It is rewarding to know where Shaw Press books are being read. One of the readers of Memoirs and Recollections is Alan de Quincey, who happens to be English, but lives with his French wife, Marie Francoise, in a medieval village built on a hill in the Languedoc region of Southern France.
An ascetic by nature, whilst many of his generation explored free love and drugs, Alan chose the opposite path, and went to live as a Greek Orthodox hermit in a cave in the French Alps. (Attending a Steiner school put him off anything less rigorous; nor, I suspect, anything so recent as neo-paganism.) His ideas mellowed over time; he met Marie Francoise, a woman with a petite, bird-like beauty; married and settled down. They are now curators for the archeolgical site of Cambous, one of the oldest villages in France, dating from Neolithic times, when a matriarchal society worshipped the White Goddess.
Life as a hermit has left him knowing about the land, its history and spiritual significance. He is also incredibly knowledgeable about the past, and in many ways stil lives in it. Alan has a way of talking about the simplest of things with a deep sense of wonder. Every action he makes has a sense of the sacred about it.
The de Quincey home is full of precious things: history books, art books, pictures, antiques. There is nothing in their home that I would consider worthless. Every photo on the wall is aesthetically pleasing. The walls themselves are so old they are aesthetically pleasing. Even the loose wires hanging from the ceiling add to the charm. It is still, in some ways, a troglodyte dwelling: the lower floor cut out of the rock, the back door (now the only entrance in use) reached by a steep alleyway called Rue Obscure.
From this small doorway, decorated by creepers, you step down into a narrow, dark corridor, filled with books and papers, and make your way into the small kitchen, still more or less in its medieval state.
Marie Francoise cooks, either over a Cinderella-style cast iron range with an open fire or, in the summer months, a single gas hob – the gas canister underneath hidden by a huge chopping board hung on a hook. A small room leads off the kitchen: the washroom, its stone sink still in use, though at least there is one modern convenience: a tap. Herbs hang from the ceiling, and on the day I visit, soon Marie Francoise is using a pestle and mortar to grinding basil, oil and garlic, vital ingrediants for soupe a pistou. (Pesto and pistou have the same etymological root).
What with the wood for the fire, boxes of paper bags for starting a fire, cubby-holes in the walls filled with boxes of useful ingredients, a crowded dresser, there doesn't seem to be room for anything else here. But there is. A dog, the size and colour of a small bear, finds his place by his bowl. Either that, or he can go under the dining table, now crowded with crockery, cutlery and other things we might need for our meal.
Cats decorate the house, elegantly extending a leg to wash themselves, or stare from a chair you might want to sit on. Into this mix add two Chihuahuas, temporary guests while their mistress is on holiday.
I have a theory that your home is the outward manifestation of your brain. It is obvious really, but some suitably qualified person needs to write a book on the topic before I can use a quote to prove my point. My observation is that the more knowledgeable a person, the more crowded their house. This is not to be confused with disorganized mess – but it is a reflection of the person’s level of knowledge. Because, in the main, to own something is to know about it.
Upstairs, at the top of the house, hung in the grénier, are Alan's robes, used when he is officiating at the small Coptic Orthodox church he and Marie Francoise attend. Services are held beneath stone vaulted ceilings, the air heavy with incense. They perform a ceremony dating back to the days before Rome, when Christianity was based in Alexandria. Merlin would have approved of this I think, could have chatted with Alan about the way Romans built bridges and dams; the way to build a tomb facing a particular direction to line up with the equinox, facing a particular sacred mountain, the way our Neolithic ancestors did. Alan knows all these things.
Back in the de Quincey kitchen, he tells me how much he is enjoying reading Sebastian's memoirs. Particularly the bit about Percy Dearmer, the reforming vicar of Primrose Hill. He is amazed at Sebastian's knowledge of the Sarum Rite; Alan recites the names of those who walk behind the priest in the procession: the thurifer and taperer; the amices they wear, put on like hoods and then thrown back around their necks (pages 36-7). I am entranced by the romance of it all, and honoured to be the source of this admiration. In fact, what has surprised me is that Alan is the third person who has appreciated this part of the book - one other person was Dearmer's grand-daughter. As I have found myself, being related to someone does not necessarily mean you know everything about them.
After we have eaten the delicious soupe au pistou, a meal in itself, I check out the chihuahuas. They have been given their own domain in the sitting room, a room equally full of interesting things. In amonst these lies Alan's copy of Sebastian's memoirs, next to the single armchair. This is where Alan likes to sit and read, next to the French windows leading out to a balcony, a view of the Cévennes far away in the distance. And with the chihuahuas gently settled on his lap.