Blogley, Writing and Books

284 – Guy de Maupassant and The Trip of Le Horla

I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.

I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 kms north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian ex-goalkeeper (and novelist) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read The Little Prince.

I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: four copies in fact. I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (Montpezat being a village a few miles from here). He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman), ‘No, he’s the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’

He didn’t have anything in stock so I forgot about him until nearly a year later. Christmas Day 2016, Elizabeth gives me my last present of the day. It’s a book. Paperback.

‘Guess what it is?’ she asks. I roll off a few authors. ‘Camus, Hemingway, Auster, Ballard? ‘Nope,’ she replies. ‘Delillo, Steinbeck, Exupery?’ ‘Nope. Open it.’

I open it and The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant falls out of the wrapper and onto my lap like a giant block of Emmental. Tears well up and I say a big thank you! And so begins my interest in Guy de Maupassant.

Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.

This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of  the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his  life.

After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882 and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.

One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.

His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.

Conversely his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.

I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.

There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage – yes overnight! – from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip – a trip I assume he made himself – but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:

All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.

His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.

Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found. Or download the complete short story collection for your Kindle, tablet or phone for free here – 800 pages of a late 19th century French writer. What else could you want for the spring?

Or you can read my own selection of  short stories, The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, here

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Food and Drink, The French

283 – How To Tap Walnut Trees to Make Syrup

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I like maple syrup on my porridge. It’s sweet, nutritious and tastes great. It’s also expensive. So yesterday morning Elizabeth said to me, ‘Why don’t you tap the Walnut trees in the garden? There’s loads of them.’

‘Oh yeah,’ I said looking out over the walnut grove of the chateau we look after over the winter. It once produced nuts on a commercial basis, now it’s tired and overgrown. And while the trees still produce nuts, they’re only appreciated by the family of wild boar who have taken up residence there.

The truth is there’s an untapped reserve of walnut syrup on my doorstep. So I rushed out to tap it. The results were spectacular. Here’s how you do it.

1. Find a walnut tree – this is an English Walnut, but Black Walnut trees are equally good. The best time to tap them is now (February/March). Cold nights (preferably freezing) and warmer days. In the morning about 10 o’clock.

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2. Drill a hole about a centimetre in diameter at hip height. PS. If you’re planning to use your walnut tree for making chairs and tables – don’t do this!

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3. Push a metal spout like this into the hole.

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4. I don’t have one like this – this is one from Canada (where else). So I used a piece of cut off hose and jammed it in.

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5. It works fine (little bit of leakage down the tree). Now you need to set up a bowl underneath and wait.

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6. When I first did this, I thought the sap would be already treacly and brown. But it actually looks like water, which you can drink and tastes really nice. This bowl took about three hours to fill, but it depends on the conditions.

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7. The next step is to take it inside to boil down, or set it up on an open fire.

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8. Let it boil away furiously. Open some windows as there’s loads of steam. Hence why it’s better outside!

9. Drink coffee while you wait. It takes about two hours for 5 litres of sap to boil down.

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10. Boil until you get a brown syrupy liquid in the bottom. But don’t boil it down too much as it will cool down and solidify more. (And don’t forget about it either and burn it. Or your house down!). Then decant it into a bottle or jar. Et Voila! 100% pure English Walnut syrup grown in France.

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11. The one above is a touch too syrupy for my liking. I made that yesterday. The one below I made today and is about right. A lovely rich colour.

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OK, I know what you’re saying. ‘You don’t get a lot, do you?’ No you don’t. About 35mls of syrup from 5 litres of sap. But it’s great fun to make, especially with children, plus you’re connecting with nature from the inside out as it were. So how does it taste? Play video to find out!

12. Philip Ogley tasting his home-tapped Walnut syrup.

 

For more information on other trees that can be tapped, visit site: https://wildfoodism.com/2014/02/04/22-trees-that-can-be-tapped-for-sap-and-syrup/

Photograph of spout courtesy of http://homestead-honey.com/2014/03/10/beyond-maple-syrup-tapping-black-walnut-trees/

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Blogley, Food and Drink, The French, Writing and Books

282 – 99 Reasons Not To Buy This Book!

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My hugely popular guide book to France has been called many things since I published it a year ago:

“The most misleading guidebook to France ever written”

“A treasure trove of inaccuracies”

“As informative as a piece of wood”

“As boring as Sartre”

“Blander than French coffee.”

“More self-congratulatory than a Michelin restaurant”

To celebrate these plaudits and the book’s anniversary, here’s another 99 reasons not to buy it. In case you’re tempted.

  1. It’s factually inaccurate.
  2. It’s not really a guidebook at all.
  3. Most places I’ve mentioned, don’t actually exist.
  4. I wrote most of it on the toilet.
  5. It goes off on tangents and never comes back.
  6. It’s not really about France anyway, it’s about me.
  7. It’s years out of date.
  8. Prices are still in Francs.
  9. Half of the characters are animals.
  10. The other half are dead.
  11. There’s no violence in it.
  12. Definitely no sex.
  13. There’s no famous people (except me).
  14. There’s no happy ending.
  15. There are no free apps.
  16. Or video games.
  17. Or maps.
  18. Or photos
  19. Or newsletters.
  20. Or special offers.
  21. Or dedicated fan sites.
  22. Or anything else much of interest.
  23. Roman Aqueducts are featured a lot.
  24. There’s too many references to baguettes.
  25. And crap coffee.
  26. Mosquitoes.
  27. Flies.
  28. And cheap lager.
  29. There’s no plot.
  30. No dialogue.
  31. Very little action.
  32. No direction.
  33. Certainly no heroes.
  34. Paris isn’t even in it.
  35. Nor is anywhere else.
  36. It’s absurd.
  37. Obscure.
  38. Ridiculous.
  39. And stupid.
  40. And that’s not even 99 reasons, which says it all. Rubbish!

However, if you still want a copy,  it’s your lucky month. Because during March, I’ve cut the price from an extortionate £1.99 ($2.99) to a bargain basement, cutthroat price of 99 pence or cents. Which means wherever you are (UK, Europe or the States) it’s the same price. Provided of course you buy the ebook (compatible with laptops, phones, tablets, Etch A Sketches, stone slates, or papyrus pith) and not the clunky paper version.

So for the price of a stale croissant, you can read this remarkable book for only 99 copper coins.

(It’s really quite good, despite what you read. Click the croissant below to buy.)

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Photos, Places, Seasons

278 – The Christmas Woodpile

chateau_dauty-1I’m the winter caretaker of this 17th century Chateau in South Western France. If you’ve seen or read The Shining this is as close as it gets. In summer the chateau is used as a hotel, in winter it’s closed. Cue me and Elizabeth who are here to make sure it doesn’t fall down, bills are paid, intruders shot. For five months of the year, I’m Jack Nicholson.

It’s good for a number of reasons. One, it’s free. Second, it’s pretty. Three, it’s big. Four, it’s quiet. Five, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Six, there’s shit loads of wood. The entire estate being surrounded by an endless supply of pear, larch, cedar, ash, oak, hazel and lime. A lot of which ends up on the woodpile below.

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Good, eh?

This is actually the New Woodpile and is located on the northern edge of the estate near the village church, whose bells chime at seven o’clock twice a day. Once in the morning, this doesn’t bother me as I’m asleep. And once in the evening, a useful signal to crack a beer and start cooking (if I ever needed one…).

For the record The New Woodpile superseded The Old Woodpile (below) as it simply wasn’t big enough.old-woodpileAs you can see it was also Christmas then. Although I can assure you the logs were real and not superimposed onto the photo like the trees in the background were. (I don’t know where the reindeer, stockings or candy canes came from.)

Last year I split the wood with an axe. As shown in the video below.

This year I’ve upgraded to an electric log splitter. It’s about as romantic as eating your evening meal in McDonalds, but I’m giving it a go due to back problems and the fact that I’ve got an incredible amount of logs to split.

Another guilty admission is that last year I transported the logs from one part of the estate to another in an old wheelbarrow.

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This year I use this

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It’s terrible I know. However, I can transport five times as much wood, which gives me more energy to carry it upstairs to the apartment where we live and add it to the Indoor Woodpile ready to burn. After that I sit in front of the fire with a glass of port and a whopping great plate of cheese.

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*Smile not included  ** Not all items may be real

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Places, Sport

266 – Meyronne to Souillac: En Canoë

A few evenings ago, after a tedious day lugging bags and bikes around for two-grand-a-week holidaymakers, me and Elizabeth decided to go canoeing.

We’d been meaning to go for weeks, but had been foiled by the seven foot high waves hurtling down the river ever since the collapse of the dam 50 km up the river at Argentat. Granted that may have been part of a dream caused by excessive cheese consumption, but the incessant rainfall during June did make the river too dangerous for safe canoeing, especially after the last incident involving a large tree and some bad navigation. (See Blogley 260 – “How not to capsize a canoe on the Dordogne”.)

The 18km section from Meyronne to Souillac we did on Friday evening is  fantastic for two reasons. One, it finishes where we live – handy. And secondly, paddling along the Dordogne next to 200 foot high cliffs is a feast for the eyes and the senses as good as anywhere I’ve ever been.

At one point near the hamlet of Meyraguet the cliffs plunge into the water like giant icebergs freshly calved from the Arctic Ice Sheet. Enormous slabs of limestone that in places look like they’ve been glued together with putty, create this fabulous gorge that cuts deep through the Perigord like an axe slicing open the bowels of an Englishman during The Hundred Years War.

High up in the rock wall, rounded grooves mark the level where the river once flowed in some ancient time. Buzzards and eagles now perch on these wide ledges and peer down at mankind making their way downstream. For millennia they’ve sat here watching the slow progression of human evolution flow forward from wooden boats to steamboats to plastic canoes.

It’s taken the river hundreds of millions of years to carve these gorges and set itself at its present level. This is where I was on Friday evening, paddling down the river with a cold beer wedged in-between my thighs thinking of nothing. Witnessing the peaceful and beautiful scenery unfurl around me like I was burrowing up the stem of a rose that’s about to blossom.

Until we hit the Toulouse-Paris motorway that crosses the river 5kms from Souillac at Pinsac, when I could feel my mind revert back to the 21st century. Not that it was too unpleasant either, the viaduct is a great feat of engineering, similar to the gigantic walls I’d just passed. One created by the brute force of nature, the other built by its delicate hand. The hand of humans. Both equally stunning in their own way.

As we neared Souillac I could smell my pot-au-feu I’d left nicely cooking in the oven before we left. It was half past nine and still 28 degrees but we were both looking forward to a big hot pot of beef stew and a flagon or two of deep red wine to celebrate the fact that this time, we’d made it down The Dordogne in one piece.

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Read more about my adventures in A Man in France. Available @ https://blogley.com/blogley-books/

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Places, Sport, The French, Writing and Books

264 – Souillac: A small town in France

The rain is beating down today like a baton hitting an English football supporter. Hard raps against my window as I look out over a waterlogged road. When it’s sunny here, it’s as good as anywhere. When it’s raining, it’s like North Wales. Grey skies that look like they’re going to fall on you like a tonne of slate. I should know, I grew up there. Oswestry to be precise. Technically English, but Welsh at some point in its Godforsaken past.

There’s a football match on Thursday night involving the two teams (and supporters later on I’m sure). I haven’t got any Welsh ancestry, but I can’t help hoping they’ll win. For the simple reason that England teams are rubbish considering the players and money they have. They pick the wrong players in the wrong positions and think they’re going to win by right because, like all the folk back home supporting the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, there’s still an Empire. We then lose and look for someone else to blame. Normally the Russians. Or the French. Or in the case of the recent violence, both.

I used to watch Forest vs. Leeds at the City Ground when I lived in Nottingham and could never decide who I wanted to win. I’m from Leeds and have supported them since I was a kid. On the other hand, I’ve always liked Forest because of Brian Clough and the great European Cup winning sides of ’79 and ’80. Plus I lived there for nine great years as a student and musician in the 90s.

Sitting in the City Ground waving my red or white flag depending on if I was in the Home or Away ends, I always wanted a draw, with perhaps Leeds nicking a last minute winner in injury time. As it happened Forest won every time, so I always left a little bit gutted, but not as much as if they’d lost to Chelsea or Man Utd – or Derby.

I started writing this post to advertise my latest short film on the little French town where I live and got sidetracked by football and the weather. Two of my favourite subjects, or so I’m told by the hoteliers who I work with here. As though they don’t exist in this part of France.

‘Weather? We don’t have that here. Just blank skies and breezeless days. And as for football. Pah! Nothing to do with us. Only Rugby here.’

Which is why Souillac hasn’t really entered into the spirit of the tournament. There’s a board outside the Grand Hotel next to the Plat du Jour board that reads Match du Jour. One reads France vs. Romania, the other Confit du Canard.  Today is Tuesday, the France game was last Friday, so maybe that’s all I’m going to get during these Euros. A five-day old football match and a plate of reheated duck.

Enjoy the film

More films @ https://blogley.com/blogley-films/

Books @ https://blogley.com/blogley-books/

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Places, Seasons, Writing and Books

240 – The Road to Auty

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I’m a resident of Auty, a village 80 kms north of Toulouse on the border of the Tarn et Garonne and Lot départements. I’m looking after a château and a cat for the winter with Elizabeth. Two weeks ago it was 24 degrees, now it’s 2. I’m sitting in the château writing and I can barely see the end of the drive because of the fog.

This is classic rural France in winter. Vintage in fact. To my right I can see the blue swimming pool that looks about as inviting as smashing my gonads together with bricks. I’ve swum in the sea in Cornwall in winter and in the upper reaches of the Ardeche in April. That was cold, I even got in three times to remind myself how cold it was. I take cold showers every morning, but I can’t bring myself to swim in the pool. And I don’t have much time left as it’s soon going to be covered up once I’ve finished fishing out all the leaves.

There are no pool duties here as such, we’re really just here for security. Watching out for intruders and for leaks and burst pipes. Making sure the mice and weasels don’t make off with the chocolate and biscuit supplies. Or gnaw through the cables and wires that will plunge this 17th château into darkness for days. Without the moon here at night, it’s one of the darkest places I’ve ever been. Like being in a cave where you can’t see your hand.

The scariest place is the boiler room, which is in the basement. Here you can still see the 12th century foundations on which the current château is built on. There’s a tunnel that leads down even further into the ground. I don’t know where it goes and I don’t intend to find out. I’m le gardien not Indiana Jones.

If you were reading this when I lived in Queaux on the farmhouse (see posts 114 through to 164), it’s a similar set-up, except that it’s like the Super Size option in a fast food joint. We’ve upgraded from House Sit Lite to the Super Deluxe. Instead of four bedrooms to sleep in, we’ve got a choice of fifteen. Before one kitchen to cook in, now we’ve got three. Two bathrooms to bathe in, now we’ve got eight. A small skylight to admire the surrounding countryside from, now we’ve got a turret. A small patio for barbecues, now we’ve got a terrace the size of a tennis court. And on and on.

If you’ve read Les Grandes Meaulnes by Alain Fournier that I talked about in Blogley 187 and 189, it’s like the Lost Estate described in the book. All my childhood memories are here: Woods, fires, chopping logs, foggy fields, cycling along deserted roads, cooking, long sleeps, hot chocolate, fresh air. No school. Perfect.

I’ve got some serious writing to do here. A project I started back in 2004 when I lived in Devon, in Starcross, a village near Exeter up the Exe estuary. I even called it The Road to Starcross. Since then it’s grown and I’m not sure what I’m going to call it now. I thought about The Road to Auty but that sounds ridiculous, so I need to think about it some more. I’ll keep you posted from the turret…

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Writing and Books

161 – The Ridiculous Ramblings of a Man in France – The Book!

To celebrate three years of Blogley in France, I’ve ripped out the best bits and stuck them in an E-book for you to buy for the price of a pint. Currently £3.18 in the UK (average – I checked it).

Ha ha ha. Ho ho ho. Looks like another fictional Blogley: there’s no such thing as The Ridiculous Ramblings of a Man in France – The Book! What a ludicrous idea! Have you lost it?

Not quite. Continue reading

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