Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant: missing, a young girl, the sort who left few traces

Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant: missing, a young girl, the sort who left few traces

They are the sort of people who leave few traces. Virtually anonymous. Inseparable from those Paris streets, those suburban landscapes …

Hearing the news that Bob Dylan had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, I thought it was about time that I investigated last year’s winner, Patrick Modiano. Like many on this side of the Channel, the French novelist’s name was unknown to me. Now my literary friend Dave reckoned I should read his 1997 novella Dora Bruder, published here as The Search Warrant. It proved to be an excellent recommendation: Modiano’s spare and finely-written excavation of memory is a haunting addition to the literature of the Holocaust and one that is unique, being neither Holocaust memoir nor historical fiction but a skilful reconstruction of a life and a moving reflection on his country’s amnesia surrounding collaboration and the fate of French Jews during the Occupation. Continue reading “Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant: missing, a young girl, the sort who left few traces”


But You Did Not Come Back: love letter to a lost father

<em>But You Did Not Come Back</em>: love letter to a lost father

Marceline Loridan-Ivens is one of around 160 living survivors of the 2,500 French Jews who returned after the war, of the 76,500 sent to Aushwitz-Birkenau. ‘I was quite a cheerful person’, she writes in the opening words of But You Did Not Come Back, her moving memoir addressed to her father. Aged fifteen when she and her family were rounded up by French police before being despatched to Auschwitz, she survived but her father did not return.

After seeing the acclaimed film Son of Saul, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ slim volume has been the second journey back into the dark heart of Auschwitz that I have made in  recent days. Continue reading But You Did Not Come Back: love letter to a lost father”

Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town

Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town

Late in the afternoon of the first day of my trip to WW1 sites in Flanders and the Somme, I was in the little village of Ors where Wilfred Owen is buried and where his platoon spent their final hours before being mown down by German machine gun fire.  The nearest town is Le Cateau-Cambresis and, since it is the place where Matisse was born, and since it has a museum devoted to Matisse, I had to go. Continue reading “Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town”

Matisse in Nice: through an open window

Matisse in Nice: through an open window


We arrived in Nice for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday just as a summer-long tribute to Matisse was drawing to a close.  Nice 2013: A Summer for Matisse brought together many of the city museums to celebrate the artist who chose to live in Nice for more than thirty years.  2013 also marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Musee Matisse in Nice. Continue reading “Matisse in Nice: through an open window”

A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise

A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise


For my 65th birthday we flew to Nice for a long weekend.  Quite possibly, it’s my favourite city, relaxed and unpretentious, its face turned south to the Mediterranean and the broad sweep of the gorgeous Bay of Angels; a city with a beach and a promenade enlivened every hour of the day by a parade of strollers, rollerbladers, joggers, cyclists and bathers. Continue reading “A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise”

In search of the asphodel

In search of the asphodel

In a previous post I described returning to Nant and St Jean du Bruel, villages at either end of a verdant stretch of the valley of the Dourbie on the edge of the Cevennes.  Above the valley lies the contrasting landscape of the causse – the wild and rugged limestone plateau that has a beauty of its own.  For a few days last week we explored that landscape, discovering the abundance of wildflowers that grace the high plains, and searching for the asphodels that in spring – our guide in the St Jean tourist office had assured us – grow there in profusion.  After searching several locations we found them – but only on our last day.

The causses form a huge Jurassic limestone plateau over a thousand metres thick, deeply cut into dramatic gorges wherever a major river flows through it. This is a lean, spare land, sheep country,unspoilt, too harsh for intensive farming.  Pretty, picturesque it is not.  Yet there is in its boundless horizons something that makes the heart soar – soar like the spiralling griffon vultures, riding the afternoon thermals, circling on outstretched wings. Two decades ago these giant raptors were almost extinct in the Cevennes. Now, thanks to a successful reintroduction programme, they’re back again – nearly 100 pairs, apparantly, now breed in the national park.

On the causses, where the vultures search for carrion, life is hard – for humans and wild creatures.  The land is bone dry and scorched in the summers, frozen and snowswept in the winters.

the purple scalp of the earth
combed in autumn
   and in times of famine

the metal bones of the earth
   extracted by hand

the church above the earth
   arms of our clock crucified

all is taken

– ‘Earth’ by John Berger, from and our faces, my heart, brief as photos

With its drystone walls and grey stone barns there are echoes of the limestone landscape of the Yorkshire Pennines around Malham – but on a much grander scale. It’s the domain of sheep and small patches of cultivation where winter fodder for the flocks is grown.  The scarcity and preciousness of water is revealed in the clay-lined dewponds known as lavognes that are dotted about the causses.  Outside the fortified village of La Couvertoirade there’s an impressive example – this one stone-lined and designed to collect the water that pours from the village streets in winter rains or the occasional summer storm.

The Cevennes is one of the last places in Europe where transhumance still persists: the traditional practice of moving flocks of sheep, that have wintered in the valleys below, up onto the causses to graze on the high summer pastures.  Thinking about this made me think of the English novelist and art critic John Berger who, in the 1970s, moved to a rural community in the French Alps. Berger wanted to observe peasant society firsthand, join them in their work, and better understand their traditions and the challenges they face.

Transhumance photographed by Martin Castellan

Out of his experience came a trilogy, Into Their Labours (from the biblical text, ‘Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours’).  The first volume was Pig Earth, published in 1979. It’s a description of the life of French peasants – in no way romanticised – written as their way of life was drawing to a close. The book is a typical Berger melange of short stories, journal entries and poetry, and concludes with an essay on the economic role of the peasant through history viewed from a Marxist perspective:

Inexhaustibly committed to wresting a life from the earth, bound to the present of endless work, the peasant nonetheless sees life as an interlude.  This is confirmed by his daily familiarity with the cycle of birth, life and death.  […] The peasant sees life as an interlude because of the dual contrary movement through time of his thoughts and feelings which in turn derives from the dual nature of the peasant economy. His dream is to return to a life that is not handicapped. His determination is to hand on the means of survival (if possible made more secure, compared to what he inherited) to his children. His ideals are located in the past; his obligations are to the future, which he himself will not live to see. After his death he will not be transported into the future – his notion of immortality is different: he will return to the past. […] His dream is not the usual dream of paradise.  Paradise, as we now understand it, was surely the invention of a relatively leisured class.  In the peasant’s dream, work is still necessary.  Work is the condition for equality. […]  The peasant ideal of equality recognizes a world of scarcity, and its promise is for mutual fraternal aid in struggling agaunst this scarcity and a just sharing of what the work produces.

The buzzard circled
biding his everlasting time
as repeatedly
as the mountain

Out of the single night
came the day’s look,
the wary animal glance
on every side.

Once the animals flowed like their milk.

Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss.

– ‘They Are The Last’ by John Berger, from Why Look at Animals?

The poor schist and limestone soils of the causses have never been suitable for much else but grazing sheep (to produce, amongst other things, cheese – such as the famous Roquefort – from ewes’ milk or growing chestnuts – which explains why this is an unspoilt landscape, a rugged terrain of low population density, with cultivated land limited to the surroundings of the picturesque medieval villages.

It’s a land which the people of the region fight hard to protect.  When we first came here in the late 1970s there was a big campaign of resistance against the plan by the French government to massively extend the Larzac Military Camp which had served as a garrison and training centre since 1902. The expansion would have destroyed more than a hundred farms included within the new perimeter of the camp. Peasant farmers threatened with expropriation were joined by soixante huitards (‘sixty-eighters’) – assorted hippie idealists, leftist radicals and greens who had settled in the area in abandoned farms and in the dilapidated village of La Couvertoirade, trying to survive by living off the land, making things from wood or opening little boutiques and cafes.  A decade of campaigning finally achieved success in 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected as President and officially ended the expansion project.

Fracking protest in Nant

In the past two years a new ecological campaign has also achieved its goal: in spring 2010, the French government granted three licenses to search for shale gas in the region, employing the technique known as fracking.  Nant was the epicentre of this movement, led by the region’s Europe Écologie MEP Jose Bove, who first came to prominence in the campaign against the expansion of the military camp on the Larzac plateau in the seventies. As a result of that experience Bove became a sheep farmer, producing Roquefort cheese on the Larzac causse.

The event which gained Bové international attention was the trashing of a McDonalds that was under construction in Millau in 1999, a protest against American restrictions on the importation of Roquefort cheese and other products, which were harming peasants who gained their liveliehoods from these products. Bove also wanted to raise awareness about McDonald’s use of hormone-treated beef. Later, the European Union imposed restrictions on importing hormone-treated beef. However, the WTO (dominated by the USA) disallowed this restriction. After the EU refused to comply and remove the restrictions, the United States placed tariffs on the importation of certain European goods, including Roquefort cheese, as punishment.

The campaign against fracking was successful: in October 2011 Minister of the Environment confirmed that the licenses for Nant were revoked.

I can still recall our amazement, thirty-odd years ago, when the forbidding grey stone walls of La Couvertoirade rose up before us out of the desolate landscape of the Larzac causse.  The village was built in 1158 by the Knights Templar as a staging post for pilgrims travelling the old Roman road across the causse.  The walls and sentry towers were added in the 15th century by the Knights of Saint John.  In the late seventies the place had the air of an ancient ruin, with crmbling fortifications and derelict dwellings.

But new life was returning to the place: some buildings were being restored by artisans and hippies, some local but many from distant cities, seeking to tread the earth lightly and live sustainably off local resources.  By the time we returned with our daughter in the early nineties a huge amount of resoration had taken place: the cobbled streets were pristine, most buildings were spruced up and either inhabited or converted into cafes, restaurants or artisan shops.  You could walk around the entire village on the restored battlements.

On every door, it seemed, was nailed the iconic symbol of the Larzac: the Cardabelle.  Although its a member of the common thistle family, the Cardabelle is a protected species and cannot be cut.  So how, I wonder, do all these cardabelles get there?  Because it’s not just in La Couvertoirade that you see them: in towns and villages all across the region you encounter them nailed to front doors.  When we first visited La Couvertoirade cut specimens were on sale and we bought one that is still intact, nailed above our back door.

The Cardabelle is known on the causse as the ‘shepherd’s barometer’, because it has the special property of opening up when the sun shines and closing shortly before bad weather. This is why they are nailed to doors – not for good luck, but predict the weather.  At one time, every household kept a Cardabelle for this reason. But the Cardabelle had other practical uses too: it’s possible to eat the heart of the thistle (the plant is related to the artichoke), and use the outer ‘sun’s rays’ portion of its thorny centre to card wool.

This plant, with its history as ancient as the doorways it decorates, is also related to the daisy and the dandelion.  Its botanical name is La Carline a feuilles d’acanthe.  The generic carlina is a variant of cardina, derived from chardon or thistle.  It flowers from July to September, in the field or nailed to a door it retains the persistent yellow of its centre.

The Cardabelle is a popular subject for local artists, inspiring paintings and sculptures, and every newsagents will have postcards with titles like Esprit d’une terre and Soleil des Causses, bearing photographs of it.  (In the 21st century these have been joined by ubiquitous postcards of the Millau bridge).

The 20th century Occitan writer Max Rouquette who wrote everything in Occitan, the ancient language of the area, dedicated a poem to the Cardabelle.  In Occitan it reads:

Cardebela, rosa verda,
roda de prima endentelada,
erba solelh a ras de sou nascuda
das amors de la peira e dau solelh…

Translated into French:

Et roué dentelee
Herbe soleil au ras du sol venue
Des amours de la terre et du soleil…

While the more prosaic English translation goes:

Cardabelle, green rose,
and jagged wheel,
grass sun come from the ground
of the loves of the earth and the sun…

This reminds me that three decades ago, in a sign of the political disenchantment with Parisian government in this region, you would encounter freshly-painted slogans on walls in villages or along the road that proclaimed Oc! – support for the ancient language and culture of Occitania and for the Occitan Party that campaigns on local cultural and ecological issues and has elected councillors in a few townships.

The party’s members are active in struggles for the keeping of local jobs, against wholesale tourist commercialization, against the nuclear power industry, and for the preservation of Occitania’s natural environment. They also take part in the defence of the Occitan language and identity.

In the 1970s, our 2CV sported the famous ‘No to Nuclear’ sticker, and in France we’d see their equivalent ‘Non au Nucleaire’ badges.  On the causses, ocassionally we’d see the Occitan version (left).

The restoration work at La Couvertoirade continues: this time we noticed that an early seventeenth century windmill on a hill overlooking the village had been restored.  There is a sense of stepping back in time as you enter the village through the arched gateway overlooked by the towers of the ramparts, and then wander the cobbled streets with their little 17th century houses.  At the heart of the village stands the fortified 14th century church of St Christopher with its Templar graveyard.

We followed several paths through the causses during our short stay, always on the lookout for the elusive asphodels.  One warm, sunlit morning we walked out on the causses near the village of Campestre, before dropping down to Alzon for lunch. Skylarks sang above us, and every so often we heard the distant sound of a cuckoo.

The plateau here is particularly rich in megalithic monuments: there are dolmens, menhirs and several stone circles.  We came across these remains, in the scrub just off the path.

They turned out, on closer investigation, to be prehistoric burial chambers, probably from the later 5th millenium BC. They consisted of blocks of schist arranged in layers horizontally and gradually narrowing to create a roofed structure.  An antechamber led to a smaller funeral chamber. They reminded me of the neolithic structures built by the nuragic people that we saw a few years ago on Sardinia.

Campestre proved to be a hamlet, home to just 113 inhabitants, its church steeple visible for some distance across the causse.

Even a place as small as this has its own Mairie or town hall.  Here I found perhaps the two most important civic structures side by side.

A noticeboard give an idea of local excitements, including a wild-looking local cumbia outfit operating under the soubriquet Tortilla Flat.

In the centre of the hamlet, the inevitable memorial to the lost sons and fathers of the First World War.  Twenty-two souls lost from such a tiny place, amongst the peasant farmers the Marquess du Luc.


The village of Alzon is beautifully situated in a deep bowl surrounded by the high plateaux and revines of the causses.  There we found only one restaurant, and we were its only patrons.  But the attentive owner quickly rustled up a wonderful spread of steak and frites, and for me, the vegetarian, a superb omelette.

During the descent to Alzon a stunning view opens up of the Valcroze viaduct which once carried a railway that ran across the causse du Larzac, linking Millau with Le Vigan  to the east of Alzon.  This must have been a beautiful line to ride, but it survived for only 59 years.

The line was commissioned in 1896 and, after 11 years of gigantic works that included 37 tunnels, 14 viaducts and countless bridges all built of stone, it opened in 1907. Despite an upturn in traffic between the two wars, it was closed to passenger traffic in 1939. Until 1952, it remained open for freight traffic , and the rails were finally removed in 1955.  But, surprisingly, it’s not been converted into a long-distance footpath: which seems a shame, since it would provide a superb path through exceptional countryside.

For our last walk on the causses, we spread out the map and randomly pinpointed a walk along a stretch of Grand Randonnier 71D starting from the village of Cazejourdes.  There, in the middle of nowhere, we encountered the roaring noise of this fearsome monster: out of all the hundreds of square miles we had managed to find the place where the track was being gouged out in order to lay a pipeline.

Fortunately, we were soon able to leave the noise and dust behind, the peace of the causses restored.  It was here, among many other varieties of wild flowers that I found patches of last summer’s cardabelles, some with their bright yellow hearts still ablaze.

Take it with you!
The smallest green thing that has happened to you
can save your life some day
in the winter land

Just a blade of grass,
a single faded little blade
from last summer
frozen fast in the snowdrift,
can stop the avalanche’s
thousand deadly tons
from plunging down.

– ‘Memories’ by Hans Borli

This landscape is harsh, stony and dry yet still supports a rich diversity of plants and animals. Our friends are accomplished bird-watchers and they took enormous pleasure in drawing attention to the variety of birds here – the griffon vultures and eagles, and many more besides whose names I have now forgotten. The songs of skylarks and nightingales was our accompaniment everywhere on the causse.

Just as rich is the array of wild flowers to be seen, especially in the months of May and June, when the thin soils of the limestone grasslands come into bloom and display large numbers of Pasque flowers, rockroses, lilies and orchids. Though the thin turf barely covers the stony causse, wild flowers thrive in unbelievable profusion.  Sometimes, specific plants seemed to be concentrated in particular small areas: one part perhaps displaying masses of blue-purple Pasque Flowers, another with dwarf daffodils and irises, while a third might be awash with purple orchids.  And as far as the horizon, shrubby masses of wild box.

So here is a bouquet of flowers of the causses.  Some of them named, others that I hope to have identified soon.

Brilliant patches of the miniature Wild Tulip (Tulipa australis), possibly imported into France from Asia Minor or the Caucasus by the Romans.

Velvety, anenome-like Pulsatilla that bloom early in spring, giving rise to their common name of Pasque flower, referring to Easter.

We didn’t see many varieties of orchid: the blue and reddish specimens below we saw many times, yet this region is renowned for its  variety and abundance of orchids. A local photographer had presented the hotel where we stayed with an album of orchid photos in astonishing numbers.

Orchis mascula, Early purple orchid

We found many patches of these tiny daffodils and dwarf iris,  Iris danfordiae, (both purple and yellow varieties).

Star of Bethlehem

Helianthemum apenninum, White Rock Rose

Aphyllanthes monpeliensis

Saponaria ocymoides or Rock Soapwort

We finally found the asphodels when walking through the causses near Blandas.  We had come, first to one of the area’s most awe-inspiring sites: the Cirque de Navacelles.

Here the Vis river has carved a deep ravine through the plateau and, in its meanderings, has created huge cliffs and caves.  The plateau is nearly 1000m above sea level and some of the cliffs are more than 300m high. We  walked through the flat, shrubby, stone-littered landscape of the plateau until suddenly we were standing at the edge of a precipitous gorge looking down at the Cirque which contains the little hamlet of Navacelles.  A noticeboard explains that, millenia ago, the river, ‘serpenting with nonchalence’  through the limestone plateau, formed an oxbow lake. The river later resumed its original course and the lake dried up, leaving this curious, horseshoe shaped bowl.

It was shortly after that we spotted our first asphodels by the side of the road.  We stopped the car and walked away from the road.  Soon we were walking through a meadow of asphodels that stretched as far as our eyes could see.  We had arrived a little too late: the flowers were past their best, just beginning to fade and brown.  A week or so earlier we would have been looking at a carpet of white.

The White Asphodel, Asphodelus albus, is a flower of ancient myth.  The Asphodel Meadows constituted the section of the Greek underworld where the souls of ordinary people who lived lives neither wholly good nor wholly evil rested after death (as opposed to the Elysian Fields, reserved for the Gods, the righteous and the heroic, and Tartarus, the abyss of torment and suffering where the evil suffered eternal punishment and damnation.

Homer is cited as the source for the poetic tradition of describing the meadows of Hades as being covered in asphodel. One translation of a passage from The Odyssey, Book XI reads, ‘the ghost of clean-heeled Achilles marched away with long steps over the meadow of asphodel’.

The University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website explains in more detail:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the Fields of Elysium, a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ by Wendell Berry

Perambulations around St Jean du Bruel

Perambulations around St Jean du Bruel

During our recent short break in the Cevennes we were based in the village of St Jean du Bruel, about 7 kilometres east of Nant and marking the point where the valley  of the Dourbie narrows to a steep-sided gorge. The village is smaller than Nant (population 690), and also seems little changed from last time we were here.  The first sight that met our eyes as we stepped out from our hotel onto the main street was of a group of locals sitting outside a cafe with a goat.

We stayed at the Hotel du Midi Papillon, that has been managed by the Papillon family for 150 years. I would recommend the place highly: the Papillons raise their own chickens, make charcuterie from local pork and jams from the fruit in the hotel garden, and the cheeseboard is to die for.  In 2005, as The Observer noted, the hotel is one of ‘those individually owned and run hotels that offer the unique French values of bonhomie, good value and seriously good food’.

After we had checked in at the hotel we called at the tourist information bureau to enquire about local footpaths where an advisor recommended a walk that took about two hours on a path that led up from St Jean to Le Sentinel, a crag from which a statue of the Virgin overlooks the village (top).

It was a great start to the holiday, the path winding up through woodland and eventually emerging at the lookout point which provided great views of the village and the Dourbie gorge to the east.  The chap  in the tourist office also suggested that we go in search of the orchids and asphodels that flower in profusion on the nearby causses at this time of year – but more of that quest in the next post.

Saint Jean du Bruel gained its name during the Middle Ages but, I discovered, during the Revolution, they renamed the village La Sentinelle, after this lookout point which marked the borders of two old provinces.   The village name was restored under the First Empire.

In my previous post I compared Nant, the neighbouring village down the valley, to Arcadia.  But it was not always so: this now-peaceful valley was torn apart by the 16th century wars of religion, and the Camisard Rebellion of the late 17th century.

In 1560, the majority of the villagers of St Jean adopted the Calvinist Reformation, while neighbouring Nant remained Catholic. A bitter war broke out  between the two villages, War breaks out between the two towns, with reicprocal looting and massacres occurring until the Edict of Nantes in 1598 brought the wars of religion to a close.  However, the political freedoms the Edict granted to the Huguenots (seen by Catholic nationalists as ‘a state within the state’) became an increasing source of conflict during the 17th century. The decision by Louis XIV to revoke the Edict of Nantes and strip Huguenots of their freedom of worship led some Protestant families to convert to Catholicism and others to flee abroad. But when the persecution intensified and Catholicism was imposed on southwestern France, the Huguenots took to arms in the revolt known as the Camisard Rebellion. Hundreds of villages were destroyed by fire during ‘the great conflagration of the Cevennes’.

Nant was one of them.  At this time, the population of St Jean consisted largely of Protestant Huguenots and the village had become more prosperous than Nant thanks to the presence of the manor and its administration, and the quality and diversity of its crafts, fairs and markets. There was a bitter enmity between the two villages which culminated in the citizens of St Jean burning down the monastery in Nant and driving the villagers out.  It was only with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in  1789 that Protestants gained full security and equal rights as citizens.

Two bridges cross the Dourbie in St Jean, the Old Bridge of the thirteenth century and the Pont Neuf dating from the eighteenth century.  The Old Bridge (above), located in the oldest part of town, spans the Dourbie in a Roman single arch.

This old inn sign (above) is a reminder of St Jean’s former renown for its metalwork.  The Rue de la Coutellerie (below) was once the location of cutlery-makers.

Several industries developed in St Jean that depended upon the Dourbie as a resource or for water power. A pottery industry (manufacturing cheese moulds and glazed tiles) once existed, and from the new bridge you can see on the river bank a chimney (below) – all that now remains of the old pottery kilns.  To the right of the pottery chimney is the weir, built to regulate the flow of water to the 13th century mill which still stands on the other side of the bridge.

Other trades that developed in the past included woodworking (making use of chestnut trees which cover the hillsides around about), clog-making, weaving, hat-making, and watchmaking.  In 1800 the village had four times the number of inhabitants than today.  A sense of the former prosperity of the village can be inferred from these roofscapes.

Each morning I would stroll out of the village in one direction or another.  The mist would be rising from the valley as the day warmed up.  One morning I turned across the old bridge and walked along the valley in the direction of Nant.

Finally… the nightlife in St Jean: two photos taken around 10:15 outside the main cafe in the old market place.

The market place (Les Halles) dates in its present form from 1845, when it was rebuilt after being destroyed during the French Revolution. This where fairs, markets and meetings of the village council  would be held. The wooden beams which you can just see in my photo are made of chestnut.

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was living it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

– ‘The Vacation’, Wendell Berry

Migrations and homecomings

Migrations and homecomings

The swallows are back on the field, swooping and diving around me as I take the dog on her afternoon walk.  We’re back, too, after a short break, returning to old haunts in the Cevennes.

The return of the swallows and swifts (back, too, eternally on the wing above the gardens of our street) always fills me with pleasure.  After spending the winter in South Africa, these birds have followed the same path through western France as the Ryanair plane that brought us back from Nimes.

Once upon a time, decades ago, a couple wandered through France in their red 2CV and in the far south, in a valley lying deep between the limestone plateaux they call the causses, found Arcadia. For two successive summers they camped just outside the small town of Nant in the department of Aveyron, on the southwestern fringe of the Cevennes.  Twelve years later they returned with their young daughter.  Last week, and this time  with old friends, they went back again.

The beloved 2CV has long gone to the great scrapyard in the sky; times move on and what, in the 1970s, would have been an impossible proposition financially is now commonplace.  We flew to Nimes and drove up the old N9 (now the A75 motorway) towards Millau.  The climb from the Languedoc plain up onto the Causse du Larzac at the Pas de l’Escalette near le Caylar is still astonishing: in little more than 15 kilometres the road rises nearly 700 metres, today through heavily engineered curves and tunnels that have sliced through dramatic inclines and folds of limestone strata that were formed in the tertiary era on the bed of a warm, shallow sea and then twisted and broken by the formation of the Pyrenees. In the days of the old N9, this road was a straining cavalcade of lorries; now the drive is smooth and uncomplicated – but no less dramatic.  Several videos of the drive have been uploaded to YouTube; here’s one of them:

We turn off before the famous bridge at Millau (another bottleneck in the old N9 days) and head across the Causse du Larzac towards Nant, through the beautiful wild landscape of the limestone plateau.  Larzac is the largest, the most arid and uninhabited of the four Grands Causses of this region, with only the occasional medieval hamlet hunched on the horizon.

And then the descent towards Nant that I remember so well: situated where the valley of the Dourbie opens out into verdant meadows enfolded in a bowl of tree-clad hills, Nant is still the same picture of perfection: ‘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’.  We drive down and, less than five hours after leaving Liverpool, are seated outside a cafe in the main square consuming assiettes of local cheeses and charcuteries in the warm sunshine.  Nant seems unchanged since we were last here in 1993.

Etymologically, Nant has no relationship with the northern city of Nantes.  The name is of Celtic origin and means a place where land and water meet.  In the 10th century, Benedictine monks drained the marshy soil of the Durzon valley where it joins the Dourbie, constructing a network of stone-lined canals which still run through the village.  The monks’ success in developing agriculture led to Nant being called ‘the garden of Aveyron’. In 926 they built a monastery here, which became an abbey in 1135. The economy prospered, and the village of Nant grew up around the abbey.

During the wars of religion the monastic buildings were destroyed, but Nant continued to prosper – its golden age came  in the second half of the 17th century when the town had 3000 inhabitants (today it’s around 800) and, after Millau, it ranked as the second most important town of the region. The abbey church of St Peter, dating from the 11th century, still stands at the centre of the village, its fortified belltower giving it the squat appearance of a medieval castle keep.

The monastic legacy can be traced, too, in several Romanesque churches that are scattered through the surrounding countryside.  We walked out of Nant (past the site where we camped all those years ago) to one of them –  the 12th century church of St Martin du Vican, now inaccessible on private land and being used as a barn.

The arches of the halles (market) date from the monastic times, too, and would once have hosted local fairs and a flourishing market.  Now two cafes set up their tables under the arches.  On one of the arches is a memorial to nine local members of the resistance movement, shot by the Nazis in August 1944.

We arrived the day after the second round of the French Presidential elections had resulted in a decisive victory for François Hollande, France’s first leftwing president in almost 20 years.  I photographed these election posters on the main street.

Curiously, we were here the last time a socialist president, Francois Mitterand, was elected in 1981 and the countryside was plastered with election posters that promised his ‘quiet strength’:

The next day there was a ceremony to mark the end of the Second World War outside the elegant Mairie that dates back to 1762.  Several market stalls had been set up, selling local fruit, vegetables and cheeses.

In Provence last spring, climbing roses were everywhere.  This year, in the valley towns, the signature plant was the wisteria.

On the last day of our short break we set off from Nant to walk through the meadows by the Dourbie towards Cantobre, the medieval village that perches on a clifftop a few kilometres further along the valley towards Millau. We crossed to the far bank of the Dourbie by the elegant 14th century La Prade bridge, another indicator of the town’s medieval prosperity.

Above us towered the Nantais Rock, a spur that juts from the causse to the north of the town.

For a few kilometres east and west of Nant the valley is broad and verdant, but upstream above St Jean du Bruel and downstream beyond Cantobre the Dourbie burrows into a ravine of sheer rock walls, slicing a path between the Causse du Larzac to the south and the Causse Noir to the north.  Here, though, the path was broad and easy.

There’s a bridge at Vellas and here I crossed to the south bank again to follow the road back into Nant.  The view of Cantobre, perched on its narrow rocky ledge a little further on, was spectacular. From a distance the houses appear to be part of the cliff itself, and you can understand how the place acquired its name – from ‘quant obra’, ‘what a work’.  The village was abandoned after the Great War and remained in ruins until the late 1960s when it was gradually rebuilt.

On the return to Nant I passed the hamlet of les Cuns, little more than a couple of houses and one of those 12th century Romanesque churches mentioned earlier – only this time it was possible to go inside.

Romanesque churches were the first buildings since Roman times to use a stone vault instead of a wooden roof. Other characteristics of Romanesque architecture visible here include round arches, thick walls, small windows, and decorative details inside and out (see the little man carved into the base of an arch, below, which reminded me of the Kilpeck church carvings . When they were first built, Romanesque churches would have been bright with colour and imagery, with murals that served as a visual Bible to a mostly illiterate congregation.There’s nothing now but the bare stone.

On our second day, the afternoon turned dull with occasional rain.  We drove down the Dourbie towards Millau, stopping first to look around Cantobre. Most of the houses date from the 14th century when the fortified village of houses clustered around the church was developed by the Knights Templar.  It’s likely that the inhabitants were engaged in silver mining.

Towns and villages huddled behind defensive walls in the turbulent centuries that culminated with the religious wars and the Hundred Years War – built to protect the villagers from marauding soldiers, both French and British (Rouergue, the former provincial name for Aveyron, changed hands several times, even falling to British rule for 17 years after 1360).

A little further down the gorge is Moulin de Corp, a 15th century water mill and rather lovely humpback bridge.

On the far side of Millau is another bridge that takes your breath away with its daring engineering and elegant beauty.  Opened in December 2004 , it is the highest bridge in the world, standing 270 meters (890 feet) over the Tarn River. That makes it slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower and only a hundred feet shorter than the Empire State Building. It was designed by engineer Michel Virlogeux (working for the same company that built the Eiffel Tower) and British architect Norman Foster.

We parked at the Viaduct Information Centre at the base of the bridge on the RD 992 outside Millau.  It was dull and wet when I took the photo above; the official one below shows the structure to best effect. The Millau Viaduct was conceived as a way of alleviating the huge traffic jams that would form every summer as tourists made their way south, descending the valley into the town of Millau which became a notorious bottleneck on the A75 autoroute.

In its pure simplicity the bridge, consisting of a very thin slightly curved steel roadway supported by pylons and resting on seven very slender pillars, blends seamlessly into the grandeur of the surrounding landscape. The route selected, and the method of construction were chosen to minimise impact on the environment.  Construction took four years – from October 2001 to its opening in December 2005.  There’s a remarkable video in the Information Centre that shows how the bridge was built: after the concrete pylons had been erected, the roadway was slowly pushed out across the gorge from each side, eventually meeting (and crushing a bottle of champagne) in May 2004.

For the four night we were away we stayed at St Jean du Bruel, seven kilometres up the Dourbie from Nant where the valley narrows to a steep-sided gorge.  The village is smaller than Nant, and also seems little changed from last time we were here.  The first sight that met our eyes as we stepped out from our hotel onto the main street was of a group of locals sitting outside a cafe with a goat.

We stayed at the Hotel du Midi Papillon, that has been managed by the Papillon family for 150 years. I would recommend the place highly: though the rooms are small and fairly basic, ours had balconies overlooking the Dourbie and the rates are very reasonable.  But what really makes a stay here truly memorable are the breakfasts and evening meals in the restaurant.  The Papillons raise their own chickens, make charcuterie from local pork and jams from the fruit in the hotel garden, and the cheeseboard is to die for.

We had returned to our ‘land of lost content’. This valley, from Nant to St Jean, remains one of those places that seem most precious to those of us who live in cities.  It’s more than likely that, with our city ways and city needs, we couldn’t abide here for long.  Yet, to return here and linger awhile refreshes the spirit.  While away I was reading Oliver Twist, and there I encountered this heartfelt passage:

Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness, deep into their jaded hearts! Men who have lived in crowded, pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished for change; men, to whom custom has indeed been second nature, and who have come almost to love each brick and stone that formed the narrow boundaries of their daily walks; even they, with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face; and, carried far from the scenes of their old pains and pleasures, have seemed to pass at once into a new state of being. Crawling forth, from day to day, to some green sunny spot, they have had such memories wakened up within them by the sight of sky, and hill and plain, and glistening water, that the foretaste of heaven itself has soothed their quick decline, and they have sunk into their tombs, as peacefully as the sun whose setting they watched from their lonely chamber window but a few hours before, faded from their dim and feeble sight! The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time, which calls upon solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.

And then it was back to an unseasonably cold, wet and windswept Liverpool.  And a Europe in crisis, with attempts to form a government in Greece collapsing, the prospect of the breakup of the eurozone, and an economic hurricane heading our way.

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See also

Something is profoundly wrong…

‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.’  That is the opening sentence of Tony Judt’s book Ill Fares The Land that I’m reading at the moment.  There could be no more pertinent assessment of the present crisis. Yesterday, one commentator compared Europe’s current predicament to the phenomenon of approaching a black hole and reaching the event horizon – the point beyond which it is impossible to escape guaranteed annihilation. The fascinating thing, he said coolly, is you can cross this point of no return without realizing that your doom is certain.

This lunchtime, on The World at One, a commentator spoke of the ‘bond vigilantes’ who are now closing in on France, which is now suffering a full-blown run on its debt, with investors dumping French bonds to move their money to safer havens.  So the second largest economy in the eurozone could lose its triple-A credit status very soon, purely a victim of speculators.

Mulling over all this I feel a bit like the character in Bono’s lyric, ‘The End of the World’:

Last time we met was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time
Except you
You were talking about the end of the world

Just possibly, there might be a positive aspect of the present situation.  In an article in today’s Guardian, John Harris considers whether 2011 will go down in history as one of those years that redefined global politics – such as 1968 or1989. Certainly there has been a mood of mass resistance sweeping around the globe – from the uprisings across the Arab world to the Occupy movement that has become global in short order.  The mood is best summed up in the words of  flyers that Harris found pasted to every available surface in the streets in Berkeley, California, where an Occupy camp has sprung up outside a branch of Bank of America:

Are you pissed [off] yet? You should be!
No taxation of the rich. Endless war.
Bankers not held responsible. Corrupt politicians.
Destruction of the planet due to politicians’ and corporations’ greed.
Can it get any worse than this?

As Harris notes, some elements in the Occupy movement are inspired by the legacy of 1969.  The editor of the Canada-based countercultural magazine Adbusters recently put it like this:

We are not just inspired by what happened in the Arab spring recently. We are students of the situationist movement. Those are the people who gave birth to what many people think was the first global revolution back in 1968 when some uprisings in Paris suddenly inspired uprisings all over the world.

Occupy Oakland poster

Back in August, Harris notes, in an article for the Financial Times, 2011: The Year of Global Indignation, Gideon Rachman wrote:

Many of the revolts of 2011 pit an internationally connected elite against ordinary citizens who feel excluded from the benefits of economic growth, and angered by corruption. … The creation of a global mood is a mysterious thing. In 1968, before the word ‘globalisation’ or the internet were even invented, there were student rebellions around the world. The year 1989 saw not just the fall of the Berlin Wall but the Tiananmen Square revolt in China. Perhaps 2011 will come to rank alongside 1968 and 1989 as a year of global revolt?

Basta! Enough! The Indignados of Spain

Back in August, Rachman observed that America was the one striking exception to this pattern, despite exhibiting many of the social and economic trends that had got people out on the streets in other countries: rising inequality, a threat to middle-class living standards, anger against the political and business elite.  That’s not the case now, with Occupy camps established in every major city and many smaller towns.

Police clear the Occupy Wall Street camp early yesterday

Is there anything that connects these events in the USA, Europe and the Arab world? In answer to this question,  John Harris argues that something BBC Newsnight’s Paul Mason wrote on his blog last February titled Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, remains among the most incisive analyses of this year’s events.  Mason wrote:

At the heart of it all are young people, obviously: students; westernised; secularised … a new sociological type – the graduate with no future … With access to social media, they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyranny … They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies … They all seem to know each other … I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square … The common theme is the dissolution of centralised power and the demand for ‘autonomy’ and personal freedom.

Not only the young: 84 yr old activist pepper-sprayed in Occupy Seattle protest

Harris asked Mason to expand on this thought (he’s writing a book to be published in January). Mason’s feels the tumultuous events of 2011 are tangled up with newish means of communication, and a new sense of what it is to be politically organised.  Once you’re networked via social media, he says, you’re open to profound changes in ‘who you are and what your personal space is’. The idea of any seemingly arbitrary authority standing in the way of all that can easily become an affront – and at the same time, your means of communication offers you a method of opposition and resistance: online, in the real world, or both. As support for his case, he quotes the example of the hundreds of thousands of people who responded to the 2010 death of the young Egyptian Khaled Said by joining the massively influential We are all Khaled Said Facebook group, or this summer’s Direct Democracy Now! protests in Athens, organised almost entirely through social media.

Occupy St Paul's
Occupy St Paul's

For Mason, all this is epitomised in the year’s most iconic symbol: the tent communities springing up in the financial heart of the world’s major cities, home to ‘the flickering blue light of laptops and the incessant hubbub of intense conversation’. Mason says:

One thing that there has been in common between the Arab spring and the European and American events is this drive – which is almost pathological – to secure space, and live in it. In one sense, it’s a meme … and I think it does satisfy a desire … [for a] spontaneous, communal, utopian sort of existence

Occupy Wall Street poster

Interestingly, Paul Mason opts for an entirely different historical parallel: ‘a much more distant year, when abortive revolts spread across Europe at speed, and two fired-up German radicals wrote The Communist Manifesto‘:

I think it’s going to be seen more in terms of 1848.  1968 was a cultural thing: it only came to street-fighting in Czechoslovakia, the black ghettoes of the US and Paris. In 1989, apart from Romania, there was as much coming from above, through diplomacy, as there was from below. Only in 1848 have we had an explosion that goes from one country to another as fast the mode of communication of the time, and then doesn’t stop, and feeds off a zeitgeist that is about freedom, which crosses borders, and involves people identifying with each other from very different cultures.

The revolutions of 1848 were crushed, but left a longer-term legacy of political aspirations and ideas, as did 1968 which also looked in the short term as if it had been crushed by reaction. The organisational methods and symbolic actions of 2011 are new, but is there a programme here that will challenge the economic might and political power of the ‘1%’ in the long term?  With that in mind, I’ll carry on hopefully reading Tony Judt’s book.

Eviction notice on an Occupy tent outside St Paul's Cathedral - served this afternoon


A week in Provence

Provence in the spring – wild flowers in profusion along the roadsides, fabulous displays of climbing roses around ancient doors and windows, coffee in a square under plane trees with swifts screaming overhead, blue skies, warm sunshine – the best time to be there.

We’ve just returned from a short break, taking advantage of cheap flights offered by Ryanair on a new route from Liverpool to Toulon-Hyeres airport, a convenient jumping-off point for forays into the hinterland of this first Roman province.  Our base was Aups, the small town truffle-capital in the first foothills of the Alps, up in the northeast corner of the département of Var.

We stayed at the Auberge De La Tour, a building with a long history.  In 1000 AD, then lying outside the walls of the fortified village, it was a leper colony.  Later, and up until 1665, it was a Royal hospital.  At that point the building was sold and first became an inn. On our first evening we dined in the courtyard, under chestnut trees that are 300 years old.

Although the hotel was comfortable, we were not that impressed with the food, so for the next two evenings we ate at Le Caillou, an excellent Moroccan restaurant we discovered on the main street.  With swifts screaming overhead as darkness fell, we enjoyed their delicious tagine, couscous and Moroccan pastries.  Just next door was a boulangerie where we bought our morning croissants (their almond croissants were, we all agreed, the best we;d ever tasted) before taking them to a cafe over the road where we drank coffee.

Just off the main square is the 15th century church of St Pancras (top), named after the young Roman Christian martyred in 302, whose precious relic (a piece of bone from the hand) has been here since the 15th century. You enter the church by descending seven steps – an indication of the scale of alluvial deposits left by the Grave torrent after centuries of winter storms.  All the towns and villages we visited grew up around rivers or streams, whose waters were channeled into lavoirs (washouses) and fountains which are still a prominent feature of these settlements. The Grave is now culverted through part of the town, but the alley that runs parallel to the main street follows the path of the stream, and is named the Torrent de la Grave.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the church is the Republican motto ‘Liberty Equality Fraternity’ inscribed over the main door on the occasion of the separation of Church and State in 1905. Anti-church, anti-monarchical sentiment has been strong in Aups for more than two centuries.  The town was the centre of the Var Republican insurgency in 1851 against the coup d’état of Napoleon III, and there is a monument to those who died during the insurrection in the main square.  Dozens of local insurgents were killed in battle or executed, while 3000 others were imprisoned or deported to Algeria.  After the last war, the names of dead resistance fighters from Aups were added to the monument –  Aups was an important centre of resistance during World War II, and the local group sheltered those fleeing the militia and the Gestapo.

Not far from Aups is the village of Sillans-la-Cascade, where we lunched on enormous baguettes filled with local ham and Camembert with fresh salad on our first day, before setting off on the pleasant walk of about a kilometre through meadows of wild flowers (above) and woods of century-old plane trees to the waterfall (below). It’s about  42 metres high and, though the local council has restricted access to the pool at the foot of the fall due the danger of falling boulders, you can sit peacefully by the succession of pools were the water of the Bresque is rendered turquoise green by the underlying limestone rock.

A short drive north from Aups brings you to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, an immaculate village that lies at the western entrance to the Gorges du Verdon. The village has been a centre of pottery-making for centuries, but is now heavily dependent on tourism.  We were lucky to be there in the early morning and out of season, before the summer crowds descend.  The houses cling to the foot of a limestone cliff, from which flows a stream that runs through the centre of the village. Above the village, a gold painted star hangs on a chain suspended between two cliffs. According to legend its origin goes back to the 10th century, although the original star and chain have been replaced several times since then.

An eagle soared above us as we drove along the rim of the Gorge du Verdon (below), which must be one of the most awe-inspiring sites in Europe.  The river flows 700 metres in the canyon below, cutting a deep swathe through the high limestone plateau of Haute Provence and is named for its turquoise green colour (verdon being derived from the French for green).

We returned via Aiguines, an attractive village that overlooks the Lac de Sante Croix. This magnificent lake wasn’t here when we last travelled through this region in 1981.  It was formed by the Barrage de Ste. Croix, built on the Verdon in 1975. On a high point overlooking the lake stands Aiguines chateau (below), built in the 17th century with a round tower at each corner finished with brilliantly coloured enamel roof tiles.

It was in Aiguines, after having lunched on another fine sandwich from the splendidly named Terre de Saveurs petit magasin, that I noticed a stall selling the elongated Gariguette  strawberries that are native to this region. The produce was presided over by a weatherbeaten guy in a check shirt playing the mouth organ to himself.  I bought a punnet and asked if I could photograph him, at which he summoned his dog which immediately grabbed a dummy and jumped on the chair.  Having ascertained I was British he (man, not dog) played me the national anthem, followed by La Marseillaise. There was more local produce for sale – olive oil, sprays of lavender and so on.

The village is pretty, with houses clustered tightly together on the side of the rocky hill. The houses are old, mostly  nicely restored with Provencal pastel colours and contrasting windows and shutters. In the main square is an attractive lavoir decorated with frescoes (below).

Later we drove on to 12th century Tourtours (‘le village dans le ciel’) , perhaps the prettiest of the hilltop towns that we visited (there’s a branch of Provence Verte, Sotheby’s International Realty on the main street, which tells you something). There we relaxed at one of the cafes on the main square shaded by enormous olive trees, before setting out on a walk to Les Moulieres, the site of a ruined village and water mill. The path led out of the village past the imposing 16th-century château with massive round towers at each corner, one dating back to the 12th century (below). The château is restored and in use, accommodating the Mairie and the post office.

The path took us out through typical Provencal garrigue, the roadside verges splashed with the bright colours of spring flowers – poppies, valerian, rosemary, thyme, and two different species of broom, one with extra-large blooms. It was here that we heard the liquid notes of a nightingale, a series of rattling whistles and long, melodious notes, loud and sustained, seeming to meander on endlessly – until we spoke and it stopped.  For Keats it was the ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees/ In some melodious plot /Of beechen green and shadows numberless’, that sang ‘of summer in full-throated ease’.

Next day we left for the coast, to stay the night in Hyeres before our flight home the following morning.  Our road took us through Salernes (above), a small town in the Bresque valley, dominated by the ruins of a 13th century château, and famous for its ceramics.

As in every town and village we explore, the swifts swoop and scream in squadrons above our heads – magical birds that pair bond for life and spend the whole of their lives in flight, covering at least 500 miles a day or 3.65 million in a twenty year  lifetime, and soaring thousands of feet to sleep on the wing.

For Ted Hughes, swifts ‘materialise at the tip of a long scream/of needle … a controlled scream of skid’. They:

… swat past, hard fletched,
Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,
And are gone again.  Their mole-dark labouring,
Their lunatic limber-scramming frenzy
And their whirling blades
Sparkle out into the blue –
Not ours any more.

I think, too, of Olivier Messiaen, whose music was inspired by ‘the sovereign liberty of birdsong’ who wrote: ‘they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs. … The bird is the symbol of freedom. We walk, he flies. We make war, he sings…’

We paused in the hills one more time to explore Entrecasteaux.  The château in the centre of the village (below) was built in the 16th century on the ruins of an 11th century fort and was transformed in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The château, which was the residence of many Provençal nobles, has been restored on several occasions. A plaque records that it is one of Var’s most important historical monuments with serious connections to the Provencal rich and powerful.  It was the residence of many Provençal nobles, including a Lieutenant-General of Provence who married the daughter of the Treasurer-General of France and Jean-Baptiste d’Entrecasteaux, chairman of the Provence Parliament.  Below the château is a formal garden designed by Le Notre, the French landscape architect and the principal gardener of Louis XIV.  In the garden stands a statue of Admiral Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, a French navigator who explored the Australian coast in 1792, and who also lived in the château.

The whole village,  with its 16th century houses, decorated lintels and vaulted passages has been classified a historical monument. The best part – easily missed – lies below and to the rear of the château, where two 16th century bridges, an 18th century olive mill and a medieval farm are clustered.

There’s a very old sundial on a wall (above), while the wall of the olive mill was ablaze with the most stunning climbing rose I think I’ve ever seen (below).

That was the most outstanding of the climbing roses we saw in every town and village.  The slideshow below captures some of the rest.

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And so, finally, we arrived at the coast.  Leaving our bags at our hotel in Hyeres old town it seemed fitting to round off the holiday with a Mediterranean coastal walk.  We drove south from Hyeres past the extensive salt pans (salines) that for 2000 years contributed to the importance of Hyères, and which were in use until the 1990s.  Today they are home to migrant and resident water birds –  we saw flamingos, stilt, terns and white egret.

Hyeres salines

Then it was on to the peninsula of Giens, once an island until the coastal currents threw up two parallel sandbars linking it to the mainland. We walked a coastal path out to the headland, past small bays and beaches, to the cliffs and abandoned World War II fortifications at La Madrague.  The way was splashed with the colours of valerian, mallow, broom and bird’s-foot trefoil and shaded by wind-tossed pines and evergreen oaks.

We return by way of the western sandbar and stop to watch the aerial displays of birds and wind surfers (below).  On the magnificent west-facing beach I catch sight of notice placed there by the local council.  It’s a curious message: the detritus you see on the beach isn’t pollution, but rather a sign of a very healthy ecosystem.  I soon realise that the sand is, indeed, littered with round, brown fibrous discs.  They are from the foliage of Posidonia oceanica (commonly known as Neptune Grass), a type of seagrass common around the Mediterranean. It forms large underwater meadows that are an important part of the ecosystem. The fruit is free floating and these balls of fibrous material from its foliage wash up on nearby shorelines.

Then it’s a last evening meal on the Place Massillon, with its 13th century Knights’ Templars tower, in Hyeres old town before the flight home to Liverpool.

I’m writing this six days later, and the sun has just come out for the first time since we landed.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim…

– John Keats, Ode To A Nightingale

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: across the abyss of time

What constitutes humanness?
– Werner Herzog, questioning archaeologists in Cave of Forgotten Dreams

When he was 12, Werner Herzog was captivated by a book on prehistoric art displayed in a book shop window.  On the cover was a picture of a horse from the Lascaux cave.  He knew he had to have that book, and spent a long summer working to earn the money for it:

I bought the book, and since then a kind of awe has been inside me.

That sense of awe permeates Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s new documentary shot in 3-D during rare, privileged access to the Chauvet cave in the Ardeche and shown last night at FACT followed by a Q&A with the director via satellite link.  It is awe at the breathtaking quality and beauty of the prehistoric wall paintings discovered in the cave at Chauvet , and awe, too, at the ‘abyss of time’ (Herzog’s words) that separates us from the humans who created them 32,000 years ago.  They were nomadic hunter-gatherers living in groups of 20-25, sharing the terrain with Neanderthals – and animals, countless numbers of them. There was no agriculture, no metal-working. But they had fire, music, jewellery and art. They had imagination.

The cave at Chauvet was only discovered in 1994 when a trio of speleologists broke through a tiny opening and discovered chamber after chamber of spectacular prehistoric art, including images of many extinct species of Ice Age animals. The cave contains the oldest paintings ever discovered anywhere in the world, almost perfectly preserved following a rock fall which sealed off the entrance some 25,000 years ago.

It’s like a time capsule. It was completely sealed for more than 25,000 years. You’re stepping in and there are fresh tracks of cave bears and skulls and even a footprint of a perhaps eight-year-old boy next to the footprints of a wolf. This is sounding into the deepest recesses of the time when the human soul awakened.

Ordinary mortals will never see any of this, since entry to the cave is highly restricted, even to scientists and archaeologists.  Herzog received special permission from the French minister of culture to film inside the cave, and had heavy restrictions imposed while filming there. He was allowed to have only three people with him in the cave: the cinematographer, a sound recorder, and an assistant. Herzog himself worked the lights. The crew was only allowed to use battery powered equipment and used only lights which did not give off any excess heat. The 3-D cameras were custom-built for the production, and were often assembled inside the cave itself. Herzog was allowed six shooting days of four hours each inside the cave. The crew could not touch any part of the wall or floor of the cave, and were confined to a 2-foot-wide walkway.

I had to be professional. I had to do my duty. Only when we were leaving, I let the crew walk out and I stayed behind. For a few minutes, I was all alone there. It’s so silent you hear your own heartbeat. It’s very hard to describe. I can only say it’s a sense of awe.

Before filming Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog was sceptical of the artistic value of 3-D filmmaking. He retains that scepticism, but decided to use 3-D in his film to help capture the intentions of the painters, who incorporated the contours of the cave walls into their art:

When I saw the cave for the first time, it was clear this was the only choice. It was imperative. I was under the impression they are fairly flat walls with panels of images but the artists took advantage of the three-dimensional drama of the cave: a bulge in the wall would be the neck of a bison charging you, a niche would be used for a horse just peeking out cautiously, things like this.

Absolutely.  There is no sense of this being a gimmick.  There are no zooming, in-your-face special effects.  Only a perfect realisation of the sense of being there and seeing the art with its texture, surfaces and planes in a way that no 2-D representation can convey.

Herzog’s film offers a breathtaking and deeply moving record of the experience of entering the cave and exploring its three main chambers, which extend for 1,700 feet and contain 416 paintings.  But it isn’t, as some reviews have suggested, the only film of  the cave paintings to be made by a cultural commentator.  John Berger was one of the first people to visit Chauvet, and in 2002 he made a film, Dans le silence de la Grotte Chauvet, for ARTE France about the experience.  The text of his narration was published in his collection, Here Is Where We Meet, and, in edited form by The Guardian.  Berger also wrote about Chauvet in The Shape of a Pocket.  In both pieces, Berger addresses the mystery of this art and the people who created it:

The Cro-Magnon reply … to the first and perennial human question, “Where are we?” was different from ours. The nomads were acutely aware of being a minority overwhelmingly outnumbered by animals. They had been born, not on to a planet, but into animal life. They were not animal keepers: animals were the keepers of the world and of the universe around them, which never stopped. Beyond every horizon were more animals. At the same time, they were distinct from animals. They could make fire and therefore had light in the darkness. They could kill at a distance. They fashioned many things with their hands. They made tents for themselves, held up by mammoth bones. They spoke. They could count. They could carry water. They died differently.


The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a dominant culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress that has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today’s culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them.


The time separating us from these artists is at least twelve times longer than the time separating us from the pre-Socratic philosophers.  What makes their age astounding is the sensitivity of the perception they reveal.  The thrust of an animal’s neck or the set of its mouth or the energy of its haunches were observed an recreated with a nervousness and control comparable to what we find in the works of a Fra Lippo Lippi, a Velazquez or a Brancusi.  Apparently art did not begin clumsily.  The eyes and hands of the first painters were as fine as any that came later.  There was a grace from the start.  This is the mystery, isn’t it?

Interpretations of the meaning of such paintings, the circumstances in which they were painted and whether the artists were male or female, have varied widely.  Some have seen them as being hunting magic, meant to increase the number of animals.  Others have argued that that the paintings were made by paleolithic shamans who would retreat into the darkness of the caves, enter into a trance state and then paint images of their visions, perhaps with the intent of drawing power out of the animal representations.  As as Chauvet is concerned, scientists speaking in the film to Herzog suggest that people did not live permanently in the cave but returned again and again, participating in some kind of spiritual pilgrimage.

Julian Bell wrote in his history of art, Mirror of the World:

Across this giddying, hard-to-conceive distance of 30,000 years, the assurance of Chauvet’s art leaps out with a power to seize the imagination….How these painters were seeing, how they were feeling their way into the energies of beasts!  As Picasso commented, visiting Lascaux in 1940, ‘We have learnt nothing’. […]

From its beginnings, European cave painting seemingly involved highly naturalistic effects. But that does not explain why people should have dragged themselves away from the sunlight down cold, dark and hazardous passages to practise it – often returning millennium after millennium to the same site. … On many cave walls the animal-drawing seems less an act of creating visible images than of people returning to add a trace to a site made significant by previous markings, which may be why some of them have become an unreadable tangle of superimposed scrawls. And yet… we see the habitual imagery of horses, bison and deer arrayed in more or less orderly formations. … Lit by lamps and torches, their pictures would have presented a flickering, unreachable spectacle to whoever peered up – a Palaeolithic equivalent to our present-day experiences of the cinema screen or the fairground ghost train.  Like these, the cave was a zone at a remove from everyday conditions. Those who entered it lived chiefly by hunting and hence on the move, following animals in their migrations. The major caves are mostly in valleys branching off migration routes, and people may have converged on them seasonally. Certain individuals must have led the way. In other words, the Old Stone Age had its specialists in art, if not its full-time artists.
But to return to the question: why did specialists take their art inside the caves? Answers have changed along with intellectual fashion, and some have been discarded. It was once thought that this was ‘hunting magic’, but the animals the hunters drew and the animals they ate prove not to match. One more recent line of research may have a bearing on whatever rituals the caves once witnessed. Their walls, like other Palaeolithic painted rock faces, often show isolated dot patterns, grids, zigzags and spirals. These look like shapes the brain’s visual system sends up, dancing before the eyes, when someone is in a trance through fasting or drugs. Starving the outward vision, therefore, was likely part of the intention when people took their leave of sunlight. Darkness encourages dreaming. In the torch’s flicker, living shapes would loom up, and it was all one whether they stemmed from the mind or the rock. Imagination was nature, and vice versa.

As one paleontologist, interviewed in the film remarks, these people were probably far more ‘permeable’ than we are today – their sense of being shifting between the spiritual and the physical, between their human identity and those of the animals around them.

As with other groups of cave paintings, there are no representations of  humans at Chauvet – apart from the image of a woman’s pudenda superimposed with that of a bison, painted on a limestone pendant projecting from the roof of the cave.  This shares physical characteristics with the Venus figurines found at sites across Europe, such as the Venus of Willendorf (below), that date from the same period.

The rock fall so perfectly preserved the cave at Chauvet that, quite apart from the paintings, there are other wonders.  Herzog’s camera showed us the the paw prints of cave bears, scratch marks they left and the depressions probably left as they hibernated in the cave.  There are over 150 bear skeletons, while at the entrance to the largest chamber there is a stone with the skull of a bear on its top surface. Some suggest that it must have been placed there deliberately and signify a form of relationship between man and cave-bear.

Fragments of carbon from the torches that lit the cave 30,000 years ao enabled accurate radiocarbon datings, and there are smoke stains from the torches and charcoal smears on the walls where torches were scraped to clean and re-ignite them. Recently footprints of a young boy were discovered alongside those of a wolf, possibly separated by thousands of years.  The boys prints are the oldest footprints of Homo sapiens sapiens discovered anywhere in the world.

Chauvet is one of the greatest and most sensational discoveries in human culture and, of course, what is so fascinating is that it was preserved as a perfect time capsule for 20,000 years. The quality of the art, which is from a time so far, so deep back in history, is stunning. It’s not that we have what people might call the primitive beginnings of painting and art. It is right there as if it had burst on the scene fully accomplished. That is the astonishing thing, to understand that the modern human soul somehow awakened. It is not a long slumber and a slow, slow, slow awakening. I think it was a fairly sudden awakening. But when I say “sudden” it may have gone over 20,000 years or so. Time does not factor in when you go back into such deep prehistory.
– Werner Herzog

As always Herzog seems unerringly to find characters who are slightly (or totally) eccentric.  Among the experts he consults in the film is an archeologist who used to be a circus juggler (only Herzog!), another who makes a 3D spectacle of himself demonstrating how to launch a spear with a paleolithic spear thrower (the bow and arrow had yet to be invented).  Then there is the experimental anthropologist who wears reindeer skins and plays The Star-Spangled Banner on his vulture bone flute, and the perfumer who uses his nose to sniff out caves.

There’s a typically Herzogian off-the-wall postscript, in which he tells of discovering just up-river from the Chauvet cave a nuclear power plant which supplies super-heated water to a nearby biodome.  There he found several radioactive albino crocodiles. Herzog muses on what they might make of the cave paintings. It’s quite mad, but somehow thought-provoking at the same time.

It’s a brilliant film.  I thought that Herzog only put a foot wrong once – when Jean Clottes, the lead archaeologist at Chauvet, turns to the film-makers and says, ‘Silence please. Please listen to the cave. You may even be able to hear your heartbeat’.  Instead of doing that, Herzog, perhaps mindful of the audience in America, his adopted country, adds music and a heartbeat.

The Q & A afterwards was hosted by The Observer’s Jason Solomons and was broadcast live across the country from Brixton’s Ritzy cinema. The questions – especially those from members of the audience seemed to reveal Herzog’s personality, philosophy and intentions more than any other interview with him I’ve seen.  Asked about his documentaries, Herzog argued that he was not interested in facts: while aspects of those films are ‘factually not correct’, they ‘touch a deeper truth’.

Herzog insisted that ‘the mystery that surrounds those paintings will be there forever’. Instead of attempting to offer theories about their origin, he was instead trying to evoke a spiritual response within his audience, encouraging them feel a similar sense of wonder to that experienced by those fortunate few allowed in the cave.

Herzog told us that he faced intense competition to shoot in the cave at  Chauvet.  He outflanked the opposition by offering to do it for a nominal one euro fee and donating the finished film to the French Ministry of Culture to use for  educational purposes (it will be available free to all French schools).

For me, one of the delights of Cave of Forgotten Dreams is Herzog’s narration: I could listen to Werner Herzog’s precise Bavarian accent for hours!  It seems I’m not alone.  Herzog revealed that he had just added his voice to a character in an episode of the Simpsons, while recently he was also asked to provide the narration for a 15 minute short, Plastic Bag, directed by Ramin Bahrani.  It can be seen on YouTube and is worth watching for its environmental message and its resonant last words: ‘I wish you had created me so I could die’.


Montaigne: What do I know?

The only thing certain is nothing is certain.

I’ll admit that until recently I didn’t know very much about Michel de Montaigne or his Essays.  But in the past month I’ve finished Sarah Bakewell’s highly readable account of his life and ideas, heard last week’s essays on Montaigne broadcast in Radio 3’s The Essay, and read an extract in Saturday’s Guardian from yet another recent book on the French sceptic and humanist.

These days millions of us write about ourselves and broadcast our thoughts – this blog is just one tiny bit of flotsam floating on what Sarah Bakewell describes vividly as ‘the online ocean of blogs, tweets, tubes, spaces, faces, pages and pods’.  Do we owe all this to a man who lived from 1533 to 1592, in a France dominated by bloody and miserable civil wars, who retreated from a life of public service to write, in his library in a tower on his estate, the pieces which he called essais, or ‘tries’ – a term he was the first to use in this way?

Sarah Bakewell’s book – How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer – is the first life of Montaigne in English for 50 years.  But it is also unique in that she threads Montaigne’s life story through a series of chapters each of which poses questions about how we should live and answered in a manner rather like a Montaigne essay.

Bakewell begins by posing the question:Why write about Montaigne?  Her answer is that ‘he is one of the most appealing, likeable writers ever to have lived. … he helped make us the way we are.  Had he not existed, or had his own life gone slightly differently, we too would be a little bit different. … The idea that immersion in one’s inner world can be a sociable act, and that the assertion of what makes us unlike anyone else can bring out the humanity we share with everyone else is something we owe to Michel de Montaigne’.

This idea – writing about oneself to create a mirror in which other people recognise their own humanity – has not existed for ever,  It had to be invented,  And, unlike many cultural inventions, it can be traced to a single person: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a nobleman, government official and wine grower who lived in the Perigord area of south-western France from 1533 to 1592. Montaigne created the idea simply by doing it.  Unlike most memoirists of his day, he did not write to record his own great deeds and achievements.  Nor did he lay down a straight eyewitness account of historical events… [rather] he wrote exploratory, free-floating pieces to which he gave simple titles..

He wrote 107 essays with titles such as:

Our feelings reach out beyond us.
Of friendship.
Of cannibals.
Of the custom of wearing clothes.
How we cry and laugh for the same thing.
How our mind hinders itself.
Of cruelty
Of thumbs
Of diversion.
Of coaches.
Of experience.

Together they create a frank self-portrait which is also a mirror, for Montaigne believed that ‘each man bears the entire form of the human condition’, so that by opening his own mind to us, his readers, ours can be revealed to us.  He does this by telling us very ordinary things: that he never sleeps in the daytime and only enjoys sex lying down, that he is fond of eating fish, and that his ears often get itchy inside.  Once, he liked radishes, but he went off them; then he mysteriously went back to liking them again.

Introducing a series on Montaigne published in The Guardian in May 2010, Sarah Bakewell summed up the approach of his ‘philosopher who proposed no theories, put no trust in reason, and showed no desire to convince readers of anything’:

What is it to be a human being, he wondered? Why do other people behave as they do? Why do I behave as I do? He watched his neighbours, his colleagues, even his cat and dog, and looked deeply into himself as well. He tried to record what it felt like to be angry, or exhilarated, or vain, or bad-tempered, or embarrassed, or lustful. Or to drift in and out of consciousness, in a half-dream. Or to feel bored with your responsibilities. Or to love someone. Or to have a brilliant idea while out riding, but forget it before you can get back to write it down – and then feel the lost memory recede further and further the more you hunt for it, only to pop into your head as soon as you give up and think about something else. He was, in short, a brilliant psychologist, but also a moral philosopher in the fullest sense of the word. He did not tell us what we should do, but explored what we actually do.

Whether Montaigne’s highly unusual upbringing had anything to do with his later outlook on life we can’t be certain.  His father basically conducted a pedagogic experiment on the young Michel, having him raised as an infant in the home of a humble peasant in a nearby village.  Then, until he went to school, he was exposed only to Latin.  He acquired an in-depth knowledge of the classics, which perhaps explains why the ceiling of his library was later decorated with favourite quotations from them, including this (from Terence): ‘I am a man and think nothing human is foreign to me’.

For me, one of the most interesting strands in Montaigne’s essays concern his ideas on humanity and empathy.  Although he liked to describe himself as a Stoic, and is sometimes portrayed as detached from the world, writing in his lonely tower, he had served as magistrate, mayor, diplomat and king’s advisor; he was gregarious, formed deep friendships, and talked to everyone he met on his travels in order to learn more about their lives.  Philosophical detachment was not Montaigne’s way: he had a natural tendency to empathise with others, and to sympathise with them – in the full, original sense of this word, meaning ‘to feel with’. Watching a human or animal in pain, Montaigne felt some of that pain himself.

Three celebrated examples of this empathy in Montaigne – his fascination with imagining the world from different perspectives – come to mind. He lived in a time when Europeans were encountering the peoples of the New World for the first time. He once met a couple of Tupinambá people, who had travelled to Europe from Brazil in a French ship. Through a translator, he asked them what they thought of France. They replied, among other things, that they were amazed to see rich Frenchmen gorging themselves at feasts while their ‘other halves’ – the beggars outside their houses – starved. Europeans were shocked because the Tupinambá – ‘cannibals’ – ate their enemies after a battle, but the Tupinambá were shocked because Europeans found it easy to ignore the suffering of the living. Montaigne looked equitably at both positions.  ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to’, he wrote. ‘This great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognise ourselves from the proper angle’:

I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.

Montaigne lived during the French wars of religion, a period of violence and fear that lasted from 1562 to 1598. His  house stood in the middle of the region of the most intense fighting. And he himself, having tried to negotiate between the warring factions, had made enemies on both sides. One day a neighbour turned up, terrified,on his doorstep.  He had, he said, just been set upon by an enemy about a mile away, and begged to be let in. Montaigne obliged, but then:

Four or five of his soldiers arrived, with the same bearing and fright, in order to be admitted. And then more and more after them, well-equipped and well-armed, until there were twenty-five or thirty of them, pretending to have the enemy at their heels. This mystery was beginning to arouse my suspicion. I was not ignorant of the sort of age in which I lived, how my house might be envied . . . However . . . I abandoned myself to the most natural and simple course, as I do always, and gave orders for them to be let in.

Everyone was invited into Montaigne’s living room, where, unexpectedly, his neighbour suddenly announced his departure.  In his Essays, Montaigne writes that his neighbour  later admitted that it was Montaigne’s demeanour that had defeated his stratagem: ‘He has often said to me since . . . that my face and my frankness wrestled his treachery from him’.  This incident was the subject of an article by Saul Frampton – author of another recent book on Montaigne – in Saturday’s Guardian. He links Montaigne’s insight to experiments which revealed that certain neurons in the brains of macaque monkeys fired not only when the monkeys grasped food, but when they saw the experimenter grasp it. These neurons have come to be known as ‘mirror’ or ’empathy’ neurons.

So contemporary neuroscientists seem to have confirmed what Montaigne intuited – that humans have an inbuilt empathetic capacity and that the strength of this capability depends on proximity:

No wisdom is so highly formed as to be able to imagine a cause of grief so vivid and so complete that it will not be increased by the actual presence, when the eyes and ears have a share in it.

But Montaigne went further, rejecting the idea that this capacity is species-dependent. In one of his most famous passages he asks: When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me?

Presumption is our natural and original disease. The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man, and withal the proudest. He feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, the most remote from the heavenly arch, with animals of the worst condition of the three; and yet in his imagination will be placing himself above the circle of the moon, and bringing the heavens under his feet. ‘Tis by the same vanity of imagination that he equals himself to God, attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions, and distributes to them portions of faculties and force, as himself thinks fit. How does he know, by the strength of his understanding, the secret and internal motions of animals?—from what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them? When I play with my cat, who knows whether I do not make her more sport than she makes me? We mutually divert one another with our play. If I have my hour to begin or to refuse, she also has hers.

The key to Montaigne’s outlook was his hatred of cruelty and his visceral rapport with others.  Speaking to the Brazilian Indians, it was their idea of men as halves of one another – Frenchmen feasting while their ‘other halves’ starved on their doorstep – that struck him deeply.  For Montaigne, all humans share an element of their being, and so do all other living things.  Even if animals were less like us than they are, we would still owe them a duty of fellow-feeling, simply because they are alive:

There is a certain respect, and a general duty of humanity, that attaches us not only to animals, who have life and feeling, but even to trees and plants.  We owe justice to men and mercy and kindness to other creatures that may be capable of receiving it.  There is some relationship between them and us, and some mutual obligation.  […] I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.

The TLS reviewer of Sarah Bakewell’s book said it is ‘the most enjoyable introduction to Montaigne in the English language’.  I’ll vouch for that.  She organises her survey of Montaigne’s work into twenty chapters that offer answers to his big question: How to live?  These range from ‘Question everything’ and ‘Be convivial: live with others’ to ‘Guard your humanity’ and ‘Be ordinary and imperfect’.

Bakewell presents Montaigne as a falling in the tradition of Pyrrhonian Scepticism, which refines Socrates’ claim ‘all I know is that I know nothing’ by adding the words ‘and I’m not even sure about that‘, which seems a pretty fair way to proceed in the world. Other thoughts of his are equally thought-provoking:

Kings and philosophers defecate, and so do ladies.

I enter into discussion and argument with great freedom and ease, inasmuch as opinion finds me in a bad soil to penetrate and take deep root in. No propositions astonish me, no belief offends me, whatever contrast it offers to my own. There is no fancy so frivolous and so extravagant that it does not seem to me quite suitable to the production of the human mind.

Human understanding is marvellously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses.

Man cannot make a worm, yet he will make gods by the dozen.

No man is a hero to his own valet.

For Montaigne, it was always life that mattered.  In his last essay, he gave perhaps his best answer to the question, How to live? –

Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself.

Something Zen there, perhaps.

Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, ‘Que sais-je?’ (‘What do I know?’). Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne’s attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly—his own judgment—makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. Much of modern literary non-fiction has found inspiration in Montaigne

Sarah Bakewell was one of those on radio 3 last week presenting their essays on Montaigne.  Others included Theodore Zeldin – who spoke mainly about his internet project, inspired by Montaigne, which encourages people to write brief self-portraits describing their lives, experiences, attitudes and values, with the aim of establishing  lines of communication with others all over the world – and Jonathan Bate, who explored Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare.

The first edition of the Essays was published in 1580. They were translated into English in 1603, by the linguist and lexicographer John Florio, tutor of Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton. Florio was of Anglo-Italian origin, a true European who spoke French and German as well as Italian and English. It is possible that he and Shakespeare were friends.

We know for certain, Jonathan Bate argued, that Shakespeare was familiar with Montaigne’s essays, and Montaigne’s influence can be discerned  in the language and scepticism of The Tempest and King Lear:

It is abundantly clear from Shakespeare’s linguistic borrowings, via John Florio’s English translation of Montaigne (1603), that the Frenchman’s essays shaped much of his most profound thinking – in King Lear and The Tempest especially – about knowledge and scepticism, nature and nurture, emotion and reason, and the centrality of sexual desire to human experience.

The self-probing, deeply sceptical, often melancholy personality that the Essays reveal seems also to anticipate Hamlet.  But that play was written before Florio’s translation appeared, and though some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare may have read it in manuscript, Bate thought this unlikely. The similarities, Bate argued, are due to the similar outlooks of the two men.

But there’s no question whatever that Shakespeare was reading Montaigne as he wrote The Tempest. The clearest evidence is in Gonzalo’s description, in Act Two, Scene One, of his ideal commonwealth. In his essay ‘Of Cannibals’, Montaigne wrote:

It is a nation that hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but of common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of among them.

Gonzalo’s words, imagining the commonwealth that he would establish if he ‘had plantation’ of Propero’s island are Shakespeare’s adaptation of Montaigne:

I’th’commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too – but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty – […]

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of its own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.

Finally, Bate recalled another of Montaigne’s famous aphorisms.  Montaigne rejected as foolish those who fear death and so try not to think about it.  A wise man thinks about it all the time, but gets on with his life:

The end of our career is death.  It is the necessary object of our aim.  If it affright us, how is it possible that we should step one foot further without any ague?  Let us learn to stand and combat her with the resolute mind… A man should ever be ready-booted to take his journey. … Let death seize upon me while I am setting my cabbages, careless of her dart but more of my unperfect garden.

Postscript: in a review of several new books on Montaigne, Anthony Gottlieb wrote in the New York Times:

Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined an essay as “a loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece.” Bacon’s compositions tend to drive at a single conclusion, but Johnson’s “sally” is a nice fit for Montaigne’s meandering collection of thoughts, and those of his more whimsical descendants. […]

It’s been said — by Bakewell, with reservations, and others — that Montaigne was the first blogger. His favorite subject, as he often remarked, was himself (“I would rather be an expert on me than on Cicero”), and he meant to leave nothing out (“I am loath even to have thoughts which I cannot publish”). […]

Somewhat like a link-infested blog post, Montaigne’s writing is dripping with quotations, and can sometimes read almost as an anthology. His “links” are mainly classical, most often to Plato, Cicero and Seneca. Modern readers may find all these insertions distracting — there is, as it were, too much to click on — but some may be thankful for a fragmentary yet mostly reliable classical education on the cheap. (Montaigne should not, however, have credited Aristotle with the maxim, “A man . . . should touch his wife prudently and soberly, lest if he caresses her too lasciviously the pleasure should transport her outside the bounds of reason.” The real source of this unromantic advice is unknown.) […]

Montaigne can evidently still evince strong affection from authors after nearly half a millennium. So artful is Bakewell’s account of him that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration. But it’s not so clear that Montaigne’s often chaotic essays are all that digestible today unless one has a good guide to his life and context, like Bakewell’s close to hand.