A Month of Movies, Merriment, Marseilles, and bucolic days at the Mad Old Chateau
It is hard to believe that it is only three weeks ago we were celebrating my late-April birthday. Michel took me to La Colombe d’Or in St Paul de Vence, not simply for dinner but for an overnight stay. As a treat from time to time we have lunched there or dined in one of their exquisite rooms where the walls are hung with original works by Chagall, Picasso, Matisse and many others, but an overnight was a dream come true. The best of gifts. This is where Yves Montand and Simone Signoret were married. This is the village where so many artists and writers resided; where they worked hard, played boules in the main square and ate and drank convivially. It is hard to talk about the South of France, the Côte d’Azur, without including a few memories from this amazing restaurant/hotel in your story.
Our own memories include several (rather liquid) lunches at the Colombe d’Or with the late actor Donald Pleasance and his lady when he was living in the village. Happy Days!
So, that was my birthday. As I said, it seems like months ago. So much has happened during these ensuing weeks.
Days later, we crossed France to the Dordogne to celebrate a big 0 birthday with Michel’s twin daughters, Vanessa and Clarisse, and their families. It is hard to believe that these are the same two girls of thirteen I wrote about in The Olive Farm series of books. Mothers and step-mothers both of them now. It warms my heart that we are all such good friends.
We spent a week at the beginning of May up north at our home east of Paris. Michel’s birthday (we are all Taureans!) was happily toasted in Paris where we had dinner in Montparnasse with Vanessa and her husband.
Some of you already know that I have christened our home outside Paris the MOC, the ‘Mad Old Chateau’, although in reality the ‘estate’ consists of two stone houses, neither of which is a chateau! It gained its name because when we first bought the place some twenty years ago – for less than the price of a garage in central London! – every square inch required renovation and water and electricity installation. It is not all that much better today but we have managed to do a fair bit to the smaller of the two houses and we inhabit that one. The other is dedicated to Michel’s offices and editing suites and to the winds that blow through the glassless windows on the top floor. There, where the ghosts pace and recite their lines like tired old actors!
Although the MOC does not have the views and beauty of the Olive Farm, it is situated in the heart of the French countryside. La France profonde. Mile after mile of flat or gently sloping agricultural terrain. We are surrounded by vast fields of various colours depending on the season. This last visit was a picture of pale purply-blue. The flax or linen crops were in blossom. I have grown to love the area. It has a rural poetry about it. The traffic jams are caused by tractors or lorries transporting huge bales of wheat. Grazing horses meander to the hedges to say hello. When out walking, I keep apples from the garden in my pockets to offer them.
We usually spend a week there every month while Michel organises his documentary film screenings and I potter about in my office or slip off to Paris to indulge mysef in films.
Talking of films, the Cannes Film Festival is, as I write, in its sixth day. Tom Cruise paid a visit (not to us, I hasten to add!) and at the end of this coming week Javier Bardem is giving a masterclass, which I will fight tooth and nail to get a ticket for but am guessing that it has already sold out. I use the word sold but the tickets are free. All events are free during the festival if you have the right badge. Not the hotels and restaurants, of course, but there is an endless succession of parties where you can eat canopies and drink champagne until it bubbles out of you like a geyser. Hospitality is huge business in Cannes right now. I always think of the struggling filmmakers here on very tight budgets, trying desperately to get their project off the ground under the craziest of conditions. At least, they can feed themselves thanks to some of the big boys, major companies, who are the hosts for these lavish receptions. I rarely attend any of them because I am not good in crowds and have never learned how to work a room. If I do get dragged along, I tend to clutch tightly to my glass and hug a wall, praying that I might eventually catch the eye of a friendly face. Having said that I flew to London last week for an overnight to attend the Hatchards ‘Authors of the Year’ party. What a bash. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, catching up with some longstanding friends and making a couple of new ones. Hatchards really know how to throw a party so if anyone from their team is reading this, a HUGE thank you to you all for making me feel so welcome.
What else? Ah, yes, a lovely moment earlier this week. We were in Marseille overnight and were booked to stay at my regular joint, the Hotel Bellevue, which overlooks the vieux port. We used this hotel last year in the series Carol Drinkwater’s Secret Provence. Last week, soon after we arrived, Michel was standing at reception when suddenly someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned round to find a smiling Englishman who said to him, “Are you Michel?” Michel confirmed that he was. The man continued, “I recognised you from the telly.” Which is a first for Michel! The English gentleman went on to say that he and his wife had thoroughly enjoyed Secret Provence. To the point that they had written to me requesting the name of the hotel in Marseille where we had stayed and filmed. I had answered, furnishing all the details, and there they were. They had booked for three nights and were having such a fun time that they had extended their stay to a week. I felt so chuffed when Michel rcounted the story to me. The power of television – and what a coincidence to actualy bump into Michel.
So, here we are back at the farm enjoying unseasonably high temperatures. I am delighted for the film festival because it makes it so special to see everyone in their glad rags eating outside late in the evenings, but I am less delighted for the land and the crops. The grass is already dry and brown. I am watering every day, hoping the fruit trees will not be stressed and will deliver us lovely juicy apricots and peaches soon. We have already finished off all the cherries. It was a race as to whether we or the birds would get there first. And the olive trees! I have never seen so many flowers on the trees. I know they all badly need pruning but even so … it is snowing tiny white star-shaped blossoms all across the terraces. Drifts of them on the stone stairways. Quite magical. We should be in for a bumper harvest this year. I hope we can call in some friends to come and help us. These days the land labour is quite a challenge for just the pair of us.
So, that’s it. I am at work on a new novel and also a television series, which I hope to front/present rather as I did in Secret Provence. Fingers crossed it gets the green light.
My most recent novel, An Act of Love, has been chosen by Woman and Home magazine as one of its historical novels of the year so Yay to that!
Speaking of An Act of Love: “A novel where the quality of the writing matches the intrigue of the story. An Act of Love is a beautiful book and the themes of displacement resonate with contemporary events.”The best historical fiction books to read in 2022, as recommended by our Books Editor via @womanandhome
Many of you have written to ask after my health and to wish me a speedy recovery. Thank you so much. I greatly appreciate the love and the care. I am fully well now except that the post-operation challenges were a blow to me and have knocked my confidence a little bit. I will certainly never take my health for granted again.
Onwards. Work is, as always, my way forward.
Here are one or two of the books I have recently buried myself in, with great joy. The new David Park, Spies in Canaan, has just been published and it is marvellous. If you enjoy John Le Carré or Graham Greene, you will love this one. A story of atonement, laying the past to rest, it is the best new novel I have read in a long while. David’s writing is insightful and lyrical. He seems able to look into the most secret parts of our inner selves with such humanity and tenderness. I love his books.
I have been revisiting some Marguerite Duras who is one of my favourite novelists. I also returned to Elizabeth von Armin’s The Enchanted April, which I first read possibly twenty years ago. It is a charming sun-kissed journey to Italy in the company of four ladies from London. Set in the 1920s. If you can find a copy of the Virago hardback, it is a really beautiful edition. A joy to hold.
I have thoroughly enjoyed Jonathan Coe’s Mr Wilder and Me. It is the first novel of Coe’s I have read, but it won’t be the last. In this one, of course, I was thoroughly seduced by the book’s setting. Jonathan brings the world of Hollywood movie-making to vibrant life.
I am about to begin Alexandria Adieu, a memoir by Adel Darwish. This is the first book of his I have read and I am much looking forward to it. I love portraits of cities and as I have never – yet – visited Alexandria, I am excited to be transported to this great ancient port-city.
I hope you have enjoyed this update. Do send your news to me too. Meanwhile, I wish you good health, plenty of engrossing reading and a peaceful summer.
By the way, if you are anywhere near Felixstowe on Sunday 26th June, I will be in conversation with lovely Rachel Sloane at the Felixstowe Lit Fest. Please do come along and say hello. Here is the link for tickets.
Thank you for reading this
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