Friday, August 13, 2010

Ça va?

I wish I could say that I had a special place to write though in a sense where I write - the dining room - is special and being what it is it, it certainly cannot be dedicated to writing. It's not that we use the dining table daily for we have a table, banquette and chair in the kitchen for ourselves. The hall closet is big enough to use as an office but its present incarnation as a purgatory of objects too valuable to be rid of - a crumbling green chinoiserie console, a writing table with a trompe l'oeil top from Provence, a vacuum cleaner, a severed head, the maid's mops and rags .... well, you get the picture.

Today's post is not really a gripe about not having a place to write, though gripe I could given that my papers, scanner, books, photocopies, notes, swatches, plate with two hot dogs and a tumbler of red wine, have reduced me to using a corner of a table big enough to seat eight, but actually about a former gardener's cottage. Le Petite Clos, on the grounds of the Villa Fiorentina is a house where, for a time, Roderick Cameron lived and wrote some of his books - books such as Viceroyalites of the West: The Spanish Empire in Latin America, that I have yet to read.

Other people's desks, like their bookshelves, are alluring, and Roderick Cameron's is no different. It's clearly a worktable with space to write, dictionaries, thesaurus and other reference books are to hand, as are charts and maps, and many a beautiful object to caress with eye or hand in those moments when the muse calls the mind inwards: a passion flower from the garden, a bowl chrysanthemums, a pair of ivory cups, a lacquer pencil holder, a box of Kleenex, a pocket watch, a travel alarm clock and, apparently, pieces of eight, though whether they are those objects, not terribly coin-like, to the left of what looks like a closed fan or letter-opener, or perhaps they lie out of view in the silver-mounted human skull.

I don't know why I was surprised not to see a typewriter for many of that generation preferred to write and enjoyed the physical act of writing, correcting, and rewriting. And what a chore writing has become. Beyond the occasional Thank You note who of us actually writes with pen on paper? The pen has gone form being mightier than a sword to being an object that leaks in the kitchen drawer. I would not, could not, live without my computer - I type, I read, I blog, therefore I am.

I learned to write with a "dip-in" pen, basically a stick of wood to which a metal nib could be inserted into a ferrule at one end, and which was dipped into an inkwell in the school desk. The day I progressed to joined-up letters was a real right of passage, as important as going into long pants, though one did not even know that phrase existed then. It just meant more washing out of ink stains from shorts and shirts and a permanent blue stain at the side of a finger replaced pretty quickly by nicotine on fingers other than mine. I remember being given a fountain pen, a special occasion and a big expense, and the pride with which I performed my first really grown up task - buying a bottle of blue ink. Blue ink was for school and black ink for .... well, more important things though quite what they might have been all those years ago is hard to say.

The smell of school ink remains with me and reappears when I drink certain, usually expensive, red wines. It's a truism to say that smell can instantly unlock memories long put away and wine can do that for me if I taste ink. What for the wine buff is the subject of an hour or two's conversation, is for me the awakening of memories that are vivid - dour gothic architecture, slate roofs, rows of wooden desks with lids and inkwells, leather satchels for books and pencil cases which were exchanged for briefcases when one reached fifteen or so, royal blue blazers with badges, school assemblies, being caned by the vicar for forgetting my bible, a print of The Creation of Adam hanging embarrassingly and fascinatingly in the boys' cloakroom, singing patriotic songs on Empire Day ... some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules, of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these .... worrying I would end up down't pit or in't sheds, taking the bus to Manchester to look at my beloved Pre-Raphaelites, learning to be embarrassed by my accent, wondering, wondering, wondering if I was the only one .... times that should have long been forgotten, but lurk behind many a wine label.

That flavor that I call ink has been explained as oak but I don't believe it for something had to be done with all that ink after fountain pens acquired cartridges, and the ballpoint pen, courtesy Mr Bic, was invented.

The whitewashed living room in which the writing table stands is elegantly furnished with a blue-and-white upholstered American sofa from 1840, eighteenth-century engravings of ducks, original engravings showing Captain Cook's third Pacific voyage, a red lacquer Regency chair next to a starched white linen skirted table, and a tiny turntable on a stool near the window seat standing next to the open doors to a covered terrace where, on the wall, hangs a tapa cloth brought back from Tonga.

The glory of this small house is not the furnishings and decoration, personal and restrained though they are, but the tropical garden, a gardener's setting for a gardener's cottage, that Roderick Cameron filled with plants - souvenirs, like the tapa cloth on the terrace and mats on the dining table, of journeys made and people met.

It is likely I will remain by the Mediterranean for a while longer but with occasional trips back to the United States.

The title, Ça va? Apparently Mr Cameron had a parrot that greeted guests with that phrase.

Photographs by Marc Lavrillier and texts from which my notes were taken were originally published in L'Oeil: The International Art Review. These photos are from European Decoration edited by George and Rosamond Bernier, published by Reynal & Co in association with William Morrow & Co. No date of publication is given and neither are any there attributions for authorship of articles.


  1. The gardens are fabulous!!I am still dreaming of a completely separate studio space...

    Come and enter my Latest Giveaway!!

    Art by Karena

  2. Love the missing parrott's perch. A greeter indeed.

  3. I certainly identify with fountain pens and deteriorating handwriting as a result of more usage of the keyboard that the pen. Likewise smells evoking memory much more poignantly than anything else. Happily the memories of my (prep) school days largely forgotten, as I have supressed the unhappiness I felt at being away from home so young, and missing my parents. I don't care for the smell of cut grass because it reminds me of the first day I ever went to school. Not my prep school, but the one before that.

  4. What a delightful reverie. I was almost giddy when I clicked RC's work table and it filled up my screen! Do I see a Victrola across the room w/ the 78 fitting in place? It's a lovely room. Yes, the ink-flowing pen, as my teachers specified - "do not submit papers in MY class using a ball point pen." Remember the small chamber at the top edge of the bottles of Skrip ink? Tighten the cap, tilt the bottle just so, and the chamber fills, dip the tip of your Esterbrook pen into the now-full chamber while lifting the slender lever just so, slurrr-rrp, and there you are. Yes, I can smell it too. Thanks for the memory....

  5. My father was so disgusted with my handwriting. Even his bookkeeping ledgers are beautiful. The ink pens more a toy than tool for me and led to math rather and literature. But "Ça va bien." What a luxury to leave work out on the table.

  6. I wanted greatly a parrot, to announce "On va au bar," assuming I'd be getting up to renew people's drinks under his attentive supervision.

    The ink "flavour" is that of polyphenols ("tannins") of acute youth, not from wood, but from certain densities of skins and/or well-ripened seeds, extracted in maceration before fermentation. A virile Bordeaux will be inky, sometimes v intensely, and sometimes for up to a decade or so, but this ink is genuinely welcomed as a harbinger of later finesse. An aromatic note of ink would indicate a hotter-climate wine or an imbalanced blending in Bordeaux -- in favour, for example, of that conspicuous ink sink, Petit Verdot.

    It goes without saying, you are correct to distinguish this as the "ink" effect, not the pencil dust effect (which may nevertheless overlap for an interval in a wine's development in bottle). One can tell, you have a palate for these austere structuring "inputs," perhaps even now; but I think it adds to our appreciation of your point of view, to know they truly are characteristics of youth.