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.