Monday, 26 December 2011

Peacocks at Maguelone

Happy Christmas to you all! I spent my afternoon yesterday running along a beach next to the deserted cathédrale de Maguelone. Well, some running and some sitting down and resting. The sky was pale blue, the sea emerald green and generally it was a bit like those movies where the hero or heroine has died but doesn't yet realise it and is busy wading through a field of poppies to a gate at the other side over which can be seen an expanse of golden light...

When I say the cathedral is deserted I mean it was once deserted because of viking raids. The diocese (along with the wealth it had presumably accumulated) was moved to Montpellier, which being inland gave the vikings a bit of a chance to reconsider just how much they wanted to loot and pillage. You can imagine whining teenage vikings getting back in the boat when faced with a long march; "You said it would be right there on the beach! I want to go to Marseille instead..."

St. Peter and St. Paul face each other on the cathedral entrance, looking not unlike vikings themselves.

I'm not sure what kind of stone everything is made out of here, but it is very soothing. The whole cathedral has a very calm and elevated vibe, and this time it seemed joyful and youthful as well.

There are masses of different carvings on the interior walls, some completely indistinct with time, but you can still see traces of a design on a lot of them; I'm pretty sure this is a lion, for instance.

The shrine itself is very simple; a beautiful golden cross on a worn stone altar. The first time I visited I was surprised to see peacock feathers in front of the altar, after all, it is not what one has come to expect in England, but the reason for this was obvious once we'd climbed to the top of the cathedral and looked out into the surrounding woodland. I saw five peacocks and figured there were probably more lurking nearby. They were reticent though, for peacocks; they didn't spontaneously strike their most attractive pose or step into sudden shafts of sunlight to illuminate their plumage or anything like that.

Despite my best efforts, the photos I took with my zoom on that day are a bit like those charmless paparazzi shots you get of celebrities coming out of a gym. The peacocks are obviously trying to get on with their lives, buy their groceries or whatever, keeping their heads down and doing their best to ignore the camera. When I tried to get into the peacock enclosure for some close-ups I found it was barred to the public, so I had to admit defeat...

Until today! As I was running along the beach I came across a large iron gate with fencing all around it and a large sign with the word "interdit" on it. Now, I have encountered that word before, but I put aside the knowledge and reasoned that somebody trying to take a short cut back to the cathedral might not realise that the fence was meant to keep them out. After all, what could be more natural than to clamber down the rocks at one side of the fence, hanging perilously over the water to swing oneself around and then climb back up the other side. Obviously guests were intended to enter this way! So that's what I did, and I was rewarded for my crime by not being caught and getting right up close to all the peacocks I could possibly want.

The first peacock I saw looked at me quizzically and then ignored me completely. It was as though I had stumbled into some kind of peacock social event and was being given not exactly the cold shoulder, but perhaps the lukewarm elbow.

This is Padmasini's photo. These two could easily be a couple of card-playing debutantes in a period drama, pausing, in the middle of an indiscreet confidence, to check out an intruder.

Most of the action was centred around a young male peacock who was hassling the young peahens, not very successfully, I have to say. The young females ran away into the thicket and I couldn't resist this backstage shot.

It took a few minutes of constant exclamations about the magnificence of his plumage before he deigned to notice my voice, and then another half a minute for him to totter around on his little legs to face me.

Tadaahhh! Hm. Once he had finished turning, the slightly bemused look in his eye told me he had registered the wrongness of my size, colour and species.

He didn't waste time trying to impress me but lowered his tail, rather apologetically I thought.

And then you could see the inspiration enter his peacock mind...

..."Is this thing somehow associated with food???!"

Magisterial distain from a white dowager peacock.

These two remind me of Miss Haversham in Great Expectations, but I can't really say why. Okay, I can; it's the coronets, the bridal attire and the slightly seedy look, as though they've been waiting several decades to get married and the lace has got frayed at the edges. It's even spookier because they are identical twins. Are there any identical jilted twins in literature? I'm sure there are, somewhere, and that someone will tell me.

Two more senior Miss Havershams; this photo looks like one of those Pre-Raphaelite pictures where the artist has patently used the same model for all six adoring nymphs, if you know what I mean. It seems to be the same peacock, only turned around a few degrees.

Here a family is  having their yearly photograph taken and everything is in limbo while the cameraman fiddles about with the camera.

Holding the pose for a perfect portrait.

Then the moment they all hear the chattering of noisy tourists who must have ignored the "interdit" notice too.

And off they go! They're surprisingly quick; a tiny bit reminiscent of a Tyranasaurus Rex running in a tutu, but only in the nicest possible way.

Tried to follow the peacocks to their secret hideaway, but they were too quick and I was left behind with a few stragglers...

...who were so well camouflaged that they soon faded back into the leafy world they came from.