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s2smodern

We never intended to live for good in France. I had received a small advance for my first novel and had taken a year’s unpaid leave from my teaching post in London. Twenty-seven years later, we still sometimes feel taken by surprise at our long-ago decision. We were young and a little reckless.

 

I can’t say it was the best decision of our lives because the alternative — staying in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain — remains an unknown, but I rarely have regrets. If I do, it comes with a feeling of not being where the literary action is. But 13 works of fiction, six volumes of poetry, plays and documentaries for BBC Radio and countless reviews and articles in the mainstream papers at least keep me from being forgotten, like an exiled guest jumping up and down at the window. And the UK’s recent slide into a mess of anti- European "patriotic" posturing and incompetence has extinguished any regret with relief that I am not actually over there.

 

Since a number of my works involve contemporary England — my most recent novel, Missing Fay (Cape, 2017), set in Lincolnshire before the referendum, was tagged in the Financial Times as part of something they called "Brexlit" — I keep my eyes and ears wide open on our return visits. A few years back I was mystified by a schoolgirl’s repeated assertion on a Reading train that a boy was "really up himself". The novelty means you notice and file things away instead of cursing their banality. Our three children, now grown up, have all moved back across the Channel for their higher education and professional life, at least for now (the pull of France is increasing), so I have informants on the ground.

 

My first work of non-fiction, On Silbury Hill (Little Toller, 2014), concerned that prehistoric manmade mystery in the heart of my teenage stamping ground, Wiltshire, and was part-memoir, part history. My latest book — Notes from the Cévennes: Half a Lifetime in Provincial France — is of a similar genre, but firmly faces our adopted home. Writing it was intensely enjoyable, not only because it was partly done already — it is based on an occasional column I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement — but also because it helped me shape and make sense of the large chunk of life we’ve spent here. It pulled a lot of threads together — both historical and personal — and wove a kind of pattern. There’s an archaeology to any life lived, and living in an ancient, ramshackle house meant the past kept tumbling out — literally, sometimes. My editor at the TLS, James Campbell, insisted that "story" was the key, keeping abstract reflection or whimsy (the curse of expat memoirs) at bay. "Is it actually true?" he would ask, when the reality seemed too strange. Then I began to see the strangeness of our life here — not just French, but deeply rural — in a more objective way. I could judge what would intrigue the non-local reader, without dressing it up into exoticism. Familiarity had blunted that perception. When the villagers kidnapped the postman as a protest against closing the Post Office, with my nervous participation, the deeply Gallic, convivial nature of the event (wine and cheeses were enjoyed and discussed by both captive and captors) was revealed to me only when I began to recount it for a UK readership.

 

notesfromthecevennesThe Cévennes area is a very particular context, of course. It is windswept and beautiful and wild, but it has mostly been dirt poor, like many mountain places. The weather is challenging (monsoon-type rains, blistering heat, occasional drought), while its steep slopes offer prickly passage patrolled by boars and now wolves. Enormous, lonely farmhouses called "mas" break many a wealthy foreign couple’s marriage after the absurdly tough paysans have moved on. Yet the area rings silently with the past, if you’ve the ears to hear it. Its past includes a welcome for those fleeing tyranny, like the Huguenots and later the Jews, or those fighting it, like the Camisards or the Maquis. As the great Cévenol writer, André Chamson, put it: "All those who are sent here are my brothers, even those who don’t share my faith. Hardship is a family."

 

However tight-fisted and truculent the culture can appear to be (mostly inspired by the unforgiving tenets of Calvinism), there is a deeper current of what might almost be called paganism. Old Cévenols know their Nature. The ancient wisdoms survive in snatches. There is nothing resembling a major road in the Cévennes National Park, yet people live and work in it, practising millennial forms of husbandry known as "agro-pastoralism".


Wolves have been allowed to return. When a tough shepherd’s dog cowers against its owner’s leg at an unseen presence, and the shepherd feels a prickle up his or her spine, this is ancestral memory: the wolf menace hasn’t been faced in this area for six generations, after 150 generations of pastoralists had to endure it. Thus the chain is broken and reforged.


Sometimes the reforging can be a surprise. From my archaeologist neighbour I inherited a terracotta tile with a pawprint made 2,000 years ago by a dog wandering in a Roman yard, trotting not so carefully over the drying tiles.


A sculptor friend came over to make a mould of the impressed pads. As he stepped into the house, he bent down to our 17th century floor tiles or tomettes in our small entrance hall, the former kitchen. He was looking at several soot-dark indentations that I had never noticed. A familiar disposition of pads. Our Roman dog had jumped some 15 centuries onto our threshold and then scampered away into our ghostly present, where he or she exists only in my imagination — and in my book.


This is what the past keeps offering up. This is why we live here.


Adam’s books are for sale on www.bloomsbury.com