Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Sixteen

We gave a fresh lick of paint to our bedroom walls before the first of the family arrived. Matthew, our younger son, had hardly recovered from the journey when he was persuaded by Philippe and the other young people to go to the large nightclub on the other side of Villeneuve. With lasers sweeping across the sky it is a focal point for the young at the weekend. Clément and Océane were left with their maternal grandmothers while their parents went off to dance the night away, Corinne’s brother gallantly acting as chauffeur. No stranger to London nightlife, Matthew was surprised, not at the high price of the drinks, but at the fact that they appeared to be sold by the bottle. Most of the young, dressed in their very best clothes, seemed to pool their money on arriving. There was no pouring of drinks at the bar. A fistful of crumpled notes were exchanged for a fistful of glasses, a bottle of whisky, gin or vodka. Véronique had been to watch Johnny Halliday who was apparently celebrating his fiftieth birthday with a nationwide tour, and she joined them afterwards. They all got home at 5 a.m. Matthew collapsed into bed but Phillippe, after coffee and cognac, went fishing with Jean-Michel. He seems to have inherited his father’s stamina.

A few days later we were down at the farm after supper and just about to leave when news of the arrival of hundreds of shooting stars that very night was announced on television.

‘Don’t go to bed,’ said the eager young announcer. ‘Switch off all the lights. Take a deckchair into the garden and wrap yourself in an eiderdown. Lie back and watch les étoiles filantes.’

The shooting stars were apparently the debris from a collision of two stars many years before. The night sky at Bel-Air is always magical and it seemed a pity to miss this, perhaps once in a lifetime, free spectacle. It was still warm but we took blankets and lay on the recliners by the pool. It was very dark, we were very tired and nothing much happened before midnight. Just as we were thinking of giving up, thin threads of brilliant light began to arc from every direction. It was amazing. We stopped saying ‘There’s another one,’ and just watched. There are no lights anywhere near us and, in the intense darkness, the effect was like some silent, awesome firework display. The climax was to be around 3 a.m. but by one o’clock Mike and I gave up. Matthew set his alarm, had an hour’s sleep and got up again to watch the grand finale, with the moon coming up to join the show.

In Monflanquin banners in blue and yellow were appearing as everyone prepared for the Fête Médiévale. Les Monflanquinois are very aware and very proud of their history. This is due in no small measure to M. George Odo, who is a passionate historian, and lives in the town. He writes and gives wonderful lectures which vividly recreate the life of this small Bastide town in the Middle Ages. Most of the activity for the Fête takes place in the market square, first measured out in 1252, after the land was formally ceded to one Alphonse de Poitiers, the king’s brother. The market is still held to this day on a Thursday, as it was then decreed. The inspiration for the layout of these Bastides went back to antiquity – to the simplest plan of a Roman city. The word ‘bastide’ came from the Occitan, ‘bastida’ – a group of buildings, or even a construction site. Their most important feature was the market place. Neither the church nor the dwelling of a nobleman was allowed to dominate the town. Access had to be controlled so that outsiders would be forced to pay dues, for the object was to collect taxes from both those inside and outside. Alphonse de Poitiers was eventually responsible for the founding of fifty-seven new towns, or Bastides, in all.

These new towns were part of a general growth of population and trade in thirteenth century Europe, but in France, they were also the solution to a particular problem. Many areas in the south had been ravaged in the brutal extermination of the Cathars, those followers of a heretical religion which had come across from Eastern Europe. At a time when the established church was very corrupt, these new priests, or parfaits, as they were called, had a strong appeal for simple people. The war against them, backed by the threatened church, had been merciless. Now it was necessary to regroup all those peoples dispersed in the fighting. Also in the constant war against the English, who ruled over Aquitaine, the French crown had always been conscious of the need to gain more power in the southwest. To this end, Alphonse de Poitiers had been married to the daughter of the Comte de Toulouse at the age of nine and in 1249 he inherited his lands. As soon as he returned from a crusade he started his great building project, Monflanquin being given its charter in 1256.

Alphonse, apparently always in debt, took his revenue three times a year. In 1268, 140 livres were raised in Monflanquin. Three years later the sum had risen to 200 livres and the new town was flourishing, but Alphonse himself died that same year.

Eighteen years later Monflanquin was part of the English kingdom and Edward I decided to fortify the town. He finished building the arcades which still surround the square and was responsible for the construction of four great gateways and ramparts with eleven towers which, unfortunately, would be pulled down much later on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu. In spite of Edward’s strong defences, the town was soon retaken by the French. However, within ten years it was again English and much of the revenue now came in very useful to pay for the war against Scotland.

In all these changes the local people did not take sides. As far as the Monflanquinois were concerned, the northern French and English were equally foreign for neither spoke the Langue d’Oc, the language of the south. But amongst the townspeople, with their carefully drawn-up charters of rights and responsibilities, there was a new spirit abroad. A sense of civic pride and independence was born, which has never quite disappeared. Until 1950 many of the families in Monflanquin were descended directly from those who had lived there since the Middle Ages. The Fête Médiévale, although primarily a device to promote tourism, is planned with a historian’s help and has its roots very firmly in the past.

It gets more ambitious every year. On the Sunday morning the square is full of craftsmen demonstrating ancient crafts. They make barrels, weave baskets and splice ropes while jugglers, fire-eaters and acrobats enthrall the children. Dmitri, staff in hand, walks slowly round with his three brown bears. He is part of a group of travelling musicians from Romania. Although both my conscience and my reason tell me that I should disapprove of the bears, I still find myself completely fascinated by them. Attached to his wide leather belt they lumber along at his side, licking his arms and stopping to munch the odd apple. They are huge, with fearsome claws. They lift their great heads and look at the humans.

One of the narrow alleys which run between the backs of the houses is strewn with straw, and children ride on a donkey between the perambulating chicken. In the evening there will be musicians. Various folkloric groups in costume sing and play on old instruments.

We came late one evening. I thought at first that the musicians really needed a microphone to carry the sound over the still chattering crowd, in shorts and T-shirts, who sat idly watching them, their cameras slung over their shoulders. But as it got darker and modern ears slowly adjusted, the square gradually fell silent. It was strange how hypnotic the monotonous music became. The beat of the drum and the squeak of the primitive cornet worked their magic. The singers were harsh and strident. They sang of battles, of unrequited love, and of treachery. There was a wonderful ballad about a rat-king and, suddenly, there he was in the square with a thick tail two metres long. And as he turned, the children screamed, jumping over the snaking, swirling tail. We took up the refrain or began to clap our hands. In the dim light in the ancient square, the twentieth century disappeared, and faces took on a simple, timeless wonder.

On the last night of the fête there is a colourful banquet – as many people as possible dressed in medieval costume. All our young people went, and that year three whole pigs were roasted. We arrived late with Raymond and Claudette who were looking after the baby. It was almost eleven o’clock before we pushed Océane in her pram into the square to join the others. Three-year-old Clément was still hopping about. We were just in time to see the town council, beautifully robed, dancing a stately pavane all round the square. They had apparently been practising for weeks. They obviously enjoyed it so much that every time there was a lull in the proceedings, up they got and started again. I felt I would never view the local Doctor, the schoolmaster or Madame in the tourist bureau in quite the same way again.

More friends and family arrived and soon we were complet – even the camp site. When he wasn’t in the pool, Thomas, my grandson, now two-and-a-half, spent a great deal of time looking for tigers in the head-high maize, hotly pursued by one of us before he got completely lost. We had great alfresco meals with everyone contributing dishes. Kate’s barbecued bananas flambéed in Armagnac were a real success.

Raymond brought Clément up to play with Thomas.

‘Regarde, Clément! C’est Thomas, ton petit copain,’ he said eagerly. They eyed each other warily and clung to their respective toys. We all sang Frère Jacques together and they giggled. Gradually they got used to each other and raced about with a fire engine apiece yelling ‘Nee-naw. Nee-naw!’ – that being much the same in any language.

On Sunday we all ate at the farm and during the meal found the two little boys sitting side by side on the step of the cow byre. They had managed to lift the heavy latch and open the door but as the massive beasts turned their heads to look at them they hesitated to go in. Later they came round the corner in guilty glee having picked two green lemons from Claudette’s tree. Feeding the ducks and hens was their favourite pastime. They each sat on a brick in the yard with a small tin of corn to throw and were soon surrounded by a wonderful variety of birds.

A week later there was a sudden heavy downpour and Mike went up in the attic to make sure that there were no leaks. It was bone-dry but he noticed that the crack, which had always been there, between the chimney and the wall, had widened. We mixed a bucket of cement and collected a few stones but, when we began to work we realised that the crack went deeper than we had thought. More alarmingly than that, through the gap we could see the end of a rafter which appeared to protrude into the chimney itself and was badly charred. We decided it might be prudent to call M. Duparcq.

He was his usual lugubrious self. He nodded calmly.

‘Oui, c’était souvent comme ça.’ With a total disregard for any fire risk, it was apparently quite common in very old houses not to bother to cut off the tip of the end rafter, but to leave it in the chimney. Up in the attic M. Duparcq sawed away and, with a shout of ‘Attention!’, the piece landed in the hearth. It was as hard and black as a lump of coal and, had we known it was there, would have terrified us every time we lit the fire. He filled the crack in the attic and then came downstairs. To Thomas’s delight he then put a ladder in the hearth and, to fill the crack from the inside, he disappeared up the wide chimney. Ever after he was known to Thomas as the Grand old Duke of Parcq who, when he was only half way up etc…

My hedge of pampas grass that protected the pool from the east was splendid this year. The clumps are fascinating to watch in the summer as the plumes gradually emerge from their thick green sheaths. First there is just the hint of a silver pen nib, the next day and the day after they are like flat edged paintbrushes, then they push up and begin to open. Taller and taller and more and more beautiful, they look fully grown until you examine them more closely, then you find that there are still another few inches to come before the silver plumes finally stand clear and move in the sunlight. I counted over a hundred that summer. Fortunately they do not shed their seeds until the middle of October when the pool is covered for the winter.

It was time for the family to leave. My older son Adam had a lighting project in Dubai and Matthew had decided to go back to college. On their last night, Thomas and I sat by the pond to see the sun go down over the edge of the world. Later he watched the moon come up and he sang ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ to a sky full of stars, and I wondered if he would remember any of it when he was older.

In spite of the storms in June the plum harvest was not as bad as expected. The maize cut, Raymond began once again to think about the new vineyard.

‘Have you got your permission yet?’ we asked.

Non,’ he replied. ‘But it’s only a question of time.’

We sat on the porch looking up towards the wood. A new calf had just been born in the field, a female. Raymond was pleased. Already she was standing, snatching vigorously at the udder, the umbilical cord still dangling from her belly. The day before we left Raymond was triumphant. Permission had at last been granted: we would have a new vineyard. Grandpa sniffed and said nothing but Jean-Michel, as he ate his soup with one hand and nursed the baby on his shoulder, gave a confident grin.

‘C’est bien!’ he said.

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