THE BARON AND THE SHOWGIRL

Two men influenced the early part of my life; one was Adolf Hitler, the other was Hugh Hefner. Hitler did more than just influence my life, he did his best to end it. Although he failed in that respect he succeeded in breaking up our family, forced me to spend my first four years sleeping in an air-raid shelter and was responsible for my food being rationed until I was fourteen. Long after his mortal remains had been incinerated, Adolf’s shadow loomed over the land. Many of London’s bomb sites, more exciting playgrounds than the swings and roundabouts provided by local councils, persisted into the mid fifties. At school meals our Housemaster, who had spent three years in Colditz, employed salt and pepper pots and cutlery to daily reconstruct the Wehrmacht’s flanking movement that had deprived him of his liberty. Without the benefit of any serious study I can identify the shapes of most WW2 military aircraft. I still hear the wail of the air raid siren and the all-clear.

In 1953 a new leader came out of the West, a mild, pipe smoking hedonist who ran his operations, dressed in silk pyjamas, from a round bed that revolved and vibrated. His name was Hugh Hefner and he came, not clutching a copy of Mein Kampf, but a magazine called Playboy, which would prove to be just as revolutionary and more popular, with a monthly readership that was to reach seven million in the 1970s. ‘Smut’ decided my mother, writing to tell me she had burnt what she called a ‘substantial collection of pornography’ found in my wardrobe. But among the naked lovelies, there were short stories by Norman Mailer and John Le Carre, articles on fashion and sports cars and Hef’s support for progressive social causes.  Black guests were invited to the Playboy Mansion when Jim Crow Laws still operated in many US states and the magazine was used to campaign for the decriminalisation of marijuana and for abortion rights in an age when doctors refused contraceptives to unmarried women. In 1961 the first Playboy club opened in Chicago and when the London club opened at 45 Park Lane in1966, I was one of the first members through its doors.  Hitler once wrote that the world was made of ‘Gods and beasts’; Hef changed that to ‘Gods and breasts’. The bare breasts in the centrefold of the very first Playboy issue belonged to Marilyn Monroe; it is entirely fitting that Hef now lies beside her in a Los Angeles cemetery.

If Adolf launched a V2 or a couple of Doodlebugs at London while my mother was wheeling me in the park then she would have taken shelter in the Underground.  Apart from safety there was often a cup of tea and a sing-along perhaps organised by Joan Littlewood, a belligerent, chain-smoking impresario in a woollen cap. Under surveillance by MI5 for association with the Communist Party, Joan led a collective of left-wing leaning actors who performed in the street and outside factories to working class audiences as well as conducting sing-songs for those sheltering from the Blitz. In 1953 Joan and her group, now calling themselves the Theatre Workshop, found a permanent home in the derelict Theatre Royal in London’s East End. The Company lived and slept in the theatre, redecorating it between rehearsals, deprived of government grants on account of its communist ideology. Joan was saved from sleeping in squalor by Gerry Raffles, an affluent, public school runaway who joined the company as theatre manager, fell in love with her and took her into his luxurious home in Blackheath.

The next years were a battle between East and West. It was Joan’s mission in the East to create plays that stimulated and entertained, be both popular and serious, completely divorced from the polite, drawing room dramas of the West End, what Joan called ‘daffodils up arses’. She liked plays by and about working class people performed for working class audiences and found success with Brendan Behan’s ‘The Hostage’ and Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste of Honey’.

The battle also raged within the East. Creditors had to be kept at bay and there was a continuing fight with the BBC who refused to show or air Theatre Workshop productions and with the Arts Council who refused grants.  Meanwhile Joan, foul-mouthed, unwilling to listen to advice, nasty and aggressive, humiliated actors and crew alike. ‘You can’t act’ she told Michael Caine, ‘so you might as well fuck off up to the West End or get a job in films.’ ‘Best bit of advice I ever had’, said Caine. Only Raffles stuck by her.

The East End – land of Jellied eels, music halls, costermongers and pearly Kings and Queens with its unique and colourful dialect of thieves cant and rhyming slang –  is no more, gone in a single lifetime, a victim of German bombs, closure of the docks, multiculturalism and gentrification. It was always going to be harder to conserve than the giant panda and the snow leopard, although Joan did her best to keep its memory alive with two brilliant ‘cockney’ musicals, ‘Fings Aint Wot They Used T’be’ in 1958 and ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’ a year later.

Her masterpiece ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, an anti-war satire focusing on the folly and incompetence of England’s WW1 military commanders, opened at the Theatre Royal in March 1963. Using a backdrop of distressing facts and statistics of the Great War, documentary footage, marching and music hall songs of the time and actors wearing Commedia dell’Arte costumes and tin helmets, was an instant hit, transferring to the West End in the same year, to Broadway a year later and to the cinema in 1969. The film’s last scene, when the camera pans across the South Downs sown with rows of white crosses, is as moving a hymn to pacifism as you are ever likely to see.

When Raffles died in 1975 while sailing his boat up the Rhone, Joan walked out of the theatre never to return. Her destination was Vienne, a small town thirty miles south of Lyons where she kept vigil on the banks of the river close to the spot where Gerry had died, her only companion an adopted mongrel she called Jacques Tati.

How Baron Philippe de Rothschild knew of her whereabouts or even knew of her we do not know. He had certainly lived a world apart from Joan’s East End. His youth was spent at the wheel of a Hispano Suiza, skiing in Gstaad and sipping champagne from the slippers of high-class tarts.  At the age of 22 he inherited Chateau Mouton Rothschild, 222 acres of Medoc vines in the village of Pauillac, which became his home and where he introduced the concept of ‘Chateau bottling’ and the idea of using famous artists, including Picasso, Miro and Dali, to decorate his wine labels. He would certainly have known of Littlewood. He had an interest in drama; briefly managing a theatre owned by his playwright father and translating plays by contemporary English writers. He may have seen one of Joan’s Paris productions, for her work was acclaimed in France long before being accepted in England, partly because the French have always championed the Left ever since Camille Desmoulins jumped on a cafe table and called for a physical resolution to the French Revolution.

In May 1976, only two months after the death of his wife, Baron Philippe motored alone from Paris to Vienne and found Joan, dressed in clogs and slacks, outside a small whitewashed hotel not a hundred yards from the river. He records Joan as being reticent at their first meeting, even a little hostile, until they found common ground in the Baron’s translation of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. A mutual interest in theatre and the Elizabethan poets soon overcame distrust; when the Baron returned to Mouton he took the pocket Marxist with him. There she became Jeanne Petitbois and lived platonically with the Baron whom she called ‘the Guv’, for the next ten years. The Baron involved her in his activities, designing the gardens, organising the Queen Mother’s visit and helping write his autobiography, the embarrassingly titled ‘Milady Vine’. It was not a perfect alliance but it suited both parties; she called her benefactor ‘spoilt, selfish and rude’, and her irreverence was not always welcome especially when she introduced the Baron to her friends as the fourth Marx Brother. When Playboy came to write an article on the Baron she came down to a grand dinner wearing floppy rabbit ears and a fluffy pompom on her derriere.

The Baron died in 1986, the showgirl in 2002. For all Joan’s Marxist principles and contempt for privilege she owed her life and legacy to Gerry Raffles and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, two members of a class she despised. Perhaps love trumped her contempt in the first case, companionship in the other, but it is common taste that reconciles strange bedfellows.

Dio li fa e fra di loro si accoppiano.

PS  A Royal Shakespeare Society production of a new musical, ‘Miss Littlewood’ is scheduled to open in 2018.

MORE TALES FROM THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE

SOCKS AND THE CITY

Only those who follow the vicissitudes of male fashion can understand the drastic fall in hosiery sales which occurs each summer in Milan, that elegant, business-like city of incalculable possibilities. For several years now it has been common among Milanese gentlemen to eschew socks in the summer months. The best way to get a peep at these naked pedal extremities is to watch the cyclists. Between the cuff of a Brioni suit trouser and the soft leather of a Ferragamo loafer you may catch a glimpse of a well-turned ankle, perhaps even the hint of a tasteful tattoo. Of course, Milanese gentlemen are not alone in spurning hosiery in the city; Australians can be seen striding, summer and winter, thonged and sockless, through Sydney; but theirs is not a fashion statement only a desire for convenience and comfort.

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Rinascente, situated near the Duomo, is a good place to buy socks. The department store is currently celebrating the centenary of its name, devised by the decadent poet and war hero, Gabriele D’Annunzio who, at the same time, was devising the entire ritual of Fascism, including the Blackshirts and Roman salute that Mussolini adopted. This embarrassing information is prudently omitted from the Exhibition in the Palazzo Reale marking the centennial of the store’s name. It does however emphasise its title of World’s Best Department Store awarded at the Global Department Store Summit in 2016, won by Selfridges of London in the three previous years, although one suspects that Bergdorf Goodman, Libertys and Harrods were either not competing or facing drug bans.

We are not at Rinascente for the socks but for lunch as our favourite restaurant, La Bagutta, has closed its doors for good. Having frequented it for forty years it felt like a death in the family. Another favourite restaurant, Boeucc, which claims to have been here since 1696, is also closed, but only for the holidays. There you will find the best porcini mushrooms, grilled like steak and a genuine escalope Milanese or orecchio di elefante, which means it has the bone attached and is beaten thin to cover the entire plate.

A PILGRIMAGE

I love the south of France, the sky is clear and blue and there’s a healthy atmosphere of gluttony. Many of the local dishes are difficult to find in an acceptable quality elsewhere – aligot (a blend of mashed potato and tomme), foie gras mi cuit, omelette aux girolles and aigo bouido, a white garlic soup. It’s just the coffee that lets the French down, tasting, as Tom Wolfe says, of ‘incinerated PVC cables’. Pierre-Jacques and I are making the 600 kilometre motorised pilgrimage from Paris to Laguiolle in the Aveyron to pay homage to the culinary arts of Michel Bras, who has hung on to his three Michelin stars for eighteen straight years.

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The gargouillou at Michel Bras

The house special is gargouillou, a brilliant fireworks display of edible flowers, vegetables, shoots, leaves, stalks and roots that almost turns me into a vegetarian.

The service, the cuisine, even the place itself, perched on the lip of an escarpment, is outstanding. How was it? asks Honeybee; I tell her the dishes were mouth watering, the prices eye watering.

Apart from Michel Bras, Laguiolle is famous for its table knives. But if it came to a design knife fight the winner is clearly the Opinel, a peasant’s knife, an artisan’s instrument, ideal for whittling driftwood, peeling an orange or pruning a rose; Picasso used one as a sculpting tool. Apart from being inexpensive and useful it is also a work of art in itself and it was an

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Laguiolle (top) and Opinel

Opinel, not a Laguiolle, that was included, alongside a Rolex watch and a Porsche 911, in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 1985 exhibition of the 100 most beautiful products in the world.

The next day we drive west and south, past fields of placid Aubrac cows, through Espalion, Estaing, and Entraygues. At Conques we lunch with pilgrims resting on their 750 kilometre journey from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage becomes more popular each year; 2,491 made the journey in 1986, 277,915 in 2016. Are we becoming more religious, or has El Camino just become another item on a bucket list? We pass many pilgrims on the footpaths and lanes, all bearing the scallop shell or coquille Saint Jacques on their back-packs.

Albi, La Ville Rose, when we reach it in the evening, looks almost Tuscan with its buildings of pink brick. We are here to visit the Toulouse –Lautrec Museum. Why do we like this painter? Because he was born rich and privileged yet worked for his living, because he overcame severe physical handicap to succeed as an artist, because he lived his whole life as he wanted and understood just what had brought him that rare gift. ‘J’ai acheté ma liberté avec mes dessins.’ (I bought my freedom with my drawings’).

THE LAND OF LOST CONTENT

The Gare du Nord hasn’t changed much since the 1970s except that now there’s the Eurostar instead of the romantic Golden Arrow boat-train with its individually named Pullman cars and crossed Union and French flags on the engine. Along with faster travel Europeans have become accustomed to bomb scares and when we are herded off the platform while the Gendarmerie check out a suspicious looking suitcase, no one looks surprised let alone alarmed.

Having spent the first twenty six years of my life in London, I feel I’m going home but soon realise I’m not. ‘It’s all over; all rinsed out’, says my cousin, resident since birth in the great city. ‘Town’s nothing but a collection of empty investment properties and Air BnB apartments full of tourists. The clubs are all closing because landlords find it more lucrative to convert them to flats for rich Asians; even Annabels has been forced out of Berkley Square’. My cousin feels the city, perhaps the world, has reached its nadir. But inevitably this age, with its adult videos, tattoos, cage fighting and celebrity worship, will be lamented in its turn, just like the last.

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The Golden Arrow

 

It’s the ‘summer of love’ at the Globe theatre where the Royal Shakespeare Company is presenting Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, the latter a splendid production full of add-libs, dancing, music and audience participation that makes you think, yes, this must have been what it was like in Shakespeare’s day. After, we take the Millennium footbridge across the Thames and wander up Fleet Street, now lifeless without its newspapers, their journalists banished long ago to Wapping to hack phones. We have a drink in what was once one of the newsmens’ favourite watering holes, The Cheshire Cheese, now full of Asian tourists using its gloomy 17th century interiors as a backdrop for self-portraits.

In Gough Square we pass the home of Samuel Johnson once also the home of his manservant and friend, Francis Barber. Born Quashey, a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation, he was brought at the age of seven to London in 1750 by his English owner. After spending five years at school in Yorkshire he was freed, given a small bequest and went to work for Johnson as his valet. Johnson, an eccentric himself, commanded a strange household in which only ‘tolerable concord’ existed. The disharmony between the housekeeper, blind poet Anna Williams, Poll Carmichael, a former prostitute, Dr Levet, a destitute Quack and the cat Hodge was such that Francis ran away and joined the Navy returning to Gough Square in 1760 where he remained until Johnson’s death in 1784. During those last twenty four years he looked after his employer’s affairs, became his loyal and trusted friend and inherited the bulk of his estate. After Johnson’s death he moved to Lichfield in Staffordshire, where Johnson had been born and where he sadly lost most of his inheritance through unwise investments. Barber’s descendants apparently still farm in the area.

The next day we take the train to Norwich, the sort of city, with its 11th century cathedral and cobbled alleys, that the English travel to France to admire. I have a special feeling about Norfolk; I believe it’s the home of my ancestors. Once part of Danelaw, an area of eastern England where Viking law and the 3 Rs – rowing, raping and raiding – prevailed, it’s now a quiet refuge for ancient Britons, green, lush, dripping with willow. At Blickling Hall, where Anne Boleyn was born, there are giant, sculptured yew hedges and at Blakeney, among flocks of sea birds, people mess about in boats in the muddy tidal inlets. If it’s a sunny day and if you are near Thorpe Market then you should lunch at the Gunton Arms, part of art dealer, Ivor Braka’s beautifully restored 18th century estate, complete with herds of deer and cattle. Nowhere else will you find a Damien Hirst painting in the Ladies’ Loo or a Magritte above the residents’ lounge fire-place. The food’s good too; try the spicy wild boar sausage with chilli jam or the slow roast shoulder of lamb with summer bubble and squeak.

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The green, green grass of home

While, unlike London, the countryside remains largely unchanged – the thrush, the newt, the bumble-bee, the oak, the oast-house are all still there – it’s not the countryside I remember. Only AE Houseman can express that sense of a long gone, deeply English (and perhaps imaginary), golden age:

Into my heart on air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

WHAT DOES THE SINEW COME WITH?
Years ago, on a menu in a restaurant in the port of Piraeus, I came across two local dishes the English translations of which had me in stitches – ‘Tender bowels, stewed’ was one, ‘Lambs Dong’ the other. Regrettably, I did not try either; I suspect the first would have been some kind of tripe and the other, tongue. Since then I’ve been on the look-out for other mirth inducing dishes; so it was a pleasant surprise to find ‘Mixed pig organ congee’ on my breakfast menu at Singapore Airport. This dish I am familiar with and it can be very tasty; it’s just the translation that needs to sound more appetizing. And incidentally, how amazing is the city of Singapore. I was expecting a dry cluster of glass towers full of accountants and hedge-fund managers, endless malls of phone shops and dim sum eateries. Instead there is an inspired blend of outrageous modern architecture and beautifully restored colonial buildings. Plus, I’m told it’s the only place on Earth with a Michelin starred street food stall.

In Chefchaouen, in the Street of Outstretched Hands, my English language version of a lunch menu offers a tantalizing selection of beef leg, giblets, sinew and brains. Checking the French version I found beef leg to be a more understandable ‘Pied de Veau’, while sinew (in French?), turned out to be ‘ox penis’. IMG_6514The latter can be a bit heavy for lunch and so I opted for the beef leg, or more properly the calf’s foot, which turned out to be a bowl of tasty fat surrounded by chickpeas in broth. Delicious! I regret not trying Khlie – lamb, seasoned, sun-dried, cooked in fat, preserved in jars (rather like duck confit) and traditionally served with scrambled egg; a sort of Babel el Squeak.

In Meknes I have my boots polished while lunching al fresco on kofta and chicken brochettes and a cumin-spiced salad of pepper, cucumber, tomato and sweet onion. In the back of the café our guide, Youssef, touches the floor with the seven parts of his body in prayer. Later, after we have finished eating, he carries our leftovers into the streets for the poor and hungry, making me feel, unintentionally, like a cad.

In Essaouira Le Chalet de la Plage had been heavily recommended and first appearances look encouraging. There is a seasoned bar of warm, dark, varnished wood and a view of the sea and the islands in the bay. Over the bar hang photographs of Nicholas Cage, Orson Welles, Ron Dennis and other notables, smiling with the proprietor. Frankly, the meal was disappointing and expensive (by local standards), made bearable by a bottle of the local (Meknes) Château Roslane. The only really bad meal I had in Morocco was the lamb tagine I prepared myself at cooking school. I did complain to the chef.

Freshness, variety, seasonality and hospitality are the keynotes of Moroccan lunching and dining. Much of the food, including sheep, grown or fattened in the field, is on sale at the side of the road. A sale occurs after bargaining and bargaining brings people together. In the narrow alleys of the Fez market there are spices in coloured mountains, camel meat, small fish, eels, oranges, figs and chickens so fresh they are still alive.

It’s Tuesday and market day in Azrou and the roads are filled with slow-moving pick-ups, crammed with a mixture of sheep, goats and family members. Bedouin, whose black tents are visible on the surrounding plain, have brought their scrawny sheep to town to sell to local farmers who will fatten them up for the feast of Eid al-Adha.

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The market at Azrou

They will be eaten as mechoui when the whole sheep is roasted in a clay oven for a few hours. There is no better way to eat lamb. Later, we pass rows of fossil supermarkets selling everything from tiny trilobites to great polished slabs of fossil-filled marble destined for the walls of Joan Collins’ bathroom.

 

On the road again we are protected from accident and injury by the hand of Fatima dangling from Youssef’s rear-view mirror and reach Tafilalt safely to look down into the great palm oasis, a broad, green ribbon stretching for miles along the bed of the Ziz river. I am reminded of the importance of the palm to desert people and of these opening lines of Roy Campbell’s eponymous poem:

Blistered and dry was the desert I trod
When out of the sky with the step of a god
Victory-vanned, with her feathers out-fanned,
The palm tree alighting my journey delayed
And spread me, inviting, her carpet of shade

In his book ‘Iron John’ another poet, Robert Bly, said that white stands for semen, saliva, water, milk, lakes, rivers, the sea and priesthood, health, strength and all good things and good company and the purity of children and brides. For the Moroccans, green is the sacred colour of Islam and the colour of the doors of those who have made the haj to Mecca; it stands for life, nature and renewal and here, in the oasis, it blazes in contrast to the sun-blasted hills and dun-coloured Ksars.

Among the perfect dunes of the Sahara we will sleep in a black Bedouin tent, complete with en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning. After dark, when the encampment lights are turned off, we look up into the night sky to see what Joyce, in Ulysses, called ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ Then straight to bed as we are on the 7.30 camel in the morning.

APOLLINAIRE

What an extraordinary period for art were the early years of the twentieth century in the City of Light, much of it emanating from two refuges for poor artists and writers – Le Bateau Lavoir (the laundry boat), an ex-piano factory in the Place Emile-Goudeau in Montmartre and La Ruche (the bee-hive) situated across the river in the Passage Danzig in the 15th arrondissement.

It was the writer Max Jacob who invented the term Bateau Lavoir to describe the rickety, wooden building, which reminded him of the laundry boats on the Seine. Later he would call it the Central Laboratory of Painting. At one time or another, Braque, Derain, Van Dongen, Vlaminck, Juan Gris and Matisse as well as Max’s friend Picasso lived and/or worked there, as did writers Jean Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet.

La Ruche, originally a temporary, circular pavilion designed by Gustave Eiffel to showcase French wines at the Great Exhibition of 1900, had been dismantled and re-erected as low-cost studios for artists. Among its tenants and frequenters were Chagall, Leger, Soutine, Brancusi, Modigliani and Diego Rivera.

These innovative and talented young artists, many of them, like Soutine and Chagall, Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, were driven by poverty and exhilarated by freedom, more powerful stimulants than any strong drink or drug. ‘I knew we would make it through the Bateau Lavoir’, wrote Picasso, ‘There we were truly happy; we were considered as painters and not as curious animals’.

It is one thing to be present, quite another to recognise the importance of what’s happening around you. At the Dôme Café in Montparnasse Modigliani, who required strong liquor to fuel his creative urge, would offer a quick sketch in exchange for a glass of mominette, a cheap absinthe based on potato alcohol. How many of his drawings were framed and treasured and how many used to light the stove or compile the weekly shopping list? I wonder what I would have done with a portrait of myself with distorted face and elongated neck. Artists are not always the best people to market their own work and the tenants of the Bateau Lavoir and La Ruche were fortunate to attract the interest of art critic and poet Wilhelm Kostrowicki, the illegitimate son of a Polish noblewoman. Calling himself Guillaume Apollinaire, he drew these two artistic nests together and to the attention of the public and the collectors. Picasso and Braque had no idea they were Cubists until Apollinaire coined the term ‘Cubism’ in 1911 to describe the emerging art form. Likewise Dali, Duchamps and Max Ernst would not have known they were Surrealists if Apollinaire had not invented and included the word in an article for the program of the ballet ‘Parade’, produced in 1917 by Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie.

1st English edition; Peter Owen, London, 1976

In the early days Apollinaire was also poor, forced to sell his literary talents to the clandestine market. His erotic novel, ‘Les Onze Milles Verges’ (The Eleven Thousand Rods), written in 1907 but banned in France until 1973, is a masterpiece of smut, its title a reference to the massacre in Cologne of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand British virgins in the early centuries of the Common Era. So that’s where they all went.

It’s the story of Mony Vibescu, a Rumanian Prince who comes to Paris in search of excitement and sexual adventure, moving via the Orient Express to Bucharest and St Petersburg and ending in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War. It is verbally inventive, comic, obscene, satirical and deadly serious. A lot of the places and historical detail are actual and factual and there are real people or ideas behind the masks; example – the name of the Japanese prostitute Kilyemu is an abbreviation of ‘Celle qui l’emu’ – she who moved him. Tongue in cheek, Picasso claimed it was his favourite book, but it did remain one of his prized possessions. The publishers of my 1976 English translation omit whole paragraphs they feel too explicitly violent. These missing passages describing the crueller aspects of physical love and the triumph of evil were part of the writer’s attempts to rehabilitate the Divine Marquis and the belief that there is a fundamental purity in very bad behaviour.

His next literary works were three collections of poetry – L’Enchanteur Pourrissant (1909), Le Bestiare ou Cortege d’Orphee (1911) and Alcools (1913), the latter establishing his immediate fame and future legacy. The poems were applauded for their combining of contemporary themes with traditional poetic forms. I’ve tried to enjoy Apollinaire’s poems because I like the sound of the man, but as kindly, clever, loyal and gregarious as he was, his poems now seem sad and pessimistic.

Les feuilles
Qu’on foule
Un train
Qui roule
La vie
S’ecoule

All went well until 1911 when Vincenzo Peruggia, a former attendant at the Louvre, stole the Mona Lisa, unwittingly involving Apollinaire in the crime, and creating an international uproar. The theft, claimed the New York Times, ‘has caused such a sensation that Parisians, for the time being, have forgotten the rumours of war.’ Bouquets of flowers were placed beneath the spot where the painting had hung and the Editor of the French news magazine, L’Illustration, asked ‘What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?’ Peruggia fitted none of these descriptions; he was merely intent in returning the painting to what he considered to be its homeland, Italy, and to extract a reward for doing so. Apollinaire was arrested and briefly jailed and Picasso questioned by the police, on account of an earlier theft from the Louvre of several Iberian stone heads by Apollinaire’s secretary, which Picasso had bought and used as models for his 1907 painting ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. Peruggia kept the Mona Lisa in his Paris apartment for two years before taking it to Florence where he contacted Dott. Poggi, Director of the Uffizi Gallery, in an attempt to discuss a reward for its repatriation. But Poggi called the police who soon recovered the painting from a room in the Hotel Tripoli-Italia; Peruggia’s claim to have been motivated by patriotism earned him a sentence of just seven months.

Apollinaire by Irene Lagut from Les Onze Mille Verges

Soon after the Mona Lisa was back hanging in the Louvre, Europe went to war and, like the wind, Apollinaire’s luck changed. Taking up the Government’s offer of citizenship to any foreigner fighting for France, the stateless Apollinaire enlisted, and served at the front until 1916 when a shell fragment pierced his helmet and made him a semi-invalid. It wasn’t the Germans who finished him off but the Spanish Flu, so named because neutral Spain, free of war-time censorship, was the first country to publicise the pandemic. The most popular theory is that the flu originated in Fort Riley, Kansas and came to Europe with the American soldiers. Whatever the circumstances, Apollinaire, already weakened by his war wound, succumbed to the flu in 1918 just months after he was married. The French buried him alongside the rest of their heroes in the Père Lachaise cemetery.

The Bateau Lavoir was destroyed by fire in 1970 and rebuilt in 1978; it still provides studios, but not accommodation, for young artists.

La Ruche, saved from demolition in 1968 by Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Renoir and others, remains a collection of working studios for artists.

The hotel where Peruggia hid the Mona Lisa is still there in the via Panzani, now called Hotel La Gioconda.

TALES FROM THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE

NEL BLU DIPINTO DI BLU

After the engines had stopped and the seat-belt sign turned off, the cabin suddenly fills with music. They are playing Volare and the lady sitting next to me begins to sing along. I join her for the few lines I know because it’s that sort of song. ‘Ah, Modugno!’ she sighed and I guessed she was recalling all those Italian summers by the sea that the song evokes, although the blue mentioned in the song has nothing to do with the colour of the Mediterranean. While Volare will always be associated with singer/song-writer Domenico Modugno, it was in fact the brain-child of his lyricist partner, Franco Migliacci. Franco’s inspiration came from seeing reproductions of two of Chagall’s paintings, Le Coq Rouge and Le Peintre et La Modelle, both of which decorated the walls of the café where he was working on a new song. The first mentioned painting shows a man suspended in mid-air, a familiar feature of Chagall’s work, while the second depicts the painter with half his face painted blue. And so we have a song about a man who paints his hands and face blue before being swept up by the wind and flying away in the infinite sky. Like many great additions to the world’s cultural inventory, the qualities of Volare were not immediately recognised by the experts in the field and it was only reluctantly and belatedly included among the entrants of the 1958 San Remo Song Festival, which of course it won, going on to become the most played to air Italian song of the 20th century.

Volare is only one of the entrenched and unvarying traditions of ‘la stagione al mare’. As soon as the school holidays begin, mothers traditionally take their children to the sea, maybe to a second home in Forte dei Marmi or perhaps to a rented apartment or hotel in Alassio, while their husbands enjoy a brief period of freedom with their mistresses before their own official holidays begin and they join their families at the sea. In summer the beaches from Ventimiglia to Rimini are covered with uniform lines of deck chairs and coloured umbrellas; newly painted pedalos are dragged to the shoreline and small beachfront restaurants offer that classic seaside dish, spaghetti alle vongole, best taken with a bottle of chilled Grillo and followed by a sorbetto al limone. Each year the stabilimenti balneari find new beaches to exploit as the tide of tourists increases (up 24% in 2017). Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria are the new holiday Klondikes and already on a sunny weekend it’s standing room only on Puglia’s Gallipoli Beach.

Santa Teresa di Riva, on the Sicilian coast between Giardini Naxos and Messina, is a new and still pleasant addition to the stock of summer destinations, called into service to cope with the overspill from the stampede of tourists that has ruined Taormina. The people of Santa Teresa are courteous and friendly, there are no souvenir shops, parking is easy and the waters are free of jet-skis, kayaks and wind-surfers, while a sharply shelving and shingled beach deters families with young children.

The Bar Vitelli

High in the Nebrodi hills, which rise steeply behind the town, is the village of Savoca and its Bar Vitelli where Michael Corleone asked Apollonia’s father for her hand in marriage in The Godfather.

From the village, or better still, from the terrace of the very charming Ristorante Gelso Nero, there are lovely views out across the Mediterranean. Let us hope that the Mayor of Santa Teresa will preserve its charms by resisting any attempt by Ryan Air to establish direct flights between his town and London, Moscow and Dusseldorf. One way of choosing a holiday destination may be to list all resorts then eliminate those that are visited by cruise ships or served by cut-price airlines.

View from the Gelso Nero

Even from sea-level the shoreline of Calabria is visible across the Straits of Messina, although sometimes, in the evening, a haze melts sea into sky and the mainland disappears altogether. Before the Atlantic Ocean breached the chain of mountains joining present day Spain and Morocco five and a half million years ago, you would have been looking over a dry valley. The breach triggered the most spectacular flood in Earth’s history, creating the Mediterranean. Originally seen by the Romans as a series of smaller seas, with names taken from neighbouring coastlines and islands – Mare Tyrrhenum, Mare Balearicum and so on, later they would refer to the whole sea as Mare Magnum and later again, Mare Nostrum – Our Sea! In the second half of the 3rd century AD, when Roman ownership of the sea was beginning to be questioned, Solinus, a geographer, became the first to use the term Mediterraneum – the centre of the world, as indeed it then was and to some of us, still is.

Woody Allen used Volare to book-end his 2012 film ‘To Rome with Love’ to good effect and Luciano Pavarotti’s version of the song still leaves me feeling I’m high on drugs, but my special Volare moment will always be the time I heard it on 17th July, 1994. I remember the date because it was the day of the World Cup final between Italy and Brazil and Honeybee and I were in a night club on the island of Capri. It was a particularly fun evening; the American Ambassador to Italy was there with a large party to celebrate his birthday and we were on the island with a group of friends to see an exhibition by Veronese painter, Pippo Borrello. It was while the orchestra was playing Volare that a message was passed to the band-leader, who, after examining the content, immediately stopped the music and made this brief and tragic announcement: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am sad to tell you that Italy has lost to Brazil on penalties’. Knowing how the Italians love their soccer I expected the mood of the evening to darken and that we would now be listening to a grim selection from Cavalleria Rusticana. But, turning immediately to face his band, the Maestro raised his arms and launched his musicians straight back into the song they had briefly abandoned …..

 Mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiu’
Una musica dolce suonava soltanto per me
Volare oh, oh
Cantare oh, oh, oh, oh
Nel blu dipinto di blu
Felice di stare lassu’
Ma tutti i sogni nell’alba svaniscon perche’
Quando tramonta la luna il porta con se’
Ma io continuo a sognare negli occhi tuoi belli
Che sono blu come un cielo trapunto di stelle

And everyone clapped and cheered and it was the very best of evenings.

 

VOLUBILIS

The fruit of that grand and tragic love affair between Anthony and Cleopatra consisted of a boy, Ptolemy, and twins – Helios (the sun), another boy and Selene (the moon), a girl. After their parents were defeated at Actium by Octavian and had taken their own lives, the children were dragged to Rome in golden chains as evidence of imperial insuperability. There, in an act of extraordinary charity, Anthony’s former wife (and sister to Octavian), saved the children from further public humiliation by taking them into her household. The fates of Ptolemy and Helios are unrecorded, but we know that Selene matured into a well-educated woman, whose loyalty to her captors was rewarded with Roman citizenship. Another contemporary, political prisoner in Rome, Juba II, King of Numidia, had also become Romanised, in spite of his father’s defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar and the appropriation of his Berber kingdom as a Roman Province.  In a bizarre turn of events, while Selene enjoyed the patronage of Octavia, Juba was befriended and supported by her brother, Octavian and was at his side at Actium. Notwithstanding Juba’s involvement in the defeat of her parents, Selene married Juba and the couple were dispatched by Octavian (now the Emperor Augustus) to develop and govern Mauretania, the far South Western reaches of the empire. Their mission began around 20BC with the founding of the city of Caesarea (now Cherchell in present day Algeria) and continued westward to Volubilis, an existing city of Phoenician and Berber origins, which became the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania and therefore, some say, of modern Morocco. Its position on a ridge at the base of the Zerhoun mountain provides the visitor with fine panorama of a Roman city with its temples, agora, basilica and triumphal arch.   Although only partly excavated, the exposed mosaics are as fine as you will see anywhere and the small museum contains some interesting artefacts as well as spotlessly clean lavatories. It is a column from Volubilis that serves as a monument to Yves Saint-Laurent’s life and achievements in the Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech.

Our guide points out a farm in the plain to the South, the property of the de Villepin family, one of whom, the effete and snooty Dominique, was prime minister during the Chirac presidency. The lower slopes of the hills to the North are covered in olive trees, and local production of oil has survived for thousands of years, for no fewer than 85 olive presses were found during excavations of Volubilis. Every souk has its mountains of green, yellow and black olives although the oil is somewhat bland and not a patch on the green and peppery Tuscan variety. More suitable for pouring on the body than a salad, as I found out the next day at a Hamman where I was oiled, scraped and sandpapered and then sluiced down like the orlop deck of the Victory after a particularly sanguinary amputation. I’m not sure how many layers of skin were removed but my sun-tan had disappeared and my entire rib cage was visible as if through an x-ray. Retiring to an adjacent room for a massage, I was handed a tiny envelope containing two small eye patches joined by an elastic band; talk about ‘invisible panty line’! Anyway it was just enough to save me from six months for indecent exposure. Again, I was copiously lubricated, this time with Argan oil, before the masseuse got to work on my recumbent skeleton. Now, I’ve always thought that ‘argan’ was Arabic for ‘engine’ but Honeybee says no, argan oil is produced from the kernels of the small, brown nuts that grow, along with goats, on the argan tree.

Argan nut and goat tree

Apart from olive oil, grain and Barbary lions, Mauretania’s other main export to Rome was the purple dye extracted from the gland of the spiny Murex rock-snail. A Phoenician myth tells us that it was the pet dog of Tyros, mistress of Tyre’s patron god, Melquart, that bit into a shell, covered its mouth in purple dye and made the Phoenicians rich. The 1636 painting by Peter Paul Rubens depicts the same myth but substitutes Herakles for Tyros as the dog’s owner, reflecting Rome’s desire to replace Phoenician gods with their own. Tyrian purple dye, produced by the Phoenicians as early as 1,500 BC, was prized for the intensity of colour and its resistance to fading. On account of the vast number of shells needed to produce a small quantity of dye and because of the difficult and lengthy production process, the dye was fabulously expensive. Someone with nothing better to do has calculated that it takes roughly twelve thousand shells to produce 1.4 grams of dye, just enough to colour the border of a single garment. In re-establishing the ancient Phoenician process of manufacturing Tyrian purple dye using the spiny Murex shells that thrive among the intertidal rocks at Essaouira on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Juba helped make Mauretania one of the wealthiest of Rome’s client kingdoms.

Following Juba’s death in 23AD, his son, Ptolemy, inherited the kingdom but, like many a second generation, not his father’s aptitude for hard work and frugality, although he continued to display the same level of loyalty to Rome and was rewarded for such with an ivory sceptre and triumphal cloak. Acquiring expensive wardrobe tastes, Ptolemy began wearing togas and cloaks in Tyrian purple in defiance of Roman sumptuary laws, which decreed that only the Emperor could use the dye to border his toga and bed sheets and to brighten the guest hand-towels in the Tepidarium. Invited to Rome in 40AD by the unbalanced and bloodthirsty Caligula, Ptolemy was assassinated on the Emperor’s orders. Was Caligula merely piqued at Ptolemy wearing the full Murex or was he concerned that sporting the Imperial purple was a sign of his guest’s political ambitions? Anyway, that was the end of the Kingdom of Mauretania, which was thereafter divided into two separate provinces. Volubilis continued to thrive until 285AD when it fell to local tribes. Ptolemy is still remembered as the first man to die for fashion.

 

THE LAST LION

After Chefchaouen, a Wedgewood maze of souvenir shops, the road South takes us through the Rif Mountains and, after Fez, to Ifrane, a pleasant town surrounded by a forest of pine and cedar, home to the miniature Barbary ape. Built by the French in 1929 as a resort, the town centre is distinguished by a fine sculpture of a Barbary lion, chiselled from rock by an Italian POW in 1945. Barbary lions once roamed the deserts and mountains of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco. Thousands were shipped to the Coliseum and other Roman amphitheatres to be fed on a tasty diet of Christians and gladiators. Later they were sought after by private and public zoos for their size and magnificent black manes and finally polished off by 19th century hunters. The kudos of shooting the last Barbary lion goes to an anonymous French hunter who, it was thought, had extinguished the species in 1922, although reports of subsequent sightings suggest that the Barbary lion may only have become extinct in the wild as late as 1956.

After Ifrane we continue on over dusty plains where the main mode of transport is the mule or donkey – small, miserable creatures on spindly legs, hung like men, sometimes almost invisible under a mountain of hay or an owner, sitting side-saddle and tapping its skinny buttocks as he jogs along.     It’s mid-summer, time, according to our guide, for the dreaded chergui, a fierce East wind that can shrivel a field of plump olives into a crop of desiccated peas in minutes. At Ouarzazate we pass a series of vast movie production studios, their lots crammed with ersatz temples and colossal Egyptian gods in painted polystyrene. On a bank of sand dunes stand the plywood and plaster walls of Jerusalem, once defended by Orlando Bloom against a crowd of turbaned extras in the 2005 epic ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. The studios are a major source of foreign income for Morocco, but more important for its future is what lies beyond the studios – the world’s largest solar power plant, designed to provide 52% of the country’s energy by 2030. On the Mediterranean coast, improvements to the port of Tangiers will soon make it one of the twenty biggest ports in the world. Clearly not all the country is moving at a mule’s pace, perhaps because Morocco benefits from the very best form of government – benevolent despotism. Hearing that another major project was behind schedule, the despotic but immensely popular King Mohammed VI immediately cancelled holiday leave for all management personnel. Now there’s a thought.

The lives of some authors rival their writing in interest; Byron, Hemmingway and DH Lawrence spring to mind. Gavin Maxwell, Scottish aristocrat, naturalist, explorer, secret agent and racing driver was another. His book ‘Ring of Bright Water’ (1956), which tells how the author raised otters he had brought back to Scotland from the reed marshes of South Iraq, established his literary reputation, while ‘Lords of the Atlas; Morocco, the Rise and Fall of  the House of Glaoua‘, published in 1966, provides a riveting portrait of Morocco’s recent political history. The Glaoui were one of several Berber tribes that, for centuries, had struggled for dominance in the High Atlas. Their fortunes improved in 1893 when they were rewarded for saving the Sultan from a blizzard with the gift of a 77mm cannon, which was used to immediately subdue their rivals. For supporting the French Protectorate T’hami el Glaoui, son of an Ethiopian concubine, was made Pasha of Marrakech and given control over the South’s olive and saffron trade and the region’s salt and mineral mines, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world. Guests at his palaces in Telouet and Marrakech included Maurice Ravel, Colette, General Patton, Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill. In spite of owning hundreds of slaves, he was a personal guest of Churchill at the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. By then the end of the Protectorate was in sight and in 1955, after restoring the previously exiled Sultan, the French withdrew, leaving El Glaoui to his fate. They didn’t shoot Morocco’s last great Southern leader, but when he died in 1956 the mob looted his palaces and lynched his henchmen. His reputation as a traitor remains intact and the verb glaouiser (to betray) has become part of French political jargon.

Kasbah of Telouet

We are in the High Atlas mountains, travelling the narrow road built by the French Foreign Legion in 1936 and since largely unrepaired. At eight thousand feet, on the corner of a desert plateau and surrounded by giant peaks we reach the Kasbah of Telouet, once El Glaoui’s fortress palace, now a crumbling building of red stone, pisé and green roof tiles. The Chinese silk panels and the rugs from Rabat have all gone. From the same balcony where I’m told Churchill once watched Berber horsemen show their skills, I can see the nearby village of Telouet, full of descendants of El Glaoui’s slaves. The field where the horsemen once rode for Churchill is now a dusty football pitch.

THE FACE OF WINE

I don’t know about you but I’m addicted to the graphic image and the printed word. As a child I ate quietly and obediently, absorbed with the nutrition charts on jars of (my) baby food and later with the marketing drivel on the backs of cereal packets. My first instinct on visiting someone’s home is to scan the walls for literature and, if that’s all there is, I will settle for a framed Lord’s Prayer in crotchet. There is a small library in our toilet where I am reading Herodotus in bathroom instalments and I cannot enjoy a new bottle of wine without reading both front and back labels. In fact, when it comes to the overall enjoyment of wine, the label seems to play a not insubstantial part.

THE GOOD

THE GOOD

If I’m looking at a choice between two previously untried, similarly priced wines, I let the label decide. Is the front label a thing of beauty, with the gravitas that signals a noble drop or has the design work been given to the winemaker’s niece who is in her first year at TAFE? Worse, are you looking at an excruciatingly poor attempt to appear cool and funky.

THE BLAND

THE BLAND

 

‘Avoid any wine with an Australian animal on the label’ says top Sydney sommelier Tim Watkins. Good Food.com goes further, advising us to shun any wine with a label bearing pink goannas, holograms, fuschia, animals smoking or wearing glasses, PowerPoint clip art, bananas, wedding invitations and any using the font types, Comic Sans, Papyrus, Curiz and Chiller.

AND ...THE UGLY

AND …THE UGLY

These are the labels of the counter-culture, a reaction to what is still sometimes perceived as the domain of the cultured and the elitists. It’s easier to break down elite doors than to become part of the elite. Defenders of the pink goanna will simply tell you it sells wine.

Then there are the so-called celebrity or Rock and Pop wines. Some are serious winemakers and label accordingly. Top of the list is Queen Elizabeth II with her conservatively labelled Windsor Estate sparkling chardonnay. The label on Francis Ford Coppola’s Californian cabernet sauvignon is also in classic style. Brad and Ange’s Mirval Rose (shortly to be sold in halves) comes in a display-sized Eau de Toilette bottle while Sting spoils some fine Tuscan reds by naming them after his songs – ‘Sister Moon’ and ‘When we Dance’. Very naf, but positively restrained compared to ‘Chateau Madge’, Madonna’s Napa Valley winery, which, in 2006, produced ‘Confessions on a Dance Floor’ showing the producer, hand-painted, dancing under etched disco lights.

CHATEAU MADGE

CHATEAU MADGE

Celebrity Cellars, a wine company owned jointly by Barbra Streisand and her manager, Marty Erlichman, takes a different approach, partnering with celebrities to market etched or labelled bottles using the stars’ logo and imagery. Apart from Barbra herself there are bottles etched or labelled with the images of KISS, Celine Dion, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, or rather Mick’s tongue which sticks out on the particularly grotesque ‘Glitter Tongue’ six-pack.

THE ROLLING STONES SIX PACK

THE ROLLING STONES SIX PACK

‘We are not selling what’s in the bottle but what’s outside’ says Marty, adding that ‘only one in five buyers actually drink (the wines)’. Yes, better they remain unopened on display in the den where, if they remain there long enough, they may appreciate in value like the 1995 ‘Frank Sinatra’ cabernet, seen recently on sale on e-bay for US$540. It was a very good year.

1995 FRANK SINATRA EDITON

1995 FRANK SINATRA EDITON

At the other end of the spectrum are the labels of Chateau D’Yquem, Romanee Conti and the other great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, which only change in respect to the year of vintage or to accommodate new wine regulations; then, why would you pay for new art-work when your wines are retailing for US$1,000 a bottle. There is one Grand Cru Bordeaux however that changes its label annually. In 1924 Chateau Mouton Rothschild first used a well-known artist to illustrate its label and, since 1945 has continued the practice for every vintage. Paintings by Jean Cocteau, Braque, Dali, Miro, Chagall, Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Francis Bacon have all been featured on the label. In 1965 Dorothea Tanning was chosen over her husband Max Ernst and, as a ‘special’ in 2004, Prince Charles contributed an incredibly dull effort to mark the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale, currently being extinguished by Theresa May and Boris Johnson.

DAVID HOCKNEY 2014

DAVID HOCKNEY 2014

 David Hockney’s 2014 label salutes the passing of his friend the Baroness Philippine Rothschild, while the 1989 label by George Baselitz, with its two upside-down rams, is a reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall. ‘Druben sein jetzt hier’ he wrote, ‘Over there is now over here’.

Dining alone with Scarlett (Johansson) in a private room at Antoine’s last week, I chose a bottle of 2010 Celebrity Cellars’ Honeymooners Collection Edition.honeymooners Our waiter, Chuck, holding the bottle as if it was the infant Jesus in his white-gloved hands, complimented me on my choice. ‘I think you will find the wine focused but unobtrusive, supple yet intense, sir’, he added, and unscrewing the capsule, poured a tiny sample into my glass, which could have accommodated a dozen goldfish. The wine had almost evaporated before it reached my lips, but I could already tell that the acidity and tannins were beautifully balanced. ‘I think you’ll like this’, I told Scarlett, ‘it’s fruit-forward with some aggressive notes of spring’. Chuck loaded both glasses and watched with disinterest as Scarlett tasted the wine. Still holding her glass she leaned back against the red velour banquette and closed her eyes, savouring, inhaling. ‘There are definite notes of graphite and pencil shavings here. I think I can detect cigar and tiger-balm too, perhaps even a hint of cappuccino’. I took another sip, trying hard, to no avail, to pick up the pencil shavings, but as the malic acid reacted to the air, my taste-buds suddenly detected additional, intense notes of incense, sea-weed, saddle-soap and chocolate. And, yes, the wine was elegant, enticingly layered, with a buttery nose and a velvety finish. Meanwhile Scarlett had found something else in the inky cabernet. ‘O my God’! she said, after dipping her petite, retrousse nose deep into the goblet, ‘I’m getting childhood summers in the Catskills!’       

 

THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS

 

Only stockbrokers or the people who lived in Downton Abbey drank wine when I was growing up in England in the 1950s; our family meals would have been accompanied by water or beer. Mother had her annual glass of Dubonnet at Christmas while my father couldn’t taste anything less than 40 degree proof. His loyalties seemed to lie with the Navy as I can only remember him drinking Cutty Sark whisky, occasionally with a beer chaser, and smoking Capstan Full Strength or Senior Service. ‘Your father’s three sheets to the wind again’ my mother would say, continuing the maritime theme when he was a little unsteady on his feet. Stronger language was employed for those occasions when he was, as PG Wodehouse described it, ‘oiled, boiled, fried, plastered, whiffled, sizzled and blotto’. Mother claimed he would live forever because his insides were pickled in alcohol; sadly this turned out not to be true. It was only when I moved to France that I finally came to grips with wine. 

Paris in the 1970s was bristling with British and American expatriates, mainly accountants and lawyers, and we tended to stick together.

img_0036

On Sundays we met for lunch at La Brasserie de L’Isle Saint-Louis or at Chartier and on Saturdays the more sporting kicked a ball about at the Standard Athletic Club in the forest of Meudon. Like many clubs around the world it was created by British ex-pats in the back-room of a bar, this time the Horseshoe Bar in the rue Copernic. That was in 1890; four years later the Club won the first ever French Football Championship; the Frogs sometimes forget where their soccer history lies. During a state visit to France in May 1972 Queen Elizabeth toured the Club’s playing fields in an open car. She had left a little too late an important part of her visit, a last meeting with the Duke of Windsor, for the Duke was too sick to leave his bed and died a month later.  Paris was full of Brits struggling with the perfect subjunctive. img_0033-2

A very dapper David Hockney was designing sets for Roland Petit’s ballet, Shirley Bassey was appearing at Le Theatre des Champs Elysees, Mick occasionally held court at Castels and we all danced at Le Palace.

 Everyone read the Herald Tribune, in those days graced with the wit of Art Buchwald, as well as the Paris Metro, a weekly English language paper where we scanned the classifieds for baby sitters and second-hand appliances, read reviews of new films and in-vogue cafes and attempted the world’s first bi-lingual crossword.

It was in the Paris Metro that I saw an advert for a newly-opened wine shop that dealt in img_0028New World wines as well as French and where a customer could taste the product before buying; these were not just innovations they were revolutionary ideas in France at the time. Only in retrospect do we understand what times we lived in.

Les Caves de la Madeleine was in La Cite Berryer, a narrow thoroughfare linking rue Boissy-d’Anglas  and rue Royale and its proprietor was Steven Spurrier, a young English Master of Wine with the effrontery to sell the French their own wine.

 

Three years later he purchased the locksmiths next door and turned it into a wine school, which many of us soon found more interesting than the sports club on Saturday mornings. img_0020Courses at L’Academie du Vin were conducted in English because it was designed to attract the expatriate community, but soon the natives were clamouring to get in and Francophone experts were added. Spurrier was now actually teaching the French about wine; the sheer cheek of it! But it didn’t end there.

Spurrier was convinced that great wines could be produced outside of France, but there was little enthusiasm for foreign wines in a country where Burgundians didn’t drink Bordeaux. His answer was to organize, together with Patricia Gallagher, an American journalist at the Herald Tribune, a blind tasting of wines from France and the USA. The tasting took place in the Intercontinental Hotel on 24th May 1976; it was to be a fitting bicentennial nod to the American Revolution.  The judges were all French and all wine connoisseurs (including Raymond Oliver of Le Grand Vefour, and Christian Vanneque, somellier at Le Tour D’Argent), leaving a general assumption of a French victory.

Four white Burgundies were matched with six Californian Chardonnays and four red wines from Bordeaux with six Cabernet Sauvignon wines from California. The French were fielding some big guns, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion among the reds, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet amongst the whites, while none of the American wines were well known. Each judge assessed each wine, presented in neutral bottles, by giving a score out of twenty. The result was a bigger upset than Waterloo. Californian Chardonnays took first, third and fourth places; not one judge placed a Burgundy in first spot. Stags Leap, a Californian winery, took top honours in the reds. Jurist Odette Khan, Editor of La Revue du Vin de France, asked to change her vote while a more generous Aubert de Villaine of Romanee Conti merely said ‘On a pris un coup de pied dans le derriere.’

In the mythological version of the Judgement, Paris’ choice of Aphrodite, or the sensual life over the contemplative and active, resulted in a ten year war and the destruction of Troy. The wine ‘Judgement of Paris’, a term coined by George Taber of Time magazine, produced happier results. Californian wines boomed, Chateau Montelena, the winning white, became a star and in 2007 Stags Leap, created only four years before the tasting, was sold for US$185 million. No, French wine shops did not suddenly start stocking USA wines, but the point had been made, if great wines can evidently be produced in California, why not South America, South Africa and Australia?  One important result was that French producers began joining the competition instead of fighting it. In the latest ‘Eldorado’ of wine, the high country of Oregon, there were 65 vineyards thirty years ago, now there are 676. Among the growers is none other than the Drouhin family from Burgundy, makers of the Beaune Clos des Mouches that lost out in the Judgement.

A film of the event ‘Bottle Shock’, made in 2008, left Spurrier unimpressed even though he was portrayed by that gentle artist, Alan Rickman.

Footnote 1

With Spurrier’s financial backing, an ex-employee, Chuck Scupham, opened a restaurant next to the Academie. It was called Le Moulin du Village and its faux rustic air and ‘cuisine du marche’ made it a novelty at first, but Chuck is an unfortunate name for a chef.  In 1980 another ex-employee of Spurrier, Mark Williamson, opened perhaps the first real wine bar in Paris. When the choice in most French cafes was between a basic red and white varietal, Willi had an extensive selection of fine, especially Rhone wines; he was known as the ‘Rhone Ranger’. Willi’s is still there, where it first opened, in rue des Petits Champs. L’Academie du Vin was sold to Baron Rothschild’s Chateau Clarke in 1988. 

Footnote 2

An Australian expatriate, Barbara Harvey, spotting some 1978 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon at the Caves de la Madeleine, and mindful of Spurrier’s good taste, bought a case of the same as soon as she returned home to Sydney in 1981. Thirty five years later we drank her last bottle at Tetsuya’s, or rather most of it, because due to a decanting mishap some of it was lost. A week later Barb received a call from Tetsuya himself, asking for details of the lost wine. Two weeks later a bottle of 1978 Coonawarra Cab Sav arrived on Barb’s doorstep. That, mes amis, is class!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GOD OF WINE

If I am lucky enough to be in Vienna in the autumn then Theo will take me to the leafy suburb of Grinzing and we will settle into a heuriger to share a carafe or two of Gruner Veltliner, the local wine that’s as tart and green as a Granny Smith. A heuriger, or tavern, will indicate that it is open for business by displaying a bush (buschen) of pine twigs over the door, a practice once common in England (where the bush was of ivy) and now only remembered on the occasional pub-sign, but not however that of The Bull and Bush, which refers to Henry VII’s siege of Boulogne in 1492 and is a corruption of Boulogne bouche (blockaded). It was the Romans that introduced this most ancient device of the wine-seller into the far parts of its empire which is enshrined in the proverb, still current, that a good wine needs no bush. In Rome it was vine branches rather than pine twigs or ivy that were pinned over the tavern lintel in honour of the grape and in reverence to the God of Wine.

Wine’s origins are only conjecture but it seems likely that someone, perhaps somewhere in the Caucasus and several millennia BC, took a sip of the juice of a bunch of rotten grapes and experienced a brief moment of euphoria or perhaps a longer period of drowsiness. It was this mind-changing quality of the fermented grape, interpreted as divine, that made wine originally part of ancient religious ritual; it continues today in the Eucharist. As viticulture spread West people began to celebrate wine’s heavenly qualities and its blood association with libations and religious orgies, either creating a specific wine divinity or extending the responsibilities of an existing deity to include the grape vine. Robert Graves in The White Goddess tells us that the vine was sacred to Osiris and that the golden vine was one of the principal ornaments of the temple of Jerusalem.

When the vine cult reached Greece during the last period of the Bronze Age (1600 and 1100 BC), it came complete with its own God, Dionysus, his mystic history linked to the spread of the vine-cult. Dionysus had no contemporary apostles to record his past life and arrival in Greece but by all accounts he was a foreigner, almost certainly from Thrace (an area now comprising south eastern Bulgaria, Northern Greece and European Turkey).

The Greeks took to wine like ducks to water, excited by the fact that it superseded all previous intoxicants. Possibly on account of climate and certainly because of their skill in producing totally airtight amphorae, they became master winemakers with the vintages of Lesbos and Chios the most highly prized. The Pramnian from Lesbos, mentioned by Homer in The Iliad, became the most famous wine of antiquity and, like most other Greek wines, it was sweet, thick and tangy (from the resin smeared on the inside of the vats) and drunk diluted with water. Dionysus has long departed and no great wines are produced in Greece today, but if you can force down a glass of the omnipresent Retsina it will provide a clue to the taste of those ancient wines.

There were life-style adjustments to accommodate the new cult of the vine, for wine is a civilising agent and set the Greeks apart from the beer drinking barbarians, a thought endorsed thousands of years later by Martin Luther when he said ‘Beer is made by man, wine by God’. Symposia, (cheese and wine parties) became common while everyone, in a gruesome fore-runner of the ‘Trivia Night’, played Kottabos, a game where reposing diners flicked the lees in their wine cups at a target (a small statue on top of a bronze standard) while uttering the name of their lover.

As the importance of wine grew, not least because of its value as an export, so grew the profile and following of the Wine God. Hesiod, writing between 750 and 650 BC provided much needed details of the God’s origins, claiming Dionysus to be the son of Zeus and Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes, making him the only Olympian with a mortal mother. Semele’s death was quite spectacular; persuaded by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, to demand the true identity of her lover, she was allowed a brief glimpse of the God before being consumed in his divine fire while, in the same instance, Dionysus was snatched to safety by his father. As a son of Zeus he became the half-brother of Hermes, the God of silk scarves and expensive costume jewellery. Not destined to remain in Olympus Dionysus roamed Earth teaching oenology and good humour for his other name was Charidotes, Giver of Charm.

Eternally youthful, dressed in panther skin, crowned with vine leaves and grape bunches Dionysus carries the thyrsus, a wand bound with ivy and grape vines and topped with a pine cone, which he wields like a bandmaster’s baton as he leads his thiasus, his inebriated, dancing retinue, lead by goat-footed Satyrs under the leadership of purple-faced Silenus, his mentor and the model for every drunken lecher from Gargantua to Falstaff and followed by a rabble of dancing, intoxicated Maenads. Wine is best enjoyed in company.

The worship of Dionysus followed the classic theme of seasonal death and rebirth, the God most active in springtime when the trees and vines burst into life and the whole world is intoxicated by desire. The Dionysian Mysteries used wine, dance and music to liberate the participants from the prison of everyday pre-occupation. Not much has changed in three thousand years except that the celebrations are now continuous and secular. The Wine God was popular because his religion embraced those marginalised by Greek society – slaves, foreigners and women. The dances and ceremonies performed by masked Maenads are believed to be the first birth signs of drama as an art form.

Dionysus was the God of Wine and Wine-making, of Religious Ecstasy, of Fertility (Priapus was a son), of Pleasure and, latterly of the Theatre; but he was not the God of Drunkenness, which was the lot of Silenus. The Greeks were well aware that the dangers of denial were equalled by the dangers of excess. In this piece of dialogue from ‘Semele or Dionysus’, a 375 BC play by Eubulus, , Dionysus says:

Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture.[17]

 

It was only a matter of time before the wine cult spread North from the Greek settlements among the coastal towns of Southern Italy and eventually Dionysus moved to Rome and changed his name to Bacchus. The Romans proved even better wine-makers than the Greeks whose wine soon went out of fashion after the first of the great Italian vintages, the Opimian which appeared in 121 BC, followed shortly after by the Falernian. By the time Augustus began ruling the Empire in 27BC vines were growing in the North of Italy and Rhaetic, the ancestor of Soave, became the Emperor’s favourite wine. In Rome the Dionysian orgies became the Bacchanalia, which unfortunately got out of hand because they are known from measures taken by the Roman senate to repress them in the third century BC.

There are no longer any temples dedicated to Bacchus, no statues to touch in the Forum, although he is still visible in the World’s major art museums in the form of paintings by Titian, Velazquez, Delacroix, Poussin and Caravaggio. Most representations of Bacchus record the moment he came upon Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, made her his wife and set her among the stars.

I can understand the economy of having a God of Everything but He is far too serious, much too busy to assist in those minor, instinctive, every day issues which seem important to us at the time. And so it is Bacchus that we turn to when opening a bottle of 86 Sassicaia, praying that the cork stays firm, that the wine has not lost its freshness and that it cements the conviviality of good company.

Although he may have briefly pointed the tip of his thyrsus in the direction of Bordeaux and the Cote D’Or, The God of Wine is the God of Italian wine. I feel he is at home in the organised pandemonium of his adoptive home, more comfortable among its trailing vines than between the clipped and manicured rows of French vines or in the soulless wineries of the New World.

When pleasantly astounded by the unexpected we say ‘O My God!’; the Italians still say what they have always said, ‘Per Bacco!’

 

MY WEEK

Mundaneday
Gymday
Cleanersday
Binsday
Stephen Fryday
Footyday
Glumday

September 19th

Monday is always a bad day for me as I suffer from post-natal depression, or rather, I have been subject to mild and occasional attacks of what I prefer to call accidie for as long as I can remember. Depression is a clinical condition treatable with medication and psychotherapy; accidie (or acedia) is the debilitating effect of ennui, treatable by exposure to excitement or a cold shower. Accidie is transitory, temporal; depression can be lasting, sometimes permanent. Depression sufferers are often unaware of the cause of their misery; those afflicted with accidie know exactly what drives their mental lethargy – boredom, melancholia induced by reflection on the human condition, nostalgia for a real or imagined past and lovesickness.

It was at school while studying the perennially lovesick Elizabethan lyricists that I first heard the term mentioned, a master using it to describe the despair over unrequited love included in the verse and drama of John Lyly, Sir Thomas Wyatt, John Ford, Thomas Nashe, William Shakespeare and others. From the mid 16th century and well into the 17th melancholia was a full-blown epidemic. Some scholars point to the war with Spain and an uncertain political and religious climate but, more likely, melancholy, along with a lean and pale demeanour, was a fashion of the time and helped set off a well-cut ensemble of cloak, tights and doublet in lamp black. Much of its popularity can be attributed to the tradition that Aristotle claimed melancholy to be the most desirable human condition, providing intellectual powers. This lasting concept was largely based on Cicero’s writing  ‘Aristotle says that all geniuses are melancholic’ and reinforced by Plutarch’s  ‘Aristotle, declaring that the great natures are melancholic, such as Socrates, Plato and Hercules, records that Lysander too…..was afflicted with melancholy’.

The term, accidie, originally from the Greek akedia – lack of care (for life and one’s self), has long been out of fashion as doctors invent new terms for the endless varieties of mental illness they identify. It first arose in the 4th century CE when early Christian monks, hermits and ascetics followed the example of Anthony the Great and set up cenobitic communities in Egypt’s Nitrian desert.  Among the Desert Fathers, as they are known, some failed to adhere to the stringent asceticism and solitary life, neglecting their religious duties, generally ‘letting themselves go’ and becoming the first sufferers of accidie, a sin listed   among Evagrius Ponticus’ 8 patterns of evil thought compiled in 275CE. Two centuries later Pope Gregory I combined Evragius’ sins of sorrow (depression) and accidie (sloth) to give us our standard list of Seven Deadly Sins. Knowingly or not, he had, rightly, eliminated depression as a sin.

Whereas depression, aka the Black Dog (an expression associated with Winston Churchill but already in use in the 18th century), is a most dreadful illness, accidie has its supporters. ‘Melancholy’, wrote Victor Hugo, ‘is the pleasure of being sad’. ‘Depression’ added Susan Sontag ‘is melancholy minus its charm’. Beaudelaire, an accidie sufferer if ever there was one, tells us that he ‘can barley conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy’. Hamlet suffered from accidie. Some say Sherlock Holmes was bi-polar, but he definitely suffered from boredom, as did Graham Greene. The English author has been labelled as manic-depressive, but Paul Theroux, who knew Greene, describes him as ‘an authentic melancholic’ in his article for the New York Times, ‘Damned Old Graham Greene’. Greene’s ennui was such that he rarely spent more than a few weeks in one place, constantly moving between his properties in Antibes, Capri and Paris. Sex as well as travel, rescued him from the old ennui, and he maintained a wife, a stable of mistresses as well as paying the odd visit to a prostitute, a habit likened by a friend to ‘paying someone to let you beat them at tennis’.

The actor George Sanders was another victim. Famous for Shere Khan’s patrician drawl in The Jungle Book, George ended it all by swallowing 5 bottles of Nembutal in a hotel on the Costa Brava. He was 65 and world-weary in spite of marrying BOTH Zsa Zsa AND Magda, two thirds of the notoriously glamorous Gabor sisters. ‘Dear World’, he wrote in a suicide note, ‘I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck!’

September 20th

It must have been sometime between 8 and 8.15 when I woke up. I always have a good stretch on waking but this time I was startled when my left hand encountered another body in the bed, which was a surprise because Honeybee is usually well gone by 8 am. Imagine my shock when I found the body belonged to none other than Scarlett Johansson, wearing nothing but diamond studs in each earlobe and a dash of Mitsouko behind each ear; not even a small residue of polish on a toe-nail. Shock gave way to puzzlement as I began wondering how she had got in; I‘m fairly sure I never gave her a key. ‘How?’ I asked. ‘Under the flower pot’ she replied. Of course, she would have known that’s where keys are kept from her considerable film experience. Most people only know the public Scarlett, the Hollywood Star twice voted ‘Sexiest Woman Alive’ by Esquire magazine. Here with me she can do what she enjoys best, curling up on the couch in one of my old sweaters, watching the footy with a Tim Tam and cup of tea. I next remember waking up again around 11. Scarlett had gone, leaving not so much as a faint whiff of Mitsouko on the pillow. Lying there I realised I had narrowly escaped a very unpleasant scene. If Honeybee had decided to go in late to the office there would have been hell to pay. I spent an hour cleaning up, searching for dyed blonde hairs and stray items of La Perla underwear, but all was clean. Then I moved the spare house key from under the flower pot and hid it under the watering can. That should put a stop to Scarlett’s dangerous games!

September 21sti

Have just finished reading ‘Good Sense vs Doom and Gloom’ a review in the Financial Review of Johan Norberg’s book ’10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future’. Being occasionally despondent as I contemplate the inevitability of decay, I am always interested in some hopeful news.  So what is Mr Norberg offering to cheer us up? Life, he says, is getting better, a fact not generally understood because journalists find calamities more sensational reporting than good news. Poverty, worldwide, he says, is diminishing with only 10% of humanity subsisting on less than $2 per day; 68% of the world’s population now has modern sanitation; better nutrition and the spread of education has raised the IQ level in America to an average of 118. So why, I ask, are so many Americans trying to elect Donald Trump to the White House? Violence, it seems, is down, the homicide rate among hunter-gatherer societies being 500 times what it is in Europe today, probably thanks to the CCTV camera. This is a mathematician’s view of the world. Norberg ignores the rise of greed and selfishness that came hand in hand with increased prosperity; the proliferation of retirement villages for abandoned parents; the decline in human contact as the virtual eclipses the real world. In her book ‘Acedia & Me’, Kathleen Norris sums up pretty well why many do not believe in a better future. Advertising ploys, she says, engender dissatisfaction with our highly structured, multi-tasking lives. We are oversaturated with data but receive little real information. ‘In this hyped-up world, broadcast and internet news media have emerged as acedia’s (indifference’s) perfect vehicles, demanding that we care, all at once, about a suicide bombing, a celebrity divorce and the latest advance in nanotechnology.’

The future’s not what it used to be.

September 22nd

Saw such a good film on TCM, ‘This Time for Keeps’, made in 1947 and starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams, the ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’.  Esther carved gracefully through the water without the aid of the oxen shoulders developed by today’s aquatic stars and still managed to look ravishing in a bathing costume that covered only slightly less than a burkini. There are stories that she and Johnny Weissmuller once dated – what swimming champions they might have produced! Once his career as Tarzan and Jungle Jim was over, Johnny, winner of 5 Olympic gold medals, could be found greeting punters at the door of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in the company of that great boxing champion, Joe Louis. How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!

Now, back to the film and a word on its very impressive location. I’d never heard of Mackinac and had to resort to Google to learn that it was an island in Lake Huron, a beautiful holiday resort, its centrepiece a stunning Victorian Hotel with a veranda like the keyboard of a giant grand piano. It’s also in Michigan, a state which doesn’t normally get a good press, being often depicted in permanent winter, the natives in caps with flaps, speaking slowly with Swedish accents while shovelling snow from their shop fronts; solitary men sitting on camp stools fishing through holes in the ice. It sounds like the sort of climate that would produce a hefty number of accidie sufferers. But no, in her book ‘The Geography of Melancholy, Tara Isabel Burton tells us that it’s not nature but cities that evoke melancholy. The countryside may alter its complexion as seasons change but it remains basically in situ. Nature attracts Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Coleridge whereas the melancholia sufferers are urban writers like Beaudelaire, Graham Greene and the late, lamented Jeffrey Bernard who wrote the Low Life column in The Spectator. After his death in 1997, a collection of his articles was published under the splendid title ‘Reach for the Ground – The Downhill Struggle of Jeffrey Bernard’, a catalogue of the writer’s drunken but insightful meanderings in that one time capital of melancholia – London’s Soho. Cities alter permanently each day; what you loved about your neighbourhood in your youth almost certainly will not be there in fifty years’ time, not even if it’s a 12th century monastery if you live in Aleppo. I’m not sure about this argument, I’m pretty sure I could find some writers who felt aliens in the bush. I would agree that there are certain cities that induce melancholy. I can think of Perth (Australia), Eboli (Italy) and Ashford (England). Lille (France) used to be sad but has cheered up recently. Burton cites Lisbon, a city that even has a word, ‘saudade’, to describe nostalgia for its past, a sadness that apparently finds expression in fado. Istanbul, the author claims, is depressed over losing its former greatness and, like Portugal, has a name (huzun) for this sense of loss. Big mistake of course, changing the name; Constantinople had a much more solid ring to it. I cannot say I found Trieste depressing although I admit the name does sound a bit like the French word for sad. We are off to Tasmania next week; must remember to pack the Prozac.

September 23rd

A ferry ride into the city aboard the good ship Sirius. Broad of beam, she bustles around Sydney harbour in her cream and olive livery. It’s not a lively crowd she ferries from Neutral Bay to Circular Quay, mostly people quietly on their way to work; men and women in dark suits concerned with interest rates and the unexpected downturn in sales, talking only into cell-phones.  Sirius’s workmates join her as we nose into her No 4 berth; Golden Grove, Lady Northcote, Friendship, all names of ships of the First Fleet, names that won’t be forgotten in 100 years (unlike those of Olympic swimmers) their origins lost in time, but still powerful enough to form part of the great litany of ships whose names alone are a history lesson. Argos, Nina and Pinta, Lusitania, The Pelican, Kon Tiki. Once a famous name like Cutty Sark would help sell a brand of whiskey; now ships are named after products, forcing sailors to winch up spinnakers bearing the names of radio stations or software companies. Damn shame.

September 24th

A bottle of really heavy Australian wine last night has left me very slightly hungover this morning. Ah, the wrath of grapes! My suffering, however, was nothing like the hangover described by Sir William Connor writing under the pseudonym ‘Cassandra’ for the London Daily Mirror between 1935 and 1967, the Golden Age of the Press, the days before Dirty Digger Murdoch replaced bona fide journalists with hacks and hackers.

 A hangover is when your tongue tastes like a tram driver’s glove. Your boots seem to be steaming and your eyes burn in their sockets like gooseberries. Your stomach spins slowly on its axis and your head gently swells and contracts like a jelly in a tideway. Voices sound far off and your hands tremble like those of a centenarian condemned to death. Slight movements make you sweat, even as you shiver from the deadly cold that is within you. Bright lights hurt your eyes, and jeering, gibbering people from the night before seem to whisper in your ears, and then fade with mocking, horrible laughter into silence. The finger-nails are brittle and your skin hangs on you like an old second-hand suit. Your feet appear to be swollen, and walking is like wading through a swamp of lumpy, thick custard. Your throat is cracked and parched like the bottom of an old saucepan that has boiled dry. The next moment the symptoms change, and your mouth is stuffed with warm cotton wool. When you brush your hair you are certain that there is no top to your skull, and your brain stands naked and throbbing in the stabbing air. Your back aches and feels as though someone is nailing a placard to your shoulder blades. Knee joints have turned to dish water and eyelids are made of sheets of lead lined with sandpaper. When you lean on a table it sways gently and you know for certain that you are at sea. Should you step off a kerb you stumble, for it is a yard deep and the gutter yawns like a wide, quaking trench. You have no sense of touch and your fingertips feel with all the acuteness of decayed firewood smeared with putty. The nostrils dilate and smell the evil air. You believe that you are in a horrible dream but when you wake up you know that it will all be true. Your teeth have been filed to stumps and are about to be unscrewed one by one from your aching jaw. You want to sleep, but when you close your eyes you are dizzy, and you heel over like a water-logged barrel crammed with old, sodden cabbage stalks in the Grand Junction Canal. When you read your eyes follow each letter to try to spell the words, but in vain – no message reaches you empty, sullen brain. Should you look at a simple thing like a tree, it will appear that the bark is gradually crawling upwards. Lights flash and crackle before you and innumerable little brown dwarfs start tapping just below the base of your skull with tiny, dainty hammers made of compressed rubber.

O Death, where is thy sting?

September 25th

And Lo, it was the Sabbath, and I was sent forth unto the laundry to fetch a bottle of wine for it was the Feast of the Father and our firstborn was coming to lunch. And he came not alone, saying ‘Behold, this is my new companion and her name is Dizzi, which meaneth she that causeth men’s heads to turn’. Verily I say unto you she was a peach, but I was silent on the matter lest I be named cad. And our firstborn laid a gift at my feet and it was a set of Philips Screwdrivers from Bunnings and the price-tag showed they had cost $2.85. I waxed wrathful, saying ‘Is it not written “Honour thy Father and thy Mother”? Are you not clothed by Armani? Do you not drive a Series 3 BMW?’ And our firstborn wept with remorse and my wife comforted him, cursing me and saying ‘Verily, thou art an abomination among men, you know not of the financial burdens that beset our son.’ What man can compete with a woman who serveth up the honey and when she handeth out the vinegar, who can equal her? And we sat at the table and it was laden with the good things of Mosman, with corn and bread and meat in abundance. And I said ‘Is this not a standing rib roast which costeth an arm and a leg? I would have been pleased with a shoulder of lamb from Coles.’ And my wife answered ‘Go thy way, O Simple One! Know ye not by now that of all manner of mannah a standing rib roast is our son’s favourite?’ And I replied saying ‘Is this not MY day? Are we not celebrating the Day of the Father?’ And then the Heavens erupted and there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. And afterwards there was silence for seven days and seven nights.

MAY IN SICILY

Pleasant town, Modica; less touristy than the provincial capital, Ragusa, while still containing an adequate quota of fashionable Baroque churches. Once the capital of a corn-rich province that stretched as far as Palermo, it was the Modican corn merchants that fingered the corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres, causing Cicero to sharpen his stylus and begin one of the most famous cases in legal history. The town, mostly built in the early 18th century following an earthquake in 1693, spreads up the steep sides of a valley. Our apartment, near the floor of the valley, is in one of the narrow alleys, surrounded by balconies, roof-tops and washing drying in the sun. Pigeons coo and homeless cats roam the passageways and stone staircases.

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Modica and Franca’s shoes by night

The town comes alive at 9 am, traffic humming, bells ringing, roller shutters rattling up to reveal butchers and bakers and pasta makers. One o’clock and the town is silent as everyone except us disappears indoors for lunch and siesta. Life returns in the late afternoon when the shops reopen. Later, at dusk, the cafes and gelaterias become busy while swallows dart about reducing the mosquito population.

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We are sitting having the traditional summer Sicilian breakfast of granita di mandorle and brioche. An illegally parked car attracts the attention of a smartly dressed policewoman who gives three sharp blasts on her whistle to warn the driver, who is having a hurried cappuccino and cornetto con crema before work, that he has ten minutes to move his car or be fined. I believe this civilized attitude contributes much to the calm and laissez faire attitude of the Modicani drivers, for here you may close your eyes and cross the road anywhere in the middle of rush hour without injury and without causing anyone the slightest irritation.

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The Police keep a low profile

 

Outside the town they are harvesting hay in fields surrounded by olive and citrus. Sirocco gusts disturb the tops of bulrushes clogging the ditches; bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus hang over dry-stone walls. The walls are everywhere, criss-crossing the hillsides, delineating property and propping up ancient terraces, some perfect, some crumbling and neglected.  Wall building in this region began in the 15th century when the land-rich Cabrera family allotted plots of land to local farmers in exchange for a portion of their produce. The stones, dug from the fields to improve cultivation, were used as property boundaries and to separate animals from fruit and cereals. Ragusan dry-stone walls are particular in as much as the top of the two parallel walls are crowned with a row of semi-circular stones.

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On the road to Scicli

 

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On the road to Ragusa

At Al Molo, a five-star fish restaurant in the coastal town of Donnalucata, I look up from my plate of grilled red mullet to see a poem inscribed on the wall by Claudio, the restaurant’s genial proprietor. It’s called ‘U Muru a-siccu’ and it’s in Sicilian dialect and I can’t understand a word. Honeybee tells me it’s a dialogue between the poet and the walls, as if they are possessed of souls. Well of course they are; each stone is chosen, placed and shaped by an artisan; they are individual, beautiful and, yes, soulful. By contrast, your i.phone, your microwave oven and your black SUV with its darkened windows and six airbags have no soul. Nor does the internet. I’m not sure whether Henry Ford and Tim Berners-Lee  have really done planet Earth any favours. Am I a Luddite? Well I’m not going to smash my i.phone, I need it to call up an Uber.

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At the Castello di Donnafugata

Incidentally, those prickly pear cactus that seem so Sicilian, were actually imported from Mexico by the Spanish in the 16th century, presumably as pot-plants and decoration as the peeled fruit is only mildly interesting in a melonish sort of way.

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The beauty of the prickly pear

 

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Impossible to imagine the landscape without the prickly pear

TANTI SANTI

Sunday morning and I’m awoken by a salvo of cannon fire and a peal of bells. Is it Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture? No, it’s the festival of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the nearest of Modica’s hundred or so churches to our apartment. We hurry to the church to find the priest beginning the first of a day-long series of al fresco masses in the piazza.

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Al fresco Mass

 

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In the evening the Madonna is shown to the people

 

 

The Catholic religion is never far away in Sicily; there are shrines everywhere and rare is the home, shop or office that does not display a crucifix, a picture of a past or present Pope, a local Saint and the odd plaster statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary.

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Holy section of local supermarket

There’s bound to be a few Saintly ceremonies when you consider that, over time, the Catholic Church has made Saints of approximately 10,000 of its followers. 2013 was an exceptional year for recruitment with Pope Francis canonizing no less than 813 former citizens of the Southern Italian town of Otranto, beheaded by Ottoman invaders in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam. No surprises then, when, a week later in the town of Adrano , we witness the single celebration of three Saints.

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A trifecta of Saints – Filadelfo, Alfio & Firino

I do love all this ceremony but I can’t help thinking that the world would have had a more peaceful history if Constantine had persevered with the Roman Gods and not made Christianity the state religion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Greeks or Romans went to war to force foreigners to worship Apollo or Mars or Athena, but for purely political, defensive or territorial reasons. Anyway, I’m not sure the Romans took their religion all that seriously; how could you when you learn that your chief deity, Zeus, had seduced Leda, wife of the king of Sparta, in the guise of a swan? On the other hand look at the wonderful art and architecture this so-called pagan religion has inspired. Having a series of specialist Gods who are experienced in the area in which you are seeking help seems very logical and in keeping with modern consulting practice and I really like the idea of having a God of Wine.

MAFIUSU

‘The expression mafia and derivatives such as mafiusu, mafiuseddu denoted outstanding beauty, grace and excellence. A beautiful woman, a fine fruit were mafiuse.’
Francis Guercio, ‘Sicily, the Garden of the Mediterranean’ Faber & Faber, 1938

It is well over a century and half ago that the mafia took root in the Borgo suburb of Palermo with the admirable objective of providing redress for the oppressed in exchange for money or favours. As we all know, it quickly developed into a uniquely criminal organization dealing in illegal drugs and extortion. And yet Francis Guercio concludes that, as a result of a campaign by the Mussolini government in the mid 1930s, the mafia ‘had ceased to be anything but a terrible anachronism.’ This is not so. You cannot come to Sicily today and ignore the mafia, even if, as is likely, you will never have any direct dealings with its members. While Toto Riina remains incarcerated for the murders of those heroic Magistrates, Falcone and Borsellino, one cannot help being reminded that the piovra still winds its tentacles around Southern Italy and in particular Sicily, both the best and the worst of Italy.

  • In the Nebrodi National Park in Catania province the Mafia set fire to petrol-soaked rags they have tied to the tails of cats. The cats, fleeing in terror into forest, set fire to the undergrowth. The objective? To replace the burned trees through a Mafia controlled re-forestation company. An attempt is made to assassinate Signor Antoci, the Park’s director, when he tries to stop the Mafia renting grazing land in the Park, a long-standing practice used to skim off millions in EU farming subsidies.
  • During a religious procession in the Calabrian town of Oppido Mamertina the statue of the Virgin is diverted and taken in front of the house belonging to the local mob boss, where the statue is made to bow as a mark of respect to the resident ‘man of honour’.
  • In Palermo, police trap four criminals following a robbery and car chase but are prevented from arresting the culprits by local residents and onlookers.
  • Public and official outrage follows the televised interview between journalist Bruno Vespa and Salvo Riina, son of the assassin of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino and author of a book extolling the paternal qualities of his father, where the interviewer is accused of providing a marketing coup for the mafia. Many independent bookstores refuse to sell the book.

 AL MARE

Here, on the coast of Ragusa province, we are at the most Southerly point of Europe, where the Ionian Sea meets the Mediterranean. The nicest beaches are between Pozzallo and Santa Croce. At Donnalucata in May we have the beach to ourselves. We arrive early when the fishermen display last night’s catch

Although over 5,000 refugees have arrived in the nearby port of Pozzallo since the new year began, I hear and see only signs of welcome among the Sicilians. Scores of the North African fishing boats that succeed in making the dangerous crossing are piled on the beaches awaiting incineration.

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Refugee boats dumped on the beach near Pozzallo

L’AMORE

In spite of the chaotic politics, the graft and the refugees, what graffiti there is tends to be uniquely concerned with l’amore: 

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‘I want to hold you in my arms, protect you from everything and everybody and never let you go!’

 

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‘Let my white soul become inky black to give to you.’          Quite dark, that one.

 

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‘Love is….’ a whimsical question on a wall near my mother-in-law’s apartment. I’m pretty sure it’s not her handwriting.

 

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‘Either I love you or I kill you’!!! Andrea. Hmmm…

 

UNDER THE VOLCANO

We are staying in an agritourism hotel in Schettino, a small town on the slopes of Etna. Our dinner order, chosen from a menu dominated by frozen products, is taken by the sour-faced proprietor and served by a waiter from the cast of The Munsters. The pillows in the bedroom are fashioned from railway sleepers and a gurgling water system keeps us awake all night. But all this is forgotten in the morning when we open the blinds, look up and see Etna, cloud-free in a brilliant blue sky.

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Cloud-free Etna

We drive clockwise around the volcano, through Adrano, Bronte and the medieval town of Randazzo. Broom and wild flowers blossom among the lava deposits and small vineyards border the road, separated by dry-stone lava walls.

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Broom grows where the lava deposits are more recent. Those are minor extinct volcanos in the distance

Until recently the wine produced here was for local consumption only; now it is to be found in the best restaurants from California to Tokyo. Near the little village of Passopisciaro, Franco and Gianni show us around their immaculate vineyard and let us taste their wines made from 90 year old Nerello Mascalese vines. Their red Calcagno wines are so good that I have to exercise all of my feeble willpower to spit out rather than swallow these splendid wines, but we do have a long road back to Modica.

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Calcagno vineyard at Passopisciaro

We are on the sea-front in Giardini Naxos, the sun is sparkling on the Ionian Sea and it is time for lunch. Honeybee inquires after a good fish restaurant from the proprietor of a sports goods shop who is watching the passing traffic from his doorway.

Shopowner : Buon giorno, Signora! You have come to the right person for I can direct you to a trattoria where you will eat well and pay little.

Honeybee : We are looking to enjoy some seafood.

Shopowner : Beppe has the freshest seafood in all Naxos and his Spaghetti ai Ricci (pasta with sea-urchin) is a culinary miracolo.

Voice from within : There will be no ricci today because your cousin was playing cards all night and failed to take his boat out.

Shopowner : Don’t listen; Beppe always has ricci. He mixes the urchin-meat with a little cream and parsley, adds a whiff of peperoncino and a pinch of salt and ecco, un piatto da morire!!

The speaker joins the tips of his forefinger and thumb, purses his lips and rolls his eyes to heaven in an expression of ecstasy before giving directions to the Trattoria del Marinaio

Honeybee : Are there any vegetarian dishes, my sister is a vegan?

Shopowner : (Glumly) Ah, I have heard about such people; Beppe receives guests to his table from many different countries.

Honeybee : I expect there will be an insalata of some kind…

Shopowner : (shrugging unhopefully) Perhaps, Signora. Now don’t forget to ask for Beppe and tell him Carlo sends you.

Voice from within : Beppe will not be there; his mother finally got a bed in the hospital in Messina and is having her legs treated this very afternoon by Professore Bontempo. Beppe will be taking her the flowers he bought yesterday from that ladro’s stall in front of the Comune.

Shopowner: In that case Carmina will be doing the cooking!

Voice from within : Carmina cannot boil water; in any case I saw la troia disappearing on the back of Franco’s Vespa the moment Beppe was out of sight.

Shopowner: Ahhh.. so.. perhaps the restaurant will be closed….. mi dispiace, Signora. Buon pranzo e buon proseguimento. 

Overlooking Giardini Naxos is the once charming town of Taormina, already, in early May, awash with souvenir shops and crowds of tourists. The best time to visit Taormina would have been in 100 BC, although I remember it being still relatively unspoilt in 1972. It certainly made an impression on a neighbour of mine because he named his daughter Taormina after she was conceived there sometime in the early ‘60s. Fortunately the honeymoon wasn’t in Broadstairs or Tossa.

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Giardini-Naxos from Taormina

We are in the delightful hill-town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, which went to sleep in the 17th century and has never woken up. At least not until tonight, because in huge letters in the main Piazza we see AVE MARIA’ in neon lights announcing some religious festivities in the Duomo. It is also guest chef night at ‘Da Maiore’, a restaurant with a menu designed entirely around the insides and outsides of the Nero dei Nebrodi, a breed of Sicilian pig noted for its sausage-filling qualities.

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Gianni choosing a sausage necklace

Glasses of Frappato and Grillo and sumptuous antipasti of arancini, gelatina (pig), coppa (pig), salami (pig) and proscuito (pig) are served in the well-stocked wine cellar before we sit down to dine. The guest chef is Emanuele Fanitza of the Ristorante Letizia in Nuxis (Southern Sardinia), and he demonstrates how he makes tonight’s primo of fregola con ragu di salsiccia (pig), finocchietto selvatico, basilico e zafferano and secondo of maialino al forno (pig) while Honeybee takes notes. Enthusiastic wine growers get up to tell us about the wines we are drinking (Cerasuolo and Nero D’Avola), followed by a producer who elevates his olive oil into the culinary stratosphere -‘L’olio e il direttore d’orchestra d’un piatto: puo’ esaltare un cibo o puo’ distruggerlo.’ Quite. After a waitress tells us how she won a scholarship to a Hospitality College based on her thesis on salame, the chef of Da Maiore, splendid in foot-high toque, grabs the mike. Next to a lover’s lips there is nothing an Italian likes more against his or hers than a microphone. Unless you are Jamie Oliver, I guess a chef doesn’t get much opportunity to sound off, being stuck in the kitchen, and this was his moment. Anyway, his topic was the dessert, nougat ice cream on a bed of melted Modica chocolate, which gradually expanded into a discourse on world gastronomy until someone yelled out that the ice cream was melting, and everyone laughed and it was as convivial an evening as you are ever likely to enjoy.

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Differing fashions in Sardinian and Sicilian tocques

OPERA DEI PUPI

In the souvenir shops of Sicily, amongst the fridge magnets and ceramic pots and tiles from Caltagirone, a visitor cannot help but notice the displays of brightly plumed and armour-clad marionettes.

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Gift shop in Donnalucata with souvenir Orlando

Their story begins back in the 12th century with The Song of Roland, an epic poem recounting Charlemagne’s campaign in Spain against the Moors, the defeat, in 778, of his rearguard and the death of its Captain, Roland, during the army’s retreat through the pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees. History tells us that it was the Basques who destroyed Charlemagne’s rearguard, but such was the fear of Islam at the time, for propaganda purposes the defeat was attributed to the Moors. The fear dates back to the Arab and Berber invasion of Aquitaine and France in 732, which advanced as far as Tours before being stopped by a Frankish army under Charles Martel. It was a decisive victory but a half century later, his grandson, Charlemagne, was still defending Christian Europe from Moslem armies and, when he died in 814, Spain was still firmly in the hands of the Saracens.

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Theatre quality Orlando

Seven hundred years later Moslems from the East were on the march. In quick order, the Turks defeated the Venetian fleet at Lepanto, conquered Serbia, Bosnia and the Crimea, marched into Hungary and Germany and captured, as mentioned earlier, the Southern Italian town of Otranto, decapitating 813 future Saints. These events reignited public interest in the story of Charlemagne and his Paladins – the twelve Peers of his Court – and their struggle against Islam producing three great Chansons de Geste:  Matteo Boiardo’s ‘Orlando Inammorato’, Torquato Tasso’s ‘Gerusalemme Liberata’ and Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’.  All of these poems employ the same characters, most notably Charlemagne and Roland, although the latter’s name has been Italianised as Orlando while his sword (Durendal in The Song of Roland), has become Durindana, a name once given by Sicilian barbers to their razors before the arrival of the electric shaver.

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Orlando Furioso, the most important of these three epic poems (and the longest at 22,000 words) tells how Orlando, a military hero in the service of Charlemagne, falls in love with Angelica, Queen of Cathay, becoming mad with jealousy when he is rejected in favour of Medoro, an African Prince. This heroic tale of fantasy, love, war, magic, bloodshed and chivalry, derived from Carolingan, Celtic and Classical sources, has been mined by Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf and Stephen King. Ingres painted Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, Handel turned the story into an opera and Harry Potter rides a Hippogriff. Chivalry unfortunately disappeared when the horse, from which it took its name, ceased to be a means of transport. Now, even those minor, chivalric manners, such as holding a door open for a lady, are almost extinct, condemned as benevolent sexism. Sad, really really sad.

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You can overdo these things

Sicily, under Spanish rule at the time Ariosto was writing, was also prey to Moslem aggression, especially from Khair-ed-Din, better known as Barbarossa, and his Barbary pirates and it was probably in this era that Paladin stories became popular and people began decorating their carts with scenes from Frankish romantic poems depicting the fight against  i mori, i turchi, i infedeli, i saraceni, e i pagani.

‘Childish pastime or serious art form?’ questions Francis Guercio. Either way, the practice continues today and the latest fashion collection of Dolce and Gabbana, both Sicilians, is based firmly upon cart-art.

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Childish pastime or serious art form?

 

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Dolce e Gabbana handbag

 

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Cart-art fashion for the well-heeled

While Ariosto was writing Orlando Furioso, a new form of street theatre began to appear in Renaissance Italy, based upon the impromptu interaction between a number of stock, masked characters, which included Arlecchino, Pantalone, Colombina, Scaramouche and Pulcinella, the Lord of Misrule, who can still be seen on English beaches in summer under his Anglicised name of Punch. First called commedia all’improvviso and later commedia dell’arte, it flourished in the North of Italy where the weather is cooler and they welcome a bit of comedy, whereas in the South, especially in hot and sultry Sicily, the people’s preference was for Baroque melodrama, occasionally enlivened with aspects of commedia dell’arte.

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Agramante on display in Marzamemi

In was in the middle of the 19th century, after writers Andrea da Barbarino and Don Giusto Lodico produced popular versions of stories from Orlando Furioso (never previously accessible to the common man), that l’opera dei pupi took the form that we still see today – marionettes performing from a repertoire of Paladin stories that concentrate on duels, battles and jousts between the Knights of Charlemagne and the warriors of Islam. More popular in the regions of Palermo and Catania and more frequently shown in the cooler seasons, l’opera dei pupi represents a living link to actual and legendary medieval events. If you do catch a show you may find that Orlando, aka Roland, is also called Anglante or the Count Rinaldo or… Montalbano! I knew the good Inspector came from noble stock.

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Saints day festival in Adrano

CODA

Time to go home. My mother-in-law’s postman neighbor, Matteo, grasps me in a bear-like hug, squeezing the life out of me, and plants a kiss on both cheeks. Is this what it’s like to be a woman? But isn’t this what RLS was on about in his foreword to ‘Travels with a Donkey’- friends. So I’ll take Matteo back home with me, even though he drives me crackers with his Facebook posts. We will also be taking Adriano with us, a new friend, a Modican and a man with the rare gift of being able to communicate with both the young and the old.

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Perbacco!! did we really spend all that money? Can’t be! Well, you did buy all those shoes. No other option; back to work.

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Brother, can you spare me a dime?

 

 

 

THREE DAYS IN ALSACE

A quick trip to Versailles to see my friend PJ. To fly directly from the heat of Southern Sicily to cool, green France is to emerge from the caldarium and plunge straight into the frigidarium. Versailles has changed little in the two years since I was last here although I see less people that look as if they might be able to trace their blood-line back to Asterix, or Joan of Arc, or a sergeant in Napoleon’s Grande Armee. France, like England, is becoming more and more a multi-cultural society. Retail is changing too, moving to the Commercial Centre at Parly 2, and leaving the streets in Versailles to cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, Yoga Classes and real-estate agents. Some types of shop that were once present in every French high street have disappeared altogether; let us mourn the departure of la quincaillerie, la mercerie, le cordonier and la droguerie.

Much to PJ’s pleasure, a falcon has nested on the tower of the Cathedral and has been busy reducing the pigeon population, while four charming squares that once housed Louis XV’s extensive collection of courtesans, popularly known as Le Parc des Biches, are slowly being restored, making pleasant little apartments for young couples and offices for software designers. It was good to be the King!

 

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Le Parc des Biches

 

There is one shop that has been around for a long time and still thrives in many French towns and that is Nicolas, the wine sellers, established in 1822. The shops are managed and staffed by wine experts and the wines are displayed by region, which makes sense when one considers there are over 50 wine producing grape varieties in France. Before the dubious gifts of the internet and the website, Nicolas published an annual price catalogue of its wines, collected now for their illustrations and for the frustrating knowledge that in 1963 I could have bought an 1868 Chateau Lafite for 70 Francs instead of wasting my money on cigarettes.

 

Nicolas 1963 Catalogue with illustrations by Dubuffet

We visit an exhibition of paintings by Impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte, at Monet’s house in Giverny. It’s an overcast Tuesday in mid-May and the place is swamped with tourists. The last time I came here thirty years ago I had to ask a museum official to turn the lights on. I’m told that the house and gardens receive over seven hundred thousand visitors annually; odd that they all turned up today. We decide that Caillebotte’s paintings are, at best, deuzieme rang impressionism and the painter only a talented amateur whose Paris city scenes work best. I’m not too upset at not being able to get into the house; I don’t have to queue to get into Gayle and Jim’s splendid replica of Monet’s yellow dining room in their house in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The gardens are in full swing, full of irises and azaleas, although it is too early in the year for the water lilies.

 

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The garden at Giverny

 

PJ and I are taking a three day excursion into the East to see how the cuisine of Alsace is standing up to the invasion of the pizza, which is spreading across Europe quicker than the cane toad. We shall also be checking on the wines, always at the mercy of the politically correct, the depressed and unhappy, watchful members of watch committees and the League Against Dancing on Tables. Alsace, as I remember it, is grande bouffe country, plates with small mountains of champagne-soaked choucroute studded with various parts of the pig, substantial cheeses, wedges of Black Forest cake with lashings of whipped cream and decorated beer mugs with little lids. If there’s a fruit or berry grown locally the Alsatians will turn them into pure alcohol – plums, cherries, bilberries, pears and even the fruit of the holly. Copper alembics bubble away in every village. White alcohol has been around for centuries; the French have been writing poems and singing songs about it since the Middle Ages; it’s a sacred part of their culture; it’s part of a happy life; that’s why it’s called Eau de Vie.

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Eau de Vie distillery in Val d’Ajol

 

Our route takes us South East, through Troyes. We follow the Seine past Mussy (where they produce the very thin sheets of wood used for the round containers of REAL Camembert cheese), passing through endless green fields and forests as thick and lush and uniform as Axminster carpets, until we reach Chatillon sur Seine and its museum. The tourist hordes are still stuck in the car park in Giverny and we have the place to ourselves to inspect the extraordinary cache of Bronze Age and Classical Greek jewellery and artifacts found in a nearby Celtic settlement and necropolis at Vix. The prize piece is a 1.6 metre high bronze Krater, the largest known metal vessel from Classical Antiquity. It was found in the tomb of the so-called Lady of Vix, a Celtic Princess living around 500 BC.  Kraters were used by the Greeks for mixing wine and water, as presumably the wine was undrinkable by itself. We must give the French the credit for changing all that.

From Chatillon we continue in a South Easterly direction. We pass Colombey Les Deux Eglises, once home to General de Gaulle, and the Abbey of Clairvaux. I read that its founder, Saint Bernard, would not sit in a chair if it had previously been occupied by a woman; no wonder he gave Peter Abelard such a hard time. North of Dijon we turn due East until, just South of Besancon, we reach Ornans, a postcard town astride the river Doubs, famous as the birthplace of Gustave Courbet.

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In 1849 the painter, after attending the burial of his stepfather, produced the massive painting ‘Burial at Ornans’. In complete contrast to the artistic conventions of the day, Courbet paints the scene as it was, no heroic posing, no classical landscapes and allusions. The critics, accustomed to the great Romantic works of Gericault and Delacroix, were appalled. The painting, said Courbet, ‘was the burial of Romanticism’. I must say, I do prefer the exuberant romance of Delacroix’s ‘The Death of Sardanapulus’ to the grim realism of Courbet’s funeral of his stepfather. But never mind, the Impressionists will soon be along to cheer things up again.

From Ornans we drive due North, crossing the Combeaute river and passing through Fougerolles, famous for the quality of its Kirsch and griottines (cherries soaked in eau de vie), until we reach Val d’Ajol and La Residence, a 19th century mansion on the outskirts of town. I do enjoy these hotels, so particular to France, where the dining is more important than the accommodation. Cuisine regionale, genereuse et soignée, alternant simplicite gourmande et gastronomique… says the brochure and we are not disappointed. Not only are the products locally grown, the menu even supplies the name of the farmer, fisherman or cheesemaker responsible:

Asperges Blanches, oeuf fermier de Monsieur Mangel en caisson parfait;
Millefeuille au chevre de Madame Galmiche;
Filet de truite de Monsieur Parrain farci aux ecrivisses;

A Givry 1er Cru and a glass of kirsch to water the parched throats of the weary travelers….. and so to bed.

The next morning we set out across le Massif des Vosges the thickly wooded, elevated spine of the mountain range. In the foothills we make a brief stop in Plombieres Les Bains, where all is quiet. The sickly inhabitants of the hotels and boarding-houses are toying with their dietary lunches before soaking their gout in spa water. In a small, neglected courtyard we finally locate the plaque   commemorating the meeting in1858 between Napoleon III and Cavour during which the French Government promised its support for Italian unification.

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Historic plaque in Plombieres les Bains

 

Near the summit we lunch in Gerardmer by the lake with tarte au myrtilles for dessert. The myrtilles (bilberries) are the small, wild type soon to be eclipsed, says our host, by the plumper variety from shrubs being imported from Canada. I’m not sure whether this is progress; I doubt, from a taste point of view, that fat is better than small and wild; are not fraises du bois so much tastier than their bigger, cultivated sisters? The pillagers in Thomas Love Peacock’s poem, ‘The War Song of Dinas Vawr’ disagree:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefor deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.

Down from the mountain and travelling East, the village names begin to sound more Teutonic. Every town and village has its own particular activity or product, meriting at least a week of annual celebration. We pass announcements for a Fete du Chevre, a Fete des Cerises, a Fete des Asperges. In Munster, which produces the world’s smelliest cheese, there is la fete du fromage. How bad does the cheese smell? Comme les pieds du facteur, says PJ.

At the entrance to Colmar, the birthplace of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, stands the second replica of the sculptor’s ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, aka the ‘Statue of Liberty’, the first being in mid-Seine on the Ile aux Cygnes. But we have come to visit ‘Unterlinden’, a former 13th century Dominican convent tastefully converted into one of the most amazing museums in the world. There are works by Picasso, Dubuffet and Manet, but most come to see the Isenheim Altarpiece that was installed in the early 16th century in the Monastery of Isenheim, located on the outskirts of Colmar. The altarpiece, which combines paintings by Matthias Grunewald and bronze sculptures by Niclaus of Haguenau leaves one breathless.  Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of Grunewald’s art to see; many of his works were lost in the Baltic Sea when they were being shipped to Sweden as booty, looted by the army of Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years’ War.

In the little village of Osthouse, some 40 kms from Strasbourg and perhaps 20kms from the banks of the Rhine, we stop at the charming Hotel ‘A La Ferme’.

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Hotel A La Ferme in Osthouse

 

The hotel’s restaurant, L’Aigle D’Or, is a five minute walk away. It’s asparagus season, the fat, white variety with the purple tips that we eat plainly with melted butter. My entrée of cabillaud is superb, easily the best cod I’ve tasted since the beginning of the Cod Wars in 1958. We drink well; a glass of cremant to settle us in, then a chilled Pinot Noir from local producer Jean Sipp, a glass of late harvest Gewurztraminer with desert and, finally, a glass of Vieille Prune, a digestif of such transparent purity I’m almost reduced to tears. After dinner we walk back to the hotel through the dark, deserted streets singing, quietly, so as not to wake the good villagers.

‘Chevaliers de la Table Ronde goutons voir si le vin est bon…. ‘

Next morning we visit Haut Konigsberg, a pink, sandstone castle on top of a lonely spur of the Vosges Mountains. Interest in the castle, beautifully restored in the first decade of the 20th century, is eclipsed by the amazing view across the Upper Rhine plain to the dark band of the Black Forest on the horizon. Somehow the 700,000 visitors at Giverny have managed to follow us. Here they are in the gift shop, buying plastic helmets, daggers and crossbows, postcards, snow-globes and tea-towels with recipes for choucroute garni. And, of course, the ever popular fridge magnets. I buy one for my mother-in-law even though, combined, her present collection could lift a small, family saloon.

We descend the other side of the mountain to visit Kaysersberg, yet another pretty village of painted, timbered buildings and cobbled streets.

 

Rural Alsace has grown rich from its wines, its agriculture and the pretty villages and now from tourism. Imagine the economic benefit to a town from a 2 hour visit by a single coach load of tourists. The Alsatians are canny too. In an old folk-tale a stranger appears while a local innkeeper is cooking a chicken. The innkeeper insists the stranger pay him for taking pleasure from the smell of his roasting bird. The stranger agrees and tosses a coin in the air, letting it fall to earth. ‘There’, he says, ‘the sound of my coin hitting the ground is the correct fee for smelling your roast’. Touche!

Last stop, Franco-German Strasbourg, a most elegant town and astride yet another lovely river, the Ill, which flows into the nearby Rhine.

I think her rivers are one of the things I like most about France and we have crossed so many on this trip – the Seine, the Marne, the Doubs, the Meuse, the Saone, the Ognan, the Ill, the Rhine. There’s a long queue to get into the Cathedral so we hitch a ride back to the car.

 

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Strasbourg transport with Bubble & Squeak driver

 

We are on the autoroute now on the long sweep West towards Paris and home. Every sign we pass conjures visions of French history: Verdun, bloody fortress of WWI, Varennes, where Louis XVI’s flight ended and then Valmy, where a windmill marks the scene of Kellerman’s victory over the Prussians, France’s first victory in the Revolutionary Wars. On 21st September 1792, the day after the battle, the First Republic was born. The legacy of 1789 lives on. France’s present generation of sans culottes, the CGT, are forming up at the barricades again, closing the oil refineries, calling for airport and railway employees to strike. I slip out of the country, back to Sicily, before the final blockades are in place.

 

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‘La Bete’; 35 years old, V8 and 5 litre engine under the bonnet

 

Why do we travel? To cross rivers and mountains, to feel the sense of adventure? To experience strange cultures, to lie in the sun? ‘We are all travellers’ says Robert Louis Stevenson in a foreword to ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes’, ‘all too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate traveller who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent. …Of what shall a man be proud if he is not proud of his friends’.