Ghosts – They’re Out There!

I thought I’d let you know that ‘The Siren and Other Strange Tales’ my book of ghostly stories is now available for pre-order or directly available from all Amazon sites from 8th May.

Today I’m offering you some teaser quotes in the hope that they will part you from something just less than three pounds/dollars/euros. I know cash is hard to splash these days.

So, to summarise: The Siren etc (why did I choose such a long title??)is a collection of six short stories, set in different decades of the twentieth century. Each one has something spooky about it but not to the extent that it will keep you awake with the shivers.

First up is ‘That Cat’ – care worker Mandy meets a mysterious cat that knows when death approaches. But does Mandy?

They walked along the long corridor towards Mrs Beck’s room. The night lights cast little white puddles on the green lino. A whiff of disinfectant lingered in the air. All was quiet.
‘Isn’t it spooky when it’s quiet like this?’ Christine whispered.
‘Whatever are you whispering for?’ Mandy’s clear voice sliced the silence. ‘We can’t wake the dead or the nearly dead, which is what most of these old folk are.’

For the second story we move to France for ‘Toussaint’ when egotistical artist Gavin is given some ghostly marriage guidance.

‘Why do you hate chrysanthemums’ I asked, inconsequentially.
‘What? Oh, haven’t you noticed? All the shops are full of them at the moment – flowers of death I call them – always at funerals and gravesides. Me, I prefer roses.’
‘Roses? At this time of year… you’ll be lucky.’ I couldn’t help but give a huff of half-laughter. ‘I am going mad. Here I am talking to a ghost about bloody flowers. It’s surreal.’

Staying in France, we move to the Swinging Sixties when rebellious teenager Sukie receives one life-lesson too far.

Once they left I ordered a glass of white wine and lit up one of my duty-free ciggies. Oh I felt so sophisticated. I cast what I hoped was a sultry glance across at Sean Connery Mark II. With hindsight I probably looked more like a hungry hippo in search of its first good meal for a year. Whatever! It worked and Mark II slid his chair across to my table and in a rich melted chocolate voice asked,
‘May I join you Mademoiselle?’

German-occupied France provides the setting for a tale of collaboration and betrayal.

As he stood at the window the smell of smoke grew stronger. In the reflection of the panes he saw a dark shadow standing behind him. Forcing himself to turn around he let out a terrified scream. In front of him, emitting little puffs of smoky sooty breath was the charred and blackened figure of the Boy.

Back in England in the Roaring Twenties – what could be more normal than a genteel game of whist for four middle-aged ladies?

‘For heaven’s sake, can we get on with it’ Enid snapped.
‘Yes, for heaven’s sake, let’s’ Doris chirped and picked up the pack. Expertly she shuffled the cards, riffling through them so that they interleaved with each other and for good measure she riffled them back together into a solid pack. Her hands barely seemed to touch the cards. We all stared in silence, mouths agape like trap doors. When, with a flick of the wrist, she dealt out the hands without a fluff or fumble we all knew something strange was happening.

Finally, we meet a stranger in a remote seaside village in the middle of winter. Is it grief or guilt that haunts him?

‘What happened, Adam?’
‘I can’t say Lily. I saw him go past the forge looking like death warmed up so I followed him, quietly like. A sea fret came on sudden and I lost sight of him in the mist. Next thing, I heard him crying out to someone called Sophie and how he had to find her. When I found him he were up to his knees in the mud – he must have tumbled into a patch.’
‘Oh my’ Mrs Lawrence replied, ‘I told you didn’t I? He’s not right in his head. You did well Adam’ she added.
‘Mebbe, but I don’t reckon he thinks so.’

I hope you’ve enjoyed these snippets and that perhaps you might go and have a peep at the book which is on all Amazon sites.

What’s in a Title?

Those of you who are kind enough to follow this blog may remember that a couple of weeks back I held my own referendum…er straw poll about the title of my collection of short stories. The winner was “Spook Me Out”.

I was not happy with the result. I protested. I argued that the demographics of the poll were skewed (as were the participants after copious amounts of the juice of the grape). I pointed out that it was a meaningless collection of words and that titles need impact. In short, I wanted a recount.

Do you judge a book by its cover? Those who are said to know about these things say yes, the cover and the title are a big part of the decision to buy or not to buy. I tend to look at the blurb on the back but it is usually an intriguing title that catches my eye and preferably one that gives me an idea of the genre as well. Quite often the cover design leaves me cold. I’m never moved by the piccys of impossibly handsome muscle men with fine etched six-packs and thighs like tree trunks, wielding their swords with gusto. Well, not on a book cover anyway! Have you guessed by now that fantasy is one of my favourite genres?

Now let’s be serious. A few days after the results of my poll were in some of the participants sidled up to me murmuring that er…perhaps they’d got it wrong; they didn’t like the title any more and perhaps a rethink might be in order.

Much heartened by this chink in the voters’ armour I rethought. It is, after all my book. I have created and disposed of the characters within. Their fate is and has always been in my hands. Is this not the annual occasion when I assert myself? Yes, it is.

And so, a retitled collection of six short stories. It is a simple title – it describes the content. Let me introduce you to:

I was going to use the word ‘ghostly’ rather than’ strange’. Unfortunately the typeface I’ve chosen makes it look, at a quick scan, a bit too much like ‘ghastly’. I shied away from it. The reader might find the stories ghastly but my amour-propre won’t allow it.

Publishing day is now 8th May in the Kindle Store on Amazon and if any of you dear readers feel impelled to give the book a toot on your own social networks I shall be Uriah Heep-ish in my ‘umbleness and gratitude.

Stormy Nights and Women in White

The church clock struck midnight. Outside the rain fell in torrents beating a tattoo on the porch roof. Wind moaned through a gap in the shutters. In my office the chandelier lights flickered and the computer gave an apologetic “huff” and died only to mysteriously self-resuscitate a few seconds later.

I was researching more ghosts, myths and legends for another set of spooky stories and had arrived at the legends of the Dames Blanches – White Ladies. They’re everywhere in France but especially in Normandy and the Pyrenees. There are two around me haunting Chateaux Puivert and Puylaurens. At Puylaurens, the great-niece of Phillipe le Bel, restlessly walks the battlements.

Chateau de Puylaurens

At Puivert their Dame Blanche appears on rainy nights at one of the tower windows and just over the border in Andorra there is one who defended the principality from a huge wolf which was really an angry bishop in disguise. Goodness knows how many more there are lurking in the shadows.

Chateau Puivert

What is it with these ladies; flitting around in the most inclement of weather wearing little more than some flimsy draperies?

Martin Antonio Delrio, a Jesuit writing in the sixteenth century reassures me. He writes that these ladies are generally benevolent towards we mere humans, they are merely feés appearing in the woods and on the plains. They appear to be kind to animals too as he asserts that often the ladies appeared, carrying a lighted candle, in stables. There, they would let a few drops of wax fall on the incumbents’ manes and tails and then proceed to tenderly and carefully comb and plait them.

Another writer, Thomas Keightley makes me nervous though. In his book “The Fairy Mythology” he recounts tales of the malevolent nature of the Dames Blanches where they lurk at cross-roads, narrow bridges and ravines and insist on forfeits. If you want to pass by you may have to dance with them, get on your knees to them or assist them in some way. Woe betide you if you refuse. You may end up in a patch of nettles and brambles. These unkind phantoms are said to be found mainly in the north of France, particularly Normandy. Did I tell you I’m going to Normandy at the end of April? Me with my cronky knee. Just my luck.

PS Did I also tell you that my collection of spooky stories – “Spook Me Out” will be available from Amazon at the end of March?

Three Years Later

Roll back three years, February 2014. There I was sitting like Dido in the ruins of Carthage amid cartons, packing cases and bubble wrap. The materials goods of my life packed and awaiting transport to France.

I remember the shivers of trepidation as I wondered what the hell I was doing yet a pleasurable anticipation that the move to France would kick-start my life which, truth to tell was a bit stagnant and aimless.

Today a neighbour asked me how it was all going, this adventure of mine and it set me thinking. I’m not going to make comparisons between France and the UK – comparisons are odious as John Lydgate said in a debate about the horse, goose and sheep. So, here are some thoughts.

Life here in my part of France is one of halves (nearly did a John Moxon there and wrote two halves). Spring through to autumn is a hive of activity with festivals, concerts, fêtes, vide greniers and a hundred and one places to visit most of which I’ve yet to see. It seems to be a law of the expat universe that you only get to see your surroundings when you have visitors.

I love the heat of these summer days on my ageing bones and, if the temperature soars over 35 degrees which it did last summer, there is always the cool, freshness of the house to revive me. This is the season when shutters stay resolutely closed during the day and opened at night. At the end of a long hot day I have the choice of two swimming lakes to wallow in followed by a glass of chilled white wine at the buvette.


In case you fear that I spend my life lollygagging around, take heart. I have my routines. Weekday mornings I write. I have my main meal at lunchtime now usually shared with a neighbour and we take turn and turn about for the cooking. Most days I have a siesta and then work in the house or garden until the sun goes down. It’s a routine… but not immutable! The weekends I cut loose a bit.

In contrast to these months winter begins with migration; the swallows that have amused me all summer disappear en masse, the cattle are brought bellowing in indignation off the summer pastures and the foreigners, mainly Brits in this village go back home. This exodus is shortly followed by the appearance of piles of logs tipped in front of the doors of the houses that line the two main streets. These will have to be carried through the houses to the little yards at the back.

The summer attractions are closed and the ski slopes are wakening. The shutter routine is reversed… open during the day and closed at night. But there is always a twilight zone when, if I happen to be walking down the street, I can sneak a surreptitious peep through the windows, lit from inside. Winter is the time when the village wakes late and goes to bed early. The only constant is Carmelite, a very old lady who, winter and summer alike, stands at her doorstep at twilight murmuring to Santa Maria and counting her blessings.

What else is new?

I like the greeting ritual, the “embrace”, a kiss on both cheeks. Once I realised that “baiser” meaning to kiss has an alternative meaning akin to a well-known Anglo-Saxon four letter word, I hurriedly dropped it from my growing vocab.

I have exchanged my smart Ford C-Max for a Nissan X-trail; old but serviceable and hopefully, like me has a few more miles left. It is far more practical for the sort of fetching and carrying I do such as taking home an eight foot solid oak cornice to make a canopy for a bed or using the brilliant search lights, whilst roaming off-piste at midnight, looking for a missing dog.

I can converse pretty well in French although telephone conversations stymie me now and again as do the very thick accents that some of the older villagers have.

I’ve become an adept at managing my shopping around the midi-break when many of the smaller shops are closed for a couple of hours. I fell foul of it so many times and made so many futile trips before I learned to organise supermarket shopping (because they remain open) at lunchtimes and all other shopping either before noon or after 2.00pm.

The famous or infamous French bureaucracy defeats me from time to time. I am still waiting for my Carte Vitale after twelve months. This is my passport into the French healthcare system. Fortunately I haven’t needed access except for the dentist and I guess “the system” is geared to the long wait since I have two years to reclaim the fees I have paid.

All in all I am content. I’ve completed a novel, currently out for editing and plan to publish a collection of short stories myself in March/April. The second novel is in planning stage too. Whilst there’s still a load to finish off in the house, ca marche as they say, it progresses.

I’ve been lucky. What started out as a spur-of-the-moment decision which could have gone seriously wrong has turned out to be probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. But if the gods are smiling on me at the moment I know, capricious beings that they are, that they might yet have a sneaky trick up their sleeves to play on me. So I tread cautiously.

PS: If anyone fancies sampling a bit of la vie francaise , my brother has a lovely self-continued apartment in the house available to let, so come on down for a taste.

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/16714011

A SaltyTale – Part I

Vegetarians you might want to look away with this one.It gets bloody!

I live in France, the land of the foodie; furthermore I live in rural foodie land where fast food means it only takes a couple of hours and twenty different apero’s to down before the dish is cooked.Here, there is still a strong tradition of bottling, pickling (self and vegetables) salting and otherwise preserving the fat of this land.

Enter James – henceforth to be called Jams according to his French pronunciation. He is a guitar-playing friend of big bro’s and has a small-holding close by.

Seduced by the home-salted charcuterie that hangs from the ceiling in Jams’ pantry said big bro agreed to give it a go; placed an order for a ham and…er…well returned to England for Christmas.

As it happens I am not totally unfamiliar with salting a ham. I have an unwanted recollection of doing something like that when I had the farm. I remember also that a hard hat, hammer and chisel were required to prise open the too, too solid flesh that resembled nothing less than a gnarly piece of wood, bathed in sea water for twenty years and immune to all blandishments.

However, nothing ventured and all that.

The day arrived when the portly porker designated to have one of its hind legs preserved – if not for posterity at least until next Christmas – could be despatched to the celestial pig sty. It required a full moon and possibly other portents, I know not. A telephone call to let me know the deed was done and a master class in salting awaited.

In Jams’ kitchen I learned the art of squeezing the last drops of blood from the veins. This required a great deal of squeezing of the ham on Jams’ part and swabbing any remnants that exuded on my part – cue theme music for Dr Kildare. (Ok, so I’m showing my age – sue me!)

Next the skin was given a quick facial salt scrub to cleanse it and the two protruding bones got an extra dollop of salt to prevent “les microbes” gaining illicit access. That done, plus several coffees, home made choccies and introductions to neighbours who dropped by, the ham was lovingly wrapped in a clean white cloth and carried carefully to my car. An odd spot or two of blood besmirched the pristine cloth – a last reproach from the pig I fear.

Prize Jambon
jams-hens

Chez moi, apart from nearly slipping a disc whilst bearing the ham on its tray to the salting box all went smoothly.Ha!

I laid the ham tenderly on a white bed of salt – oh dear, not enough to meet Jams’ strict requirements of 5cm . Quick dash to Carrefour to purchase another 20 kilos. That’s better now it has its 5cm mattress on which to repose and do its thing.

Iambon entombed

Time to cover it up completely and make it snug. Oh-ho not enough salt left – one more bag should do it; back to Carrefour. Nope there’s still some pink bit showing.

What’s going on here? Then I heard a faint rustling, a whisper of sound. Was this amputated limb coming back to life? Am I about to be clobbered over the head by an angry ham on a quest to reunite with its missing bits? Ah no. I’m afraid big bro left just a wee bit too much of a gap between the boards he screwed together and, rather like the sands of time in an hour glass, the salts of time were creating little white pyramids on the floor beneath the salting box. Que faire? With some ingenuity and a lot of huffing and puffing I managed to insert a flat tray under the extremely weighty salting box and that appeared to put a stop to the exodus. Still a bit of pink shank was showing but a hasty call to Jams reassured me that it was not necessary to trek out at 8pm in search of more salt. Tomorrow will be soon enough. Leave it in peace.

So carefully noting all the details and calculating the date when the ham should be woken from its salt bed, anointed with herbs and what-not, then netted and hung I placed the lid on the box and now await the 14th of January to see its transformation.

I wonder if big bro will be going home Christmas 2017 – guess it depends how it turns out.

Have a very Happy Christmas/holidays/Scrooge time (whatever floats your boat) and if you’re very good Santa will give you an update in the New Year.

Show -don’t Tell

I spent last week back in England as a witness in a dispute over a right of way to the property I used to live in some thirty years ago. Given a choice between having a tooth pulled out and appearing as a witness I think, in future, I would opt for the visit to the dentist.

I had recently read “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Pulgisi in an attempt to cure myself of the habit of infecting my writing with bland adjectives – of telling “he was angry”, rather than showing. So this experience provided me with an opportunity to observe and watch for cues – what poker players call “tells”, as to how each witness was feeling, all set within the context of the courtroom.

The following are some of the notes I made on these lines during the proceedings. But first a brief description of the courtroom to give you some context.

Square room, bland cream and grey décor; wooden chairs set out with an aisle between them – protagonists to the left, antagonists to the right. As we trooped into the courtroom, the court usher bent forward and quietly asked each of us “Appellant or Objector? Take your seat on the right/left.” I couldn’t help but think of the scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” – “Crucifixion, one cross each, on the right.”

One thing that could not be ignored in the room was the dais with the long bench behind which the judge sat in solitary splendour. Raised up above where we minions were seated it said, unequivocally to us – control, power, authority, I’m in charge.

Okay so on to the witnesses. I’ve given just three examples from my notes. They all relate to witnesses for the protagonists whom the counsel for the antagonists was cross-examining.

Witness One

Male, early fifties, the only male witness wearing a suit and tie. Took the oath in a steady, clear voice. Chose to stand rather than sit to give evidence; very upright, shoulders back. Listening to counsel’s questions he cocked his head slightly to one side, then straightened up again. Long, long pauses between question and his response.

My thoughts: calm, unruffled by situation. Did the “head cock” mean he was listening carefully? Perhaps he is slightly deaf? Did long pauses before responding mean he was choosing his words carefully; an unwillingness to answer; concocting a porky?

Witness Two

Female; early sixties; very chic. Strode to the witness stand; shoes squeaked on lino floor. Hands trembled a little as she held the paper on which the oath was printed; her voice quavered over a few words. Gave evidence standing up. Voice steadied as she gave her testimony. When challenged hard by counsel a faint pink flush spread up her neck, voice trembled again. Played with a necklace she was wearing as she spoke.

My thoughts: nervous to start with but steadied herself. However, perhaps she was shivering and a bit cold? The necklace twisting – sign of nerves or fidgety and a tad impatient? The flush and wobbly voice – was she flustered; getting angry; embarrassed?

Witness Three

Female; late forties; smart/casual. Took a couple of visible deep breaths before reading oath. Gave evidence seated. Only witness to check, when asked, that the written statement previously provided was hers and that all the pages were present when given to her. When dealing with challenges by counsel her voice dropped a tone and a Yorkshire brogue became more apparent. Sounded abrupt, a little brusque but very definite about her evidence. Made good eye contact with judge rather than counsel when giving answers. Gestured with hands quite a bit.

My Thoughts: No-nonsense person. Meticulous? Confident? Hostile towards counsel? Used the time to look through her written statement as a means of steadying herself?

So, as a writer what did I learn from all this?

It reinforced something I’ve always known – that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. That is, to show emotions through body language we need to have a cluster of cues rather than just one and context is everything.
It is possible to be sneaky and use a character’s body language to mask or mislead. I learned afterwards for example that Witness Two was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease which caused her hands/voice to tremble.
The observation and interpretation of body language as an indicator of emotions is highly subjective.Would readers have the same interpretation?
I would hate to be called for jury service!

So tell me, what would you have made of the three examples above?

The Man in the Moon

Did you see the “Super Moon” last week? I missed it; too much cloud cover. I think had I seen it I would have howled – I’m not turning werewolf so put away those silver bullets! It has been one of those months. Grrr.

kahl-68145_1280

 

However I did see it a couple of days later, fat and round with a handlebar moustache of wispy cloud across its face. It got me thinking. Where did all the stories about the Man in the Moon come from?

European tales hold that he was banished to the moon for gathering sticks on a Sunday,  – a warning to all good folk:

“See the rustic in the Moon,
How his bundle weighs him down;
Thus his sticks the truth reveal,
It never profits man to steal.”

 Apparently he can be seen there with a bundle of sticks on his back and sometimes accompanied by a little dog.

curious_myths_p_198_illustration_1

Roman legend places him there as a sheep-stealer. German tales tell of both a man and a woman banished; the man for gathering thorny sticks and strewing them in the path of churchgoers and the woman for the sin of making butter on the Sabbath. Dutch tales emphasise honesty as the best policy as they relate the fate of a man punished for nicking cabbages and sentenced to carry them on his back for eternity. Presumably up there in the cold they won’t rot and go whiffy.

Our man makes an appearance throughout the centuries. He’s there in Chaucer’s “Testament of Cresside”, in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream and “The Tempest”. Dante gives him a bit part in his “Inferno” and there is Tolkien’s poem in “Lord of the Rings” – “a ridiculous song that Bilbo had been rather fond of…”  Salvador Dali was quite fond of him too, immortalising him in several of his paintings.

Clearly I’m sadly lacking in perception – I fail dismally in those rorschach tests  – to me an ink blot is an ink blot etc – hence I’ve never quite been able to see the old gentleman as others do. So I turned to the wonderful world of Wikipedia for help in visioning. This is what they came up with.

man_in_the_moon-1

Common interpretation of the “Man in the Moon” on the surface of the moon as seen from earth.

Key:

  1. The Sea of Showers (Mare Imbrium).
  2. The Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis).
  3. The Sea of Vapors (Mare Vaporum).
  4. The Sea of Islands (Mare Insularum).
  5. The Sea That Has Become Known (Mare Cognitum).
  6. The Sea of Clouds (Mare Nubium).
(By Luc Viatour. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Mmm, yes OK.

Perhaps my man-in-the-moon blindness needs a little help. In England he was often associated with drink and drunkards. A number of London pubs bore his name with pride. This snippet of 12th century verse seems to sum it up:

Our man in the moon drinks clarret,
With powder-beef, turnep, and carret.
If he doth so, why should not you
Drink until the sky looks blew?

So time to pour a generous glass of vino and go for a walk. On second thoughts it is ‘as black as the Earl of Hell’s Waistcoat’ outside, pouring down and with intermittent thunder and lightning for good measure. However much I quaff the sky will not look blue!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Common interpretation of the “Man in the Moon” on the surface of the moon as seen from earth.
Key:

  1. The Sea of Showers (Mare Imbrium).
  2. The Sea of Tranquility (Mare Tranquillitatis).
  3. The Sea of Vapors (Mare Vaporum).
  4. The Sea of Islands (Mare Insularum).
  5. The Sea That Has Become Known (Mare Cognitum).
  6. The Sea of Clouds (Mare Nubium).

 

By Luc Viatour. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Spinning and Weaving

In the valleys of the Olmes Mountains – a range of peaks in the Ariège region of southern France – cloth manufacture was one of the prime industries. The pastures and hillsides favoured sheep farming and so provided the raw material and an abundant supply of water was available for the process of turning it into yarn and cloth.

From the Middle Ages onwards this was very much a cottage industry and the whole family was involved, spinning the wool from their sheep and then, if they did not have their own loom, handing it over to a neighbour who possessed one to weave into cloth.

In the eighteenth century, this industry reached a new level when the weavers in the lower regions of Languedoc decided to give up spinning and weaving in favour of growing vines. Instead, the wool they had used came to the Ariège and Aude regions. There were five main processes used to produce the cloth:

  1. Sorting, classifying the wool by its quality and washing the grease from it.
  2. Dying the wool
  3. Combing it out so that all the strands of wool ran parallel and then spinning it into yarn
  4. Weaving the yarn into cloth
  5. Finishing the cloth prior to taking it to the market in Lavelanet.

The colours used to dye the wool were nearly all of vegetable origin.

Woad gave a pretty shade of blue – mid to dark depending on how much dye was used. This gave rise to a whole new industry around the Toulouse area where many a woad merchant made a fortune from the plant. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, it was replaced by indigo.

lhotel_dassezat-1

L’hôtel d’Assézat – Woad Merchant’s House in Toulouse

isatis_tinctoria_s-_str-_sl5

Woad Plant (Isatis Tinctoria)

The roots of the madder plant produced red and shades of pink and purple together with a non-vegetal dye that came from a little red beetle collected from the green or holm oak. This produced a brilliant scarlet.

512px-rubia_tinctorum_flowers

Madder Plant (Rubia Tinctorum)

For yellow a number of plants were used including sunflowers, saffron and dyer’s rocket or weld.

reseda_luteola_flowers

Dyer’s Rocket (Reseda Luteola)

Combing the wool was traditionally carried out by hand using slats of wood to which teasels were attached. Towards the end of the eighteenth century machines imported from Belgium and England took over the work. This sounded the death knell for this hand work and, just as with the Luddites in England in the early years of the nineteenth century, the introduction of the combing machines unleashed riots against the machines.

From then, whilst much the cottage industry still existed and work was done by hand, there also developed workshops and later factories where the cloth was produced.

spinning mill and masters house

Wool Merchant’s House and Factory, Ste Colombe sur L’Hers

Spinning was very much a family affair, done at home using a distaff and spindle and later the wheel. At this stage of the process the spinner could vary the tension of the yarn leaving it fairly loose for knitting wool and tighter for cloth.

592px-distaff_psf

The weavers worked not only for themselves but also for neighbours who had no loom and for masters in Lavelanet. These latter provided the yarn and paid the weavers by metre of cloth or by the piece.

Typically the weavers worked at their looms through winter until early spring. Then work on the land and with their sheep took over.  However they needed good light to work by and placed their looms by a window in full daylight. During the long winter nights they worked by the feeble light of an oil lamp, later replaced by a kerosene lamp with a reflector of polished glass. This they placed centrally on the loom, hopefully in a safe place.

The worst aspect for the weavers was the cold. Very often there was no fire or only a very small one in the room. They had to warm themselves through the work that they did. Sometimes it was so cold that the yarn stuck together, frozen. There was a common saying amongst the weavers:

“Les bobines gelaient, je devais les mettre dans ma poche”

(the bobbins froze, I had to put them in my pocket).

When the piece of cloth was finished it was taken usually by mule to Lavelanet to be sold. There still exist some of the ancient pathways that were used.

To become a weaver a boy of seventeen or eighteen years would take an apprenticeship in a village with a master. It was normally an informal agreement. The boy would work with the master for six months, earning nothing, not even his meals. After six months if the master considered him to be competent the boy could then set up on his own. If he was not adjudged competent he could continue to work for the master, on half-pay or look for another metier.

The cloth produced in the region was of different types. The cuir laine – a heavy fabric used for overcoats with high collars such as Napolean’s famous grey coat which was a mix of 90% white and 10% brown. Other versions of this cloth were made in different weights and widths.

640px-meissonier_-_1814_campagne_de_france

Napoléon’s famous greatcoat – Painting by John-Louis-Ernest Meissonier

Le bureil was a fabric of pure wool  either beige-brown or grey-blue in colour. Apart from weaving it into cloth, shepherds’ wives used it to knit the Neopolitan bonnet that they wore.

There are different accounts as to how the spinners and weavers of the Pays d’Olmes lived and worked. Some paint a picture of a hard life, working in difficult conditions for very little reward. In poorer households often the whole family lived, worked and slept in just one room.

Others accounts are not so charitable. I have translated the first lines of a song written about the weavers which aims to illustrate their weekly routine:

Weavers are worse than Bishops

Every Monday is a holiday for them

The Tuesday they have a hang-over

And Wednesday they can do nothing

Thursday they look at their work

Friday starts their week

Saturday the cloth is not finished

And yet Sunday, they say, ‘now you must pay us, Master’.

 

The Smugglers of Andorra

The Principality of Andorra – one of the oldest and smallest countries in Europe sits squashed between Spain and France. It is an independent country whose heads of state are the President of France and the Bishop of Seo de Urgel, Spain. Probably, the country is best known for winter sports and duty free shopping. At one time however, it was a smuggler’s paradise; dangerous work often carried out under the cover of the transhumance – the movement of sheep and cattle up to the high pastures in spring and back to softer ground in autumn.

It is a mountainous land tucked in the Pyrenees; small fields scraped out of the mountainsides; remote villages and vertiginous roads and secret tracks.

f1511910116

Smuggling was a pretty open trade which boosted the subsistence level of many families. One Andorran priest remarked:

“It is a hard country…The cattle begin to straggle down from the hills when the snow falls early in September. The winter is long and very cold and my people are so poor. But for the smuggling they would suffer. What would you?”

American author and traveller Herbert Corey visited Andorra and watched the trade openly carried out. In 1918, he wrote:

“the public square was filled with men putting impatient feet against the ribs of rebellious mules in the effort to pull tighter the ropes of the diamond hitch. Loads were going across the hills, fête day or no. Other tired men straggled in at the heels of tired mules, the pack-saddles empty, after a successful trip into France. Small boys were importantly aiding. Girls clung to the arms of the contrabandista, and old women waddled about with parcels that looked like provisions for the departing.”

Accounts of 19th century smuggling tell of houses set up as receiving points for goods inwards and outwards. Often there was a “master” who paid the smugglers about 7 francs a day. It the men were caught they were not paid and, as there was no defence against smuggling, went straight to jail.

2016-08-09-11-03-24

 

The goods were transported as 25kg loads in a canvas bag reinforced by a wood frame. This made it easier for the smugglers to dump the load and take to their heels if necessary, hiding out in the rocky mountainsides to avoid capture.

The men travelled over French or Spanish “ports” – these were the little-known, narrow and often dangerous tracks and pathways through and over the mountains which ultimately led into France or Spain. Sometimes mules were used to carry the contraband or the men hefted the packs themselves. The men wore rope soled shoes which were light and quiet and usually made their silent way through the “ports” in small groups.

2011-11-09-02-45-50

Tobacco and Spanish wine were popular contraband but market demands could change. During the First World War mules were an important cargo. Mules from Spain were in high demand by the Allied armies so much so that their exportation was frowned upon by the Spanish government. Although the smuggled mules were ultimately purchased  for use by the French army, there was French import duty upon live stock. This created a unique opportunity for Andorran smugglers who obtained mules from Spain by any means they could and led them over the mountain paths, at night into France. The French gendarmes  were persuaded to look the other way for a small percentage per mule.

The Spanish civil war brought a demand for smuggled foodstuffs, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and there was an inflow of refugees who crossed the border from Spain. Many children and wounded fighters died in makeshift camps set up just over the border.

Similarly during WWII smuggled goods entered Vichy France via the mountain passes and from 1942 onwards, cross-border networks, established along tracks not closely monitored, were set up so that smugglers could help families to escape from occupied France.

Nowadays, illicit free-trading has turned into duty-free shopping and the mountain passes are left to the hikers whilst those in search of cheap booze and fags take to the relative safety of tarmac roads.

 

The Siege of Montsegur

Chateau Montsegur

Chateau  Montsegur – its ruins perch precariously on a ‘pog’ (rock formation) 1200 metres above the eponymous village in southwest France. It looks out across the surrounding countryside for miles around. Even in summer lusty, gusty winds buffet the tumbled walls and sweep through open archways.  In winter, snow and ice make it inhospitable and almost impregnable.

The castle was destroyed by the royalist forces in the thirteenth century in the last major action against the Cathar sect – a group which rejected the corruption of the Catholic Church and many of its rites and rituals.

2016-08-08 10.06.38

2016-08-08 10.13.29

It had been the centre of operations for the Cathars – the seat and head of the Cathar church and the last refuge for Cathars fleeing persecution from elsewhere in southern France. Even after other Cathar strongholds were destroyed and their adherents fled, it was the last bastion of resistance in the crusade against the sect.

From the base of the hill the castle looms, grey-black, unapproachable, secure and as you walk up through the thickly wooded mountainside the idea of besieging it seems unthinkable and yet to put an end to Cathar resistance once and for all, the royalist forces, with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, did just that.

In May 1243 ten thousand soldiers gathered at the foot of the steep rocky hillside leading up to the castle. How must they have felt when they squinted up at the dark mass looming above them? Apparently confidant that they could starve out the inhabitants. But they did not count on local knowledge and goodwill. The castle was well provisioned and under cover of darkness local people crept up through little known pathways to add to its supplies.

Several full-on assaults up the steep hillside inevitably failed. The hundred fighting men in the castle easily repulsed these attacks. You can imagine the frustration and fatigue of the soldiers as time after time they were beaten back to base camp only to hear the order to repeat the assault.

It took treachery (some call it) of several Basque mercenaries to find the solution by scaling one of the rocky walls to gain a foothold from where a giant catapult could hurl rocks at the castle. The Barbican breached, a day and night bombardment commenced; a relentless crump and thrump of massive stones; the crack of the castle walls as they shuddered and fell.

Many of the Cathar refugees who lived just outside the shelter of the walls fled into the castle itself; living conditions deteriorated quickly; sickness spread. The Cathar leaders decided to surrender. Conditions for the surrender were negotiated. All could leave who would renounce their faith and a two week truce was declared.  Many of Cathars took the ‘consolatum’ at this time – a ritual intended to purify them and prepare them for the end they knew must come.

Imagine those last days within the broken walls. After the thunderous noise of the stone barrage – silence.  Families and friends came together, comforted each other, fasted and prayed together. They made their choices – to die in the fire for their faith and beliefs or to live, renouncing all they believed and fought for.

In March 1244 around three hundred ragged souls came out from the ruins, of whom about two hundred chose death. The bonfire awaited them. It is said that there was no need for stakes to which to tie them; they walked, hand in hand, men, woman and children, nobles, soldiers, artisans, servants, into the searing flames. Their cries of agony flew up to the heavens as their ashes scattered on the four winds. What faith. What courage.

At the foot of the mountain in the ‘Prat dels Cremats’  (Field of the Burned) is a modern monument to commemorate their deaths. It bears the inscription “Als catars, als martirs del pur amor crestian. 16 de març 1244″ (The Cathars, martyrs of pure christian love. 16 March 1244).

monument on the Field of the Burned