Here We Go A-Bloomsburying

My dearest friend recently moved to Paris. To the heart of the Marais neighbourhood, no less, where, across a cobblestoned courtyard and up six flights of steep, winding stairs, he occupies a charming, light-filled flat, all honey-coloured wood floors and cream paintwork, with windows opening onto a view of the fabled grey-blue rooftops of Paris. It is the very epitome of Parisian bohemian chic.

So far (I hope), the only fly in my friend’s ointment is the empty space on his built-in shelves. Row after row, they climb up the wall of the living-room, all depressingly empty, save for a quartet of diaries and travel journals, which huddle together in a corner, looking lost. « I need to buy books ! », my friend declared the day he moved in, surveying his empty shelves with distaste. Then, a week later, turning to me : « Lend me some books ! »  he begged.

It is a mark of my affection for him that I agreed to this without demur, for I am not fond of lending my books. It is one thing to recommend books – I can make a dozen or more book recommendations in a single half hour, pulling titles off shelves to wave them excitedly under the nose of whoever I am speaking to – but lending them out is quite another matter. « May I take it home with me ? » X innocently asks, and the hand holding out the treasured volume falters (note how it invariably becomes a treasured volume the instant my ownership of it is threatened). I am certain the dismay I am feeling must be written all over my face. For the problem with lending books is that so few of them ever return. I could point the finger of accusation at several people of my acquaintance – but then I recall that I have been guilty of the same crime myself. As I write this, the bookshelf opposite me holds books lent to me more than three years ago by my landlord, my neighbour, and my sister-in-law. I haven’t got around to finishing them yet – and if truth be told, I have grown used to seeing them there ; I would be sad to see them go.

This is why, when my friend reiterates his request, I surreptitiously check to make sure my name is written on the flyleaf of the books I hand over. « Bring them back ! » I order. The gaps on my shelves are already causing me separation anxiety.

However, the prospect of discussing the books after he has read them is cheering. The other night, over dinner, we were talking about – well, I have forgotten what we were talking about at the beginning, but I do remember asking if he’d ever read any Rosamond Lehmann and getting up to fetch The Ballad and the Source (I have recently purchased a rare first edition and can afford to lend him my Virago paperback – though, as to that, I happen to like the painting on the front cover of the Virago very much and would be loth to lose it. I may not be able to lend it after all !).

« What was the name of the group you said Rosamond Lehmann belonged to ? » Ah… a Bloomsbury novice ! I settled more comfortably on my chair and launched into explanations. In passing, I thank Providence for Virginia Woolf’s celebrity, which facilitates introductions. Twenty very happy minutes ensued, during which I attempted to be vivid, clear, and concise – and very probably failed at all three. The convoluted lives, loves and careers of the Stephen sisters and their friends are not exactly easy to sum up. The thing is, one doesn’t even wish to sum up. The subject is inexhaustibly fascinating. New topics spring to mind before the first are properly finished with. I keep jumping up to fetch books – before long I have forgotten the meal and am crouching on the floor, surrounded by books I have moved off the shelf to reach the row of Bloomsbury literature I collected during my research. « I never realized John Maynard Keynes was part of the Bloomsbury Group ! » my friend says, looking over a biography of Lydia Lopokhova. He is impressed.

I wax lyrical about the Hogarth Press (what could be more delightful than running a printing press out of a London basement ?!), expound on the Omega Workshops and produce photographs of hand-painted vases, tiles, and doors. I recall the emotion I felt when sitting in the King’s College archives, sifting through a box of Rosamond Lehmann’s correspondence, and reading letters from Carrington, decorated with sketches of cats, flowers, or Lytton Strachey reading by the fire. I try to convey some of the magic of the houses linked to the Bloomsburies, houses with names as marvellous as their strange and colourful interiors : Monk’s House, Tidmarsh Mill, Ham Spray, Charleston…Tea parties and picnics on the lawn ; easels in the living-room ; books and manuscripts in the bedrooms ; fires roaring in the chimneys and voices raised in endless debate ; plays performed in the garden on summer evenings ; and then a shot ringing out through an empty, lonely house ; and ripples eddying out from the middle of a river, where a pocketful of pebbles has accomplished its sad office… There is a dark side to Bloomsbury too.

Soon, instead of a mighty tree trunk growing straight and true, and supporting three or four majestic limbs, my explanation has grown somewhat twisted and gnarled, with branches and off-shoots criss-crossing and intertwining in every direction. Oh well. I have enjoyed myself enormously, and my friend looks interested.

That night, I took Hugh Lee’s A Cézanne in the Hedge to bed with me and fell asleep trying to decide which titles to include on a Bloomsbury-themed reading list for the uninitiated. I think I may have found a way to fill my friend’s shelves !


© Florence Berlioz 2016


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First Time Blurbs and Pitches

Ever since I finished my novel, a few weeks ago, I have been mulling over what I should do next. The task of finding an agent willing to represent me (never mind actually landing a book deal!) is rather daunting. There are times when my book seems very puny and vulnerable. Luckily, the dream of fame and glory is there to spur one on! In the meantime, some of the readers of this blog have kindly expressed an interest in my novel and suggested I post a book blurb.

Possibly one of the hardest things for a writer to do is talk about his own work. In the past, whenever people have asked about my book, I have always found it extremely difficult to gauge the exact level of their interest and respond accordingly: are they just being polite? or do they really want all the gory details? And then, how do you sum up thousands of words, and years of work, in a few pithy sentences? Sometimes you end up rambling in a rather embarrassing fashion. It’s a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Eventually – hopefully – you learn to do a little better.

Here then, without further ado, is my first attempt at pitching my novel. I would love to know what you think!


Twenty-three-year-old Lucy Vent has never thought her life was perfect – far from it – but she did at least think she had everything strictly under control. Suddenly, however, her life seems to be unravelling : her father is dead, her beloved brother Robin is refusing to talk to her, she’s suffering from a bad case of writer’s block and, to cap it all, she’s getting unsolicited advice from a woman who claims to be the ghost of the eighteenth-century Gothic writer, Ann Radcliffe. Following her mother’s advice for the first time since she can remember, Lucy decides to take a break and spend the summer in Rome.

There, she meets Luke, an attractive, scholarly Anglo-Italian with a penchant for Shakespeare and playing the saxophone, who takes it upon himself to show her about the city and introduce her to a colourful cast of characters – including his large, and very eccentric, family. Over the summer, their friendship blossoms into something more.

But Lucy needs to lay her ghosts to rest before she can think of the future. Will the combined efforts of Luke and Mrs Radcliffe suffice to show her where she went wrong and set her on the right path towards a new, and more fulfilling, life ?


© Florence Berlioz 2015

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V For Victory!!

Relevant: the first 0:44 seconds. (The rest is just for fun!)

last page end of book

© Florence Berlioz 2015

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A Postcard From Melk

There is something so delightfully romantic about getting postcards from abroad! Yesterday I received one of Melk Abbey, in Austria, from an American friend who spent the month of March touring Europe. Austria is down on my list of places I want to visit before I am old: this is partly due to growing up with “The Sound of Music”, and even more so to the charm of Eva Ibbotson’s Austrian novels (Magic Flutes is a particular favourite).

As I admired my postcard, something about it rang a bell. Somehow the façade of the abbey seemed familiar. And then I realized I’d read a description of it several months ago, in Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts. When Leigh-Fermor was eighteen, he decided to walk across Europe, all the way to Constantinople. Sometime in mid-January 1934, while on his way to Vienna, he stopped at Melk. The pages in which he describes his memories of the place are truly marvellous – armchair travelling at its best.


High on a limestone bluff, beneath two baroque towers and a taller central dome, tiers of uncountable windows streamed away into the sky. It was Melk at last, a long conventual palace cruising above the roofs and the trees, a quinquereme among abbeys.

No janitor was about. A young Benedictine, finding me loitering in the gatehouse, took me in tow, and as we crossed the first great courtyard, I knew I was in luck. He spoke beautiful French; he was learned and amusing and the ideal cicerone for all that lay ahead.

Afterwards, it was in confused musical terms that the stages of our progress strung themselves together in my memory. This is how they resound there still. Overtures and preludes followed each other as courtyard opened on courtyard. Ascending staircases unfolded as vaingloriously as pavanes. Cloisters developed with the complexity of double, triple and quadruple fugues. The suites of state apartments concatenated with the variety, the mood and the décor of symphonic movements. Among the receding infinity of gold bindings in the library, the polished reflections, the galleries and the terrestrial and celestial globes gleaming in the radiance of their flared embrasures, music, again, seemed to intervene. A magnificent and measured polyphony crept in one’s ears. It was accompanied by woodwind at first, then, at shortening intervals, by violins and violas and ‘cellos and then double basses while a sudden scroll-work of flutes unfurled in mid-air; to be joined at last by a muted fanfare from the ceiling, until everything vibrated with a controlled and pervading splendour. Beyond it, in the church, a dome crowned the void. Light spread in the painted hollows and joined the indirect glow from the ovals and the lunettes and the windows of the rotunda. Galleries and scalloped baldachinos and tiered cornices rose to meet it; and the soft light, falling on the fluted pilasters and circles of gold spokes, and on the obelisks wreathed with their sculpted clouds, suffused the honeycomb side-chapels and then united in a still and universal radiance. Music might just have fallen silent; unless it were about to begin. In the imagination, instruments assembled – unseen cymbals just ajat that would collide with a resonance no more strident than a whisper; drums an inch below their padded sticks with palms ready to muffle them; oboes slanting, their reeds mute for a moment more; brass and woodwind waiting; fingers stretched motionless across the wires of a harp and fifty invisible bows poised in the air above fifty invisible sets of strings.

For me the famous buildings were a peak in a mountain range of discovery which had begun at Bruchsal and continued long afterwards. Again and again during these weeks I was to find myself wandering through great concavities illuminated by reflections from the snow. Sunlight flared in lintels and broken pediments, and streamed in over snowy sills so close to the ceilings that they gave a last lift to the trompe l’oeil Ascensions and Transfigurations and Assumptions as they poured across them and quickened the white and cream wreaths of stucco holding them aloft: garlands doubly etherealized by the reverberated radiance of the snowflakes, and composed of all that reed and palm-leaf and tendril and scallop and conch and the spines of the murex can inspire.

In this high baroque style, halted at a point on the frontier of rococo where the extravagant magic of later decades is all implicit, how easily the same aesthetic mood glides from church to palace, from palace to ballroom, from ballroom to monastery and back into church again! Paradox reconciles all contradictions. Clouds drift, cherubim are on the wing, and swarms of putti, baptized in flight from the Greek Anthology, break loose over the tombs. They try on mitres and cardinals’ hats and stumble under the weight of curtains and crosiers while stone Apostles and Doctors of the Church, who are really encyclopaedists in fancy dress, gaze down indulgently. Female saints display the instruments of their martyrdom as light-heartedly as dice-boxes and fans. They are sovereigns’ favourites, landgravines dresssed as naiads; and the androgynous saint-impersonating courtiers who ogle the ornate ceilings so meltingly from their plinths might all be acting in a charade. Sacred and profane change clothes and penitents turn into dominoes with the ambiguity of a masked ball.

In the half-century following Melk, rococo flowers into miraculously imaginative and convincing stage scenery. A brilliant array of skills, which touches everything from the pillars of the colonnade to the twirl of a latch, links the most brittle and transient-seeming details to the most magnificent and enduring spoils of the the forects and quarries. A versatile genius sends volley after volley of fantastic afterthoughts through the great Vitruvian and Palladian structures. Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple, waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen there in curtains of articial icicles. Ideas go feathering up in mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of cumulus and cirrus. Light is distributed operatically and skies open in a new change of gravity that has lifted wingless saints and evangelists on jouneys of aspiration towards three-dimensional sunbursts and left them levitated there, floating among cornices and spandrels and acanthus leaves and architectural ribands crinkled still with pleats from lying long folded in bandboxes. Scripture pastorals are painted on the walls of the stately interiors. Temples and cylindrical shrines invade the landscape of the Bible. Chinese pagodas, African palms, Nile pyramids and the a Mexican volcano and the conifers and wigwams of Red Indians spring up in Arcady. Walls of mirror reflect these scenes. They bristle with sconces, sinuous gold and silver boundaries of twining branches and the heaped-up symbols of harvest and hunting and warfare mask the joins and the great sheets of glass answer each other across wide floors and reciprocate their reflections to infinity. The faded quicksilver, diffusing a submarine dusk, momentarily touches the invetion and the delight of this looking-glass world with a hint of unplanned sadness.

But one is always looking up where those buoyant scenes in grisaille or pastel polychrome, unfolding elliptically in asymmetric but balancing girdles of snowy cornice, enclose room after room with their resplendent lids. Scriptural throngs tread the air among the banks of vapour and the toppling perspectives of the balustrades. Allegories of the seasons and chinoiserie eclogues  are on the move. Aurora chases the Queen of the Night across the sky and Watteau-esque trios, tuning their lutes and their violins, drift by on clouds among ruins and obelisks and loosened sheaves. A sun declining on a lagoon in Venice touches the rims of those clouds and veils the singing faces and the plucked strings in a tenuous melancholy; irony and pity float in the atmosphere and across the spectator’s mind, for there is little time left and a closing note sounds in all these rococo festivals.

Ceremonious and jocund, Melk is high noon. Meridian glory surrounded us as a clock in the town struck twelve. The midday light showered on the woods and a yellow loop ofthe Danube and a water-meadow full of skaters, all foreshortened as they wheeled and skimmed beneath the flashing line of windows. We were standing at the centre of a wide floor and peering – under a last ceiling-episode of pillars and flung cloud where the figures rotated beneath a still loftier dayspring of revelation – at a scene like a ballroom gallop getting out of hand. Draperies whirled spiralling up biblical shanks and resilient pink insteps trod the sky. We might have been gazing up through a glass dance-floor and my companion, touching me on the elbow, led me away a couple of paces and the scene reeled for a second with the insecurity of Jericho, as trompe l’oeil ceilings will when a shift of focus inflicts the beholder with a fleeting spasm of vertigo. He laughed, and said: “On se sent un peu gris, vous ne trouvez pas?”

A bit tipsy… It was quite true. Wa had been talking about the rococo interplay of spiritual and temporal, and for a few instants, at these last words, my companion was transformed as well: habit, scapular, cowl and tonsure had all vanished and a powdered queue uncoiled down his brocaded back from a bow of watered silk. He was a Mozartian courtier. His light-hearted voice continued its discourse as he stood with his left hand poised on his sword knot. With explanatory sweeps of a clouded cane in his right, he unravelled the stratagems of the ceiling-painter; and when, to balance the backward tilt of his torso, he advanced a leg in a Piranesi stance, I could all but hear a red heel tap on the chessboard floor.

One of the Abbey’s bells began tolling on a more insistent note and, with an apology from my mentor, who was safely back in his native century, we hastened our step. In a few minutes I was several fields away, high above the Danube with the dome and the cupolas already dropping out of sight below a clump of trees. Twin gold crosses followed them and the cross on the dome last of all. Nothing remained in those hills to give the Abbey’s presence away. The vanished pinnacles might have been the pigeon-loft of a farm.

Un peu gris. It was too mild a term.

From Patrick Leigh-Fermor, A Time Of Gifts, Chapter 6 (1977).

© Florence Berlioz 2015

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Letters from Far and Near

It is my considered opinion that nature intended man to hibernate throughout the months of January and February, only awakening around the ides of March, when spring sunshine sets the raindrops sparkling and everything is young and fresh and green (did you know that in the oldest Roman calendar, the new year only began in March? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the Romans had everything right). To be forced to rise in the dark and toil one’s way to work in the bitter cold of a winter morning is one of life’s many injustices. It seems perfectly obvious to me that we ought instead to be snuggling down beneath the covers for as long as possible, and then spending the short hours of daylight and the long lamplit evenings curled up on the sofa drinking tea, enjoying the last of the season’s mince pies, and either reading or watching movies.

That being impossible (or at any rate, incompatible with the tiresome business of earning a salary), one must seek consolation elsewhere.

But what, you may well ask, is there to do at this time of year? The Christmas festivities are far behind us, and Easter still too far ahead. February stretches before us, dull and dreary. Interminable, despite its mere 28 days. To be sure, there is Valentine’s Day, with all its attendant panoply of hearts and roses, chocolates and kitsch cards, expensive restaurants and even more expensive lingerie purchases. Fine. That still only takes care of one out of the twenty-eight days.

Do not despair! For those who are so inclined, there is a remedy. For today marks the beginning of International Correspondence Writing Month (also known – quelle horreur! – as InCoWriMo).

And what, pray, is that? That, good people, is a noble endeavour, in these dark and degenerate times, where the email reigns supreme, to revive the all but lost art of letter-writing. It is a challenge. It is the missing ingredient that will add zest to your daily lives. It is the star to every wandering bark. It is, in short, a pledge to write a letter everyday throughout the month of February. To make it more interesting, you even receive letters in return! A full and detailed explanation is available on the InCoWriMo website, which is worth a visit if only for the whimsical picture of an oversized snail, laden with brown-paper packages and old-fashioned mail bags, which heads the home page.

Basic InCoWriMo Toolbox:

  • a notepad
  • envelopes
  • a pen
  • 28 stamps

What could be simpler? For those who want to liven it up a bit, now is the time to use all those pretty notecards, stickers, collectible stamps, and coloured inks you’ve been hoarding for so long! And for those who would like to add some more stationery to their desk drawers, here are a few websites for inspiration…

Ink Drops: Carla and Annastasia send you a hand-written note with any purchase you make on their website. My brother got me their Keep in Touch box for my birthday, and it was full of pretty surprises!

Cressida Bell: Cressida is the grand-daughter of Bloomsbury painter Vanessa Bell, and an artist in her own right. Her selection of cards is truly beautiful!

Rifle Paper Co.: This famous American stationery company has so many wonderful things for sale that the mind simply boggles. I think I can safely say I want every single item on the website.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to finish.

"Vélin de France" paper by G. Lalo, Paris; goose quill with steel nib; "Rouille d'ancre" ink by J. Herbin.

“Vélin de France” paper by G. Lalo, Paris; goose quill with steel nib; “Rouille d’ancre” ink by J. Herbin.

© Florence Berlioz 2015.

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Literary Notecards

It has been many moons since I last posted anything here. It’s not so much that I don’t want to, as that I don’t seem able to, somehow. Which doesn’t mean that I haven’t been reading. I have a pile of books to review! But whenever I consider sitting down to work on one, I feel a treacherous apathy creep over me, which has been affecting all my writing. I have gradually taken up composing letters and journal entries again, and I have managed to write a few more pages of my novel, but I haven’t got around to blog posts yet.

The workshop in session...

The workshop in session…

In the meantime, I have been dabbling in arts and crafts. Back in June, I bought some lovely new stationery, including a set of mint green-coloured blank notecards and matching envelopes. I had a lot of fun customising these with stickers, rubber stamps, decorative hole-punchers, and a selection of bookish quotes, ranging from Shakespeare to Walt Whitman, to Elizabeth von Arnim.

The Japanese rice paper in all its glory.

The Japanese rice paper in all its glory.

In fact, I enjoyed myself so much that I have decided to renew the experience every season. This September I chose lavender-blue notecards with magenta envelopes. The quotes I finally settled upon this time were by Sylvia Plath, Daphne du Maurier, or Maurice Sendak. A timely birthday present from my sister-in-law allowed me to play around with Japanese rice paper in pretty patterns.

The best part – but also the greatest challenge – is finding suitable quotes. I’m a bit tired of coming across yet another “It is a truth universally acknowledged” card in the bookshops; however much I love Pride and Prejudice, it strikes me that the immense choice of literary works out there should allow for a little variety.

Fun with frogs.

Fun with frogs.

So here’s a little game I’d like to play with you, if you’re willing: post your favourite quote in the comment box below and, when I do my next batch of cards in December/January, I’ll use a few and post pictures of the results on this blog.

Oh, and there’s a also a quick survey I concocted, just for fun!

“And now”, cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

© Florence Berlioz 2014

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Of Shoes, and Ships, and Sealing Wax, Of Cabbages, and Kings

I am supposed to be saving up for my trip to Italy this July. Ha ha, isn’t that a joke!

There I was yesterday, minding my own business, reading Lytton Strachey’s Biographical Essays and finishing up my lunch, when I was assailed by an ungovernable urge to splash out on luxury stationery (see, that’s what comes of writing letters early in the day). Conscience tussled briefly with desire, and lost: for “The only way to get rid of temptation”, wrote Oscar Wilde, “is to yield to it.” Well, if Oscar said it, then it must be true, so off I trotted to Paris, where I just happened to know of a wonderful stationer’s shop – a veritable Aladdin’s cave! – in the sixth arrondissement.

Get off the metro at “Odéon” and you find yourself plunged in Revolutionary Paris. The huge bronze statue of Danton, which was erected on the site of the house where the lawyer and Revolutionary politician used to live, is a popular meeting place for students, who mill about and perch on the plinth, smoking and talking loudly. Just down the road is one of the oldest café-restaurants in Paris, the Procope, where Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists used to argue over coffee, and later on, Danton, Marat, and Robespierre. And across the street yawns a tall archway, leading down one of the few remaining pre-Haussmann – pre-Revolutionary! – covered passages in Paris: the Cour du Commerce St André.

Narrow, cobblestoned, and cambered, this passage is one of the most difficult Parisian streets to negotiate in heels. Actually, it’s difficult to walk down, period. But it is so picturesque that it is well worth the risk of spraining an ankle. If you walk past the cafés, the chocolate factories, and the back entrance of the Procope (where Robespierre curls his lip at you from his portrait in the window), you reach a pair of black wrought-iron grilles, which used to close off the street at night from nocturnal wanderers of ill-repute or ill-intent (a necessary precaution, when you think of what happened to Marat). Just beyond those gates is the façade of Grim’Art, an old-fashioned stationer’s shop held by a quiet Italian gentleman and (I presume) his wife.

façade Grim'Art

vitrine Grim'ArtI make it a rule not to come too often to this part of Paris. The temptation to step into Grim’Art is simply too great, else. It’s not as if my banker liked me (I have this slight problem with buying books). There’s no need to give him excuses to call me up and yell at me.

The smell of leather is the first thing you notice when you push open the door and step inside. At the far end of the shop, the floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with tooled Florentine leather-bound journals of all shapes and sizes. All around the other walls, notebooks, letter paper sets, vintage postcards, luxury wrapping paper, and ornate brass bookmarks are attractively displayed. Near the till lies the greatest danger: a selection of goose quills, coloured inks, and sticks of sealing wax that has had me reaching for my purse many a time before! And Jean Herbin is the biggest culprit…

encres et stylosJean Herbin was an enterprising seventeenth-century sailor who, in 1670, founded a company that manufactured ink and sealing wax, thanks to formulas he brought back from his trips to India. Such was Herbin’s success that he counted the Sun King himself among his customers. Later on, the company was able to add Victor Hugo and Coco Chanel to its list of illustrious clients. As for me, I bought cartridges for my fountain pen in three different colours (“Poussière de Lune”, “Lierre Sauvage”, and “Larmes de Cassis” – “Moondust”, “Wild Ivy”, and “Blackcurrant Tears” respectively) as well as a bottle of “Rouille d’Ancre” (meaning “Anchor Rust”), which, I confess, I chose as much for the name as for the colour. The Victorian naturalist within me also fell prey to a couple of pretty lepidoptera-themed postcards.encre et papiers

It could all have ended there. But it was such a beautiful afternoon that I decided to walk down the Boulevard St Germain – and that’s where I came across a large art supplies store that sealed my fate. A bottle of ink, I reasoned, necessitated a pen of some sort, or it was useless. But all my quills and wooden pen-holders were seven hundred kilometres away, in the attic of my parents’ house. Therefore (kindly admire my infallible logic) I was perfectly justified in buying new ones. Half an hour later, I emerged with a scarlet pen-holder, a glass vial containing two new steel nibs, a bottle of turquoise ink, a mint green card and envelope set, and – for a touch of whimsy – a small green frog-shaped paper puncher. Ahem.

encre Sennelier

Well, there was no need to hang around for cabbages and shoes. I went home, took Doggy for a walk before dinner, and smiled a smile of pure contentment when I heard the fluting of the frogs from a nearby pond.

© Florence Berlioz 2014

Posted in Fabulous Bookshops, Quills | Tagged , , , , , , , | 19 Comments