Sunday, 26 January 2014

Flooding in the Gers

Most overseas visitors to the south west of France come in the summer months. It looked very different this weekend.

After a pleasant and dry January, the rain returned during the week and, combined with mild temperatures and melting snow, put pressure on the waterways this weekend.

Friday night brought flooding to several departments and Saturday night it was our turn in the Gers.

There were over 200 call-outs to the fire brigade in the Pyrenées-Atlantiques department during the day, but, although we heard the orange alert, we didn't expect it to hit so quickly.

Our village is straddled by the Arros and the Adour.

At 6pm (the water level was at 2.3m) we went out to dinner (to the excellent Eléphant Thai in Riscle), noting as we passed through Tasque on the way home that their tennis courts were flooded. When we got home the field opposite our house had been filling up rapidly. By midnight the levels were at 3.75 m.

In real terms it meant that, only for the raised road in front of our house that acted like a dam, we would have been flooded. As it was many of the houses and businesses on our side of the river were badly affected.

During Sunday the water receded fairly quickly and we breathed a sigh of relief. But it has started raining again now (Sunday evening) and the department is on orange alert until Monday afternoon.

It's frightening how quickly the water rises and how little anyone can do. We watched the firemen standing powerless on the bridge last night as we stood in front of our house wondering what to bring upstairs and expecting to be woken in the middle of the night to the sound of water gushing through the house. It didn't happen. Another 20 cms and it would have been up to our eyeballs. Hoping tonight the levels don't rise again. And thinking of those who have been affected.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Short Story: 'Foster' by Claire Keegan

Foster by Claire Keegan won the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award in 2009 and had been recommended to me by several people. I bought the Stinging Fly edition and look forward to reading the other stories in this anthology.

Foster is a long short story, subsequently published by Faber&Faber as a standalone book.
The story is told through the point of view of a young girl who has been sent off to live with distant relations while her mother is pregnant with her baby brother. Nobody explains to her where she's going or for how long but we understand a lot about her character and her life by her observations on the journey to her new home.
'We pass through the village of Shillelagh where my father lost our red Shorthorn in a game of forty-five.'
 Her fluctuating expectations of what the family will be like give us an insight into what her own father is probably like:

'He will take me to town on the tractor and buy me red lemonade and crisps. Or he'll make me clean out sheds and pick stones and pull ragweed and docks out of the fields.'

The element of this story that makes it outstanding for me is the dialogue. This is the first exchange between the girl and the foster mother:

'The last time I saw you, you were in the pram,' she says, and stands back, expecting an answer.
'The pram's broken.'
'What happened at all?'
 'My brother used it for a wheelbarrow and the wheel fell off.'

This is certainly not a Hollywood movie--no hugging and consoling. The conversation continues:

So how is your mammy keeping?'
'She won a tenner on the prize bonds.'
'She did not.'
'She did,' I say. 
The girl doesn't complain about anything and just accepts her lot. She notices the neatness and order of the foster home. She sees the respectful way the couple speak to each other, how each job on the farm and in the house is done properly, methodically. Neighbours come to the house unexpectedly and Kinsella goes with them straight away to help. These are good people. Through all her observations, we realise that her home life was far from perfect. Her mother has a clatter (not clear how many) of children and they have very little money. Yet the girl misses her mother and hopes to go home.

As the story unfolds we learn more about the couple who have taken her in and their own personal tragedy, but so much is left unsaid. Somehow we know much more about these characters than the author has told us directly. We are able to imagine their whole lives.

Claire Keegan wrote about Foster:
'It's essentially about trusting in the reader's intelligence rather than labouring a point. To work on the level of suggestion is what I aim for in all my writing.'

The narrator doesn't tell us much about her father or Kinsella yet we get a feel for them through the dialogue, even though they don't say very much at all.
'Dan,' he says, and tightens himself. 'What way are you?'
'John,' Da says.
They stand, looking out over the yard for a moment and then they are talking rain: how little rain there is, how the fields need rain, how the priest in Kilmuckridge prayed for rain that very morning, how a summer like it was never before known.'
Although the girl is dirty and undernourished, the author avoids the cliché of depicting her as the product of poor, miserable Ireland in the 80s. Instead we find that the girl is happy with her lot. The experience of the summer with the Kinsellas has enriched her life.

And we see, from the walk on the beach with Kinsella, that she too has enriched his.

'He shines the light along the strand to find our footprints, to follow them back, but the only prints he can find are mine.
'You must have carried me there,' he says.'

Claire Keegan is reading tomorrow 21st January 8pm in Howth Yacht Club.
(ref )

 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award is currently open for submissions.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Review: Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a French classic in children's literature. One of the first books I read in French I always enjoy revisiting.

 The narrator's plane goes down in the Sahara. He is alone and has only enough water for eight days. He wakes after the first night to the sight of a small boy with a surprising request: 'Dessine-moi un mouton.' (Draw me a sheep.)

He first draws a picture he drew when he was a child: an elephant that had been eaten by a boa constrictor. He drew this when he was six years old but the adults couldn't understand it and discouraged him from drawing and using his imagination. The little prince understands what he has drawn but insists on a sheep, which he wants to bring back to his home.

 For eight days, the boy tells his remarkable story: where he is from (the narrator figures out later on that he must have been referring to the asteroid B612), his life there tending to his volcanoes and his rose, and why he left his tiny planet to visit the Earth. He tells stories about his adventures: He met a king, a conceited man, a merchant and a wise fox who taught him about trust and friendship and made him realise that his Rose who he left on his home planet is unique.

A charming story, complemented by the author's whimsical drawings, we can't help being drawn into the world of the little prince.


Futuroscope, near Poitiers in France, has a Petit Prince attraction that is both touching and fun. We visited this last year to the delight of both adults and kids. It's a 3D attraction with vibrating platforms and some sweet special effects.


'Discover the all-new adventures of The Little Prince in this special “Futuroscope edition” of the tale, complete with stunning sensory effects in an immersive theatre. Fly with him from planet to planet in search of the Rose.'

About the Author

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a French pilot and writer.  His other books include Vol de Nuit (Night Flight), Courrier sud (Southbound Mail), and Pilote de guerre (Flight to Arras). Antoine de Saint-Exupéry disappeared during a World War II air battle over Corsica. His plane was finally located off the coast of Marseilles in 2004. He appeared on the 50-franc banknote until the introduction of the euro.


Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Short Story: 'The Dead' by James Joyce

Since the 14th century, on the feast of the Epiphany, the French eat a cake called une galette des rois. This is a frangipane cake (in Paris and the north) or a brioche (in the south). Inside is a fève - originally a bean, but now a small porcelain figurine cooked in the cake (reminiscent of the ring in a Halloween brack).

The youngest member of the family crawls under the table and, as the cake is cut, announces which family member gets which piece. The one who discovers the fève is declared king or queen and gets to wear the crown (and in turn choose their partner king or queen.)

Published a hundred years ago, in 1914, the final story in the Dubliners collection, and set during the Christmas holidays (probably to celebrate the Epiphany), James Joyce's The Dead was the perfect book to curl up with on the couch last night.

Although I had read it before and seen the film, and passed the house on Usher's Island many times, I still read it like the first time.

 I was enthralled during the conversation between Gabriel and Miss Ivors as they danced the quadrille. I was captivated as D'Arcy sang 'The Lass of Aughrim' and Gretta listened, mesmerised. I shivered as the guests congregated downstairs when the evening was over and the men ran out to fetch cabs and returned with a smattering of snow on their shoulders. I was hoping that Gabriel would manage to express what he felt for his wife, but knew that he would not. Instead he would discover something about himself, about his wife, about his life. Joyce used epiphany as a literary device: It is fitting that Gabriel had his own epiphany on this feast day.

Even though Joyce didn't live in Paris until after Dubliners was published, I think he must have enjoyed the French galette des rois. After all, look at his description of the feast in Dublin that night:

 'A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets...' 

Find the James Joyce House on facebook.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Short Story: 'Calm with Horses' by Colin Barrett

'Calm with Horses'* is a lengthy short story in the 'Young Skins' collection by Colin Barrett.

The stories are set in contemporary rural Ireland, many decades ahead of The Quiet Man or The Field, and somewhat reminiscent of Kevin Barry's and Donal Ryan's themes. I enjoyed this collection first for that reason--Dublin often figures in literature, but rural Ireland without the leprechauns, not so much.

Calm with Horses opens as Dympna decides to teach Fannigan a lesson and encourages his right-hand-man Arm to rough him up. The descriptions, even when describing violence, are elegant: 'His punches travelled with just the right weight and restraint, and they had a bounce to them when they landed, the way raindrops splash.'

Arm is revealed as a gentle soul, despite the fact that he and Dympna are small-town drug dealers and likely to inflict violence at any time. He has an ex-girlfriend that he seems to care about still, and a five-year-old son, Jack, who he visits regularly and takes to the park. Dympna doesn't come across as gentle but he is protective of his sisters, hence the revenge on Fannigan who 'didnnnn efffin ged, ged haa nnnnnnickers off!'

We are drawn into these character's lives as their dope suppliers get antsy and Arm decides to solve the Fannigan issue once and for all, which brings them up against Dympna's uncle Paudi, a nasty piece of work. We don't trust Paudi from the moment we see the Alsatian that has been stung by a wasp. 'Stung him, it did, inside his throat or deeper down. His tongue is all fucked up and he's been wheezing and stuck lying there since yesterday.' Arm may have killed a man but we're on his side against the uncle who's going to let his dog die rather than call a vet.

While the main story trundles towards disaster, another story weaves through the narrative - that of Jack and the horses and the rider. We're obliged to give this eponymous thread some thought. Arm might have been a different person in other circumstances. He is perhaps on a mad gallop through his own life, lacking control, hoping the horse will decide to stop of its own accord.

Colin Barrett's collection was published by The Stinging Fly and has since been picked up by Jonathan Cape UK and Grove Atlantic US for UK and US editions. This Irish author is clearly very talented and I'm looking forward to his debut novel.

* You know you've lived too long in France when you see the title and read 'clam with horses' and think 'mmh interesting menu choice.'