That’s SO Cheesy!

Writing Residency Day 3

Did you think that life in the mountains was tranquil?

I did. But that was before I met Françoise and Karine; before they introduced me to the friendly valley folk; before I got talking to the artists and culture-lovers who drop into Le Kairn bistro-bookshop.

It’s non-stop activities and invitations here, I’m telling you. If you want to meet like-minded people, Arras-en-Lavedan is the place to be. Even some famous bloke from French television will be here on Thursday, so I hear.

 

 

Anyway, after the exertion of yesterday’s transhumance, today was a little less physical but just as wet and busy.

It was also far less spooky (although the exhibiting photographer here at the Maison des Arts, Raphäel Paya, did have a go at making me scream).

 

 

First of all, I drove back to Pascal and Dominique Gainza’s farm in Marsous to learn all about a special technique. So here’s today’s challenge: look at these photos and guess what Dominique is up to:

Yes, she’s making cheese – today’s batch was Tome Des Pyrénées made from ewes’ milk. She also makes goat cheese and mixed-goat-and-ewe cheese, all of which you can taste and buy at their farm.

I’m not going to try to teach you all about cheese in a 500-word blog post, but if you read the novel I’m researching (and writing in the small hours here), you’ll pick up some tips. Here’s a brief explanation to go with the photos, though, because if I keep meeting interesting people it will be ages before my notes become a story.

Before we entered the room, which was lightly perfumed with ‘suckling baby’, Dominique had already begun her daily task of heating a vat of the day’s milk to 55°C. While we watched, she made the milk curdle by stirring it with that strange guitar-like instrument. Then she de-curdled it, this time stirring it with her arm for 30 minutes until the curds and whey separated. Next, she gathered the curds, threw away the whey (ooh, those words sound nice together), gathered up the curds into a doughy ball, which she cut into chunks and kneaded into the moulds.

I had lots of ideas while watching and listening: muscular right arms; music and goats; listeria and salmonella… And I liked the mix of traditional and modern when Dominique stirred with her right arm and answered her mobile phone with her left.

But time was pressing, and I had to go to Le Kairn to prepare my Tree Magic talk. In reality, this meant eating lunch with Karine and meeting French writer Manoell Bouillet, who had dropped by and introduced herself to Karine.

Manoell writes plays and creates soundscapes, and may help Karine create a poetical circuit around the village. I told you Le Kairn was a networking hotspot. Karine went back to work behind the bar, Manoell and I had writerly discussions – and then I introduced her to Alex (who I met on Saturday, and who works on the art circuit in the village) before welcoming my first talk guest.

Here’s a photo of me during the talk. There are actually at least 500 fans sitting just out of sight and lots of security guards to keep back the screaming crowds who forgot to book and couldn’t squeeze in.

Seriously, it was great to meet some readers and discuss writing experiences. The lovely Scottish playwright Gloria Carreno was a real inspiration to me because she writes plays in English and French.

She has produced them in Edinburgh and London – in fact one is currently under consideration with La Comédie Française – and it was fascinating to listen to her experiences of how a script becomes a play. She’s also keen to meet other playwrights – and theatres which would like to produce her work.

With the day’s activities over, I was able to return to my little room, where I typed long into the night.

Tomorrow is going to be a calm, writing day.

In theory.

Wet Sheepy Stuff

Writing Residency Day 2

Following yesterday’s apprehensions, something did go bump in the night. Several times. It was rather like a severed head bumping–… actually, let’s not go there. I kept my eyes squeezed tight shut so as not to discover a ghostly lady in long skirts standing over me, and soon fell asleep again in my museum.

As predicted, today was very sheepy and very wet. I’m proud to announce that I did the transhumance (accompanying the sheep from the valley to the mountain pastures), and I did it no less than twice.

The first was the traditional ceremony, in which flocks of sheep left from their individual farms and joined at Estaing, where they took the road up to the Lac d’Estaing lake.

There were three types of flock:

 

 

 

 

In other words: flocks of sheep; flocks of tourists walking behind each flock of sheep; and flocks of cars, driving behind each flock of tourists, which walked behind each flock of sheep. (I could go on with this game, but I’ll stop there).

It was a fascinating sight, and I particularly liked the way the sheep would snatch mouthfuls of grass from the verges at any opportunity. One flock of 5 sheep was led by a pony and children from the local villages, who sang their hearts out during the whole length of the 12km (4-hour) hike.

 

 

 

 

At the lake, the sheepdogs rounded the sheep into pens, the tourists bought local products and then everyone went off for a good, French midday meal to the music of clanking sheep-bells.

 

 

 

 

The sheep contented themselves with chewing the cud, sleeping, er…praying? singing? (look hard at that last photo, behind the black sheep).

 

 

 

 

Three hours later – I’d had lots of time to study the sheep, take photos and scribble notes by then – the flocks were blessed by a priest.

This particular priest was a visitor from Madagascar, and I loved his big smile.

He flicked holy water from a red bucket (that made me smile) over the flocks –  and then over the crowd (though I’m not sure if this was protocol or him having a laugh).

I caught the shuttle bus back ‘home’ and just had time to dry out my coat and trousers before I met up at my next appointment.

This was at Pascal and Dominique Gainza’s farm, where I’d been invited for a proper, real-life transhumance. An evening transhumance.

Someone, however, was missing.

“Where’s the dog?” asked Pascal.

I don’t know if this is tradition or real life, but the next 15 minutes were spent driving around the village looking for Dora the border-collie-cross. Without Dora, we could forget taking the sheep anywhere.

We eventually found her hiding in her kennel, and proceedings were able to begin at 7:15pm. 

What came next was the most magical of mountainous experiences, and I felt very privileged to be included.

With Dora nipping at the sheep’s heels and Pascal and Jerôme telling sheepy anecdotes, we threaded through magnificent, ancient woodland to the Col des Bordères at 1500 metres high.

From there, we continued upwards, arriving at a tranquil pasture as dusk fell, three hours after we left the valley.

The sheep amazed me because once we were past Aucun, they knew exactly where to go – even turning left at a road junction. They did ignore the No Entry sign, though.

I swear the horned cows we met in the open pastures recognised the sheep. They joined the woolly party and continued heading upwards all together after we left them, no doubt gossiping about the shameful behaviour of that good-for-nothing Sally Sheep from the neighbouring flock.

Or perhaps they were heading to a cow-bell rave party on the heights above the Col du Soulor.

In any case, we headed back down the track in the dark, admiring the lights of Arrens and Marsous from our lofty lodge. And I resolved that one day I would spend a night up on those restful pastures.

Many thanks to Pascal and Dominque for their generous invitation.

(The late hour and misty weather explain the poor quality of photos – nothing to do with me being exhausted).

And, by the way, I may not have done any proper writing, but I had some fantastic experiences and took lots of notes. Does that count?

Behind the Scenes at the Maison des Arts

Writing Residency: Day 1

Have you ever been locked up in a museum overnight?

No, me neither, but that’s exactly what has happened to me tonight in the empty, locked-up arts centre. And there’s an eye looking at me through the window. I know it’s just part of an exhibition – at least, I presume it is – but it’s kind of spooky.

Outside, thunder swallows the sound of cowbells and the wash of invisible rain. And every so often, the church bell chimes. I could be feeling lonely and scared – but luckily I have company. I have the company of a mountain. Let me explain.

This morning I left Pau: I could say ‘with a heavy heart’, but, actually, if there’s one thing I love more than the town of Pau, it’s what lies south of Pau…

The weather wasn’t promising and there were no mountains in sight – until I reached Lourdes, when I was able to make out some dark outlines on the horizon.

My excitement doubled, tripled, quadrupled as I turned each bend and saw the sketches of mountain gradually become rocky reality, patched with snow. By the time I reached Argelès-Gazost, the peaks began to look familiar from last year’s camping holiday.

Arras-en-Lavedan is 2km up the Val d’Azun valley from Argelès, and I overtook several brave (crazy?) cyclists on their way to the Cols d’Aubisque and Soulor before I turned off the main road and into the heart of the village.

Most of the village is below the road, its narrow streets winding in a seemingly haphazard way around the small barn-houses and colourful gardens.

The Maison des Arts, with its stone tower and metal sculptures in the grounds, brought back memories of the day I spent here last summer, discovering this exhibition centre and chatting to Françoise Gourvès, one of the Abbadiale association members responsible for the exhibitions.

Françoise showed me to the living quarters: a bare, roomy bedroom with creaky floorboards and a desk.

But I hardly noticed the bedroom. My attention was immediately drawn to the window, and what lay outside. At least, what I thought lay outside.

It was a steep, wooded valley with a cute, pointy mountain at the top, poking the tip of its nose into the clouds. The trees waved the tips of their green fingers at me in the breeze, and when I opened the window I was charmed by the riot of exotic birdsong. The whole scene was enchanting.

And then the sun broke through the clouds.

What I’d been admiring was simply the foreground of my view. Before my eyes, the clouds lifted and out of the mist loomed another triangular peak, but higher. And then a third. The effect of the misty apparitions was like the double and triple of a rainbow, and I had to watch them for a few minutes before I was convinced all the peaks were real.

Luckily for Françoise, the mist drifted back across the peaks and I was able to leave the window and concentrate on what she was telling me – which was that some costume-making artists were meeting for lunch at Le Kairn bistro-bookshop, and that I could join them if I liked.

Le Kairn has only been open for 3 weeks, and Arras is a tiny – albeit dense with artists – village. So I was in no way prepared to see it installed in a huge building in the most prominent position next to the mairie.

The next surprise was the range of books: there’s an eclectic mix of unusual works, organised by theme in such an unconventional way that you spend hours browsing because you keep coming across something unexpected. This bookshop is going to become a reference in the whole region, I believe – and people will come to the village just to linger and buy. There are even books in English.

The bistro side is light and airy, perfect for writing while drinking a coffee. My attention was caught by the artistic tabletops, covered by pages from books, handwritten manuscripts and pictures from graphic novels.

And it was here that Karine, the owner, served us a Ploughman’s style lunch followed by the most delicious strawberry tiramisu. I was welcomed into the group of costume-makers, who were preparing for the Dracula open-air theatre play to be held this summer near Gavarnie. I’ll tell you more about them in a future blog post, as they will be in residence with me later this week.

While Valentine was taking my payment, Karine mentioned a local shepherd who told her I’d be welcome to visit. So that’s what I did. I met Pascal Gainza, from Marsous, who turned out to be the husband of Dominique, the friendly goat farmer I visited last summer. Pascal invited me to take part in his private transhumance – the moving of the ewes (a ewe is a female sheep, in case you’re a townie) from the valley to the mountain pastures for the summer.

‘Be here at 6:30 tomorrow evening, and we’ll show you the best viewpoint up there,’ he told me, adding that the Estaing transhumance is good for folklore traditions, but it’s better to see a real one.

So that’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow: firstly a touristy transhumance festival in the morning, then a real one in the evening.

At least, that’s what I’ll be doing if I survive my first night locked up in the museum. Actually, I have to go now, as I’ve got a burning desire to see where that staircase leads. And what’s behind the door at the top.


See you tomorrow for the next writerly instalment – a wet, sheepy one, judging by that thunder and the new whiteout view from my window.

And, yes, by the way, I did get some writing done between today’s social encounters.

Coming Home to Pau

Writing Residency Day 0 : Coming home to Pau

I’m in love. With Pau. Again.

There’s something about the town of Pau that never ceases to capture my heart and make it brim over with happiness. Is it something to do with the sunny weather, or the exotic vegetation of magnolia and palm trees?

Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s simply the Boulevard des Pyrénées – not the castle, the classy architecture and the casino on the town side, but the view over the woody foothills of the Pyrenees and the promise of the shadowy mountains beyond.

I stopped in Pau overnight because I was invited by the Pau So British club to join them at their monthly drinks meeting and tell them about the Tree Magic talk I’ll be giving in Arras-en-Lavedan during my writing residency at the Maison des Arts. Pau is right on my road, so it made sense to book an overnight stay.

Ha ha: I’ve convinced myself that this is why I stopped in Pau. But it was actually just a good excuse. I decided to come back to Pau because the town is special to me: it’s the place I chose when I first came to France, aged 26 and in love with a Frenchman.

The first time I stepped off the train and saw the cluster of palm trees, the hint of mountains, the quaint funicular and the green parks around the university, I knew this is where I wanted to spend my year learning French. Also, it was only an hour from my Frenchman in Dax.

It was in Pau that I realised that although I’d chosen to live France instead of doing an MA in Creative Writing somewhere in England, nothing was stopping me writing. This was thanks to the inspiring French literature lessons from my FLE teacher at the ‘fac’, Martine Fiévet,who was also a writer. It was in Pau that I won my first short story competition (ok, there were only about 10 entries, but still…)

So maybe my feeling of happiness was nostalgia, mixed with the knowledge that I had a whole week of writing residency ahead of me in my favourite part of France.

As luck would have it, the room I reserved on AirBnb was actually an independent studio in the basement of a villa, with a little garden at my disposal and the beautiful Parc Beaumont nearby. The hosts were young and friendly, the room was perfect and I was walking on air after a trip down Boulevard Nostalgia. I was also only a few hundred metres from the venue for the Pau So British meeting.

In fact, my bed was close to the Villa Nitot, the family home of the 19th century British doctor who encouraged his British patients to come to Pau to convalesce. This resulted in many of them staying and forming the strong English community that continues to this day.

I thought my day couldn’t get any better – until I met the French, American, Hungarian and British members of Pau So British at the 5* hotel Villa Navarre. They welcomed me with a glass of the sweet local Jurançon wine and the most generous interest in my work.

If you’re in the Pau area, you must look up this club of friendly people, who organise a whole series of outings (including a forthcoming trip to Madeira).

Despite the effects of the wine – and thanks to the relaxed company – I managed to tell the audience about the activities in the Val d’Azun this weekend.

If you’ve read my last blog post, you’ll know that these include the ceramics and photography exhibitions at the Maison des Arts, the mountain festival Eldorando, the Estaing Transhumance – and my talk at Le Kairn bistro-bookshop about my journey to publication.

They kindly invited me to eat with them, and I could have listened to their fascinating stories all night – but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome.

As it was, I was so absorbed in chatting to adventure journalist and ultra-trail specialist Tobias Mews, that the tables were laid around us and the entrées served before I could tear myself away.

It was a wonderful beginning to my week of freedom. If the whole residency continues like this, I won’t want to go home!

Hope to be back tomorrow with an update on the first day of my residency, so see you then.

YALC 2017

I feel very honoured (to put it mildly) because I have been invited to talk about Tree Magic at the Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) at the Olympia, London, in July.

Yes, that’s right: The Olympia! London!

This 3-day festival brings together the finest current YA fiction, with talks from best-selling authors such as Patrick Ness, Joanne Harris, Sara Barnard, Holly Bourne, Emily Barr and many others.

Check out this link to see the full list of authors attending.

I’m going to have such fun meeting these authors, as well as the book bloggers and readers I’ve only met virtually on Twitter chat shows and blogs. When  the schedule is published, I will let you know so that you can come and meet them too.

YALC is part of the London Film and Comic Convention, and the dates are 28, 29 and 30 July 2017. You’ll find more details on Twitter at @yalc_uk and on the website here.

Thanks very much to Sarah, my publicist at Impress Books, for organising this. She must have been very persuasive!

Will it Get my Goat?

Oh no, here I am, back with more puns in my blog post titles. Today I’d like to share some exciting news that doesn’t get my goat at all – though I’m hoping it will allow me to get to know goats better.

I have been invited to be the writer-in-residence for a week at an arts centre in the heart of the Pyrenees.

In case your French geography is rusty, the Pyrenees are the pointy mountains in the south west of France, between France and Spain. They are also my favourite part of the country, which may be one reason why my novel-in-progress is partly set there.

Back in the 1990s, when I was studying French at Pau university, I used to walk along the Boulevard des Pyrénées every day and gaze at the mysterious peaks. Nowadays, I spend some time there every year (and cry when I have to leave).

Houses in the Val d’Azun

One misty day last summer, while my intrepid family were out potholing, I went to the Val d’Azun to research my novel setting. I stopped at the village of Arras-en-Lavedan, a few kilometres from Argelès-Gazost (and 25km from Lourdes), which is renowned as being a village of artists.

There, I discovered the Maison des Arts and met the curator, Françoise Gourvès, who is also a stained glass artist. She told me all about the association Abbadiale, which organises the cultural events and art exhibitions in the centre.

There was a wonderful display of paintings, ceramics and sculptures, as well as a permanent outdoor circuit around the village’s works of art. I was blown away by a video of a contemporary dance group who spent a week in residence there and created a dance on a peak above Arras-en-Lavedan.

I stayed in contact with friendly Françoise and, when she heard I needed to come back to the Pyrenees to research goats and ewes, she invited me to be their writer-in-residence for a week. This corresponded with the opening of the village’s new bistro-bookshop: Le Kairn.

Of course, I accepted!

So I’ll be staying in Arras-en-Lavedan from Saturday 3rd to Friday 9th June. During the week I’ll be researching and writing my novel (which is not only about goats). I’m particularly looking forward to the ‘transhumance’ event on Saturday 3rd June at Estaing. This is when the local shepherds, accompanied by the public, move their flocks from the valley to the mountain tops for the summer ‘estivales’ period.

I’ll also be reading from my novel Tree Magic and giving a talk about the journey to publication. This will be held on Sunday 4th June at 3pm at Le Kairn. As I’m there for a week, I can also make myself available one evening for readings and writerly discussions – so let me know if you’re interested.

Why not come and meet me and get your copy of Tree Magic signed? I’ll have some copies to sell, and we can share our experiences of writing, reading (and goats).

While you’re in the Val d’Azun, why not make a day of it (or even a weekend if you fancy the transhumance festival on the Saturday)?

Yes, I know they’re not goats – but they are Pyrenean sheep.

In the morning you could visit the Pyrenean trekking and traditions festival ‘Eldorando’ in the nearby village of Arrens-Marsous. You could have a lunch of local products there – or come to Le Kairn bistro for a meal – and then visit the permanent and temporary exhibitions at the Maison des Arts. As well as the permanent exhibition, Roxane Lasserre will have her ceramics on display and Raphäel Paya is exhibiting his photos until 5th June.

Then, if you’re not too tired, you could come and meet me at Le Kairn. It won’t get my goat if, after all that activity, you fall asleep during my talk!

Please let me know if you’d like to come, via my Facebook author page or blog contact tab, in case the arrangements change. I hope to see you soon.

Here are some practical details:

La Maison des Arts (next to the church at the bottom of the village): open Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday from 3-6pm.

Le Kairn (route du Val d’Azun): open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 7pm (open every day in the holidays).

Eldorando: 2nd-5th June. Nepal is the country of honour this year. Entry 2€ / day.

Tourist Office Val d’Azun (Place du Val d’Azun, Arrens-Marsous) Tel: 05 62 97 49 49

BOOK REVIEW: Tree Magic by Harriet Springbett

I feel honoured to see a review of Tree Magic featured in the literary journal ‘Storgy’ today – especially such a well written, thoughtful and positive review. Many thanks to the reviewer, Alice Kouzmenko, to Storgy and to my wonderful publicist at Impress Books, Sarah Sleath (and of course to my producer, the sound engineers and… ha ha!)

Think of Tree Magic as a tree. A great big oak, or a fir, or the beech at the end of your garden that gave you the scar on your knee. Look at its leaves and branches, and you will find a story about a young girl, Rainbow, who discovers she can communicate with trees. Dig deeper and you’ll find the roots of the story. For Harriet Springbett’s first novel is about more than a girl with magic powers. It is about a young girl struggling to reinvent herself. It follows Rainbow’s journey between England and France, her dramatic changes in appearances, her attempt to piece together a broken family, and all the people she meets along the way.

I am not one for fantasy novels. So, when I read the blurb for this book, I was initially sceptical about the prospect of reading about a girl with magic hands…

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