“I believe that street photography is central to the issue of photography—that it is purely photographic, whereas the other genres, such as landscape and portrait photography, are a little more applied, more mixed in with the history of painting and other art forms.” – Joel Meyerowitz
In D. H. Lawrence’s short story “The Man Who Loved Islands”, the protagonist has an obsessive desire to live on his own island and moves from one to another, becoming increasingly isolated from his fellow man. My own discovery of three of the islands off the French Atlantic coast has worked in the reverse direction sequentially if not existentially, from the most isolated to the most populated. The Ile D’Yeu first, only accessible by boat. Then Ile de Ré, a relatively small but picture-perfect place, with blue-shuttered, white former fishermen’s cottages and streets lined with hollyhocks, accessible by bridge and very much Paris-sur-Mer in terms of human fauna. And now, the Ile d’Oléron, the largest of the three, also connected to the mainland since 1965 by bridge. The latter is the least prettified of the three, but makes up for it with amazing natural beauty and a certain breathtaking wildness whereas the Ile de Ré, for example, seems entirely crafted by the hand of man.
We stayed in a small hotel directly on the shore near Saint Trojan les Bains, with marshland (Le Marais des Bris) and a magnificent forest of maritime pines on the southern tip of the island. The seascapes are huge, with mussels growing on wooden structures on the mudflats, people digging for cockles and giant jellyfish stranded by the tide. When the water turns, the sea reportedly rises as fast as a galloping steed, though we thought better of acquiring a galloping steed to test this theory which seemed entirely tenable. The coastal bird life is spectacular, with many herons and egrets.
The coastline of the ile d’Oléron is dotted with brightly painted fishermen’s cabins, often turned into artisan’s workshops these days, and, apart from the salterns, one of the main attractions here is oysters and oyster farming. Go to Fort Royer if you want to see this operation on a larger scale.
We went off-season, in October, and the locals all seemed to be staggering after the summer invasion of tourists, who on whole they appear to hate with a vengeance.
Driving through the oyster farming region on the east coast, we passed one hut that had a seafood shop and café, advertising in big coloured lettering “Huitres – Dégustation sur Place”, with tables and chairs on a little covered terrace overlooking the waterways. We parked and perused the seafood menu and lists of oyster platters. A man working on a tractor pointedly ignored us so went to the shop to order. “Oh no,” said the teenage girl behind the counter, “You can’t eat oysters here. It’s winter. It’s far too cold.” I pointed out that it was not winter, but autumn, that it was a lovely sunny day, and that we wanted to eat oysters – it was, indeed, the reason why we had stopped the car. “We’re far too busy to serve only two people,” she said, “and anyway, you’re the first customers of the day.” Clearly being the first customers of the day, even though it was three o’clock in the afternoon, was not perceived as an advantage and she would have preferred none whatsoever. I thought of mentioning the pointlessness of having giant signs luring oyster-lovers off the road when serving oysters appeared to be the last thing on earth that she wanted to do, but pointlessness seemed to be the order of her day so we retired, accepting defeat with a heavy heart. After all, there were other places. The world was our oyster…
We drove to La Cotinière, a modest little fishing village on the west coast of the island and found an eatery that advertised oyster platters. “Sorry,” said the waitress, “our man who opens the oysters and prepares the platters has gone home.”
This was getting serious…
“O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none –
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.”
Seeing our crests fall, as they were now getting into the habit of doing, she added cheerfully, “But there’s an oyster seller just next door. Get your oysters there and you can eat them here.”
The small deep-sea oysters were 7.40€ for 26, about half the cost of what we’d have paid in a mainland supermarket, and the oyster seller gave us plates and knives, telling us to bring them back when we’d finished. The contrast with the roadside venue in terms of customer service and simple humanity was complete. So grateful were we, indeed, that we returned to the same establishment for dinner, but the accommodating waitress had been replaced by a shabby waiter so utterly lacking in class and savoir faire that he was almost worth the detour in himself – no water on the table, no salt and pepper, a seafood platter (albeit cheap and cheerful) with no implements to extract winkles from their shells and only one thin slice of lemon for the two of us, no shallot vinegar for the oysters. When he opened the white wine, after sloshing half a glass on the table and not wiping it up, he tossed the cork and metallic cover into the ice in the ice bucket. Shortly thereafter, we overheard him boasting about his years of experience in the catering trade to some nearby locals. Once again, we sensed that here was someone who was reeling, punch drunk from the blows of the tourist season and whose world-weary incompetence was just that – “nothing personal”.
Our hotel manager was no exception. We’d read the highly favourable TripAdvisor reviews before coming and the owner had responded with withering irony to the very few mildly critical ones, so much so that we built up a perfect photofit of her before meeting her. We were not to be disappointed. On arrival, I asked if there was a WC I could use and she said “Oh yes, we’re very modern here.” Her subsequent ripostes were in the same cavalier, nonchalantly sardonic vein. Being October, we’d negotiated a good deal on the room, but after the first evening dining in the expensive hotel restaurant, we did not return, purely for budgetary reasons. Each time she saw us leave or return, her stony glare confirmed that our failure to continue patronising her restaurant was a calamitous blot on our escutcheon. I sensed a sting coming, and come it did. Our little dog, Alec, whom she’d accepted without demur when booking, now had to pay for his stay – “supplément chien” as it said on the bill, a fact that she’d neglected to mention, or more probably had invented post hoc ergo propter hoc. It was no mean sum. Alec was naturally unable to cough up, so I came to his rescue – noblesse oblige… and frankly the least I could do for a Maltese terrier.
There’s something highly practical, but poetically tragic, about connecting islands to the mainland by bridges and tunnels, like delivering a slow lethal injection through an intravenous drip. What happened to that precious stone set in silver seas, which serve it in the office of a wall or as a moat defensive to a house against the envy of less happier lands? One senses that if it were a little bit more difficult for tourists to get here, and if they could leave their diabolical gas guzzlers on the mainland, the Ile d’Oléron locals would be a happier tribe. Be that as it may, this island is a place of exceptional natural beauty, the air is intoxicatingly pure and outside the evident abominations of July and August it comes quietly into its own. Here “off” is definitely the new “on” and “low” the new “high” – an opinion that the gentleman in the photo below would, I feel sure, endorse, if he could stir himself to do so.
Nor the furious winter’s rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust.
The town of Loches is dominated by the Tour Saint Antoine, a Renaissance tower built in the mid-16th century, in the reign of François I. It is 52 metres high, a square column terminating in an octagonal superstructure. But what is it? There is no church attached to it, and no bell atop. This weekend was the “journées du patrimoine” in France and we took the opportunity to visit the tower, which is normally closed to visitors. The visit began with an arduous ascent – the 143 narrow stone steps of a spiral staircase. One then emerges onto a narrow balcony around the central space with a unique and dizzying view over Loches and its magnificent citadel, over 1,500 years of history.
There is no bell in the Tour Saint Antoine, though undoubtedly there once was. The historian who talked us through its past said that the main question was whether it was a “clocher” or a “beffroi” or both. What’s the difference? Essentially a “clocher” is a church bell that serves for religious timekeeping, whereas a “beffroi” is a secular or communal timekeeper with the tower as a lookout post over the countryside and the bell serving to rally the people of the town. The Tour Saint Antoine was probably a “clocher” since a church once stood at its base, later to be replaced by the Eglise Saint Antoine opposite the Palais de Justice. In the course of the visit, we learned how the old ramparts were removed as the town expanded, and how traces of this expansion are still visible from on high. Incidentally, the “bel” part of “belfry” has nothing to do with bells etymologically: the word derives from old German and meant “a high place of safety, tower”.
Another response to the question “What is the difference between a clocher and a beffroi”? One goes “ding” and the other goes “dong”…
Today, the best thing about the Tour Saint Antoine is the view.
We also took advantage of the weekend’s open-door policy to visit the Horlogerie Vassort & Joubert, a master clockmaker’s workshop. The building was an apothecary’s in the 18th century, and the oldest part goes back to the 15th century. Since 1983, Gilles Vassort has made this his headquarters, from which he has restored clocks in châteaux, museums and public edifices in many parts of France, in addition to watches and clocks for private customers. His young assistant and prospective successor explained to us how clocks were repaired, the way in which mechanical parts were made, the hands, the face and so on.
Clocks have a special place in my family. My father was obsessed with them and I once counted 40 in his small house (not including those that were tucked away in chests of drawers). He would buy defunct clocks, particularly carriage clocks, and revive them with quartz movements.
I also had a brief period when I collected mechanical watches and learned as much as I could about them. I still have a few, including a Vulcain Cricket, the so-called Presidents’ watch since it was worn by Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Johnson. It is one of the first alarm watches and legend has it that the Swiss maker, asking himself “What is tiny but makes a big noise?” answered “A cricket”, and that the miniature alarm mechanism is based on direct observation of the insect. It is also said that on one occasion, when Eisenhower was publicly announcing a temporary embargo on Swiss goods, his Vulcain Cricket alarm went off and all the journalists present recognised the signature sound of the Swiss timepiece.
I also have my grandfather’s old fob watch and chain, which I can remember him wearing in his waistcoat, as he lay on the sofa reading in Balham, back in the 1960s.
The relative merits of watches and clocks with mechanical and quartz movements in some ways sum up how we feel about the technological revolution that has swept us along with it. While the quartz mechanism is infinitely more reliable, convenient and trouble-free, it is strangely soulless. In Paris, I’ve seen a number of old-fashioned watch and clock repairers closing down due to lack of business. But every now and then one comes across someone quietly keeping the centuries-old traditions of craftsmanship alive, such as Gilles Vassort and his apprentices in the quiet backwater of Loches.
Some years ago I was driving through the Auvergne on the A75 autoroute and the skyline of extinct volcanoes intrigued me – one can’t help imagining what that horizon looked like when they were active. This September, we finally got round to a short but serious visit. Despite almost continuous torrential rain and batting windscreen wipers, the experience was unforgettable – rolling green countryside, hedgerow, cattle and sheep cowering in the downpour, austere hilltop villages, viaducts, the omnipresence of dark volcanic rock, and of course 200 volcanoes, the last of which erupted some 6,000 years ago. Not to mention the faded glory of Belle Epoque spa towns, of which there are ten, with an elderly clientele – their “cure” paid for by social security – and many of their 19th-century hotels now transformed into flats. Our visit was also gastronomic, with a particular focus on the famous Auvergne cheeses – Cantal, Saint-Nectaire, Bleu d’Auvergne, Forme d’Ambert – and simple peasant dishes involving cheese, such as the extremely filling Truffade, a mash-up of potatoes and Salers cheese, served with salad and jambon du pays.
Surprisingly, the Auvergne does not attract as many tourists as other less spectacular regions in France, perhaps being somewhat off the beaten track, and property prices there are consequently low. For us, and for many visitors, the main attraction was the magnificent Parc des Volcans d’Auvergne which is the biggest regional natural park in France, dominated by the Chaîne des Puys – a “puys” being a rounded hilltop formed from unerupted hardened magma.
We began our trip at Saint-Gervais d’Auvergne, with a night at the Castel Hôtel 1904 which boasts one of the finest restaurants in the region, a reputation which we can now thoroughly endorse. In the village, we met Catherine Decultot, a professional milliner with her Aladdin’s cave of hats and bonnets. She speaks excellent English, having worked as a wig maker in London for Harrods in the 1980s, and with long experience of living in Martinique and confecting bright carnival-style headgear for Caribbean women, which she still does from her remote French hideaway.
One of the first natural sites we took in was the Méandres de Queuille, a breathtaking loop in the Sioule river which one observes from a rocky promontory 200 metres above (see main photo). The valley is composed of gorges and is almost inaccessible. It is like looking down from a plane on an isolated stretch of the Amazon. We later met a man who had been there, with his canoe, a tent, and fishing rod, and he confirmed that there was no human habitation, only nature in the wild.
From there we drove to the Puy de Dôme, the highest volcano in this range. There is a rack railway and a visitor centre at the foot of the Puys, but the rain and fog were so dense that we were advised not to waste our money on the upward trip. However, we waited an hour, the fog lifted, and we ended up taking the train to the summit which is dominated by a huge Stalinesque weather station and off-limits air force control base overlooking the foundations of a 2nd-century AD Gallo-Roman Temple of Mercury, itself – as was recently discovered – built on the site of an older Celtic temple. Our sympathies went out to the donkeys and mules who had to haul the big stones up the mountainside to build this folly to a defunct deity. The view from the Puy de Dôme is one of the major attractions here, taking in nearly all of the lesser volcanoes in the range.
We spent the night in the old Spa Town of Royat at the wonderful 19th-century Royal Saint Mart hotel which exudes the charm of bygone days, and also has an excellent restaurant where the waiters wear white tunics with gold buttons, as if on an ocean liner. The next day we drove back into the volcano region and visited Lac Chambon – like so many of the circular lakes in this region, the crater of an extinct volcano. A good brisk walk round the lake, then a trip up to the pretty nearby village of Murol for a much-advertised vide grenier, that turned out to host only five stalls, the rain having scared off most potential punters. An elderly man with a W. C. Fields nose and more than a whiff of pinard on his breath accosted us and tried to drag us to his house, where he said he wanted to give us a painting for free, but we shook him off, insisting that we had to hit the road – leaving some “What might have happened?” and “What painting?” question marks hovering over this chance encounter.
Thence we drove to a smaller volcanic lake further north before finding the Hôtel de Paris in Châtel-Guyon, another long-forgotten spa town, and in the evening headed up to the Croix en Fer auberge, a charming chalet atop a hill that overlooks the town of Riom – a sprawling metropolis of nearly 20,000 souls, of which we’d never previously heard. The auberge restaurant, with its jazz pianist, was a warm welcome on a cold night, and reminded me of the legendary Café Hafa outside Tangiers, mostly because of its towering position.
The next day, a visit to Vichy. When I was in my early teens, I read and loved Flann O’Brien’s books, in one of which the narrator’s favourite tipple – after the “pint of porter is your only man” – was “Vichy water”. The name appealed to me then, as did the absurd luxury of paying good money for water, and I went ahead bought a bottle of genuine Vichy mineral water from the local off-license – this, I add, at a time when virtually no one in the UK drank mineral water. The style choice was fateful and thenceforth I made sure I always had a bottle in my bedroom, an early manifestation of a pretentious addiction to all things French, that has long since apotheosised into a consummate and not uncomfortable Nemesis. So it was a personal and vaguely epiphanic moment discovering the Vichy spa in its splendid Victorian pavilion and drinking that sparkling, mineral-rich water.
In the nearby park, beside the river, we got talking to an elderly lady called Laure who was feeding the black swans. The conversation lasted an hour, during which we learned everything about her in exhaustive detail – her Catholic faith, her hatred of racism, her contempt for Vichy and its townsfolk, her halcyon days living in Morocco, her ex-husband who married six times and regretted every marriage, her conspicuous openness to others – and closed with a promise to stay in touch. The prolixity of the lonely. As we parted company, we stepped tentatively over the many donkey hind legs that littered our path…
There is, of course, a darker historical side to the town of Vichy, but the local tourist office seems to have erased this effectively from all documentation if not from the national memory.
Thus ended our little jaunt to the Auvergne.
I strongly recommend visiting this relatively unfrequented corner of France. Listen to Joseph Canteloube’s magnificent Chants d’Auvergne to put yourself in the mood, with a glass or two of Saint-Pourcain white wine and a slice of Cantal. We’re planning to return in the winter, to see those volcanoes capped with snow.
Louis Malle has always been one of my favourite French film directors – and Lacombe Lucien (1974) probably my favourite French film, and one of the most morally subtle movies I’ve ever seen. Malle moved to the USA in 1977/78 where he produced seven films. One of these, My Dinner With André (1981), I saw for the first time last night.
This is a most unusual and striking movie. It is nothing more than a dinner conversation between the two actors, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, written by them and presumably based on their real conversations and experiences. In the first half of the film, we hear only Andre Gregory who talks about his spiritual experiences in experimental theatre and transcendentalism since ceasing activity as a New York theatre director in 1975. In the second half of the film, Wallace Shawn comes into his own, reacting to the enthusiasms of his friend in a way that could broadly be described as everyday empiricism challenging fashionable mysticism. But the conversation goes deeper than that, into what is, and is not, “performance” in life, and the relative merits of “being” and “doing”.
While they are eating quail in their New York restaurant – in fact filmed over two weeks in an empty hotel in Richmond, Virginia – both men, in many ways ill-assorted, confront their world views in a spirit of friendship and intelligence. The opening, when only Andre Gregory is speaking, leads one to expect a conversation of surreal non sequiturs, but gradually the whole thing is drawn together into a captivating discussion that touches on our lives with familiar philosophical relevance.
In our post-Beckettian, post-Pinterian world, we’re used to plays and films in which conversation is more about the avoidance of communication, cross-purposes, le non-dit, and the propagation of personal illusions and delusions rather than depressing, ineluctable truths. This 1981 movie is something different, a celebration of how two very dissimilar individuals can listen attentively, understand each other – to the extent that any articulate, cultivated person can understand another, and to the extent that language can effectively communicate feeling and conviction – and nevertheless take strong and partially incompatible stands, without animosity.
My favourite line is from Wallace Shawn: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I mean I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.”
The fact that the whole premise of the movie develops directly out of a real conversation between the two actors, in real life, which is subsequently scripted – presumably to give it filmic shape – and the audacity of filming two men talking to each other over dinner for more than two hours, adds up to a unique thing of splendour. And it is a thing of splendour that works. We are drawn into that conversation as if we were occupying the third seat at the table.
Where does one find screenwriting of this calibre today?
I’ve been watching the impressive True Detective Series 2 recently, which is compulsive viewing, but when you scrutinise the structure and language and character interaction it all comes down to writing-school precepts and dreary clichés – sorry, Nic Pizzolatto (creator and writer) – despite the dazzling pyrotechnics. Placed side by side with a work like My Dinner With André – which it is right now in my head because I have seen them in juxtaposition – the latter shines out as a unique work of art, and a celebration of human understanding through the dialectic of conversation: listening, understanding, reacting, agreeing – or agreeing to disagree, in the full apprehension of what you are disagreeing with. In this respect, it is a kind of post-post-Existentialist affirmation that human communication is not a lost cause.
If, like me, you love chancing on neglected masterpieces, this is definitely one, by one of the brightest sparks in French cinema.
Don’t waste your pucker on some all day sucker
And don’t try a toffee or cream
If you seek perfection in sugar confection
Well there’s something new on the scene
The 2005 BBC series Help, about a psychotherapist played by Chris Langham and his multiple patients, all played by the brilliant Paul Whitehouse – described by Johnny Depp as “the finest actor of all time” – is one of the sharpest comedies ever produced on British television. The actor Chris Langham, of course, was jailed for 6 months in 2007 for downloading child pornography. Since his release, he has starred in a feature-length low-budget comedy called Black Pond. Help was not released on DVD, presumably because of Langham’s conviction, but was freely available for viewing on YouTube. It has now been snuffed out on YouTube as well, without a word of explanation. This means that one of the most stunning comedy acts of our times cannot be viewed, by hook or by crook – unless someone can tell me of a means of which I am unaware? This is a particularly nasty and inexplicable act of censorship to all appearances. Does anyone have any information about what is going on? And how to bring this wonderful series – a whacky precursor to Gabriel Byrne’s earnest HBO series about a shrink, In Treatment – back into the public realm?