La Nouvelle République, 25 juin 2016
Les Wagons, at Saint Branchs in Touraine, is a unique theatrical space composed of three former SNCF freight wagons, welded together. It can accommodate an audience of up to 110 people. The venture began in the early 2000s, launched by Thierry Tchang Tchong and Anne-Marie Renault, and every month the theatre hosts shows by professional artists, musical or theatrical, and is also a place of cultural exchange, including writing workshops based on short stories and poems. I was honoured to be asked by Anne-Marie Renault and Annie Parot to present myself and my writing on stage, on Friday 3 June 2016. Despite transport strikes and continued flooding in Southern Touraine, there was a good turn-out. However, the musicians who were supposed to perform in the second half of the evening didn’t show up because their instruments were stranded in a flooded basement somewhere. As a result, we held the fort – with a very lively and entertaining exchange with the audience, and a vin d’amitié at the end. Little theatres like Les Wagons have difficulty surviving financially, with very few subsidies, so I wish them well. The venue reminded me of the Norfolk bungalow my family used to stay in when I was a child, which was also composed of three former railway carriages. My thanks to Anne-Marie and Annie for the invitation and a very stimulating discussion.
When my daughter was about seven, we were at a loose end one day and decided on a Magical Mystery Tour. I opened up a map of the local area and asked her to shut her eyes and point. Her finger landed on “Fontenay”, apparently a tiny hamlet near Saint Baud in Touraine. We drove there and were thrilled to find a ruined château, dating back – as I later discovered – to the 15th century and last occupied at the time of the French Revolution. We trudged round it, battling through dense undergrowth, and explored the moat and ruined tower. Some kids were playing there and had seen us. They were hiding, but we could hear their fake animal calls. The place was charged with atmosphere and reminded me of a poem I wrote when I was about 16, the subject being a ruined manor house called “Thistledown Hall”, but also of the château in Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes which, though not ruined, was an equally mysterious domain full of magical phenomena.
Yesterday, I was driving around looking for a place to stop and walk the dog when, by a circuitous route, I found myself beside the Fontenay château once again. All of the undergrowth had been cleared, the centuries-old trees chopped down, and the 15th-century tower appeared to be occupied, with proper windows and curtains, while the later 18th-century part of the house was being restored. Three workmen were on high, building the timber frame for a new roof, steep and tall. I was so surprised that I stopped the car and stared. The workmen seemed equally surprised and stopped what they were doing to stare back at me.
When I got home, I told my daughter about this, saying that it was nice that the château had found someone to bring it back to life – half-heartedly trying to convince myself that I actually believed this. She was crestfallen and said that no, it was a tragedy, because we loved it the way it was. I had to admit she was right. It may be a hangover from Romanticism to love ruins, but there is something wonderfully doomladen about human edifices being gradually eroded and engulfed with vegetation, the victory of nature over the works of man. Does everything have to be “saved” and “restored”? Can’t we just let a few secretive châteaux take on a new, overgrown life, a home to foxes, badgers and crows rather than boring old human beings?
It started with an ad on leboncoin.fr, a French small ads site. The table looked like just what I needed for the garden. Four people could easily eat at it, but for me it was more of a breakfast table for two, to put outside the kitchen. It was old, with a classic perforated design, S-shaped decorations on the four legs, and a few innocent spots of rust. I phoned up and arranged to drive the 39km to Noizay, north of Amboise, the following day. The address I was given was in the Chemin Francis Poulenc, in the heart of the wine-growing area beside the Loire.
When I got there, the house was splendid and a big plaque beside the entrance gate announced that the French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) had lived there – with spells in Paris – from 1927 until his death. I was greeted by two of Poulenc’s nephews, and the wife of one of them. We looked at the table and talked about Poulenc, and how they remembered that when the weather was fine he liked to take his meals or drinks at this very table on the terrace. The terrace overlooks a small Italianate garden and has a breathtaking view over countryside, with no other houses in sight. This is Vouvray land, vineyard country, with many troglodytic habitations – and indeed this house had cellars that disappeared into the rock.
After much struggling, we got the table into my car with not even a millimetre to spare, I paid the 100€ they were asking, and they invited me into the house, part of which dates back to the 15th century. There was disarray everywhere because they were selling up and moving, but Poulenc’s music room was untouched. There were pictures of him with many famous people, from Max Jacob to Stravinsky, on the walls, an upright and baby grand piano, and a bookcase full of his compositions (see photos below, plus period photos of when Poulenc was alive). One of the nephews enjoyed practising his English on me, and we drank a glass of white wine from their own vineyard, just below the house. It was what they called “un vin tranquil”, a non-sparkling Vouvray, and we discussed how we would translate that very French expression into English. We also discussed how the pharmaceutical company Rhône-Poulenc was founded by the same family.
It was sad seeing the great man’s possessions being parcelled up and moved or sold off, but when I left I promised that I would not forget the history behind my new item of furniture. An hour and a half earlier, when I set off in the car, I had no idea that I’d end up the proud owner of Francis Poulenc’s garden table!
On Saturday 12 March 2016, the Camera Photo Club de Loches celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Espace Agnès Sorel in Loches – with an exhibition, a buffet, interactive events, a huge programme of film projections, speeches by local mayors, and special guests talking about their experiences of film-making and photographing for virtual reality walkthroughs. Click here to view a little video I made to commemorate the event!
Where are the snows of yesteryear? Well, right here. I’ve shot a second film of this morning’s sudden snowfall, and paired it with some music by a blind Japanese musician, Kimio Eto, who died in 2007: this “Koto Snow Fantasy” was recorded in the 60s. The Shinto rapture at the delicate nuances between changing seasons, in art and music, is well-known.
“All Heaven and Earth
Flowered white obliterate…
Hashin, Japanese Haiku
Click HERE to see my seasonal hymn to the nature spirits of Touraine.
The twice-weekly market in Loches, Indre-et-Loire, is a tribute to everything that we love about France – wonderful fresh produce, a convivial atmosphere, great restaurants and a thriving café society – though the mythic Café des Arts is currently closed for refurbishment, alas, alack. The market isn’t at its best on a chilly February morning, -4C, but so be it. With no pretensions to high art, I shot a little footage this morning to convey some of the local flavour: click HERE to view it!