Joie de vivre

I’m writing this in the garden of a friend’s house in La Rochelle, France. We’ve come here from the inaugural Literary Festival in St Clémentin – an ambitious, 3 day festival where day one was in English, day three in  French, and day two had talks and workshops in both. St Clémentin’s a tiny place but for those few days it buzzed with readers and writers from Canada, the USA, New Zealand and several European countries. OK, it’s not Edinburgh, Frankfurt, London, Hay on Wye or any of the other major literary festivals, but this was a terrific start. The atmosphere was friendly, everyone I spoke to seemed to be getting lots of pleasure and inspiration from the events they attended and just from wandering about, chatting and soaking it all up.

I met lots of interesting people but I want to single out one for special mention. Helen Burke writes in many genres but was there mainly as a poet. Helen’s health is poor but, while it’s clear that it affects her mobility and well-being, she’s not someone of whom one thinks or says ‘how brave to overcome such difficulties’. She agreed to be interviewed for a short radio report I was making on the festival for a Canadian campus radio station, CKCU-FM 93.1, and her attitude to poetry was uncompromising. I confessed my ignorance when it comes to understanding some modern poetry and she said she sympathised because much of it is boring and there’s altogether too much angst. ‘I don’t really want to slash my wrists,’ she said. ‘I could just as easily ring the Samaritans rather than listen to you lot scuffing your feet, looking at the floor and pretending you know what enlightenment is’. She, on the other hand, was enlightening, as well as being funny, direct and refreshingly honest. According to Helen, poetry needs ‘a kick up the arse’. She’s definitely worth a read.

I shared a session on the short story, then held one called ‘Write a crime story in an hour’ which obviously falls foul of the Trades Descriptions Act but which, thanks to the enthusiasm and imagination of the people there, was lots of fun and did actually produce all the elements of a satisfying mystery.

Here in La Rochelle, it’s been hot. This ‘summer’ in Aberdeen has been wet, cold and just the sort of thing to get miserabilist poets sharing their angst, so it’s been unusual to feel that the best place to spend most of our holiday was near the freezer section in the supermarket. But, for those of you who haven’t yet spent time in France, make it your next destination. It’s no surprise that ‘Joie de vivre’ is a French expression – here they really know how to have a good time.

And, just to complete this mini-log of our trip, there’s the car saga.

Our car is 13 years old and we’ve driven 95,000 miles in it. Two thirds of the way from Aberdeen to my stepson’s place, where we were spending the night, the power steering pipes broke, emptied out all the transmission fluid and I was suddenly driving something which felt like an HGV. Fortunately, I’d taken out insurance for the trip to France, so we parked our car and, thanks to the RAC and Europcar, I was suddenly driving a brand new Mercedes, which was the only hire car available. Sounds a bit like a dream but:

a)      we’re terrified of scratching it;

b)      it’s an obvious target for vandals;

c)      drivers of such cars are usually rich and so, by definition, objects of envy or hate.

In fact, when visitors to the St Clémentin Festival saw us arrive, they must have been disappointed when it was me who got out rather than J K Rowling.

And now, having worked my way through 293 emails, and with 2 days to go before we get home (to another 293, no doubt), time to soak up some more of this sun, guzzle some more food and wine, and store some energy for what promises to be an unusually busy couple of months.



  1. Oh lucky, luck you. I adore La Rochelle – was there last summer – and, in fact, dined at an outdoor restaurant along that row you’ve photographed here and ate the hugest pot of mussels… it was almost indecent for one person to eat that many, but I bore the shame well and ploughed through ’em.

    The festival and your poet friend sound wonderful. And yes, I’ve been there with the hire-car-daren’t-scratch-it scenario too. Sounds like you had a wonderful trip… now back in rainy Aberdeen. Sigh.

    1. Yes, we ate almost every meal outside, including breakfasts on the verandah of our friend’s house. We have an open invitation to stay whenever we like too, even when she’s not there. And there’s so much more to La Rochelle than I’d realised. I want to be there now. And it’s absurd how cheap the wine is – still, even in these days of raised prices.

  2. Sounds a wonderful interlude, Bill, right down to that drive in the Merc! I’m sure you will have gatehred soem new fans of your work. We visited La Rochelle many years from a ship – raining but lovely. I remember those archways and bought a print from a shop under one of them.

    1. We’re enthusiastic about nearly all things French, Rosemary, and we’ve stayed all over the place. La Rochelle is the latest we’ve experienced fully and it’s definitely been added to the list. One day we went for a walk and lunch to the Plage des Minimes. It’s a beach they’ve created. It’s huge, all white sand and it had obviously been cleaned and raked. It was pristine. (And the third photo is of the salade paysanne I had. Bliss.)

  3. What a lovely place. I’d love to go tomorrow. What was on that plate? It looked wonderful. Glad you got to travel in style.

    The Mystery in an hour reminds me of some of our exercises on your blog. I’m still urging you to write “How to Brainstorm your book” or “How to plot your story in an hour”.

    1. Ah yes, the plate. It was a salade paysanne – green salad with an excellent dressing, thinly sliced ham, a potato cake and (Homer Simpson drooling noise) roasted Camembert.

      Who needs literary workshops when roast Camembert is on the menu?

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