worse, and I found myself working in a small place where someone liked having a radio on all day. Listening to his programme on RTE 2 in the mornings made life seem less awful, less serious during that time. It seemed almost as if, given time and keeping my chin up, all the fun would return.

And it did, big time.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Ready for another mighty battle tomorrow...

Anyone who knows me is aware that since coming to live in southern France in 2003 I have been absolutely bewitched by the sheer magic and speed of Toulouserugby; becoming a supporter of Stade Toulousain has added a new dimension to life.

I’ve seen them play against many teams now over the years and no matter who the opposition is, or what the outcome, win or lose the day is always a great sporting occasion.

But the match against Perpignan on Saturday last 23rd October raised the bar, and while we Toulouse supporters left the ground jubilant, elated, euphoric, we were also absolutely and utterly exhausted. It had been one of the most electrifying Saturday afternoons ever.

In general, the French do not travel great distances to matches. Even if the opposition is reasonably represented, most of the noise comes from the roar of theToulouse crowd.

That changed last week when we arrived at the ground to see numerous buses fromPerpignan, whose occupants packed the bar and snack stands. Red and yellow clad enthusiastic, flag-waving Catalans wearing outsize red sombreros and carrying enormous drums were everywhere. They even had a group of (curiously American looking) cheerleaders, complete with red minis, striped socks and gold pom-poms.

The feeling in the air suggested this match would be a bit special. It certainly was.Perpignan quickly took the lead to gasps from us Toulousains; the din of the Catalan drums and the chants of the Perpignan supporters seemed to fill the stadium. Because there is no segregation of supporters, at one point red and yellow colours appeared to be everywhere.

Usually, Toulouse supporters - who are fiercely loyal, knowledgeable, and ear-splittingly loud in their appreciation - are in full cry from the kick-off. We seemed to be gathering our wits, but the problem was, the match was moving on as we did so.

Surely we couldn’t let these chicken coloured Catalans come over and drown out the mighty “Rouge & Noir”?

Then, at some point, about halfway through the first half, it was as if some message was magically transmitted to every Toulouse supporter in the ground.

The noise of our massive drums and bugles kicked in. The vigorous chanting and singing began, and it did not cease until the final whistle. The under 12’s, who have their own free corner, ‘le petit cop’, added their voices and started many Mexican waves. A sea of red and black flags waved continuously.

We leaped to our feet, yelling, on so many occasions as the play became faster and faster, that the usual French politeness of ‘oh pardon’ was completely forgotten.

The object was to get behind our team and drive them on to victory. The tries from Kelleher and Servat had strangers almost hugging each other, an astounding sight.

Yet again, Toulouse proved what an incredible squad they are. Probably the most decorated club in the world, they are awesome to watch. The power of the squad is alarming for most opponents. Perpignan are no slouches, even getting a last minute try, but Toulouse just kept at it, snatching every opportunity, some of the players taking some really punishing knocks as they did. The team played magically; we screamed manically and it all came together with a terrific win and some of the most wonderfully, uplifting play we could ever hope to see.

I say all this to make the Omens good for tomorrow, Saturday 30th, when, in Stade Ernest Wallon, Toulouse face the might and the magic of Toulon. And we can hardly wait for the 16.15 kick off; it promises to be another brilliant afternoon.