Monday, July 25, 2011

What I did in my holidays

Aline here. I was hoping to make you all green with envy this week with my tales of long hot summer days in the South of France, relaxing on a lounger in sunny shade, a glass of chilled Chablis at my elbow. Alas, it was not to be. The first week, the weather was colder and wetter than the weather we'd been calling unseasonable in Edinburgh before we left. It was headline news on French TV - nearly three weeks of rain and cold over most of France, and in Hautes-Pyrenees, where we were, it was worse than anywhere else. Admittedly, we struck it lucky one day with a trip into the mountains in sunshine, and at almost 3000 metres had all the peaks clear about us, with the snow on their tops and a sparkling lake below, which almost made up for dreary grey skies the rest of the time.

Still, we were plucky about it. We had arrived with a box containing a preposterous number of books and with Scottish stoicism sat outside in our woollies to read them, while M Pogue the neighbouring farmer drove past on his tractor towing a thought bubble saying, 'Les fous Anglais!' Not unreasonably - suggest I should do it in similar temperatures at home and I'd laugh in your face.

The book box is the key component of the French holiday we take most years. We start compiling it in the dark days of January, dreaming of French sunshine (see above), and make judicious alterations as the summer approaches. It's a serious challenge to get it right. It must be assembled like a good menu:the amuse-bouche - elegant, neat, witty; the starter - light in nature, but opening up new ideas; the main course - weighty, serious; the dessert - a wicked temptation, deliciously frothy; coffee with brandy, a sophisticated meditation.

Among my highlights this year were our own Peter May's The Black House, a dark and atmospheric crime novel set in the remote Western Isles of Scotland, and Louise Penny's brilliant Bury Your Dead. The Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography of Katherine Graham of the Washington Post was a serious read, as was AS Byatt's The Children's Book, short-listed for a recent Man Booker. Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw was a thought-provoking starter and with Daisy Goodwin's My Last Duchess for dessert I was ready to end my literary meal with Margaret Attwood's The Door and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. A feast to match any with a Michelin star.

Another writer once said to me that she wished she could undo her head, to escape the maelstrom of ideas permanently whirling around inside. My weeks in France are my chance to do just that, when I have time to refresh my mind with other people's ideas, and to me it's vital. I come back with my head clear, ready to focus more objectively on my own work.

And maybe the weather was bad, but the food and wine were as wonderful as ever and my love affair with France, which started when I was ten years old, is undiminished. A la prochaine!

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