Thoughts of France

‘In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.’ And an older man’s fancy turns to thoughts of France, which, in my case, is saying the same thing. So this week, in which for the first time I have a novel published in France (Trading Futures, under the title Moi, Ma Vie et les Autres), seems the right moment to say something about my long love affair with France.  

‘Every man has two countries – his own and France,’ as the playwright Henri de Bornier first wrote (in French). By the time I first read those words, I already accepted them as true.

My parents were early motoring tourists and knew France well by the time I was taken for my initiation in 1959. Autoroutes were unknown. Many of the major roads, especially in northern France, were still cobbled. But my parents avoided the major roads and, on that and other journeys, we made our way southwards on byways and country lanes, never going the same way twice, never coming back the same way. And in those years, so close to 1945, I realise now, in every village in northern France there would be an automatic wave for a British car.

We were not rich and did not stay in grand hotels. Armed only with that infallible arbiter, the Michelin Guide, we would visit a never-ending series of dilapidated hotels. The walls were flaking, the floors hard, the loos – when one could find them down the unlit corridors – defied description, but the beds were warm, the food unsurpassed and the romance beyond description.

From those early acorns of experience a great tree of my life has grown. Sometimes I have yielded to the itch to see more of the world: America, the Far East, or other parts of Europe. But I always come back to France. There has not been a single year since 1972 when I have not visited the country at least once. Most of those visits have mimicked the early wanderings with my parents. There is almost no part of France that I do not know passably well, that I haven’t travelled down sleepy by-roads, at whose small hotels I have not fed, wined and rested.

At different times I have owned, or part-owned, three houses in France. The first was in the small hill village of Montclus, in that indeterminate hinterland where the aromas of le vrai sud meet the foothills of the Cévennes. That went, subsumed like everything else in the voracious appetite of a small business. In due course, I found a new retreat, set in the soft hills of the Lot-et-Garonne, between the plain of Toulouse and the majesty of Cahors. That too fell victim to financial exigency.

Now there is a third house, set in a third département, the Tarn: in the heart of La France Profonde, within Cyril Connolly’s magic circle, identified in The Unquiet Grave as a charm against the Group Man. It is an unassuming farmhouse, built from stones collected from the rolling fields around it, nestled on a ridge with magnificent views (when the weather conditions are right) of the Pyrenees beyond. I shall be looking at the view this Thursday, publication day, possibly with a glass of something in my hand. Perhaps I will read again Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, my favourite novel.

At this point I could become sentimental about what has changed in nearly half a century of acquaintance. Yet, all things considered, it is remarkable how little has changed. France must remain the European country most like its original self. To Europe, and to the world, France has stood, and still stands, as a symbol of grace, style, humanity, and of most that has been best in western civilisation.

What remains for me, apart from the present, which is wonderful enough in itself, is a roll call of images and impressions. So let the memory fade backwards into the primeval store of all memory, junkyard of my mind, attic of all sights and sounds and smells. Warm the old stones of remembrance and let the aroma rise softly into the nostrils of the present.

I think of poplars at the side of summer roads. A dovecote in a field of lavender. The smell of rosemary in the hills of haut Provence. Empty Mediterranean beaches fringed with pine trees. Prising sea urchins from the rocks. The song of the cicadas and the frog chorus. Deserted roads corrugated by the roots of plane trees.

I remember spitting grape pips in the square at Perpignan. Saturday shopping at Uzès market. Quenelles de Brochet at Pont-en-Royans and Oeufs Durs Mayonnaise in Cagnes. The café at Monpazier: ‘Au Paradis des Jeuns’. The hotel at Mauzac-et-Grand-Castaing. The view from Domme.

There are fond memories of the camp fire at Sabonadière and the circus at Goudargues. The annual boules match in the square at Montclus on New Year’s Day between les rosbifs and les grenouilles. Twilight on the Dordogne. The arid summer beds of winter streams. The good black wine of Cahors.

I cannot forget the cobbled roads of Picardy. The graves of other wars. The memorial to the Resistance on the Vercors. Cheeses in the market at Bourg-en-Bresse, and now in Castres. Gitanes untipped. Le plâteau des Millevaches. Lunch in the square at Serviès.

And I remember tanks in the streets of Paris. Algérie Française. Sunday morning in the rue Mouffetarde. A Moveable Feast. Catching falling leaves in the Luxembourg Gardens. Christmas shopping in St Germain. Seats on the Métro reserved for les mutilés de guerre.

I think all of us have been mutilated by one war or another, bared to the bone by reality, growing and shedding new skins like the bark of the plane trees in those Provençal squares. And maybe someone will reserve for us a seat on the Métro, en route for Père Lachaise.

But not just yet, please.