‘For I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it. I will have it all mine.’ Shakespeare, Henry V
I am not long returned from France myself, though not on a mission of conquest, of course, more of enrichment. It is true what they say, you know, that travel broadens the mind. I would even say that it is vital for a writer to abandon his desk from time to time and take to the air, the road, or the railway in search of fresh perspectives.
In the course of ten days, I have drunk beer and scoffed carbonnade de boeuf in Lille; eaten a crème brûlée with foie gras in Lectoure; written the final chapter of my work in progress in Gascony; enjoyed dégustations de vin in the Beaujolais; crossed Paris three times, attended a fête du quartier (street party) in Cluny, and practised my French on a countess and a sewage engineer.
After breaking my journey in Lille, I travelled on the TGV down to Agen in the old province of Aquitaine. My friend Michael Reidy (author of On the Edge of Dreams and Nightmares) has a house deep in the countryside and I was taking up his invitation to stay and do some writing. The peace was profound. The house is pinkish-beige with pale blue shutters and there were big pink roses round the door. It was hot. Little geckos skittered up and down the stone and basked in the sun. We sat outside on warm evenings and I saw more stars than I have seen in decades thanks to light pollution. The Milky Way was a thick encrustation of distant worlds above us and constellations were crystal clear. Frogs churred unseen but not far away.
That’s a bit lyrical but that’s what it was like. I could also wax lyrical about the sublime meal we had in the pretty little town of Lectoure (which I’d never heard of). At first we had no luck. The restaurants on the main street were closed or full and so we decided to try our luck at the HÔTEL DE BASTARD. (Stop sniggering at the back). It all looked very formal and I was wearing shorts but the staff couldn’t have been more welcoming. The amuse-bouches were wonderful and kept coming: apart from the crème-brûlée I’ve already mentioned, there were marinated garlic cloves and a savoury macaron. There was a layered pâté de campagne which was beautiful to behold, followed by magret de canard, rose-pink and succulent. Finally, there was a dreamy soufflé. The waiter made a hole in the top with the back of a spoon and filled it with a scoop of heavenly prune and armagnac ice cream. These are specialities of the region, along with melons and garlic.
Back at Petit Larrouquette I managed to do some work on A Dish of Apricots. I finished a chapter I had begun in England and wrote the final few paragraphs of the novel. A bit odd you might think since I’m only about a quarter of a way into the body of the work. However, I knew from the start that the novel would end in the south of France and thought I should soak up the atmosphere whilst in situ, as it were. Besides, I don’t always write chapters in the order which they will appear. It’s all part of an organic process which my subconscious seems to organise for me.
A chap arrived to inspect the cess pit, which was odd because Michael was expecting a telecommunications engineer from Orange. I was asked to help translate. I explained that the vocabulary of sewage disposal had not been on my A level syllabus but I am quite proud that in the end the three of us managed well enough.
From the Midi to Burgundy. My apartment is on a narrow medieval street and has an ancient stone fireplace. My landlady tells me that there will be a party in the street the following day and that I will be most welcome. I take along a pâté en croûte, some madeleines and a bottle of Brouilly, but my offering is overshadowed by the homemade dishes the neighbours have brought along. There is a little concert from a balcony mid-afternoon. I get to practise my rusty French and we talk about the novels of Jean Giono and Jane Austen, the architecture above eye level in the street, the history of Cluny Abbey, about Brexit, Frexit and whether Burgundy wine is better than Claret. (Yes.)
On another day, kind friends take me to the Beaujolais region for tastings and I buy cases of Chénas and Chiroubles. We have lunch in Chénas. The restaurant is full of ouvriers or workmen (always a good sign). There is only one menu and it is delicious. Thence to the Château d’Enveau to meet again Yves and Anne (Count and Countess) de Coligny and to buy Juliénas. The vendange or grape harvest is imminent. It is important to choose exactly the right day and Yves is stressé. It will probably be tomorrow, he says. I chat to the Countess about Invictus, the poem at the centre of Dead Poets’ Society. The French are serious about culture; there is not the anti-intellectualism you find so often in Britain.
Now I am back in England. The vine outside my window is being plundered by blackbirds conducting their own vendange. The street I stayed in in Cluny is called the rue du Merle, or Street of the Blackbird. I need to work that little conceit into something.
If you’re a writer nothing is wasted.