Wednesday, 29 July 2015


One hundred and twenty five years ago today, Vincent Van Gogh died.

Of the three sites in Arles most associated with him one, The Yellow House, was destroyed during the Second World War but The Hospital (left) and The Night Cafe (below) can still be visited today. Appropriately the latter is still painted yellow. I was not able to photograph it at night, but my picture was taken from a not totally dissimilar angle to that of the painting.

The Van Gogh connection is not the only reason to visit Arles.  I was unprepared for the remarkable state of preservation of the Roman Amphitheatre, which is today still in use for bull fighting (with Spanish bulls) and the racing games featuring the smaller Camargue bulls.

Though much smaller than the Roman Colosseum, the Arles amphitheatre has suffered less depradation by builders looking for a cheap stione quarry.  This was because it served as a fortress on the bank of the Rhone (below)  and was able to contribute to the defences of the town.

Considerably less grand are the late Roman Empire baths, the contrast between the two clearly evocative of the decline of Roman civilsation, even if the latter was the work of Constantine.

Arles was frequently a Roman headquarters and briefly a usurper capital.  It is also known as an early site of the religious conflict between Rome's Catholicism and the Arianism of the Visigoths, the independence of the latter no doubt being strengthened by the local traditions originating from Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer not far to the south.

The Emperor Barbarossa was crowned here in the 12th century, but Arles' importance declined as that of Marseilles grew. Today, perhaps especially today, it is probably best known for its association with Van Gogh.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, Camargue

According to legend, a party of disciples fleeing persecution in Judah shortly after the crucifixion sailed to the south of what is now France and landed in the location of the present town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The refugees included the three Marys: Magdalen, Salome and the mother of James, along with Martha of Bethany and Joseph of Arimathea.

In the Camargue, no-one would entertain the notion that this story is not literally true. Though the whereabouts of the Magdalen's remains are disputed, everyone knows that Salome and the mother of James are buried in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (above right) and Martha in Tarascon (below left). It is unthinkable that the popular medieval competition between shrines to rediscover relics of saints in order to attract pilgrims, the medieval equivalent of tourists, had anything to do with it.

Even leaving aside the question of relics, the association of Mary Magdalen with the area has very strong traditional roots. It was of course a part of the old story on which The Da Vinci Code was built. The Albigensian Heresy (Catharism) in the early middle ages, and the 19th / 20th century mystery of Rennes-le-Château have also some possible links to the story.

Today these churches are still places of pilgrimage, and 
Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the site of an annual Roma pilgrimage in honour of their patron St Sarah, whose relationship to the ship of refugees is not entirely clear.  She may have been a servant or a local woman who welcomed them.

The strength of feeling that surrounds these places is entirely convincing to romantics like me.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Chilling Ghost Stories

Available worldwide, it is hoped, around the end of next month will be three books of a Gothic Fantasy series from Flame Tree Publishing. Books will also be on sale directly at Why should you especially want to bear this in mind?  Because the first in the series, Chilling Ghost Stories, features a tale written by me.

As you might expect, I do not tend to write traditional ghost stories and 'The Waiting Room' is definitely not traditional. It is however in some high class company in the forthcoming volume, so I hope you will all rush down to your local bookseller and reserve yourselves a copy.

Better still buy several copies and give them to all your friends for Christmas.  Have your Christmas shopping finished by September.  Now don't say you never find any good advice on this blog!

Monday, 20 July 2015

Pont de Gau, Camargue

I could happily spend all day in a bird reserve. Since I know myself only too well I took careful measures to be back on time on this occasion, though I needn't have worried because another keen bird photographer was late back to the bus instead of me.

The salt marshes of The Camargue are full of exotic species; wild birds being encouraged to congregate inside the bounds of Pont de Gau by feeding. The Greater Flamingos cluster in garrulous flocks close to the shore of  small lakes, demonstrating by their high stepping strutting that the water is only inches deep and especially convenient for their strange but logical method of sieving the oozy mud below through odd-shaped beaks.

Other species are slightly less gregarious. Greater Egrets seem to have slightly more respect for each other's personal space and roost several feet apart. Yellow-crested Cattle Egrets seem to mix in with their all-white relatives without concern, and even the often solitary grey herons will join the family groups.

It is quite hard to take a bad photograph where large birds are so concentrated. After some time photographing birds on the ground, I decided that take-off and landing presented greater challenges, though my attempts here also caused me to waste many more exposures. It is so easy to have the wrong depth of field and end up with part of a bird out of focus. If it happens to be the head that you have wrong this will ruin the shot, yet the recommended technique of focussing on the bird's eye is remarkably difficult if the bird is moving.

You need good reflexes and a steady hand; I was usually quite pleased just to get the whole bird in the frame. The White Stork on the left obligingly assisted by coming in to touch down in just the right spot.

There are lots of tracks around the lakes of Pont de Gau and it is easy to find yourself on your own, even when there are crowds around the cafe and enclosures. 

For any naturalist in The Camargue, a visit to Pont de Gau should certainly be on the agenda.  Take several lenses, spare batteries and lots of time.  Oh, and if it's a still day, take mosquito repellent!

Sunday, 19 July 2015

White Horses of The Camargue

Many of us dream of visiting the Rhone delta, the sparsely populated area of southern France known as The Camargue. Like many other dreamers,  I imagined I was going to take lots of photographs of lovely white horses running out of the surf.

Truth to tell, that sort of picture has to be staged for the photographers by the traditional cowboys of The Camargue. The horses do not actually spend their time playing on the beach. Why would they?

So unless you're very lucky, you have to make do with a misty photograph of grazing horses taken through the window of a tour bus. A bit like the one on the left.

The most important town of the region, Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, of which I hope to write more later, has an off season population of below 3,000 but a summer population of 50,000.  There see to be innumerable  trekking establishments where you can ride the white horses amongst the salt marshes, winding your way between the many lakes and observing the fascinating wildlife.

To a person from northern latitudes, egrets and flamingos count as exotic, so it is astonishing to see the wild birds that flock to the reserve at Pont de Gau. I hope to write at greater length about that wonderful place too.

For now, however, I have still my dreams about what Camargue might have been like, if only I had been on my own and not surrounded by a crowd of other tourists such as myself!

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Euro makes you sick

If anyone still believed in the community spirit of the European Union they should have found themselves roundly disabused this week.

I have discussed in earlier blog posts the fundamental flaws of the Eurozone system. In brief, by removing the economic safety valves of devaluation and balance of payments effects, a single currency drives countries of unequal efficiency further and further apart by reducing the GDP and employment levels of the weaker.

In single currency areas such as the USA and the UK relatively little fuss is made about arranging compensating financial flows because the members are all parts of a single political state. The Barnett Formula exists to provide this compensation to Scotland (despite imaginative claims for the alleged strength of the Scottish economy.)

In the Eurozone there is no such political unity. This week has seen economic liberalisation measures forced on Greece as the price of its third bailout in six years that are too extreme even for the strong economies such as Germany to stomach themselves.

Yet as the leaked IMF paper reveals, the measures proposed will not allow Greece to pay off its mountainous debts. For all its ineptitude, the Syriza government has been correct about one thing; the so-called remedies are making the situation worse by increasing Greece's debt to GDP ratio.

The common cliche describes the Eurozone as kicking the can further down the road. I prefer to describe them as treating the symptoms (badly) whilst denying even the existence of the disease. Something is rotten at the heart of the single currency and no amount of name calling and blame allocating will put it right.