From Harrogate to Tokyo cherry blossom is in full bloom at the peak of spring
On Easter Sunday, 2009, in the Perigord region of France a local landowner, Eustace Levond, made a fascinating discovery. He was out looking for truffles in the forest when his pig, Emile, disappeared down a hole near the edge of a cliff.
Eustace was distraught and brought a spade to find Emile whose oinks were becoming less audible by the minute. Eustace eventually found Emile in a cave and was about to revive him with some Armagnac when he noticed a strange shape protruding from a layer of red shale. Levond dropped his brie, baguette, and beret in astonishment. When he had revived both Emile and himself, Eustace cleaned away the soil from the shape and found what looked like a large, ancient bone. Eustace immediately phoned his friend at the University of Toulouse, Professor Armand le Notre, who worked in the Paleontology department.
Armand carefully examined the shape and deduced that it was a dinosaur bone, almost certainly a hyoid or throat bone from a large reptile. There was also a rudimentary voicebox preserved in the rock, which le Notre believed would allow the animal to make a variety of noises. Judging by the teeth found in the beast’s skull, the reptile would have been a meat-eater and so the variety of noises the animal would have made would all have been related to the same thing i.e. consuming fresh, raw meat.
Le Notre commented thus: “The dinosaur would have emitted high-pitched noises to scare smaller animals such as dogs and birds out of the forest and into the open, whereas it would have used lower pitched noises to frighten the larger plant-eating dinosaurs of the open savannah. Either way, the variety of noises would have all meant the same thing – I want to eat you, mon ami.”
Le Notre decided to name the beast the Theosaurus, or God’s lizard, because it was originally discovered over Easter. After pressure from evangelical Christian paleontologists in the USA, the name was contracted to Thesaurus in 2011.
Toulouse is known as the “Pink City” because of the large number of buildings built from brick. These buildings include The Saint Sernin basilica, the Jacobins church and the modern art museum of Les Abattoirs. Toulouse was also involved in the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th Century and was the place where the leader of the crusade was killed five years after the initial crusade came to an end.
The basilica of St Sernin is named after the first bishop of Toulouse who was martyred by being dragged down some steps tied to the back legs of the bull he had refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. This basilica has the largest number of holy relics of any church in the south of France and this is mainly because of a large donation of them by Charlemagne, which swelled the numbers of pilgrims visiting the original church including those on their way to Santiago de Compostela. A bigger church was needed and so the current basilica was begun around 1080 and completed 270 years later.
Beautiful though St Sernin is I much preferred the church of Les Jacobins, founded by St Dominic in 1216 to try and counteract the spread of the Cathars – a sure indication that the Albigensian Crusade had failed. The inside of the church has a wonderfully light and airy feel, the decorations are kept to a minimum, and there’s only a few relics including those of St Thomas Aquinas. The most impressive feature is the single column at the eastern end of the church from whose top delicate ribs, each alternately red and green, fan out across and support the ceiling of the apse. Their pattern is quite mesmerising and they don’t look strong enough to provide support.
I visited the modern art gallery at Les Abattoirs on the other side of the River Garonne. The latest exhibition was being installed, so only the upstairs was open to visitors. including a video installation of a man being followed by an ice-breaker as he crossed the sea ice. There were also photographs of a different man burning holes in icebergs with a blowtorch. Back on the right bank of the river the Fondation Bemberg art collection in the Hotel d’Assezat (where hotel means Hall in English) has an extensive collection ranging from Lucas Cranach the Elder to Giacommetti, via Tintoretto and Picasso.
The best museum in Toulouse was the Musee des Augustins and in particular the 12th Century Romanesque sculptures. It wasn’t the actual capitals that were brilliant, but their presentation. The capitals were displayed on multi-coloured, plastic columns with a highly complex light fixture hanging from the ceiling above them. In other words, the capitals were fulfilling their original role in a modern way that illustrated their use rather than displaying them as dry museum exhibits. This was a superb idea with a lot of artistic flair thrown in for good measure.
Someone who had flair of a very different kind was Simon de Montfort. Simon headed to the Holy Land as part of the 4th Crusade, but when these crusaders attacked the city of Zara and then headed to Constantinople – acts Simon de Montfort didn’t agree with – Simon and his associates decided instead to press on to Acre where they saw action against the Saracens. Once he was back in France, Simon remained on his estates until he was called to take part in another Crusade, but this time against Christian dissidents in his own country. This was the initial campaign of the so-called Albigensian Crusade in 1209 against the Cathars, who were regarded as heretical by The Pope. After the fall of Carcassonne, Simon was elected leader of the crusade and viscount of the confiscated territories of Raymond-Roger Trencavel, who had died just after Carcassonne had surrendered.
Simon was also rewarded with the territory conquered from Raymond VI of Toulouse, which in theory made him the most important landowner in Occitania. He soon became feared for his flair for ruthlessness. In 1210, he burned 140 Cathars in the village of Minerve who refused to recant their beliefs – though he spared the few who did. Prior to the sack of the village of Lastours, Simon brought prisoners from the nearby village of Bram and had their eyes gouged out and their ears, noses and lips cut off. One prisoner, left with a single good eye, led them into Lastours as a warning to the defenders of the three castles there.
In 1213 Simon defeated Peter II of Aragon at the Battle of Muret. In the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, this completed the defeat of the Cathars though of course many survived even after the siege of Montsegur in 1244. However, Simon carried on the crusade as a war of conquest in many parts of Raymond VI of Toulouse’s former territories; Simon besieged Beaucaire, which had been taken by Raymond VII of St-Gilles, from 6 June 1216 to 24 August 1216.
Raymond VII of St-Gilles spent most of this period in Aragon, but did correspond with sympathisers in Toulouse. There were rumours in September 1216 that he was on his way to Toulouse. Abandoning the siege of Beaucaire, Simon partially sacked Toulouse so as to punish the citizens for their correspondence with Raymond. Raymond did return in October 1217 to take possession of Toulouse. Once again, Simon hastened to besiege the city, but after maintaining the siege for nine months, Simon was killed on 25th June 1218 while combating a sneak attack by some of the besieged. Simon’s head was smashed by a stone from a mangonel, operated, according to one source, by the donas e tozas e mulhers (“ladies and girls and women”) of Toulouse. The life of Simon de Montfort was at an end.
Simon de Montfort’s fourth son was also called Simon and it was this Simon de Montfort who took part in The Baron’s Revolt in England during the reign of Henry III and who is credited with calling the first parliament in England in the 1260s. It’s this Simon de Montfort after whom one of the universities in Leicester is named.
The Magnum Opus was first seen in Dublin in Ireland in the late 19th Century. It was first felt at the Temple Bar and then seen at the Halfpenny Bridge and soon it was at all points in between. Nowadays the Opus lurks in the recesses of streets everywhere in the world and in the back of all our minds.
The Opus is a figment of people’s imaginations, it’s an urban myth, it’s cold reality on a sunny evening, and it’s always just out of sight – a convenient shadow to point to in the dusk and dawn.
The Opus has been sighted by many people and has surprised ten times as many. A flashing pair of eyes, a hiss in the night, a warm caress of bare legs, a fleeting sight on a nearby wall – most of the time that’s all there is.
Those who say they have seen this creature believe it to be a giant cat with large whiskers and yellow teeth that lurks in the shadows and hunts rats to stay alive. Its mischief knows no bounds.
From a safe hiding place on a fence, the Opus has knocked off people’s hats as they walk by and tapped others on the shoulders and then miaowed in their face when they turn around.
Underfoot it lurks on cellar steps and trips up those who have just come out of the bar. It steals food from bags that have been left on the pavement by weary shoppers waiting for the bus. You just see a flash of feline heading to the other side of the road carrying its prize.
The Opus can walk along washing lines and either unpeg washing from the line or scratch its claws on sheets left to dry. It goes through open windows and steals food from houses. It will drink the last sip of sherry from your bottle; push your favourite glasses behind the iron, and paw your papers on to the floor. You hear a purr of satisfaction.
This mercurial messenger will pull your tissues out of their box, upset your cup of tea over the cake, and change the TV channel when you’re not in the room. It will move the bookmark in your book to a different page, cause the CD to skip a track, and remove one sock from the washing machine. You just hear a swish of a tail.
Batteries lose their charge after a paw has been laid on them, lights dim with a low purring sound, and matches blow out when struck. You feel the presence of an apparition of a cat that doesn’t wish to be seen.
The Opus is everywhere and nowhere at the same time – however, if you need an excuse it will appear as if by magic.
Knowles headed out into the swirling snow. The wind was blowing quite hard as he walked towards the car park. He thought he heard a noise, like a door closing, behind him, but when he looked around there was no one to be seen. He reached the Landrover and inspected it closely; nothing had been tampered with, although the snow almost reached the top of the tyres. He would still be able to drive away, if necessary. He walked past the semi-collapsed stone wall and saw the hut ahead. He looked down on the ground and saw no prints at all. The hut was made from stone and had a corrugated iron roof. Moss grew on most surfaces. The glass in the windows was mainly intact, although a couple of panes had been shot at by airgun pellets and were semi-shattered. Knowles thought he heard a noise inside the hut. He went to try and open the door and then everything became an inky blackness.
The next thing Knowles knew was that hot air was being blown into his ear and something warm and sticky was caressing his face. The back of his head hurt like hell and he could feel some matted blood at the base of his neck. He opened an eye and saw a dog standing over him looking very pleased with itself. The dog looked vaguely familiar. Snow was still falling. He looked around with both eyes and saw he was lying on the edge of some woods by a field. His watch said 7:30 p.m.
“Bingo, Bingo, where are you?” shouted a familiar voice. The dog barked loudly and ran off. “Am I in Goat Parva?” thought Knowles and his head began to throb. He tried to stand up, but his head span and he fell in a crumpled heap.
The dog came running and stood over him barking loudly. Each bark sounded like a gong being struck to Knowles.
“What is it boy?” said the voice, and there was a shriek. “Bingo, you have to stop doing this”. Adelaide Hills brought herself under control and said matter-of-factly, “Bingo, because you have found this body, we shall have to go back to Betty’s and phone that nice Inspector Knowles and tell him all about it.”
“Actually,” said Knowles from the ground, “that nice Inspector Knowles is already here, in fact that nice Inspector Knowles is the body on this occasion. Thank you, Bingo, what a lovely dog you are. Now, Adelaide, tell me where are we?”
“We are on the Black Hill near Frisby Magna,” replied Adelaide.
“And you have walked all the way from Goat Parva in this weather?”
“Oh no, I drove over here by the river road to see my friend Betty, but Bingo needed a walk didn’t you Bingo, yes you did…” Bingo barked and jumped around enthusiastically and even though his head hurt, Knowles smiled.
“Adelaide can you look at the back of my head using your torch and see what the damage is?”
Adelaide Hill did as she was asked – “You’ve been hit on the back of the head with a blunt instrument by the looks of it.”
“Yes, I thought as much,” said Knowles with a large hint of irony.
“Just stay still, Inspector, I will clean the wound with some snow, it would appear you have been dragged along the ground for a few yards. I will use my scarf as a bandage.”
“Can you shine your torch over there?” said Knowles after Adelaide Hills had finished her bandaging.
Adelaide shone her torch in the direction he was pointing in – the hotel was about three hundred yards away.
“I was inspecting a hut in the trees over there when I was hit,” said Knowles, “and that’s about 400 yards away. Was I dragged all that way?”
Adelaide played the torch down his back – “You haven’t been dragged for that distance because you’d be far dirtier and more unkempt than you appear, I would say you were carried here and then dumped, so that you wouldn’t be visible from the path. That’s terrible, you were left in an exposed place, in the woods you’d have been warmer. We have to get you inside – can you stand?”
Knowles rose gradually and had to lean on Mrs Hills for a minute before the muscles in his legs registered the body weight and held him upright.
“Here’s my stick, Inspector.” Knowles took the proffered stick and leant on it gratefully.
“You need blood sugar, Inspector, so I suggest you suck a couple of these sweets, they will give you boundless energy, which is the effect they have on Bingo, isn’t it boy?”
Bingo barked with glee and Mrs Hills gave them two sweets each.
“Can we head to the hotel?” asked Knowles, “will that be alright, Adelaide?”
“Yes, I will be fine, we can walk for miles can’t we Bingo?”
Bingo barked in agreement and ran off towards the stile. Knowles looked down at Clarke’s farm – the bulls were no longer sheltering by their barn, but seemed to be more spread out. The wind must have died down and the temperature had risen as a result.
“These sweets are quite tasty, what brand are they? asked Knowles as he reached the stile.
“I buy them in bulk, I forget their name, I can let you know, the bag will be with the rest of Bingo’s food supplies.”
Knowles stopped sucking the sweets – “you mean…”.
“Oh yes…didn’t I mention that, they are dog treats…I did mention that, I am sure I did.”
Knowles shook his head slowly, but kept the sweets in his mouth, as he concentrated on climbing the stile, which seemed like Mt Everest all of a sudden.