3D Vision

P1010364Last night, a vernissage was held for a new exhibition of photo-montages by members of the Caméra Photo Club du Lochois (CPCL) in the Loches Hôtel de Ville, a beautiful 16th-century building that is part of the Porte Picois, one of the ancient fortified gates of the town. Click here for an article (in French) about this exhibition from La Nouvelle République. The main reception room of the Hôtel de Ville (see photo above, with the President of the CPCL, Didier Gosselin, addressing the assembly) has been wallpapered in red tartan in preparation for the upcoming twinning of Loches with Saint Andrews in Scotland. 

The CPCL has been going for half a century and is very active on all fronts. Some years ago, it received a donation of wooden boxes which, upon being opened, revealed a historical treasure: over 200 glass-plate stereoscopic images of Loches dating from 1908 to 1921 – intended for viewing with a wooden handheld stereoscope – showing views of daily life in the town, the local countryside, the flooding of the river Indre, gymnastic events, early automobiles, military manoeuvres, and much more. Putting over 1,000 man-hours into the enterprise, the CPCL took digital scans of the images and painstakingly restored them. The result is a unique archive, a 3D DVD (3D glasses provided) that transports you straight into the past, a century ago. 

This is early 20th-century Oculus Rift, the dawn of virtual reality, and time travel rolled into one. The DVD, “Loches à la Belle Epoque”, is a unique example of how a local photo club can bring the past to life for the whole local community.

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My Winnipeg (2007)

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 20.42.37It’s now a more or less open secret in earnest cultural circles that I’m about to make inroads into film-making, so the moment has come to declare an interest in order to pre-empt any accusations of plagiarism. The film I adore, and would love to have made, is My Winnipeg (2007). The director and writer, Guy Maddin, has achieved the impossible.

Mr Maddin blends autobiography and factual or fictional statements about his home town, turning it into one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities with a visual vernacular all of his own. It is unfettered delirium, pure surrealism, verbal and ocular poetry of the highest order, every black and white edge-blurred scene fuzzed with snow. And over it all presides his overwhelming, sinister mother, with her fear of birds and grapnel-like clutch on him and his siblings.

The silent movie-style filming, interleaved with shadowplay animation, the refusal to allow any distinction between reality, memory, dream and fantasy, the euphoric humour, the melodramatic voice-over that pulls all the drawstrings to give the whole credibility – this is what film-making was once, and should always be. Where else does one find anything like this, except perhaps in the hands of the Soviet director Dziga Vertov, possibly one of Maddin’s inspirations? I could go on, but everything you might want to know about where this movie came from is online.

They call it a “mockumentary” or a “docu-fantasia”. It is a grid of a secret city, right on top of the named one. It is the portrait of a place that nobody would have thought deserved a portrait. a hymn to the unbridled soarings of the parochial imagination. It is about someone desperate to leave Winnipeg, but psychologically hamstrung and unable to do so. This is the most gorgeously wild hallucination I’ve ever seen. It shows how the language of film can be appropriated to uses that no-one thought possible. Forget Bunuel. Meet Mr Maddin. There are no easy pigeon-holes for this sort of thing. It is art, artifice, parody, beauty, seriousness, frivolity, illusions, delusions and reverie, all rolled into one glorious whole.

Chapeau…

A Fungi to Be With

P1010186Didier Raas is a pharmacist in Loches. He is also an expert mycologist, so as October comes round and the well-nigh 4,000 hectares of the Forêt de Loches bristle with multi-coloured mushrooms popping up through the carpet of newly fallen leaves, he is definitely “a fungi to be with”. 

Didier has been taking eager groups of amateur mushroom-pickers into forests for 30 years and helping them understand the contents of their wicker baskets. Today was no exception. Our little band thronged round him as he took our pickings and arranged them along a felled log, grouped according to family. 

There is quite simply nothing Didier Raas does not know about mushrooms, toadstools and fungi in general. He talked us through the anatomy of the mushroom – the cap, ring, gills, spores, stem, volva and mycelium – pointing out the extraordinary differences in texture, friability, colouring and odour, from one mushroom that smelled unmistakably of the welding gas acetylene, to others that smell like washing detergent, locomotive smoke, clementines, geraniums and even a seaweedy high tide. No mycologist worth his spores should smoke or wear perfume or aftershave, says Didier. Surprisingly, not a single mushroom we picked smelled of… well, mushrooms.

The question that was on everyone’s lips, as we peered proudly or shamefacedly into our baskets – the elephant in the forest, so to speak –  was “Is it edible?” Every now and then, Didier’s face lit up and he said, “Yes, indeed. A fine specimen!” More often than not, though, the answer was in the negative. 

 “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But there are 2,500 varieties of mushroom in this particular species and only four of them are edible.” 

 “Beautiful, isn’t it? But instant diarrhoea, I’m afraid.” 

 “Look how similar these two look! This one’s delicious, but this one will kill you!” 

 At one point, an elderly gentleman next to me who was looking increasingly crestfallen chucked his mushrooms on the ground and discreetly made his exit. The death sentences continued unabated.

 “Now there’s an interesting thing about this family of mushrooms. They’re perfectly OK to eat, unless you drink alcohol. If you drink alcohol they can kill you. There’s a court case going on in Nantes at the moment. A woman who fed them to all of her dinner guests, knowing full well that only her husband would be drinking during the meal.”

 He took each of our baskets and one by one tossed aside the noxious ones. “This belongs to a lethal family. The funny thing is, you have no symptoms for 14 days, then it kills you.”

 “And this – well it makes you sweat like a pig, weep and go blind and only injections of atropine every 10 minutes will save your sight.” 

 “Ah yes, a toadstool that makes you feel as if your legs are dropping off. The pain lasts six months and is so intense that only massive doses of morphine can make life bearable.”

 “Didier, is this one edible?” “Yes, it is. But look out for its cousin. Almost identical, but with a very fine red line just here, around the gills. Absolutely deadly.”

 “Can I eat this?” “Yes, but not too many, please. Since Chernobyl, it absorbs radioactive Caesium at a very high rate. In Russia, they drop pamphlets on forests by plane to warn people against picking these fellas.”

 “Aha! Eat that, and you’ll be seeing pink elephants within 30 seconds.”

 By this time, everybody was sticking very close to Didier, as if mushroom Armageddon was approaching and he was our sole Redeemer. The question now on everyone’s lips was, “How can we ever go mushrooming without Didier?” Didier smiled knowingly. Clearly the answer was, “Forget it. You can’t”. But Didier is on a loftier plane altogether, in the end. You see, fundamentally he couldn’t care less whether a mushroom is edible or not. He finds them all beautiful in their different ways. It also turned out that he knows how to identify apples just by looking at their cross-sections, horizontally and vertically. One thing our little trip into the forest definitely taught all of us was the enormous variety of mushrooms out there, and how many of them were terminally toxic.  But in the end it’s a case of “The mushroom-eater is dead, long live the mushroom!” Verily, if you are one of those who think that life’s too short to stuff a mushroom, Didier Raas is not your man. 

 This outing, on a day of resplendent sunshine, was a fascinating insight into that barely visible world of pretty domed caps shunting up beneath our feet. But when the visit was over, like the elderly gentleman before us, we discreetly emptied our basket onto the forest floor and headed for Loches market before it closed. No offence, anyone. There’s a Dutchman there who grows mushrooms in his cellar, under controlled conditions – Paris mushrooms, shiitake – and accepts forest mushrooms such as pieds de mouton, girolles and cêpes – from mushroom Maharishis such as Didier.

To hell with the expense! We just don’t want to die…

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Get Your Goat

P1010084Throughout France, Southern Touraine is known for its goat’s cheese, generally available in either fresh, semi-hard or hard consistencies, and often rolled in salt and pine ash. There are goat farms everywhere, but one of the more interesting is La Ferme du Cabri au Lait near Sepmes, run by Sébastien Beaury and Claire Proust –  not least because their goats are fed organic grain and allowed to roam free in a green meadow, rather than caged up in a barn. There are some 100 of the latter, of the hardy Alpine Chamois variety, and their milk is used to produce faisselle, cylindrical Sainte Maure cheese, round petit Cabri cheese, goat yoghurt and confiture de lait.

Both Sébastien and Claire are neo-ruralists, having moved from the town to the country in 2009. They’ve produced a thriving affair, but still have to hold down regular jobs to keep the goat business running. Because of time restrictions, the goats are only milked once a day, in the morning, and the small production is sold through local organic cooperatives. When we visited, they had no produce left to sell. They also grow aromatic and medicinal plants. The goats’ eyes have eerie horizontal, rectangular slit-shaped pupils, giving them depth perception in their peripheral vision – 320 degrees as opposed to the 120 degrees of human vision – to help avoid predators. Predators, on the other hand, like certain cats, have vertical-slit pupils which are adapted to homing in on a prey. Mingling with them in the meadow is a moving experience, since they love to rub up alongside people. “My Caroll raincoat!” wailed one young woman in our group as a goat pushed its nose into her raincoat pocket, then pulled out the lining and starting chewing on it.

Goat’s cheese is famously low in fat and a healthy option, but production does have its inhumane side. When the kids are born, the male goats are taken off and butchered, partly for meat – though not common fare on the menu in France – and partly for the rennet that is extracted from their stomachs. The latter is bottled and used in the cheese making to accelerate coagulation and separate curds and whey after the starter culture is added to the milk. In other words, your innocent little goat’s cheese is the product of mass infanticide, not to mention an unashamedly sexist cull. Vegetable rennet exists, but is less popular because less effective, and genetically engineered animal rennet exists too, involving no harm to baby animals. However, when you buy your goat’s cheese, the label rarely tells you what kind of rennet has been used. In a week in which the WHO has declared processed meat a carcinogen, the question of man’s inhumanity to animals is once again being kicked around, and dairy production should not be overlooked. 

Like 13% of the  young farmers in Touraine, Sébastien and Claire have taken the organic road. They have also opened their doors to visitors, being a “ferme pédagogique”. If you’re in the area, arrange a visit!

Streetwise

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 11.06.33“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 

 One of my recent pastimes has been studying the motivation and techniques of street photographers – those urban man watchers par excellence – through the medium of documentary. The film Joel Meyerowitz 1981 Street Photography, is an excellent case in point. Meyerowitz is one of the greats in this realm (see the famously polysemous Paris photo above) – as he is also, indeed, in large-format landscape photography – and we see him in this rough-and-ready shoot standing on a New York street corner and brazenly photographing anything that catches his eye. He says at one point “It took me a long time to realise you could stand still” – a good point, since the street photographer has a choice between moving through the crowd or standing still and allowing the crowd to wash around him. In common with Vivian Maier (viz the wonderful recent documentary, Finding Vivian Maier), there is nothing furtive about the way he takes pictures – though some street photographers opt for a surreptitious approach. It is in-your-face, though so instantaneous that with a blink of the eye you could miss it. Sometimes, consequently, his subjects are entirely oblivious, while others play up to the attention in ways that can sometimes make a good photo.
 
As someone once said, when people see a photographer, they see the lens, not the person behind it – and their first thought is often about how they will appear. Indeed, producing a camera at a gathering – any gathering – immediately changes the human electricity, as if you are conferring an importance on the people present, and the moment, which wasn’t there before – and this despite the fact that today everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times.
 
Meyerowitz lives off the energy of the street, like a predator hovering over his prey and then swooping on it at the click of the shutter. Taking a photograph, in this respect, is a very concrete manifestation of what we call a “split-second decision”. He says: “Photography is a response that has to do with the momentary recognition of things. Suddenly you’re alive. A minute later there was nothing there. I just watched it evaporate. You look one moment and there’s everything, next moment it’s gone. Photography is very philosophical.” 
 
It’s also about being there. The hunter who stays at home is no hunter. The photographer who does not venture out, purposefully seeking subject-matter, is no photographer – unless his or her subject-matter happens to be at home. In the words of Jay Maisel, “If you’re out there, shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not there, you’ll only hear about it.” Diane Arbus concurs: “My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been”. She is the subject of the documentary Going Where I’ve Never Been: The Photography of Diane Arbus which takes us beyond the “freak show” clichés about her work into a mind that engaged fully with its subjects and their predicaments, while not – as one might have imagined – seeking shock tactics. Arbus again, “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.”
 
Another in my miscellany of favourite documentaries about photographers would be The Many Lives of William Klein. Klein’s photographs of New York and Paris street life – not to mention his films – are the work of someone with a superbly whip-smart eye. Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank stand alongside him. The short film The Decisive Moment, narrated by Cartier-Bresson, is a good point of entry into the latter’s motivations and ways of seeing, particularly interesting for his thoughts on geometry. The short documentary Fire in The East is a suitable “beat” oriented introduction to Robert Frank. Though Klein also photographed in London and Tokyo, it is New York and Paris that are most associated with this strange art. Why is that?
 
Other revealing documentaries about individual photographers are Alfred Stieglitz: The Eloquent Eye, Bill Cunningham’s New York, The Real Weegee and William Eggleston In The Real World. With a few exceptions, the photographs of the latter are the apotheosis of banality, that “Who would photograph that?” moment. While definitely the curator of a certain kind of Americana – a pale and hollow echo of David Lynch, less darkly potent – he is the living proof of what you can get away with in a culture that venerates and enshrines images, sometimes for the most arbitrary reasons. The fact that he was exhibited and praised at an early age by John Szarkowski, Photography Director at MOMA, conferred an academic stamp of approval on him that is, to say the least, questionable. A picture may speak a thousand words, but it helps if photographers are eloquent about their art. Eggleston is so affectedly inarticulate that he has to have subtitles, though what he actually says is so dull that it’s hardly worth reading them.
 
Nowhere more than in street photography does rapid decision-making, sheer chutzpah and a high-adrenaline scanning of all horizons for the visual quarry come into its own. Nothing is “set up”, ideally (and with notorious exceptions) – it is the raw vernacular, the potluck, the awkwardness, and hugely serendipitous nature of the enterprise that appeals, and its dependence not on technical wizardry but the alacrity of the human eye and brain, the instant response to the emotional energy of a given ephemeral vision. As Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera”. This too comes across in my pick of top street photography documentaries – the fact that photography fosters an extreme acuity of vision. He who hesitates is lost. As a predator will lose its prey if it hangs back an instant, so the moment is fugitive, there to be snapped up, a fraction of a second away from being lost forever. Hence, if you want to learn what a photographer fears losing, watch what they photograph…
 
Stieglitz: “Photography is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
 
Despite Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, despite the vast democratisation of photography, this is still an incredibly elusive art – when it is an art, and not just a technology. What differentiates a bad photo from a good one? Robert Frank gets close to an answer when he says “When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line lof a poem twice.” 
 
And to come full circle, Meyerowitz once again:
 
“What I think is so extraordinary about the photograph is that we have a piece of paper with this image adhered to it, etched on it, which interposes itself into the plane of time that we are actually in at that moment. Even if it comes from as far back as 150 years ago, or as recently as yesterday, or a minute before as a Polaroid color photograph, suddenly you bring it into your experience. You look at it, and all around the real world is humming, buzzing and moving, and yet in this little frame there is stillness that looks like the world. That connection, that collision, that interfacing, is one of the most astonishing things we can experience.” 

Rolling in the Isles

P1000419In 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.

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Chim chim cher-ee!

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Fear no more the heat o’ the sun; 
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. 
 
From Shakespeare’s Cymbeline song to Blake’s poem “The Chimney Sweeper”, Dickens’ Oliver Twist – and indeed, Bert in Mary Poppins (immortalised with one of the most bogus Cockney accents ever by Dick Van Dyke) – chimney sweeps have had a mixed press. The use of young “climbing boys” to clamber up inside chimneys, risking death by asphyxiation or eventually carcinoma, was not fully outlawed in England until 1875 (see Peter Coveney’s excellent 1957 book on the child in literature, Poor Monkey). Nevertheless, to see a sweep on your wedding day, or shake hands with him at any time, was considered good luck – as we learn in the song “Chim him cher-ee!” 
 
In Paris, rogue “ramoneurs” come knocking on apartment doors, insisting on the legal necessity for this to be done and then charging three or four times the going rate.
 
In rural France, today, most people have wood-burning fires, both for pleasure and because wood is a cheap and readily available fuel. If you use your fireplace, the law requires you to have the chimney swept professionally once a year, at which time you receive a certificate. Should you then have a chimney fire (igniting cobwebs being one common cause), the insurance doesn’t cover you unless you have said certificate. I have a complete chimney sweeping kit in my barn, but I can’t bypass the professionals, being unable to issue myself with a certificate!
 
After a hot summer, a sudden chill. This year we started making evening fires earlier than ever. Now it is officially Autumn and the hunting season began yesterday, so I feel slightly less guilty about doing so. Today, therefore, the chimney sweeps came – complete with designer chimney-sweep trousers (see photo above). They blocked off the fireplace to contain the soot, then climbed onto the roof to brush down, then worked from under the fireplace tarpaulin to brush up. Then they hoovered up the mess. Forty-five minutes, and Done!
 
Here it is in pictures.
 
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Time Machines

P1020772The 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”… 

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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. 

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200 Volcanoes Can’t Be Wrong

P1100183Some 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. 

 

Batmanship in Beaulieu

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There is a colony of tiny pipistrelle bats in our barn. In the summer evenings, the swallows who spend summer in the abandoned house circle and swoop, catching insects on the wing. Then suddenly they all retire, there is a brief pause, and the bats come out like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, also to consume insects. The swallows of course migrate at the end of summer, to South Africa we are told, while the common pipistrelles hibernate in the barn, dramatically reducing their heartbeats and metabolic functions to consume virtually no energy during the winter months. When my daughter was eight, she came into my room one morning saying “Daddy, there’s something black on the stairs”. A baby bat, fast asleep. Wearing gloves, I picked it up and we studied it closely – still asleep – before putting it on the woodpile in the barn. Then just a couple of weeks ago, Geraldine’s daughter Ombeline was having dinner when a bat which had got in through an upstairs window made it down to the kitchen and circled her head a couple of times before fleeing through the open kitchen door.
 
Having decided to find out more concerning our nocturnal tenants, we went to Beaulieu-les-Loches to meet up with Vincent and Virginie, two bat experts from the Groupe Chiroptères d’Indre-et-Loire, an association for the study and protection of bats in the region. Vincent talked us through the amazing facts and figures about these creatures, the only flying mammals in the world. They have the ability to couple and then defer gestation, because the female stores the sperm as long as she wants, ensuring that her baby (they only have one offspring at a time) is born in Spring when food is available. They fly at between 25 and 70 kph and, when feeding, eat up to half their weight in insects – though a pipistrelle weighs no more than a 50-centime coin. They are not blind, despite the proverb, but have eyesight that is more or less as good as ours – though of course they navigate at high speed using echolocation, emitting sharp high-pitched blips from the larynx or – in the case of some species – the nose. When they catch an insect in their mouths, they can no longer make this noise, so – to avoid collisions – they fly in small circles while eating their prey.
 
It was curious meeting two people who had such a fondness for these eldritch life forms. Bats are a protected species. Vincent and Virginie have an SOS line to save bats in peril, and they told us about a colleague who saved the lives of baby bats by popping them into her bra to keep them warm against her breasts. In common with swallows, their numbers and the locations of the colonies are important ecological and meteorological indicators. There are 34 species in France and 23 in Indre-et-Loire, with the highest concentration being in this region of France and particularly around Loches, with all its old tuffeau quarries, cellars and troglodytic habitations. 
 
At sunset, we went out into Les Prairies du Roy, a small nature reserve with a gorgeous view of Loches across the river Indre. We glimpsed the bats in flight, following the path of a row of trees or hedges. But Vincent and Virginie went one better. They had “batbox” bat detectors – handheld devices that pick up the bats’ ultrasonic shouts (above 20kHz) and bring them into audible range. It was like radar, hearing the increasing volume of rapid-fire blip-blip-blip calls approaching, glimpsing the speeding bat overhead, then hearing it recede. Each species of bat has a different call, and they are clearly distinguishable. The enthusiasm of Vincent and Virginie for bats is apparently unbridled. Is this a curious rural equivalent of the trainspotters of my London youth?
 
We continued chatting under a full supermoon. When they heard about my colony, in a locality they had not yet explored or developed a statistical picture for, they immediately set up a visit, during which they plan to capture a bat for a brief get-to-know-you session.
 
So more news of chiropterans anon…
 
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© 2018 Adrian Mathews