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.