Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter Nineteen

As always that summer, the days flew by. There were hours of frenzied activity; also quiet moments when it was possible just to sit and talk. It is one of my joys that as they grow older both my sons find something special at Bel-Air. It is a place of unwinding. At the end of August Adam cooked a wonderful paella for everyone in celebration of his brother’s birthday and, suddenly it seemed, they were all beginning to pack up to leave for England. One morning I could hear Thomas, who was not in the mood for tidying, singing loudly, ‘If you’re happy and you know it – throw your things on the floor!’ Fortunately Caz his mother is wonderfully patient.

A few days later a crestfallen Jean-Michel, who had borrowed our 2CV while his own car was being repaired, came up to tell us that, as he had been coming in from Villeneuve in the early morning, a deer had jumped out in front of him. He had killed it outright. He was as much upset by killing the deer as by the damage done to our car.

‘She was full of milk,’ he said gloomily. ‘What will happen to the young?’

‘What did you do?’

He explained that he had been obliged to contact the Guarde Chasse. Jean-Michel was well aware that he had no right to take the carcass. We expressed surprise.

‘Oh! They might get away with it dans les Landes, sometimes,’ he said, ‘but near Villeneuve…never!’ It would be butchered and then…venison would be on the menu at the local old people’s home.

I went down to the farm to get some eggs and looked at the 2CV which was standing in the courtyard. In fact there was only a damaged front grill, a bent bumper and a slight dent in the wing which was spattered with blood. Grandma, looking very worried, came out in her slippers.

Pauvre Michel,’ she said. ‘Il n’a pas le courage de venir la voir.’ I suppose he can’t bear to look at it. And she gave me two potato cakes she had just fried. As far as ‘pauvre Michel’ was concerned, he wasn’t at all worried. Jean-Michel would get it fixed. It was as simple as that.

The plum harvest was over for another year. Raymond and Claudette had a few days respite before preparing for the grapes. We had taken them on previous occasions to stay with Spanish friends on the Basque coast. Our friends had now moved inland to Laguardia, a walled town in the wine-growing region of La Rioja, and were constantly asking us when we were coming. Once we had persuaded Raymond and Claudette to come with us we decided not to use the motorway, but to go via Orthez, cross the border at Roncesvalles, and then on down via what Raymond called Pampelune. I found this confusing at first, having never heard this French version of Pamplona before. It was a wonderful journey through, for us, a completely new landscape. We thought we might picnic before we crossed the border but on getting out of the car in the mountains, we were nearly blown away. Once over the other side of the Pyrénées, it was an altogether balmier world.

We drove into Roncesvalles. Raymond wandered over to what appeared to be a memorial and, wide-eyed, began to recite something about Roland’s tomb. Sure enough he was right. I then learned that the Battle of Ronceveaux, as he called it, is part of French legend. It was at this crossing of the Pyrénées in 778 that the most famous of all French heroes, the young count Roland, was killed as he fought a valiant rear guard action to defend Charlemagne against the Basques. Raymond had, as a child, learned verses from the epic poem La Chanson de Roland and he clearly found it moving to suddenly find himself on the very spot.

There is also a monastery here, a hostel on the pilgrim’s route to Santiago de Compostela. We met a gap-toothed innocent following his own legend who had made the pilgrimage many times. He wore the obligatory cockle shell on his large-brimmed hat and carried a huge knapsack containing a holy picture. He smiled at us, showed us the picture, and explained that that day he had walked from St Jean Pied de Port. Some twenty miles on a mountain road, it was no small achievement. In the church is an effigy of one Sancho VII, called el Fuerte, and an amazing, modern window celebrating his victory over the Mameluke. I’m not sure whether he was called Sancho the Proud because of this victory or because he was, apparently, seven feet five inches tall. I was suddenly very conscious of knowing practically nothing about the history of Spain.

Our short holiday was crammed with activity. Our friend Maria is like a Spanish whirlwind. I know no one with more nervous energy, and, of course, with such a limited time for our stay, neither Raymond or Claudette wished to waste a minute. Having just planted his new vineyard Raymond was intensely interested in this great wine-growing area where they had already begun to harvest. José Marie, Maria’s husband, took him to visit many bodegas and to talk to the growers. Laguardia itself is like a town on speed. No cars are allowed within the inner walls and people dash about the narrow streets. They are intensely gregarious, greeting each other with slaps on the shoulders and shouts of ‘Hola!’ even if they have already met twice that morning. The views from the town are spectacular, perched as it is high up above the vast plain, and the crowds promenade back and forth with proud señoras pushing their prams full of exquisitely dressed children.

It was fiesta time in a nearby small town and, after a meal, off we went. I don’t know quite what I was expecting. It was after all a very small, remote town. The sights and sounds which greeted us as we walked down into the square were remarkable. Even in my long ago days of singing in cabaret at the Dorchester or Grosvenor House Hotels, in times when there were such things as big dance bands, I don’t ever remember seeing five singers fronting the saxes and trumpets. The music they made was rich and smooth, and the three girls and two men with black, sleek hair wore costumes shimmering with sequins. As the smartly jacketed band played with Spanish bravado, the crowd joined them. They sang all the old Latin American songs. Amapola, La Cucaracha, Amor Amor; it was pure nostalgia. They were very, very good. Only the excellent sound system was modern, worked from a large desk set up in the square.

We were too tired to stay much after midnight but it was a three-day fiesta. The following night – nothing could have kept Raymond away – we arrived to find to our astonishment, an equally flamboyant, but completely different band. There were eight musicians this time and three girl singers in gold trousers who gyrated as they sang.

‘These bands must cost a fortune,’ I said to Maria. She laughed.

‘The village pays,’ she said. ‘It’s quite normal. For fiesta nothing is too good. It is important!’

The square was packed, the atmosphere one of sheer abandon to song and rhythm. This night they were not songs I knew but everyone else sang as they danced, even many of the elderly women, still with such proud backs and erotic movements. A circle of young men turned slowly, clapping and vying to do the most stylish steps.

Suddenly the music stopped. There was a fanfare on the trumpet. Everyone screamed and began to run to the edges of the square.

‘What is it?’ we asked each other, as we too were pushed into a doorway by the still laughing but very insistent crowd. We had become separated from Maria and, as the shouts went round, ‘El toro del fuego!’ we had no idea what to expect.

There was a sudden hush and into the now-empty square swaggered a tall figure in black, wearing a metal bull’s head and shoulders. The crowd roared. As the figure began to paw the ground, from the long, lowered horns, fireworks exploded loudly in all directions. He charged to the far side of the square. Those on our side began to edge out, only to turn for cover, screaming and laughing, as he changed direction and charged towards us. Back and forth he went. Young men would suddenly run out and, sitting down, legs astride, one in front of the other like a boat, would rock and taunt the figure, but as soon as he approached, horns ablaze, they would scramble up and dash into the shelter of the nearest doorway. Young and old clearly enjoyed the real sense of danger, and, as it happened again twice during the evening, we knew what to expect when the trumpet sounded.

Although all the bars were open and serving furiously, there was no sign of drunkeness. The young, especially the young men, were intensely involved, and when they danced they had the kind of skill and energy that one normally associates with professional dancers. It was a real pleasure to watch.

On our last night we went into the town of Logroño. We had a drink at one of the smart bars in the centre of the town and watched the elegant Spanish parading by. Then we spent the rest of the evening sampling the tapas bars in the network of alleys which form the oldest part of town. I don’t know whether it was the bechamel balls, the brochettes of pork, the fried quails’ eggs or the chorizo and chilli: probably the whole combination, all washed down with numerous glasses of vino tinto, which made us rather fragile on the return journey, especially the poor chauffeur. Raymond however, was up at the crack of dawn for a last solo walk around Laguardia before leaving.

A few days later I was in Villeneuve. Idly looking up at the statue opposite the tourist office, which I had always thought represented St George killing the dragon, it suddenly struck me that it was not a dragon at all, but an eagle. I went to enquire at the tourist office but, unable to help, they suggested the Archives which were on the next corner. The young woman archivist also wasn’t sure. In the meantime, would I like her to photocopy something of the history of the town? Why not. As we talked I glanced down at a large scale map on her desk.

‘That’s where I live,’ I said, locating and pointing to Bel-Air. Her eyes opened very wide.

C’est pas vrai,’ she said. I don’t believe it.

‘Why not?’

She shook her head. ‘Mais…my great-grandfather was born in that very house,’ she said. ‘Je m’appelle Sylvie,’ she added, as if that explained everything.

Her great-grandfather, it turned out, was Celestin, Anaïs’s young brother-in-law. He had been only sixteen when, in 1889, his older brother Justin had married Anaïs, and brought her to live at Bel-Air.

Mais…votre grandmère…?’ I was beginning to work it out. Sylvie’s grandmother was Madame Esther, Anaïs’s niece, whom I had last seen at Philippe’s wedding. ‘Is she still alive?’ I asked.

Bien sûr.

It was just as well that no one else came in to search through the archives that afternoon. Sylvie was even more passionate about research than I, and considerably more skilled. A few days later she came up to Bel-Air and showed me her detailed files.

I remembered the day, many years before, when her grandmother, Madame Esther, had come up to Bel-Air. She had been very interested to see the house, after such a long time. She was pleased that we had kept much of the original furniture, and that Anaïs’s picture hung on the wall. She told me how brave Anaïs had been in her widowhood. She went on to talk about her own great sadness when her only daughter had died of a rapid cancer before she was forty. I had not known that her daughter had been married with two children. Sylvie was the younger.

As I looked at all her research and listened to her story, I realised that for Sylvie, the sudden death of her mother had been disastrously handled. With all her family locked in their inevitable sorrow she had not been encouraged to enquire or even talk about her mother. There had been no space for her to grieve. For a short while she had been sent en pension where she was unhappy. Then her father had remarried a widow with children of her own, and although she was kind and tried hard to win the child’s affection, Sylvie felt excluded. Perhaps she might have eventually found a certain security there but a few years later her father too had died. She became a very rebellious teenager and it had taken her many years of unhappiness and depression before she could either understand or find herself. The family research was, I imagine, a lifeline.

She ate supper with us and looked all round the house. She took away to photocopy the old documents I had found in the cupboard in the attic, some of which predated the Revolution. When she returned them she, this time, brought her stepmother, with whom she had, at last, found a rapport.

She was a very dynamic, graceful woman, rather like Margot Fonteyn. She talked about the war and about her brother. He had been wounded at Dunkirk, rescued by an English boat and taken back to England but at that time his family knew nothing of this. After a long interval there was still no news, she told us, and they thought he must be dead.

Mais…the one night that we didn’t listen to Radio Londres – there he was!’ she said. ‘He said “Je m’appelle Etienne Martigny.” He then gave his date and place of birth and his regiment and finished with “Je suis en bonne santé.” A neighbour heard him – only a lad. He got out his bicycle and tore across the countryside to tell us. He was so out of breath when he arrived,’ she laughed, ‘he could hardly speak. But…when he told us…we all cried.’ She wiped her eyes. ‘And do you know, he was safe in a camp all that time. He even met your Queen and she shook his hand.’

After they had gone I sat looking again through the hat box in which I had found so many mouse-nibbled treasures. Letters from the First World War, with poignant reminders to those at home to harvest the grapes, or take a cow to market. Letters full of longings, often cruelly dashed, that the terrible war would be over soon, and they would come home. I still have a collection of small almanacs which, with a few exceptions too chewed to be worth keeping, run from 1904 to 1935. They make endlessly fascinating reading. Although they originally cost only ten centimes, the earliest ones have been carefully protected with brown paper covers.

Underneath the calendar for each month, every single day of which bears the name of some saint or other, there is advice for working the land. In April 1904 the reader is urged to sow barley, lentils, flax and hemp, white mustard and rape and lettuces for the pigs. The mention of flax and hemp intrigued me, for Pierre Costes, Anaïs’s father-in-law, who was born in 1839, and Bernard, his father before him, both of whom lived at Bel-Air, were both tisserands – weavers. In the attic we found some very interesting, crude, and ancient tools which would have been used for carding.

As the years go on, the almanacs are augmented with the occasional poem or sheet of music, and there are illustrations of accordions for sale on almost every other page. There are cures for everything, from gout and asthma, to constipation or a flat chest. There is a lurid advertisement for a cure for drunkeness. It shows a tearful skeleton, with the injunction to ‘save the drunkard before alcohol not only destroys his health, his ardour for work and his fortune, but before death makes this very rescue impossible!’

In another advertisement, a certain Doctor Chrestien of Montpelier swears that, in fifty years of practising medicine, he has found nothing more efficacious for the chest than ‘pâté and sirop d’escargots.’ The pâté cost one franc, the syrup was double the price. There is no mention of garlic butter.

There are claims for the effects of tisanes made by Trappistes and, in the almanac for 1909, a separate brochure for ‘La Tisane Américaine des Shakers’. Not only tisanes, les Shakers also made pills, ointment and poultices, with which they claimed to cure every ailment known to man. One might have expected this brochure to be illustrated with transatlantic images but the French, ever chauvinistic, have placed on each page, between the stories of cures, pictures of such French luminaries as La Fontaine, Madame de Montespan, Molière, and even Louis XV at the age of twenty.

In the almanac for 1909 there is an article about the success of the Paris Metro, which, in its first five years, had expanded from five to thirty-eight kilometres of track. It quotes the unfavourable opinions expressed at the time of the great Exhibition of 1900.

‘Not a single Parisien will descend into this molehole.’

‘Well they do in London.’

‘Huh! What have those Londoners got to lose? In all that fog they might just as well circulate below ground as above! But, I ask you, what Parisian would deprive himself of the view of our splendid trees and boulevards?’

In the review of the year 1906-7, as well as the report of the activities of anarchists in Russia, there is the news that, in London, the proposal to build a tunnel under the channel which frightens so many Englishmen has been abandoned!

In 1909 the decision to impose a collection of personal income tax is adopted by the Chamber of Deputies.

Une inquisition intolérable!’ thunders the Almanac for 1910. ‘Nothing will escape the clutches of le fisc!

In 1911 they are equally scathing. There is a cartoon of the poor being squeezed in a vice. ‘C’est la résurrection de la taille, de cet impôt vexatoire qui fut une des causes de la Révolution!

In 1912 and 1913 they are still complaining ‘Adieu le secret de vos affaires!’ After that I imagine there were other more pressing problems.

There is a larger Almanac for 1915 which cost 30 centimes. It begins its review from October 1913 in cheerful mood with the reopening, after restoration work, of the Comédie Française. There is a report of the President, M. Poincaré going off on a tour of Spain and one of the marriage in London of Prince Arthur of Connaught.

Gradually, between such snippets as the finding in Florence of the Mona Lisa, stolen from the Louvre, the arrests of suffragettes in London, and the cutting of the Panama canal, there are the first rumblings of war. A declaration of accord between France, England and Russia – with a view to maintaining peace – is rudely shattered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife at Sarajevo. However, this is hardly given more precedence than the shooting of the director of Figaro by Mme Caillaux, wife of the minister of Finance who was, it seems, involved in some controversy at the time. M. Caillaux resigns, Mme Caillaux is arrested and M. Poincaré goes off again, this time to Russia, where he is fêted by the Tsar. Austria gives an ultimatum to Serbia and prepares for war. The whole sorry build-up is quietly but clearly reported, punctuated throughout by the trial of Mme Caillaux who, extraordinarily, having killed the director of Figaro with five bullets, managed to be finally acquitted.

I wonder what Anaïs thought about these events so far away as she worked among her chickens, or drew up her water from the well at Bel-Air. Her husband Justin had finally been absolved from all military duties in 1912 at the age of thirty-six. She could have no premonition of the devastation which the First World War would bring to France, of the decimation of thousands of small villages. Her only son, crippled by polio as a boy, she would have imagined would be safe. But before the war ended even he would be drafted to do menial tasks in the barracks at Montauban.

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