An ear in Provence

Should you be fortunate enough to visit Provence and find yourself staying in Sous les Oliviers you will not see any olive trees there, but that is not the only contradiction about the place. The others are (hopefully, not ’were’) embodied in Julian, the proprietor. It is fair to say that he and I reached an immediate understanding; that he would never understand me and I would never understand him. Paying each other such a sincere complement should have been enough.

Sous les Oliviers is a few kilometers east of L’Isle sur la Sorgue, recognised as the second largest centre for antique sales in France. Even by French standards this is a beautiful town and it probably reveals our innate snobbery that we wondered how it could ever have been twinned with Penicuik (Scots, The Hill of the Cuckoo). The link is that, thanks to their rivers, both were mill towns, Penicuik making paper and L’Ilse sur la Sorgue milling corn and making wool and silk products. The town centre lies within two branches of La Sorgue, (here, The Sorgue) one of the most remarkable rivers in France. Penicuik borders the North Esk, also a beautiful river in the way that the deep-cut rivers of the Lothians tend to be. There is a difference though. The Sorgue, while never in-your-face, is the body and soul of its town, while the North Esk is hidden away.

For all those who find Schubert’s music indispensable, L’Isle sur la Sorgue is Schöne Müllerin territory. It asks a question and the answer it gives might well have been provided by Blake:-

 underneath each grief and pine runs a joy like silken twine.

The all-pervading beauty of the river, its mill-wheels and fronds of water plants combed by the current, is feminine, although the colour is green as in Die Liebe Farbe, not blue as in The Miller’s Flowers and the tempo does not match any of the songs. Where Schubert’s settings are fast, they are also urgent ( Ungeduld,  Die Bose Farbe, Eifersucht und Stolz ) but where they are slow, (Der Neugierige , Der Müller und der Bach) they are dreamlike. Here the tempo of the water is fast, but less than swift (the first part of Wohin comes closest to it) and the sound is everywhere, but never intrusive; in fact it is hard to remember if it even existed.

As in Penicuik, the mills have gone, but unlike Penicuik, the water wheels are still there and, in many cases, still turning. Close to the centre of the Isle is the impressive Roue de Penicuik.

The geography of the Sorgue is quite unusual. The visible source at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse is claimed to be the 6th largest spring in the world (average flow rate 18 cubic metres per sec.).  For the fanciful, Browning’s Pied Piper may come to mind with the line:-

A wondrous cavern opened wide.

and echoes of the Piper and his antagonist, the Mayor, linger on.

The island of L’Isle sur la Sorgue begins where the waters divide into two main branches (whether entirely natural or not is unclear) and ends where these branches rejoin, but further on it divides into many more branches, so much so that on the map it looks like a normal river in reverse. Within the town the river beds are remarkably uniform in depth and the flow rapid enough, but rarely turbulent. A musical term ‘fast enough’, if one exists, would describe the effect),

The Isle is entered across numerous attractive bridges. On the downstream side of a bridge on the east branch, a large stone sculpture is clearly visible in the water at a depth of about half a metre and quite unmistakably modelled on a human ear. To the obsessive eye it lies at an awkward angle to the bridge, suggesting either that its positioning was rather careless, or that was unsettled by the current when the river was in spate.

Strangely this object does not call out to be recognised and most would pass without noticing it. Despite that, it is easy and rewarding to photograph and its existence is undeniable, although Julian was not convinced. Not only did he claim not to know of the ear, he seemed not to want to know; it was almost as if this might be one of those family secrets ‘we don’t discuss’.  

On the other hand, the lady at the tourist office did acknowledge it. She believed that the ear had been carved by a Flemish sculptor and presented to the Mayor who, not knowing what to do with it, had it dumped in the river. From the apparent carelessness of its positioning, this might have been quite a hasty act and the wonder is that it landed pinna side up, raising the possibility that there might be another unrecognisably pinna side down. Apparently there should have been some documentation about the object, but unfortunately it seemed to be lost.

As these various facts came together and were reported back, Julian found the need to consider his position, which he did with little difficulty by assuring others of our company that  I was (and here it took a little time for him to find the word) borderline. Whether or not he was familiar with words from an English lesson on French pronunciation is uncertain:-  


- ne laissez pas le fou sortir.

It is not difficult, though perhaps misleading, to put two and two together (or, in this case, one and one ) and conclude that a Flemish Sculptor and a single ear point in one direction only, to van Gogh, emphasising the question, which ear did he actually lose as there is no doubt that the one in the water is a right ear, but Van Gogh’s self-portrait showing the bandaged right ear is believed to be a mirror image. This fact, obvious to a painter, might not have been obvious to a sculptor. One mystery does remain though. In a town ‘noted for’ antiques, many of which were a little, to use an verbal antique, ‘corny’, was not the ear itself the most important antique of them all, and, if it were, why were there no models of it in any of the media abundant on shops and stalls? One might conclude that the ear is an example of performance art, the performance being that it is an invaluable artefact hidden in plain sight. Or was it performance art in which the sculptor celebrated van Gogh’s own most important piece of performance art in cutting off the ear in the first place, or was Julian right after all? Whether or not he was, there is poetry here and not because there is a story, but because of the way the participants chose to tell it. On the bridge above the river is a plaque, and on it a poem that tells something about the ear, but what that something is we do not know because we did not see the poem and subsequent attempts to find out, via the Penicuik / L’Isle sur la Sorgue twinning association have not yet borne fruit. On the other hand writing has been done and the results may pass for poetry, or else, as Julian would probably say

Que se passe-t-il

Un cas limite

Qui est l'homme qui vient ici,

et, bien que sa femme préfère des jolies choses,

les stands du marché et les gens charmants qui vendent des bijoux,

prétend qu'il a vu

tout seul devant le pont

et sous les vagues si claires

une grande oreille

fabriquée en pierre ?

Seulement le type, je crois,

qui marche toujours sans but

pres de la frontière et dit :

quand les muets ont parlé

les sourdes ont entendu.


How came we to

La Roue de Penicuik,

a waterwheel

a spot of joy,

turning when those distant paper-making mills are still?

So say that word again.

It’s Jumelé



not Joyeux


Is there something that you need to say

gushing from the hill

in measured haste

the spate of your delight


you come from night, you cannot know

how long your day will be

your flow

yerging on turbulence

disturbs; those layers and layers of deep

merge and emerge.

They twist and weave.

Am feierabend

In this cavern of the mind

The king looks on

But will the daughter dance for you

The waterwheels of Isle sur la Sorgue are powered by the horizontal flow of the fast stream. Others, powered by vertical flow, are regulated by flow from a millpond which has been made by a dam or weir across the stream. We do not know which type applies for the Schone Mullerin, but poetically Pause represents the calm centre where the pent up emotional power is about to be released. As is the case with the Pied Piper, the only other named character in this story is the Mayor.

Jealousy and Pride

Oh Mr Mayor,

a man was bringing something in for you.

From his strange attire I though that he must live

far away from here

Put it over there, I said

and gave him fifty sous.

His face turned pale.

He said

you know what you can do

with that.

and I replied, the Mayor

is out for lunch, he will be back.

I doubt that’s free, he said,

his eyes betraying sinister intent,

as though he knew

for certain

something I did not

of our accounts.

The Mayor was blue,

and gave that look important people do

to undermine such facts as might be coming out.

We can always send it back.

I though of that, but

giving it a shove with my right foot I found

it would not move.

Besides, there is no forwarding address.

Its quite a mess. The Mayor perspired;

beads of sweat appearing on his brow.

We need to find a way

to keep this under wraps in case -

in case, he said, we can’t afford to pay

(scratching his head)

the going rate for this, whatever it might be.

If we could find some place to hide it,

when the invoice comes,

who knows, this river, not

deep or wide enough, but it might do,

that is

until we know just what it is

and what it might be worth.

It is impossible in poems concerning large-scale sculptures not to echo Shelley’s masterwork Ozymandias even if only in a single word.


An ear, you say,

a vast right ear in stone?

Yes, that’s it,

that Is exactly it!

A vast and headless ear beyond the bridge,

half a metre down and fringed with weed.

That was in what you called

a limpid stream? It’s not a term we use. Also

I think you said, coins were scattered round.


I would say, quite a lot, some old, some new.

That is unfortunate,

it complicates the case, but,

on the other hand, it could well help us build a time line,

tracing back events that lead to this.

It takes hard graft you know.

If that is all, I think we’re done,

though should we need your help again

we’ll be in touch, sign this, the dotted line,


wait a minute, something we’ve missed out!

Where was all this? The place.

You failed to mention that!

Because -


you were unsure?

Not that,

because the name was long and French and hard to spell


by a piece of luck

I have this here,

I wrote it down somewhere

Yes, here.


Twinned with Penicuik


           Twinned with Penicuik

That should help us narrow down the search.

Well, thanks for dropping in.

Of course, we know why you delayed so long.

Some folk never come.

Afraid to implicate themselves, incriminate,

It’s understandable.

And so,

are you quite sure there’s nothing more?

making a clean breast. It helps all round.

Should anything come back -

we’re here all day.

With green weed fronds

An ear, you think,

a headless ear of stone

still and lying at an unplanned angle

just beyond the bridge

Yes, where the rippling currents steer green fronds of weed.

How came it there?

It’s hard to say

Some think the sculptor

gave it to the Mayor.

That’s fair enough,

a kind of homage,

soothing everlasting pain in the cool stream.

But, and this corrects those doubts you still may have,

look at the water’s clear

and moving face.

what you see is not

(a mirror) what you get,is not reflection of an anguished artist’s face, and here’s

another thing, you know it when

a true heart dies of love

and how

what now is bloodless

once was red.


Dried flowers

Yes, and there were the three of them.

bringing the good news.

Two fell before their time

The river wittered on,

One made it through

He said,

(though no one wished to hear)

we are standing still

and time goes back

leaving behind it

nothing more

than some dried flowers,

some jaunty tunes

That was so hard to take.

we had to get to grips it,

to understand how this named thief

was here in broad daylight

with sleight of hand.

The purse has gone

but what’s become

of all the gold?

he said,

winking one eye

to show he knew.


The mill wheel turns, but no blind eye looks up.

Nothing has changed,

and nothing stays the same?

Oh, but it does, you say.

this ear does not hear the stream

as every ripple

wears away the stone

the passing sleepers waken one by one

walk by

then sleep again.

What does it mean, you say;

It just means this,

that something has been done


lifted itself up

and now exists

and to be sure,

the eye that saw the sun for us will never close;

the one

who made the song

sings on.