Recent Comments

    Articles

    Separation Creek

    Separation Creek

    The summer we came to Separation Creek was the summer I nearly lost Dick.  Which, as he went on to become a Cabinet Minister, would have been a loss to a wider community. At the time I felt nothing but guilt. Hadn’t he been in my charge?  The pain kicked in later. Not much later, only a matter of  seconds. The pain  had nothing to do with Dick at all.

    It was one of those summers you look back on, but not with nostalgia. There was nothing mellow or somnolent about it; the heat alone was fierce and unrelenting. Blazing days, sun that split orange skins, iceblocks that melted before you licked them, our salty lips cracking like blistered parchment. Those things were obvious to anyone. I see other things now that I didn’t see at the time. Read more…

    French Letters: Notes from a Writers’ Retreat

    The single storey, ancient stone farmhouse is surrounded by rolling fields, several miles from the nearest town. It is long, narrow, charming, with more lamps than I have ever seen in one small house. The sleeping quarters are at one end: two bedrooms, and a third double bed in the sitting room. I must walk through Anne’s bedroom and past Caroline’s bed to the kitchen to reach the bathroom. But we are old friends, and this is the third successive year that the three of us have gathered in a wintry landscape to write.

    We are in the heart of rural France. South-west of Paris, only ninety minutes away by train, it might as well be a far-flung province.  The region is called le Perche; tourists come rarely and certainly not off season. When de Gaulle spoke of La France Profonde – provincial, quiet, inward-looking – he might have been describing le Perche, with its sleepy capital Nogent-le-Rotrou, our nearest, internet cafe-free, small town.

    Writers are impractical. It is our first morning and we can’t get the stove to work. The name Monsieur Malherbe is on the fridge as wood carrier and general factotum. M. Malherbe is slight and taciturn. He adjusts the portable cylinder; a gas jet sputters into life. We have coffee, make a long list of supplies. But alas, it is Sunday in Nogent: the main supermarket closed at 11.45am, the other one at 12 as we drive up. The streets are deserted.

    But writers are imaginative and optimistic. We have the perfect, cosy auberge in mind for Sunday lunch. Its stone wall is covered in creeper, it serves simple yet delicious food sourced from local farms. We scour several villages in search of it. The villages are pretty but deserted, the inns few,  somewhat utilitarian and ‘tout complet’. Back in Nogent we locate the sole open shop, which is run by Arabs, and before it shuts grab whatever is to hand – bread and wine, lettuce, cheese, eggs, fresh figs. That evening we have tomato omelets, figs, cheese, and rather a lot of wine.

    Next morning Anne and I drop Caroline at the station at 8.20.am. She is off to Paris where she will work in the Library of the Resistance and the Archive of the Deportations three times a week. Usually she will take the car and leave it at the station for the day. But today Anne and I have a mission. After excellent croissants and execrable coffees in a bar, we try to organise temporary wireless internet access with ‘un G3’, a mysterious gadget we have heard of.

    We queue for nearly two hours at the Orange network shop. Ahead of us is an urbane Frenchman who has lived in New York for many years. He is in a serious bate, growls about le service, l’understaffing, l’attitude. They can’t solve his problem, or ours. In order to rent le magic G3, it seems, one needs a form. All French people have this form at the back of their cheque books. Without it you are sunk.

    Anne Chisholm is doing the final copy edit on her biography of Frances Partridge. This book is much-anticipated, a well-worn description but accurate here. Frances, who died in 2006 at the grand age of 102, was the last survivor of the Bloomsbury Group. A distinguished writer of memoirs and diaries, she was married to Ralph Partridge, who was previously married to Dora Carrington. Dora was the artist who shot herself after the death of her unrequited love, the homosexual Lytton Strachey.

    Anne’s book will be published in the UK in April, a month after Caroline Moorehead’s similarly anticipated biography of Madame de la Tour du Pin – herself a celebrated memoirist – who fled the French Revolution to exile in America, Europe and finally Pisa. Caroline is here to research her next book. It is a study of 230 members of the French Resistance in World War 11. All were women, some as young as seventeen. Many were married with children. They were rounded up and put on a train for Auschwitz.

    There were 49 survivors. During our three weeks in Nogent  Caroline will track down, visit and interview descendants, and six of the exceptional women – still living – who were on that train in January 1943. When she is not working in the archives she will read accounts of this atrocity. Anne and I will hear of unbearable stories and deeds of  almost unimaginable heroism. It is harrowing work. One night in the first week, with rain slamming against the windows,  before Caroline returns Anne lays out her  slippers in front of the fire. It becomes a fixture, that and the outstretched glass of wine.

    We light the fire first thing on the cold mornings, an achievement in itself.  There is a woodpile in the shed, great logs that M. Malherbe hauls in once a week. But it is strange, recalcitrant wood. I had prided myself on my skills, honed on childhood camping holidays, but this is something else. These fires need nurturing and intensive care. We resort to firelighters. We try different techniques. By the time we crack it we could write a manual.

    During the day we work. Anne and I are shut in our bedrooms, Caroline, when she is here, on the dining table. Occasionally we encounter one another for lunch or coffee; mostly we pass like quiet ships. But the evenings are sociable: fiercely competitive scrabble, cheap but surprisingly good wine, excellent food. We cook in turn, using market produce. Nogent’s Saturday market has it all. It is a captivating feast of fish, fowl, game and seasonal fruits and vegetables. We buy gigantic artichokes, pheasant, partridge, bulging bags of spinach and esoteric mushrooms.

    Nogent likes things large. On our daily walk Anne and I spot a huge ball. At first we mistake it for a skull, then realise it is a giant fungus. We find another close by, but resist the temptation to take them home and eat them. We wander through dappled beech woods and stride

    between thickets of bristly corn. One day we are roused from our desks by an amazing bellowing sound. We run out, and are confronted by a  tyrannosaurus obscuring the horizon. It is the corn thresher.

    Early next morning Anne returns to London for a week. These days she chairs the Royal Society of Literature, and must preside over a board meeting and host a lecture. Alone for the first time I am walking near the house when I hear the deafening roar of the threshing machine. It bears down, but I stand my ground. The farmer leans down from the dizzy height of his perch in the cabin. After some linguistic confusion it dawns on me that I am being invited up for a ride.

    As I climb the vertical steps I am visited by a flash that is not quite déjà vu but a variation of it. It is decades ago and I am of the age where girls are not infrequently offered lifts by strange men. The thought stays with me as I sit on a hard metal frame next to the farmer, who is of an age with me. I take out my mobile phone and send a gleeful girlish message to Anne and Caroline. My whereabouts, seated upon a colossus next to a strange man in a remote field in le Perche, beam via Australia to Paris and London.

    We advance inexorably upon the soldierly columns of corn. I watch entranced as, without effort, the blades slice through the tough stems. The farmer gestures behind. Looking back, I see the corn kernels, a thin golden river flowing from a pipe into le thresheur’s vast trough. Miraculously, it has cut the stems, sorted the cobs and sliced off the juicy buds.

    In stumbling French I mention our failure to locate the ideal auberge. My companion seems to know just such a one. He points into the far distance and elaborates excitedly, nodding, gesticulating, but I can’t get the gist and besides, I have no sense of direction.

    Next Saturday Caroline and I arm ourselves with brochures from the Mairie and set out with the names of three hostelries. Two are closed for the season, and the third is the very devil to locate. Eventually we find a solitary monsieur surveying, in overcoat and scarf, an empty crossroads. Mais oui, Mesdames, he knows it and it is formidable. Caroline, who is fluent, listens intently to his stream of directions. Right at the next village, left at the stop sign, up and down two hills, past a duck pond and up a rutted track.

    Twenty minutes later we fall silent. We recognise a leaning poplar, and beyond it, a group of farm buildings. Our home is  just around the corner. The auberge of our dreams is our nearest neighbour.

    On our last night in Nogent, the sole diners in an echoing stone room lit by candles, presided over by my beaming farmer and his wife, we eat the local produce cooked to perfection by somebody else.

     

    [While at Nogent-le-Rotrou, Virginia Duigan wrote a short story and 10,000 words of her third novel, The Precipice. ]

    Memoir: Never-never dreaming

    From Griffith Review 19; Re-imagining Australia; ed. Julianne Schultz

    When I looked at my father, I imagined Australia. In those first memories he is a tall figure in a dark blue uniform: handsome, glamorous and exciting, rather like a movie star father might seem today in the eyes of a four-year-old. As well as energy, he radiates a potent sense of freedom. Freedom as in wide-open spaces and boundlessness.

    My Australian father, Brian, was a pilot in the RAF. He had been a World War II ace, a member of the elite Pathfinder squadrons who flew thrillingly low over enemy territory to identify targets and drop marker flares for the laden bombers lumbering up behind. Of all dangerous flying missions, this was surely among the most perilous. Only a handful of those in the first hundred returned. My father was one of those who made it back. He survived the war and remained in the RAF for the next fifteen years: he loved flying jets. Read more…

    My Favourite Teacher

    Many children who went through Mr Gordon’s school might remember him with a shudder of distaste. He was an intimidating man. Autocratic, domineering, subject to volcanic eruptions of rage in which he would hurl pieces of chalk at the head of any child, boy or girl, who had  driven him mad by – he never hesitated to name it – their stupidity. And not only name it but yell it like a thunderclap. It was the 1950s, and his aim was true. The children were terrified of him.

    At the age of eleven I dimly recognised, although I could not have given it any name, a tortured soul. I was aware, in a childish, confused way, that Mr Gordon was deeply and profoundly unhappy. It was clear that he was an intellectually driven man, humiliated by his modest position as headmaster of a small, isolated village school in a Lincolnshire backwater. It was also obvious that he disliked or detested most children. Their rowdy messiness, triviality, laziness and vulgarity, their very immaturity encountered on a daily basis, kept him in a state of near-constant fury and frustration. He was a man whose civilized values collided head-on with his baser instincts, and fought a losing battle for supremacy. Read more…

    French Letters: Notes from a Writers’ Retreat

    Article in The Spectator Australia, Christmas Issue 20/27 Dec 2008

    The single storey, ancient stone farmhouse is surrounded by rolling fields, several miles from the nearest town. It is long, narrow, charming, with more lamps than I have ever seen in one small house. The sleeping quarters are at one end: two bedrooms, and a third double bed in the sitting room. I must walk through Anne’s bedroom and past Caroline’s bed to the kitchen to reach the bathroom. But we are old friends, and this is the third successive year that the three of us have gathered in a wintry landscape to write.

    We are in the heart of rural France. South-west of Paris, only ninety minutes away by train, it might as well be a far-flung province.  The region is called le Perche; tourists come rarely and certainly not off season. When de Gaulle spoke of La France Profonde – provincial, quiet, inward-looking – he might have been describing le Perche, with its sleepy capital Nogent-le-Rotrou, our nearest, internet cafe-free, small town. Read more…