Thursday, 23 February 2012


 A pause today from the past, a need to look around me and consider what I am doing, why I am here, and who on earth might be interested in what I am writing. This hiccough was brought on by the recent viewing of a programme on television about Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of Facebook and the rapidity with which life and social behaviour has changed in the last few years due to him, Bill Gates, Twitter iPads and so on, with which I am not altogether coming to grips.
 I was born at the tail end of the year 1930 which means that I am now 81 years old, a fact that does not bother me very much except when I find myself rambling on about celebrities of the past to younger people who have never heard off them. Johnny Depp, for example, will, in fifty years time, still be as fresh in the memories of persons who are under thirty today but will mean little to those younger than them. I find it difficult  to accept the fact that I am older than most  heads of state, politicians, doctors, academics, yet am neither wiser than they nor can expect to get their respect . Some relief from this feeling of inferiority does manifest itself when I learn that they have completely messed up their private lives through sheer lack of common sense and I should, having been married twice, divorced, widowed, have children and grandchildren and managed to live so far in comparative comfort, be able to give sensible advice to those around me who ask me how I survived inevitable pitfalls, but I find that my standards and experiences have become irrelevant with time. I therefore turn and look around me for a person I know whom I can trust because they have known me for a long time and then remember that the majority are dead. One of the unexpected setbacks of living for a long time is not having anyone with whom to share worthwhile memories.
 Which leads me to a comforting possible explanation about the hereafter heard from someone, somewhere. We are perhaps like the larvae that live underwater in a murky pond but after a while climb up the stem of a plant to settle on a leaf above the surface where, overnight, we turn into a dragonfly. Suddenly we find ourselves in a bright, new, carefree environment with but one drawback - we cannot make contact with those we have left behind because we are now a different species.
 Aware that I am nearly at the top of the stem and about to struggle to get out of the water, I have come to the conclusion that, though I will  become a dizzily happy dragonfly and that the new world will indeed be amazing, I will surely be terribly worried about not being able to communicate with  those I have left behind to tell them what it’s like. Can I hope that Messrs Zuckerberg and Gates will soon invent an app which will enable communication between the dead and the living?  The alternative is, of course, is probably oblivion, in which case no one that I have loved and nothing that I have learned or experienced, will matter.
 I think I’ll slip back into the past ..........

The afterlife Dragonfly. Gouache and collage on paper. 14 x 14 cm. © Melissa Launay 2012

Thursday, 16 February 2012


Early childhood memories, apart from the loving but lunatic time I spent with ‘Maman’, my sex-crazed grandmother in Nice, are of spending endless days in bed coughing my lungs out, having unpleasant medication poured down my throat and different doctors tapping my chest with cold fingers wrongly diagnosing me with tuberculosis.
 Shortly after returning to London from the warm Côte d’Azur, I again fell ill and was sent to  Switzerland to recover. 
 All I remember of this three month episode among similarly sick children housed in a foreboding, clinically clean sanatorium on a cold snow covered mountainside, 
was being terrified on seeing a ghost at sunset.
 Wrapped in red blankets, woolly hat and scarf, lying on a pallet on a balcony and ordered to remain still and breathe in the fresh air, I saw, emerging from the chimney of a neighbouring chalet, a spectre exactly as illustrated in one of my horror books, an armless, legless form under a white sheet, clearly staring at me though it had no eyes. 
 Petrified, I ran indoors and flung myself at a kindly nurse who managed to calm me down explaining that it was not a ghost I had seen but a chimney sweep. It was the tradition that, after cleaning a chimney, the sweep should thrust a piece of white linen up the flue pipe to show that he had done his job properly.
 I did not believe her, suffered countless nightmares, was fearful when put out to rest again on the balcony and only felt safe from haunting ghouls when I was declared healthy and sent back to England.
  Many years later, when I purchased an old rectory in Somerset, I suffered petrification again on seeing a similiarly shrouded wraith in the corner of an empty reception room. My wife, not understanding why I remained rooted in the doorway shaking like a leaf, gallantly strode up to the offending spirit, pulled at the white sheet  to reveal a rather nice mahogany longcase clock,  part of the agreed furniture and fittings. 
 I have since favoured sleeping in multi-coloured Paisley bed linen from John Lewis. 

Me in front of the doctor learning how to breathe deeply

Moi and the ghost?                                                          Moi with my mother

The haunted chimney

Monday, 13 February 2012


I have now been living , on and off, in Nerja, a little Spanish coastal town East of Malaga, for more than forty years. Half a life time. I originally came down here when Franco was in power. It was a dictatorship and one had to be cautious, not only about one’s political views but of one’s behaviour. Women, for instance, were not to appear in the streets with dresses that were too tight ‘in places which provoked the evil passions of men’, and ‘modern’ dancing was strictly forbidden. The day he died the fascist press disappeared from the newstands and were immediately replaced by copies of Playboy, Men Only, and other erotic magazines while young girls went topless on the beachers. I did not stay here for this reason but because Nerja, with its palm trees, blue Mediterranean and mountain village of Frigiliana behind, reminded me of Cagnes-sur-Mer and Cagnes on the Cote d’Azur where I spent a happy childhood with ‘Maman’ my extrovert maternal grandmother. It was she who told me about her dentist father, Theophile Bonaventure Muschler who gambled away his house and clinic in Arles and his connection with two famous artists.
  Theophile Muschler was a friend of Docteur Felix Rey who ran a lunatic asylum in an old convent near Saint Remy a few miles from Arles. One day the Docteur asked him to treat a Dutchman who had toothache. The man spent his whole time in the home painting wild canvasses which the nursing staff considered to be the work of a demented mind. Theophile examined the patient and declared that there was little he could do for him as the mad artist was not suffering from toothache but from a painful nerve due to his having chopped off his own ear. It was Vincent Van Gogh.
  Years later, Theophile moved to the small village of Cagnes where he set up a new practice in his house. My mother, then aged six, often heard the agonized howls of his patients when staying there. One of them was their neighbour Auguste Renoir who sketched her on occasions when she playing under the olive trees outside his Collettes studio.
  Renoir gave some of these sketches to Maman who didn’t like them because they made her daughter look plump and, not appreciating their possible future value, tore them up.

Self portrait with bandaged Ear. Vincent Van Gogh. January 1889 Oil on canvas. 60 x 49 cm

Tuesday, 7 February 2012


  A strange thought occurred to me today. I am older than my maternal grandfather ever was. He died in his early seventies and I have lived longer than that.
    I don’t remember much about him except that he confiscated the binoculars my grandmother gave me to spy on what the prostitutes in the building across the courtyard were doing, and that, in his youth. He had been a croupier at the Monte Carlo Casino. I also remember the often told account of how he came to marry ‘Maman’,  an event for which her father, by the wonderful name of  Theophile Bonaventure Muschler was entirely responsible.
    Theophile in 1890s was a successful dentist in Arles. He was also an inveterate gambler and, two or three times a year, took his wife and beautiful red haired daughter for a short holiday to Monte Carlo so that he could play roulette, baccarat, black jack and whatever else might win him a fortune.
    One night, while the ladies were sipping sweet wines on the casino terrace overlooking the bay with its illuminate yachts in the moonlight, he lost absolutely everything.
    ‘We are ruined, ‘ he announced joining them for a stiff cognac, ‘ I have nothing left. The house, the surgery gone ! The horses, the carriage, I have gambled them away. ‘ He had had such a  run of bad luck that he had risked all in the hope of recouping a little, but had lost again. He didn’t even have enough money to pay the return fare to Arles let alone settle the hotel bill.
    Desperate, he asked the croupier who had managed his last game, if the casino management would advance him enough to get his family home.
    ‘It is not the policy of the management to negotiate anything with the clients, ‘ the young man informed him, ‘ however, I might be in a position to help if you introduced me to your pretty red haired daughter. ‘
    In the twenty four hours that followed , Desiré Bremond, the croupier, small of stature but suave and dapper in a tailored suit and Italian shoes, made such a good impression on Theophile by arranging a loan for him with a local bank, that he was not only allowed to walk with the red haired daughter down to the harbour to look at the boats, but invited to visit the family in Arles and, eventually, have her hand in marriage.
    Desiré Bremond was the ninth child of a marriage between a civil engineer from Paris who was working on the Suez Canal and an Egyptian lady from Alexandria who presented him with eight daughters before finally giving birth to a boy - the reason they gave him the same name as the New Orleans Streetcar.  

 'Desiré is the central figure in this photograph wearing a bathrobe, flanked on his left by Theophile the gambling dentist and his wife, Maman on his right with teenage Simone my mother and her little sister Suzy (More on these two troublemakers later )The lady not watching how she is pouring the coffee is a waitress. The beach café on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice was owned by Desiré, one of his many doubtful ventures.

Friday, 3 February 2012


A day or two ago, I was shopping in Zara’s with the intention of buying myself a shirt. Lost among a forest of women’s garments, I saw the men’s department through an archway and headed straight for it.
    As I neared the archway, a rather haggard old gentleman came out of the male section. I noticed that he hadn’t purchased anything, that he was rather shabbily dressed, was probably suffering from some arthritic problem as he was a little hunched, and definitely needed a haircut.
     I smiled at him as we drew closer. He smiled back. Then we went through that extraordinary dance which normally takes place on narrow pavements. I stepped to my right, he stepped to his left, I stepped to my left and he stepped to his right and we both smiled at our stupidity. Then he stepped forward at the same time as I did and we smacked head on into each other, both our foreheads taking most of the impact.
    ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ said I with an apologetic smile, rubbing my nose as he rubbed his, and a woman behind him...and behind me...collapsed with laughter.
    The old man was myself, of course. I had crashed into a full length mirror.
    Though my birth certificate insists that I was born at the end of 1930, I am forty two years old. Sometimes I believe I am twenty five, a number of close relatives treat me as though I were six. I am not particularly concerned about how old I am except when I come  face to face with myself in unexpected mirrors and suffer a deep trauma on meeting the individual I have become. The relentless development of one’s outer casing,  it seems, is not a bit concerned about the sensitivity of the inner self..