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Postcard from France: gables, ghosts and gumboots

November 12, 2021

The other day I wrote about our new holiday home in France. New is not exactly a good description. It’s quite old. Not decrepit, like me, but full of the mysterious quirks that buildings acquire when they’ve been through a few owners. In estate-agent-speak, the kind of things that allow you to describe a place as a character home. Like people, buildings have secrets. The older they are the more baggage they hide.

So we’re now on a journey of discovery. What, for example was the purpose of what looks like two random bits of wood half-buried in the plaster above the front door? Are they the external ends of beams that have half-rotted? How about the three iron bolts in the wall above the wood burner? I hesitate even to touch them, in case the whole building falls down.

What we’ve been told is that once upon a time the place served as a farmer’s cottage. If that was the case, the occupant must have had a diminished sense of smell, because 50 yards away we have what could be a barn, but was originally a piggery. The farmer must also have been well used to waking up to the sound of snuffling, snorting and grunting. Mind you, my wife is used to those sounds emanating from me at night, so I’m sure it didn’t bother the keeper of swine.

The barn currently serves as a repository of all things for which the previous owner couldn’t find a home – power tools, old tiles, planks of wood, ancient bicycles and so on. You might wonder why it’s full of such stuff. Surely the owners were supposed to remove everything from the property? Theoretically yes, but we agreed to buy the place with all its contents, barring a few bits of antique furniture that they wanted to take home to England.

Which is why, when we took possession, we inherited a goodly amount of furniture, thus saving us from spending the first few nights sleeping on the floor. In fact, just about everything we might possibly need to live a comfortable life was still there. Beds, tables, chairs, loads of storage space, crockery, cutlery, cooking equipment. You name it, it was all here.

But then there was the odd stuff. Wellies, camping gear, fishing rods and crash helmets for some purpose that I haven’t yet established. In the mezzanine, enough equipment to decorate a mansion, left in place as if the decorator had just popped downstairs for a cup of tea. Or perhaps fallen to his death off a set of steps so dangerous that they might have been built for Saladin’s siege of Jerusalem. Oh, and there’s the stuff on the walls. A World War 2 steel helmet, a couple of ancient bed-warming pans, hurricane lamps, a thermometer and not one but two barometers.

The strangeness doesn’t stop there. Take the electrics. I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a house with so many plug sockets. The former owners seem to have been obsessed with them. What complicates matters is that for every French socket there’s a UK one. Extension leads are everywhere: on walls, in cupboards. Long ones, short ones, industrial ones. They so multiply the outlets for electrical appliances that you could probably run a small bitcoin mining operation from the house.

Before we completed the purchase, the sellers did the obligatory electrical survey, which pronounced that apart from one issue all was good. But it still looks pretty interesting to me.

No complaints, though. We knew what we were buying. A mutual friend commented that that the owners had spent 30 years doing the place up. He was right. They didn’t finish the job, though at 89 and 91 respectively, they can be forgiven for that.

For me, the jewel in the crown, apart from the ambience and the glorious views of the French countryside, is the books the departing owners agreed to bequeath to us. Novels, many of which I haven’t read, history books and, above all, volume after volume about France.

The old stuff is the most interesting. I give you three examples.

The first is The Concise Household Encyclopedia, a huge slab of a book from the 1930s. Its brief goes so far beyond the household as to be ridiculous. You want to learn about flatulence, hysteria and menstruation? This book is for you. How to build a roof, to apply theatrical make-up and false beards? How to deal with servants? Income tax (1931 vintage)? How to clean your motor vehicle? Everything you need to know about smoking best practice (not a word about lung cancer, naturally)? Plus ducks, dubbin, dry mounting (clearly medicinal jelly hadn’t been invented by then). Electroplating for the amateur, etiquette (some general rules), how to make an espangnole sauce. Guinea fowl, guns, when to plant your kitchen garden. And so on ad nauseam. Over 6,000 illustrations and lord knows how many pages.

The whole thing is like the Middle England of 90 years ago preserved in amber. Not so much an encyclopedia, more a priceless social history. For me, the kind of rabbit hole you can disappear down for days on end. Much more fun than conspiracy theories.

Then there’s Arthur Young’s Travels in France During the Years 1787, 1788 and 1789. Young was an agriculturalist, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Secretary to the Board of Agriculture. He also liked to get out and about, after which he would write about the experience. It must have helped that he made a fortune from his travelogues of Ireland, England and France.

During the years covered by Travels in France – just before and during the French Revolution – Young went from town to town, furnishing letters of introduction from noblemen and dignitaries wherever he went. He developed a strong antagonism against the ancien regime, despite being happy enough to accept the hospitality of various ducs and vicomtes. He witnessed at first hand the grinding poverty of the French peasantry, the arrogance of landowners and meanness of the bourgeoisie.

As the revolution spread from Paris, he saw bands of soldiers intimidating local populations. When he wasn’t preoccupied by political developments, he offered pithy descriptions of over a hundred towns and villages throughout the country: their architecture, the quality of the land, the rivers, the food and estimates of local prosperity. The latter, which he described as “political arithmetic” was a preoccupation that enhanced his reputation as what might be referred to today as a progressive thinker. Just the kind of stuff that feeds my inner nerd.

And finally France, written in 1918 by Gordon Cochrane Home, a water-colourist who was at one time the art editor of Tatler. This book, according to a label on the inside of the cover, was awarded in 1923 to Ellinor Woodesse as the annual Geography Prize by the governors of Ashburne Grammar School. It’s written in the rather stilted language of a turn-of the century “authority”. The author educates us on subjects such as The Genesis and Characteristics of the French, Family Life – Marriage and the Birth Rate, On Education and Religion, Some Aspects of Paris and of Town Life in General, On the Watering Places. He’s clearly a Francophile, even though he delights in banging on about the loose morals prevalent in the cities.

But he makes some interesting points to counter the impression on the English side of the channel that the French are a frivolous nation, devoted to pleasures of the flesh and passing fashions. On the contrary, he says, they’re a deeply serious people, devoted to science, philosophy and big political ideas. He writes in the era of Pasteur, Marie Curie and Jules Verne, but I would say that his assessment still rings true.

When Home wishes to depart from his measured prose, it’s usually by quoting others, as witness this little gem from Rowland Strong about Paris taxi drivers:

“His hatred of the bourgeoise – the “man on the street” – in spite of, and indeed because of, his being a potential client, is expressed at every yard. He constantly tries to run them down, which makes strangers to Paris accuse the Paris cabmen of driving badly, while in point of fact he is not driving at all, but playing with miraculous skill a game of his own…. The cabman’s wild career through the streets, the constant waving and slashing of his pitiless whip, his madcap hurtlements and collisions, the frenzied gesticulations which he exchanges with his “fare”, the panic-stricken flight of the agonized women whose lives he has endangered, the ugly rushes which the public occasionally make at him with a view to lynching him, the sprawlings and fallings of his maddened, hysterical, starving horse, contribute as much as anything to the spasmodic intensity, the electric blue-fire diablerie, which are characteristic of the general movement of Paris.”

Now there’s a man whose other work I’d like to explore! I imagine Ellinor, the teenage geography prize-winner, raising her eyebrows in anxiety as she reads that little purple piece from the safety of her pension on her first visit to Paris.

These delights remind me of three things I often forget about books and reading.

First, if you’re going to spend a large amount of time in a country, it’s worthwhile investing time and effort in delving into multiple views of its culture and history. That’s why I have shed-load of books about the Middle East. Now I have a similar number for France.

Next, I buy a load of new books, and I often forget the vast treasury of non-contemporary writing that I pass by simply because I don’t make time for it. Which tells me that I must balance my reading better between old and new.

Finally, you don’t need to be a cloistered academic to derive enormous pleasure from the perspectives of long-dead writers who have slipped into obscurity.

So the big takeaway must be this: spend less time excoriating our grubby politicians and wading knee-deep in the Twitter sewer, and more time learning about the malodorous sidewalks of 1918 Paris.

Because the ghosts of the past that live in buildings and words will slip away if you don’t visit them occasionally and express your appreciation.

What’s next? Time to put on the ancient wellies and explore the piggery.

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