Friday, December 10, 2010

After National Novel Writing Month, let's have an Art break

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 and 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.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Did you want to come, or did you have to come to France?



‘Did you want to come to France, or did you have to?’ asked an English woman at one of our very early, sometimes strange meetings with other ex-patters. There are Dutch, German, Swedish, Spanish, Italians, English and Chinese living in our department and I was agog with interest when this particular lady went on to explain to me, that as far as she was concerned, southern France - our part of it at any rate - is simply full of people (foreigners) on the run.

I was startled by this directness. We were very often the only Irish they had ever met and quite a few of them, regardless of where they were from in the UK, often began conversations by politely asking if Dublin was in the north or the south of Ireland.

‘Criminals?’ I asked, amazed, wondering if there were any at the party.

‘Good Lord, no!’ she boomed. ‘Not real criminals. Money troubles! You know the sort of thing. For the younger crowd it's usually running from the big three. Taxes. Debts. Bankruptcy. For the older crowd it's the same big three, plus children in their thirties still fleecing them. And often ageing parents hanging around ‘till they reach a hundred. Utter Hell! People cave in, you know. And then they find this place.’

The Ariège Pyrénées. Re-named officially only a few years ago because the joke was that the French themselves did not really know where it was.

‘But why would people come here, especially?' I asked.

‘Why the Ariège? Because it’s cheap!’ she bellowed at me. ‘You can still get a barn in the hills for a few pounds. Oh, they all used to run to the Dordorgne, but that’s over; it’s full up there now’ she rattled on in a voice of authority. ‘As for the Riviera, well, forget it. Everything over there costs three million, and of course these types haven’t a bean.’

‘Have you met many of them?’



‘Oh, well, no. No. Of course not. I mean not really, but one sees them around, you know. In the village, at the market on Saturdays, sitting for two hours nursing a tiny coffee or a small beer. And one hears things. We have been here a long time, you know’ she said, tapping the side of her nose with a stubby, and indeed grubby, finger.

‘Thing is though’ she continued, ‘they won’t last here. It’s only a matter of time before whoever it is they are running from, finds them. Ha! Those two old reliables, Death and Taxes, they catch up with us all! But, even if they are not found by whoever is chasing them,’ she finished, ‘they’ll clear out in a few years, this place is far too quiet, too laid back. They won’t feel important enough here you see; not enough bling-bling. That’s the new word for flash, isn’t it?’

Lack of bling. Yes, she had a point, that woman. This area is certainly not to everyone's taste.


The scenery in this part of France may be stunning; the air like champagne, very different from the dry heat of Provence or the dazzling sun of the Riviera. Here, we may have the high Couseran hills, with millions of trees against the backdrop of the mighty Pyrénées, snow capped for much of the year, where bears and eagles can be spotted in the highest parts. The common birds of prey may be always in the air, the clear rivers full of trout and, in the magnificent forests, wild boars.

But, in spite of all this, I fully understand and appreciate that this is not enough for everyone. I have had friends visit me and, looking out over the hills ask, ‘is this it then?’

That is perfectly fine. We live in one of the most under-populated places in France and we who love it are very glad it‘s not for everyone.

Before I found this place, I would not have been able to pinpoint the Ariège Pyrénées on a map. Surely then, I cannot be alone in having stumbled on this great wilderness, and felt myself quite happy to leave everything behind to come and live here? It truly is that kind of place.

So, if here, in my adopted area, the ‘hills are alive’ with folks on the run from people trying to take away their money, I must congratulate them; they have made an impressive choice of hideaway.




Friday, June 25, 2010

Welcome to the Grand Sud


Goue Den Bas - Pyrenees
Welcome to southern France, to a tiny hamlet in the Couseran hills, close to the mighty Pyrénées. Much of our department is rich, pastoral landscape, with thickly forested hills rising up all around us. In the valleys, animals graze in lush meadows for a large part of the year. We enjoy a fabulous climate here - there really are four seasons. The air has been described as being ‘like Champagne’.

Because of the lack of industry, the eco system is almost perfect and vast numbers of creatures survive here. The system supports wildlife from the tiniest insect on a leaf to the wild boar in the forests. Rivers are full of trout and in the high mountains, 'close to the sun in lonely lands', lives the king of the birds, the Golden Eagle.

There are those who find this place as wild, far too wild. Some of them are my family and friends. To the amazement of almost all, when we announced our intention to leave Ireland (at the height of Celtic Tiger madness) it wasn’t to move to the lavender fields of Provence or the glitz of the Riviera. No. Our plan was to run back to the place we had discovered only six weeks earlier; a place no-one had ever heard of. For the first two years we lived in St Lizier, a mediaeval village, where the only shop was a tiny Boulangerie.

St Lizier
Then we decamped to the hills, where our little house is one of only five. At that point we were pronounced completely mad by some friends and family.

The pace of life is slow; people are generally not in a rush to get anywhere. There isn't a greed for more of everything. High achieving is fine, but living is more important. There is little or no crime. Life is about being healthy, happy, eating well, respecting the environment and each other.

Many things are unchanged here; people live as they might have lived a century ago. The Mesdames, in their cross-over, checked aprons, do as they have always done; keep hens for eggs and eventually for the pot. They rear, kill and eat their own ducks, geese and rabbits and grow enough vegetables to feed themselves almost all year. And then they share things with us.

Bienvenue à l'Ariège Pyrénées.