Long Time No Blog!

I thought that you might like to see the cover for my book The Weave – yes I know my Facebook followers have already seen it but it doesn’t hurt to remind you! Hope you like it. Should be out in November.

the weave (1)

However, I could really do with some feedback about the proposed ‘blurb’ to go on the back cover. Bit of a cheek I know considering I’ve had six months away from the blog but sometimes life just gets in the way. Anyhow, this is the proposed wording. It was harder to write than the book itself and this is the fourth version.

1598: When Oskar, Comte de Tréville asks the witch Ombrine to save the life of his son, she demands a high price. Oskar must leave his family and his lands and travel with her, as a servant, to Barbaria in search of the deadly Amerello spiders.

On his return to France five years later Oskar finds he is wanted for the murder of his wife. Unable to prove his innocence he allies himself with Ombrine who persuades him to take the Jouance – a life-prolonging drug made from the venom of the Amerellos.

He and Ombrine embark on a career of crime using Ombrine’s witchcraft and her Szellem – creatures called up from the dead.

Three centuries later, Oskar, now wealthy and leisured uncovers the truth about the fate of his family and has only one remaining ambition – to exact a long slow revenge.

2013: Debut author Richard Pease suffers from writer’s block. He is also broke and bedevilled by fears of his own inadequacy. He has just six weeks to complete his second book or lose his publishing contract.

A chance encounter with Oskar takes Richard to the Nonesuch Club, a writer’s retreat in France run by Oskar and Ombrine. There he finds the block to finishing his book lifts.

The mysterious disappearance of a fellow club member and the discovery of a drug laboratory in the Club plunge Richard into a centuries-old tangled web of deceit leaving him not only fighting for his career but also for his life.

So what do you think? If you saw the cover and read the blurb in a bookshop or on-line would you rush to buy or give a great big yawn and move on?

All ideas, suggestions, yah-boo-it-sucks welcome. Leave a comment below and thank you.

Advertisements

Spinning and Weaving

In the valleys of the Olmes Mountains – a range of peaks in the Ariège region of southern France – cloth manufacture was one of the prime industries. The pastures and hillsides favoured sheep farming and so provided the raw material and an abundant supply of water was available for the process of turning it into yarn and cloth.

From the Middle Ages onwards this was very much a cottage industry and the whole family was involved, spinning the wool from their sheep and then, if they did not have their own loom, handing it over to a neighbour who possessed one to weave into cloth.

In the eighteenth century, this industry reached a new level when the weavers in the lower regions of Languedoc decided to give up spinning and weaving in favour of growing vines. Instead, the wool they had used came to the Ariège and Aude regions. There were five main processes used to produce the cloth:

  1. Sorting, classifying the wool by its quality and washing the grease from it.
  2. Dying the wool
  3. Combing it out so that all the strands of wool ran parallel and then spinning it into yarn
  4. Weaving the yarn into cloth
  5. Finishing the cloth prior to taking it to the market in Lavelanet.

The colours used to dye the wool were nearly all of vegetable origin.

Woad gave a pretty shade of blue – mid to dark depending on how much dye was used. This gave rise to a whole new industry around the Toulouse area where many a woad merchant made a fortune from the plant. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was replaced by indigo.

lhotel_dassezat-1

L’hôtel d’Assézat – Woad Merchant’s House in Toulouse

isatis_tinctoria_s-_str-_sl5

Woad Plant (Isatis Tinctoria)

The roots of the madder plant produced red and shades of pink and purple together with a non-vegetal dye that came from a little red beetle collected from the green or holm oak. This produced a brilliant scarlet.

512px-rubia_tinctorum_flowers

Madder Plant (Rubia Tinctorum)

For yellow a number of plants were used including sunflowers, saffron and dyer’s rocket or weld.

reseda_luteola_flowers

Dyer’s Rocket (Reseda Luteola)

Combing the wool was traditionally carried out by hand using slats of wood to which teasels were attached. Towards the end of the eighteenth century machines imported from Belgium and England took over the work. This sounded the death knell for this hand work and, just as with the Luddites in England in the early years of the nineteenth century, the introduction of the combing machines unleashed riots against the machines.

From then, whilst much the cottage industry still existed and work was done by hand, there also developed workshops and later factories where the cloth was produced.

spinning mill and masters house

Wool Merchant’s House and Factory, Ste Colombe sur L’Hers

Spinning was very much a family affair, done at home using a distaff and spindle and later the wheel. At this stage of the process the spinner could vary the tension of the yarn leaving it fairly loose for knitting wool and tighter for cloth.

592px-distaff_psf

The weavers worked not only for themselves but also for neighbours who had no loom and for masters in Lavelanet. These latter provided the yarn and paid the weavers by metre of cloth or by the piece.

Typically the weavers worked at their looms through winter until early spring. Then work on the land and with their sheep took over.  However they needed good light to work by and placed their looms by a window in full daylight. During the long winter nights they worked by the feeble light of an oil lamp, later replaced by a kerosene lamp with a reflector of polished glass. This they placed centrally on the loom, hopefully in a safe place.

The worst aspect for the weavers was the cold. Very often there was no fire or only a very small one in the room. They had to warm themselves through the work that they did. Sometimes it was so cold that the yarn stuck together, frozen. There was a common saying amongst the weavers:

“Les bobines gelaient, je devais les mettre dans ma poche”

(the bobbins froze, I had to put them in my pocket).

When the piece of cloth was finished it was taken usually by mule to Lavelanet to be sold. There still exist some of the ancient pathways that were used.

To become a weaver a boy of seventeen or eighteen years would take an apprenticeship in a village with a master. It was normally an informal agreement. The boy would work with the master for six months, earning nothing, not even his meals. After six months if the master considered him to be competent the boy could then set up on his own. If he was not adjudged competent he could continue to work for the master, on half-pay or look for another metier.

The cloth produced in the region was of different types. The cuir laine – a heavy fabric used for overcoats with high collars such as Napolean’s famous grey coat which was a mix of 90% white and 10% brown. Other versions of this cloth were made in different weights and widths.

640px-meissonier_-_1814_campagne_de_france

Napoléon’s famous greatcoat – Painting by John-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

Le bureil was a fabric of pure wool  either beige-brown or grey-blue in colour. Apart from weaving it into cloth, shepherds’ wives used it to knit the Neopolitan bonnet that they wore.

There are different accounts as to how the spinners and weavers of the Pays d’Olmes lived and worked. Some paint a picture of a hard life, working in difficult conditions for very little reward. In poorer households often the whole family lived, worked and slept in just one room.

Others accounts are not so charitable. I have translated the first lines of a song written about the weavers which aims to illustrate their weekly routine:

Weavers are worse than Bishops

Every Monday is a holiday for them

The Tuesday they have a hang-over

And Wednesday they can do nothing

Thursday they look at their work

Friday starts their week

Saturday the cloth is not finished

And yet Sunday, they say, ‘now you must pay us, Master’.

 

The Versailles of Languedoc

One of my favourite vide-greniers (car boot sales) of the season took place last weekend in the grounds of Chateau Lagarde not far from Mirepoix on the Aude/Ariege borders. As it happened I came away empty handed but not before soaking up the atmosphere. With all the stalls set out, colourful, gay; people and dogs milling around, chatting, buying, selling (the people no the dogs that is…then again?) I wondered if this was the modern equivalent of the medieval fair and market.

20160724_102549

In the 17th century, the chateau was known as the Versailles of Languedoc but it has its roots deeply in the Middle Ages and warfare. It perches, unmissable for miles around on the top of a hill just outside the village of Lagarde, on the left bank of the River Hers – a strategic placement since the river was the means of access to the Pyrenees and the plains below. The occupants could always see who and what was coming and going.

The Albigensian crusade against the so-called heretic Cathars brought a pack of land and booty hungry Northern French nobles into the area and after the defeat of the Cathars, Simon de Montfort, leader of this mob, confiscated the chateau and its lands and gave it over to Guy de Levis, a lesser lord keen to reap the rewards of his faithful service to Montfort.

At the beginning of the 14th century the castle underwent a complete makeover – an inscription found reads “Monsieur Francois de Levis, Seigneur of Montsegur and Madame Elix de Lautrec, his woman, built this castle in CCCXX.” Mmm, not sure about the ‘his woman’ bit, sounds a tad derogatory.

Francois had the choice of two castles, that of Montsegur and Lagarde. Since Montsegur is open to all the winds and snow that blow for most of the year and almost inaccessible to boot, the Seigneur (or perhaps ‘his woman’) decided to live at Lagarde.

The most eye-opening transformation of the castle took place in the 15th century when, discarding its defensive fortress role its owner and his heirs began another extensive makeover to take upgrade the old fortress to the level of a luxurious Renaissance castle. Three stories high; twenty bedrooms; any number of reception rooms including a drawing room, the Great Hall, a gallery, the Knights Hall and a games room; décor and furnishings of the most sumptuous.  Later still a terrace and formal gardens were added. It must have been a gorgeous bit of glam.

lagarde

By the end of the Ancien Regime (just before the French revolution) the castle was said to rival those of the Loire and indeed, Versailles itself. When taken to task by King Louis XVI for his poor attendance at court, the owner, Gaston de Levis-Leran replied “Sire, it is obvious that your Majesty has never been to Lagarde.” Risky thing to say to a King whose pride and joy was Versailles, oh and Marie-Antoinette of course.

During The French Revolution the castle was sold as a state possession and since it had once been a fortress it was doomed to demolition.  The new owner demolished all the residential buildings so that he could sell off the stone. The demolition ceased part way and some of the castle was reduced to serving as grain and fodder storage; one part became a forge and those parts that still remained became accommodation for the locals in need of a des. res. Over the years the stone continued to be robbed out. Eventually Lagarde was completely abandoned and classified as an historic monument. Today, the current owners are trying at least to stabilise the ruins and restore or preserve whatever is possible.

Chateau_Lagarde_0

‘Tis the Season to be Merry

No, there isn’t a breach in the time-space continuum, the season in question is the start of the vide-greniers – aka car boot/yard sales and I have to admit I am a v-g junkie.

When I moved to France  I rapidly discovered that every week from about now onwards, the v-g’s start. They vary widely and I prefer the small village affairs where there is anything and everything on offer – from great-granny’s frilly bloomers to rusty scrapers for getting the hairs off a pig’s skin – once it had been swiftly dispatched first of course and a load of other ancient artefacts whose purpose escapes me completely.

Oh, the rustling, rifling, poking and picking over in boxes of…well, stuff…only to stand up, victorious holding just the thing you were looking for. The cut and thrust of complex negotiations to get the price down by 50 centimes; the waving of arms, pulling of faces ( you have no idea how many different faces a Frenchman can pull to express his disapproval and disappointment at your offer); I love it.

Among all the trash and gash there are goodies to be found for anyone like me trying to “dress” a room once it is renovated. The room in question this week is my Tart’s Bathroom (or to give it a more genteel title, Guest Bathroom). Granted there is tiling to be done, the bath to be installed – well to be honest it has yet to be totally renovated – but it’s never too early to start collecting bits and pieces together. This bathroom is to be a vision of black, white and silver, with a bit of saucy wallpaper to boot.

Saucy Wallpaper

Saucy Wallpaper

I’ve been seeking out bits and pieces for this room. This is my haul to date which includes a ceramic oil lamp for those lazy soaks, two silvered champagne buckets and a bath salts jar- a gal has so many bits and pieces to store, wrought iron hooks and a pair of opalescent glass wall lights for around the basin.

Goodies haul

Goodies haul

The V-gs are very sociable affairs and there is always time for a cup of thick black coffee, a natter with friends and neighbours (they aren’t always one and the same thing) and a reveal of each other’s ‘finds’.

The serious buyers, (dealers and brocante shop owners) as opposed to flibbertigibbets like me walk round purposefully, like hunting dogs on the scent. Eagle-eyed, elbows sharp and at the ready, their hands reach over your shoulder to whisk away the object you were about to pick up and mull over. You have to be quick to make up your mind; ‘after you’ has no place at a v-g.

Then, when you get your haul home, unpack it, try it out in its designated future place, that is the moment when you find that it is just perfect or perhaps, just perhaps, it’s not quite what you were looking for. Ah well, it can go back in a box for a while, it’ll come in handy some time.

The Rocky Road

The country side around where I live is dotted with ruined castles built on and within natural high outcrops of rock and escarpment. This is Cathar country and these strongholds played an important role in protecting and sheltering the members of the persecuted sect.

In the 13th century the north of what we know today as France went to war with the south in a crusade against this sect – a crusade that lasted for nearly half a century. The ostensible reason for the crusade was the extermination of the Cathar sect which had a strong following in the south at every level of society. When Pope Innocent III’s personal legate, Peter of Castelnau was murdered (allegedly on the orders of Count Raymond of Toulouse whom he had just excommunicated) he launched the crusade offering all who participated indulgences (pardons for sins committed) as well as the property and lands of the heretics. This set the scene for the invasion of this southern part of France (the Languedoc) with Simon de Montfort, a northern noble leading the charge for wealth, land and titles.

The crusade was typified by small-scale skirmishes, bloody guerrilla warfare and, more significantly, sieges against both the large fortifications of e.g.Carcassonne and Narbonne but also of the remote and relatively inaccessible hilltop fortifications that were dotted all over the surrounding countryside. One such is the Chateau at Roquefixade just a few kilometres from where I live. Built high up on a cliff overlooking the village and using the natural rock and fissures of the site, the chateau dates from the early 11th century. The current ruins are later than this.

Roquefixade Chateau

Roquefixade Chateau

The ascent to the castle is steep and winds around through tussocky grass, scrub and rocky outcrops. Nearing the summit and the castle itself there is just a narrow path roughly hewn from the rock. A hair-raising vertical drop on one side to the valley below waits for the unwary. Once negotiated, this path leads to the remains of the original stone gate tower and on into the lower court (yard) of the castle.

Roquefixade - gateway to the court

Roquefixade – gateway to the court

The view from the ruins is breath-taking. The valley of Lesponne with its small villages nestled in green fields stretches out below; beyond the valley, the D’Olmes mountains and the chain of the High Pyrannees poke their snow-dusted peaks into a clear blue sky.

The valley below Roquefixade

The valley below Roquefixade

This chateau and its village played but a small role during the crusade. It is known that one of those involved in the murder of the papel legate sheltered here with his family and the village is reputed to have had many who followed the Cathar teachings. Other than this and, in comparison with its neighbour – Montsegur castle perched on an even more inaccessible peak- Roquefixade had a relatively quiet time.

Following the fall of Monsegur and the end of the crusade, Roquefixade became the property of the French king and one of a chain of castles across the region to keep an eye on the activities of the count of Foix, the ruler of an independent county in the south (France was still not completely unified at this time). The castle survived until Louis XIII, in 1632 spent a night there on his way to watch an execution in Toulouse, after which he ordered the castle’s destruction. It does seem rather ungrateful of him.

roquefixade from the village

Now Autumn’s Fire Burns*

I have woefully neglected this blog over the past four-five weeks as I’ve flitted around like a demented bat drumming up business for “Close to the Edge – Tales from the Holderness Coast.” Thank you to all (or even any) of you that have bought the book, I hope you were well satisfied.

So now I’m going to return to life in France for a while and will try not to mention my book “Close to the Edge” more than once or twice per blog!

Here in the Languedoc, autumn has arrived and almost overnight the trees on the valley sides took on all the colours in the spice box – ginger, cinnamon, saffron, paprika; just here and there a solitary bank of trees remains obstinately green. The days are short but filled with sunshine and the nights and early mornings bring just a nip in the air… a hint of winter to come. Autumn has its rituals and festivals just as Summer had the fetes, vide-greniers and marchés nocturnes (night markets).

First comes the mushroom season. Everywhere in the woods amongst the earthy mould, between tree roots or in a patch of soft grass in a clearing, ceps, chanterelles, pieds de mouton- all these little autumn wonders pop up, all perky, waiting to be picked by those who know where to look and who jealously guard the secrets of their favourite hunting-grounds.

Ceps

Ceps

pied de moutons

pied de moutons


If the mushrooms are too coy to make an appearance there are always chestnuts to be found and some of the last fetes of the year celebrate the arrival of the fat shiny nuts by offering a host of ready to eat dishes accompanied by the obligatory oom-pah band.

Late September and October sees the Transhumance when the livestock are brought down from the mountain pastures… another reason for an autumn festival. The farmers, their wives and children together with an assortment of misbegotten dogs gather their flocks of sheep or small herds of cattle and slowly wend their way down the mountain to the “home” village. The ewes with their lambs hustle and bustle along, high with their odour of lanolin. Here and there they grab a bite of roadside herbage or stop, snort and stamp their feet when one of the dogs gets a bit impertinent. In the village the ewes are separated from their lambs, which are taken away to fulfil their destiny on a dinner plate and soon the air is full of cries, bleats, shouts and barks until the cavalcade passes through and away to their respective farms.

La Transhumance

La Transhumance

Now as the year slows down so does village life. Shutters close early and open late;the scent of wood smoke streams from chimneys that have slept all summer. In the streets, piles of crinkle-bark logs spattered with the grey-green bloom of lichen appear outside front doors and families and neighbours form a line to pass the logs through the house to the courtyards at the back. Oak is the wood of preference – burning long and hot – yielding all the energy it gathered during its years. For me it’s time to get back to some serious writing and catch up on the books and films I’ve stashed away ready to be relished (I hope) once the sun goes down and the shutters close.

*”Now Autumn’s fire burns slowly along the woods and day by day the dead leaves fall and melt.” (William Allingham)

The Mill House

Can a place hold an imprint of past events? Is it possible for a house to hold, in its stone and mortar the memories of tragedies unfolded there? Here’s a story for you; it’s a long and sad one, so you have been warned.

In a village near where I live stands an old mill house and the ruins of its mill. The house is decaying. Blank windows curtained with thick ivy look out over the maize fields. In parts the roof has yielded to the elements and inside, garlands of cobwebs hang from every corner, swaying in the slightest draught to release a powdery cloud of ancient flour dust.

It was not always so.

More than a century ago the mill ground the flour for the village and the river that rushed past offered here and there a quiet pool where women could do their laundry and gossip about those things that are left unsaid when men are around.

Now the miller and his wife had a daughter; she was about eight or nine; pretty, with long brown hair and dark eyes that more often than not sparkled with mischief. Let’s call her Rosie.

One particular washing day, whilst her mother and some village women scrubbed and rubbed their smalls, Rosie wandered off upstream, bored with all the chatter. Some time later one of the women called out:
“Hey, who’s lost their bloomers?” and pointed to a white bundle floating gently towards them. Amidst the laughter Rosie’s mother looked around, a stab of fear in her heart.
“Rosie? Where’s Rosie?” she cried.
As the bundle drifted into the washing pool a slight current caught it up, rolling it over.
The mother’s anguished scream pierced the air as she looked at the bundle for floating face upward, bright eyes forever closed, was little Rosie.

And the villagers said “what a tragedy”.

Afterwards, the miller’s wife unable to support life at the mill moved away to a nearby town. The miller however stayed on, grimly working. Over the next ten years he became slovenly and careless in his work; the village folk took their corn elsewhere and he spent his days sitting in the mill with a skin of wine for company. One day, on a whim, he decided to set the grindstones to work again. The rusting machinery groaned into action and the massive round stones began to turn when there was a loud crack and one of the stones split into three. The miller stumbled to his feet as one of the pieces crashed down onto the floor. As it fell a floorboard sprang up on its end, hitting the miller a tremendous blow on his forehead. He lay insensible for two days before one his neighbours found him. He drifted in and out of consciousness for a further week until with his last breaths, he cursed the day he ever came to the mill.

And the villagers said “what a tragedy for the family.”

That however, is not the end of the tale. For more than twenty years the house stood empty despite the miller’s heir, a distant cousin, offering it for let. True, two of three families came to live there but stayed only a short while. Then, a friend of the cousin moved in – a middle-aged lady who had fallen on hard times. She arrived, despite her penury, well-dressed and as plump as a Christmas goose. However, as the months passed by, the fat fell away and her clothes hung shapelessly. She grew thinner and thinner; hollow-cheeked and with dark purple shadows beneath the eyes. Eventually, one wild night, she let go of her life.

The doctors said “cancer” but the villagers whispered “it’s a cursed place”.

The years rolled forward and the mill house was again left to itself and the cousin who owned it despaired of ever selling it or putting it to good use. The roof of the mill fell in and the walls quickly followed. The house itself began to crumble as the voracious beetles set to their work. Yet, in spite of its condition a new tenant did come forward and the cousin hastily made some repairs.

The newcomer, a widow with one son, came from the north, full of common-sense and practicality. No doubt she heard the village whispers – “a cursed house –holds nothing but misfortune for all who live there – it’s an evil place” but her northern nous dismissed all that. It seemed as though all went well for a couple of years. Then the widow’s son arrived home from his work in the local textile mill and announced:
“Ma mère, I’ve joined the Legion.”
His mother stared blankly for a moment before screeching:
“You’ve done what?”
“I’ve joined the Foreign Legion.”

Well she screamed and drummed her heels but the lad was adamant. Some days later he left to attend his medical examination which included vaccinations necessary for Legionnaires serving overseas. When he returned that evening he complained of feeling unwell and took himself off to his bed. In the morning, hearing no sound of activity from her son’s room, the widow bundled out of bed to wake him. She opened his bedroom door and gasped. There he lay, paralysed, unable to move a limb or to speak. Only his eyes moved and these, wide with fear, fixed on his mother. The widow called an ambulance and for weeks the lad remained in hospital as the doctors puzzled over him. The widow’s son never made it into the Legion.

After his death the doctors said it was a rare and violent reaction to the vaccinations.
And the villagers whispered “there’s something bad about that house; it’s cursed.”

Now the house moved into the ownership of yet another scion of that almost forgotten miller’s family. This heir was a townsman with no interest in a place in the country. He removed temptation from the village kids by boarding up the windows and padlocking the doors before leaving the place to its own devices. More years slipped by and the townsman, nearing retirement, decided to pep up his pension pot by letting out the house to the tourists who were beginning to travel to the region. After a lick and spittle clean-up he was fortunate to secure a long-term tenant willing to pay what seemed like an extraordinarily silly amount of rent.

“I want peace and quiet” the tenant drawled (he was an American) “and I’m willing to pay for it but don’t you be bugging me for more.”

Quickly pocketing the proffered cash the townsman took himself off. The American lived quietly and was scarcely seen, heard or known of, in the village. This new generation of villagers paid no heed to the old wives tales and whispers, yet now and again a few of the old folk, gossiping in the late afternoon sun would ask “is he still there do you know?” and whisper “there’s something evil about that place.”

It came as no surprise to them to learn that a year or so after his arrival, the American was found dead in a ditch in front of the mill house with the back of his head stove in. The murder is logged today as “unsolved” and the house is abandoned.

Was this just a concatenation of tragic events?
Or can a house resonate with the horror and tragedy of the past to shape the lives and deaths of those who occupy it?

Author’s denial
None of these events actually happened – well not all of them;
Mill House doesn’t exist – well not really.
This is merely a piece of whimsy on my part whilst playing around with an idea for another short story.

Or is it?