Horticultural Gems of France

France has a rich and well known history of gardens and gardening, from the large palace gardens to the wonderful potager gardens. However there are some very well known and some lesser known elements of the French horticultural scene and we will explore some of these today.

Santiago de Chili

Marble Fountain By Guilhem Vellut from Paris, France (Fountain @ Paris) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

The Square Santiago de Chili is a wonderful green retreat in the 7th arrondissement of Paris. A kind of oasis in the city with magnificent Oriental Plane Trees and a bust of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer, poet and pioneering aviator. Not forgetting the gorgeous marble fountain, the garden makes for a welcome change to the busy urban environment.

Lavender Stoechas (French Lavender)

French Lavender, By User:Xemenendura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.1 es (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/es/deed.en)]

French Lavender is one of the most recognisable lavenders as it has distinctive petals at the top of each flower, somewhat reminiscent of butterfly wings, and typically they will flower earlier than common lavender, with flowers appearing as early as May. One important thing to note however is that they are far less hardy than the common lavender, so if winter is very cold it can be the death knell for them.

Jardin botanique d’Èze

Exotic Cacti and Succulents, By Berthold Werner (Own work) [Public domain]

The Botanical Garden of Èze, in Èze not far from Nice has the most wonderful array of exotic succulents and cacti. It is situated in a steep area that falls over 400 meters towards the sea and has magnificent panoramic views of the coast. Amongst the plants you will find an impressive variety of Agaves, Yuccas, Aloes and various species of Cacti.

Garlic (Allium Sativum)

Garlic, By Pivari (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Garlic, often associated with France and French agriculture has been cultivated for thousands of years over the Mediterranean region and is a firm favourite with growers and chefs alike. It is a close relative of onions, chives, leeks, shallots and ornamental alliums.

Overall there are many elements that give France a long and exciting horticultural history and today we have touched on just a few.

Delphine De Vigan A French Lit Discovery

Our new theme is France and all things French relating to culture. I have chosen to write about Delphine De Vigan, an author that I have recently discovered, who is causing a bit of a buzz on the literary scene with her latest title ‘Based On a True Story.’ She is Parisian and captures a very personal view of France that resonates with many readers.

No and Me

No and Me is DeVigan’s first title translated into English and was chosen as a Radio 4 book of the week. No and Me tells the story of Lou Bertignac an Autistic teenage girl who experiences a disruptive home life due to her parent’s unhappy marriage. She embarks on a school project about homelessness where she meets ‘No’ another teenage girl who is homeless and persuades her parents to let No live with them. This charming novel is reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye as it reads as if it was written by the protagonist. A really innovative book that highlights homelessness and humanity.

Underground Time

This was the first book of De Vigan’s that I read and is the beginning of her move into what we now know her for, her autobiographical fiction or ‘Autofiction.’ Underground Time is based around the story of two principle narrators; Mathilde a single mother of two boys who works in a market research firm and Thibault who is an emergency doctor on call who has a complicated romantic relationship. Mathilde owns the bulk of the narrative as she experiences the most awful experience of ostracising and workplace bullying from her boss Jacques. The incidences of bullying are so realistic that you cannot help to feel that De Vigan has gone through something similar in real life. You want these two to end up together but this book may not guarantee a Disney-fied ending!

Nothing Holds Back the Night

Nothing Holds Back the Night  was my most difficult read of De Vigan’s work as it is imbued with such melancholy. It concerns the difficult life of her mother Lucile and comes across as a painfully real account. Lucile suffered from Bi-Polar disorder and alcoholism. She was from an extremely large family and had many siblings who experienced neglect and tragedy in their midst. The house was extremely chaotic and full of anxiety. Lucile’s mother Liane preferred her children when they were babies, turning cold to them when they grew up. (At one point she is described as physically pushing the elder children away when they wanted attention). The children also experienced neglect with the mother regularly going out in the day leaving them alone in the house. Liane and her husband even went away for a business trip to London leaving the children alone in France when the eldest were not even teenagers yet! The figure of De Vigan’s grandfather is presented as another story altogether. He was a classic Narcissist and most probably had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as he demanded attention from all of those around him and frequently got into heated arguments at social gatherings with those who dared to contradict him. He was consistently unfaithful to his wife and inflicted his criticisms and moods on to her and their children. As if this was not stressful enough, De Vigan obliquely references that he may well have committed sexual abuse with his children and children’s friends. De Vigan strongly points this aspect as being a key one which may have caused her mother’s mental state to freefall into chaos. This is a difficult read as it is quite depressing at times but hopeful for the future in that De Vigan has clearly chosen to raise her children very differently and break this dysfunctional family cycle.

Based On a True Story

The most recent book to be translated into English is the aforementioned Based on a True Story This fascinating tale explores the character of L, an immaculately presented female who infiltrates the life of Delphine the protagonist. This book is a really innovative twist on the hugely influential and popular psychological thriller genre in that it is written in the style of autofiction. So, you are not sure what is true and what is not. De Vigan has a very distinctive writing style that has been cleverly maintained by the excellent translator George Miller. I have read some reviews that feel that this book is not as exciting as some of the more conventional psychological thrillers as it is not completely action packed with twists and turns. That is true to some extent in that it is less action focused but what it does offer is a detailed character study and fascination with the topic of identity that I really enjoyed and would recommend that you seek it out.

Overall, these books represent just a small slice of contemporary French literature, but De Vigan is a fascinating author if you are at all interested in psychological aspects and the merging of the genres of autobiography and fiction. I look forward to seeing what she has in store for us next!

The Wonder of Studio Ghibli

Japan is a lively country, overflowing with life. It is filled with many aspects of interesting popular and traditional culture. I have chosen to focus on the popular culture aspect and write about two different films by one of it’s most famous exports, the animation studio ‘Studio Ghibli.’

Studio Ghibli rose to prominence in the West with Spirited Away [DVD] [2001] in 2002/3 in the US and UK, but has been producing films for many years before that in Japan. Studio Ghibli has many animators and is largely known for the work of its two directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata who have produced the bulk of Studio Ghibli output though the tradition of animation sets to continue with the son of Hayao Miyazaki, Gōro Miyazaki directing the Ghibli films Tales From Earthsea [DVD],   From Up On Poppy Hill [DVD] and the new TV series Ronja the Robber’s Daughter find the original novel here. In Hayao Miyazaki’s films it was said that he only allowed a maximum of ten per cent of his films to be computer animated and the bulk of it was hand drawn and coloured! This shows an incredible amount of skill, dedication and hard work which shows in the final product. When you compare the quality of the animation on Studio Ghibli films with their contemporary US or UK equivalents, you can really see the difference in the quality of the art work. My Neighbour Totoro compared to The Little Mermaid is a good comparison as they were both created at the same time (1988 and 1989 respectively). When it comes to animation they were streets ahead of the US and UK in Japan at the time, although the increasing use of computer animation makes this harder to compare today.

My Neighbour Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro [DVD] is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli fims. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and released in Japan in 1988, it still holds today in the quality of the animation. The film is about two sisters, Satsuki and Mei who have an ill mother in hospital. They move to the country with their father in hope that the cleaner air would allow their mother to recover and come home. When out on an adventure in the garden Mei, the younger sister, discovers a tiny Totoro dropping acorns and that is where the story begins… This story is full of magical adventures with the two sisters and the large Totoro (a tree sprit creature) plus a crazy cat bus! It is a tale of love and adventure between two sisters and is really all about change. What is lovely is that there are lots of examples in animated films where moving house is seen as a stressful and anxious time for children (Toy Story is an example of this), but in My Neighbour Totoro despite the mother being ill in hospital and the family having to move to a totally different area, the girls embrace the change positively and have adventures. The film shows that a potentially stressful change such as moving house can be fun and full of adventures. As an example of the incredible detail used in Ghibli films; there is a scene just before Mei finds the small Totoros, where she sees some tadpoles and puts her hand in the water and they swim away, this scene which lasts a few seconds took a whole month to animate!!

When Marnie Was There

The second film I would like to write about was produced much later and is called When Marnie Was There [DVD] [2016] When Marnie Was There is a story adapted from the book of the same name which is originally set in Norfolk but is set here in a rural area of Japan. This is a story about a girl called Anna who has to move to the country for the Summer to stay with an aunt and uncle in hope that her asthma will improve. When she is away, she uses a boat to sail across a lake to a mansion and meets a young girl called Marnie who dresses differently and looks as if she is from another time in the past. She continues to meet her and is concerned for her, as she cannot always find her as sometimes the house is shut up and deserted. She wonders if Marnie is a dream or something created from her imagination. She is very confused but in the end she finds out the truth which surprised me! Unlike most of the Ghibli output, this film is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi but still looks similar to Miyazaki’s artwork.

These are just some of my favourite films by Studio Ghibli. There are rumours that Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement to create a new film called Boro the Caterpillar! Some rough cut animation exists of this work and I hope that this does find the funding to get made as it looks good!

Japan: From Tea Ceremony to Transistor Radio

Japan is an ancient country with many traditions. At the same time it is one of the most technologically advanced countries on the planet. Today, I will look at these two aspects by focusing on firstly the Japanese tea ceremony and then Japanese technological innovation.

Japanese Tea Ceremony

The tea ceremony is over 1000 years old and was brought into being by a Japanese monk who travelled from China bringing the tea plant with him. The ceremony originated as an important religious ritual in Japanese monasteries. It would develop into a quintessential part of Japanese culture. The tea houses which were created to support this ritual included inside them special items that were specifically for the ceremony: the chawan (tea bowl), the chakin (cloth for the chawan), the natsume (tea caddy), the chashaku (tea scoop) and the chashaku (tea whisk). The traditional ritual involves a level of decorum, with guests going into a waiting room to drop off their bags and coats as well as putting on a pair of Tabi (special type of socks). The ritual then involves a respectful bow between both the host and guests, before and after serving the tea. The ceremony then becomes less formal as the host brings in tabako bon (a smoking set) for the guests at the end of the ceremony. The continuation of this ritual exemplifies the great respect that Japan has for its traditions as well as the great care that they take in upholding them. Another, interesting aspect of this nation is its desire for technological innovation.

Japanese Technology

The emergence of Japan being seen as a great technological nation may have started in the 1950s. One striking example of this is the Sony TR-55 transistor radio (from 1955), whilst it was not the first transistor radio, it was the first one to use all miniaturized components in it. Miniaturization, has for a long time been part of Japanese culture (such as bonsai trees). What is interesting is how Sony used existing Japanese cultural ideas to innovate this technology.  The success of this radio would lead to Japan being seen worldwide as a pioneer and place of technological progress. Technologies such as video cassette recorders, as well as advances in television and videogames would cement Japan as a nation at the forefront of technological innovation.

It is unsurprising then that in the early 1980s many thought that Japan would become the biggest influence on worldwide culture, as can be seen in the near future film Blade Runner (Remastered Directors Cut)

I hope you have enjoyed this article. If you have any interesting cultural insights into Japan please post in the comments below.

Horticultural Gems of Japan

This month we will be looking at a small selection of the wonderful plants that come from Japan.

The Japanese Maple (Acer Palmatum) is probably one of the best known. It has wonderfully delicate leaves, especially the dissectum varieties. It is well known for its wonderfully bright autumnal foliage and makes a nice addition to most gardens.

Japanese Maple showing the Autumnal Foliage

Another Japanese native is the Euonymous Fortunei, this is a staple evergreen shrub of many UK gardens and often seen in one of its variegated forms. With its ovate leaves it looks quite wonderful when the variegation picks out details on the leaves. It is commonly used for short hedges.

Variegated foliage of Euonymus Fortunei

The Rosa Rugosa is yet another Japanese native. Despite its long spindly branches and ferocious spines it has the most wonderful open flowers with the most delightful traditional musk rose scent. It originates on coastal Japan growing among sand dunes and is extremely tolerant of strong winds and salt spray. Commonly found with either white or pink flowers.

The lush green foliage and sharp spines of the Rosa Rugosa

The Japanese Laurel (Aucuba Japonica) is another firm garden staple, again grown primarily for its variegation. It is evergreen and can be slow growing in its first few years but will eventually grow to a large size and is commonly used for hedging. To get the most vivid variegation it is best grown in a sunny position but it is somewhat shade and drought tolerant.

The spotty variegation on the Japanese Laurel looks almost as if someone has splashed yellow paint all over it

The Fatsia Japonica is commonly considered a houseplant in the UK, however as many exotic plant enthusiasts have found they grow very well outdoors and survive the winters, in all but the most severe winter climates, without problems. It is a small evergreen shrub and can form wonderful white flower umbels.

The large leaves of the Fatsia Japonica are quite impressive

This is merely a handful of the numerous and wonderful plants of Japan.