Wednesday, 30 June 2010
The Good Old Days
There are, as you might imagine after about twenty years spent in France, a good many on French life and times...from cookery to history via a fair number of photographic collections...like one a friend sent me about life in the countryside between the wars (here). It shows the hard life of country people...
The importance of wood for the fire that warmed the house, cooked the food and boiled the water.
Crushing nettles to feed the ducks.
The outdoor work in all weathers.
Meant as a celebration of the past, to me it was a monument to the sheer drudgery of it all and the release found in alcohol.
I have a number of others, showing towns and villages as they were years ago, from early photographs, and it is fun to try to link the present with the past.
Who would think, passing a quiet square in front of the church, that it used to be a busy weekly cattle market, or that the house lying back from the road used to be the village station in the distant days when a tramway ran through the area, bringing prosperity as people could sell their produce in the markets in the towns at each end of the line rather than being forced to accept the prices offered by the local higglers.
Local photographic collections and reprints of local history books used to be sold by subscription - a flyer would arrive in the post from a publisher who had cornered the market in 'local interest' books and you could order directly.
I had a few, but Edith (here) told me not to buy any more as she ordered anything of local interest and I could borrow her copies. She gave me them when her eyesight was failing...I would be interested, while her son would use the pages for wrapping bottles...or, as she said darkly, 'worse'....so I have studies on most of the villages in the area in which I first lived when I moved to France and when I turn to them I hear Edith's voice commenting as she turned the pages.....the voice of my dear friend who taught me so much not just about life in France, but life itself.
A photograph of a farmhouse up the road brought memories of how that was the only place for miles around with a telephone...
'Very handy for the Merles during the war....they knew what everyone was doing.'
'Why during the war, in particular?'
'Because they could tell tales to the police....pair of collaborators, and not for principle, just for money...
You know their son, friends of yours bought the granny's house next door to him. He's just the same...and so's his wife.
After the war, no decent family would let their daughters get involved with him....she's from away, from a family with nothing. No one else would have him.'
I did indeed know the son...grasping and avaricious.
He had a stand of vines and one year there had been a bumper crop. I watched him spoil what could have been a lovely wine by picking all the rotting bunches and throwing them in with the good, so as not to lose one drop that could be sold....that was the measure of the man.
A photograph of a cafe, the owner's family standing outside, brought back reminiscences of the times when there were eight bars in the village itself, not to speak of those, like this one, out in the hamlets.
'It's Jacquot's house now...you pass it on the back way to the village from here...It's next door that the murder took place and they had to move the sugar.'
Now the murder had taken place in my time, so I knew all about that and it was some measure of my adaption to local culture that I knew why the sugar had a starring role in the tragedy.
The village had a reputation for doctoring its' wine with added sugar, to push up the level of alcohol.
At first a device to ensure it met the quality restrictions which would allow it to be sold as an 'apellation' rather than as plonk with the consequent drop in price, over time, making a strong wine had become an object in itself.
In any case, it was strictly prohibited, except in special circumstances like dreadful rainy years when the wine would have been more like cats' piss without the boost from the sugar, at which point regulations would be issued.
I had discovered this when asking my fount of local knowledge, Monsieur Untel, (here) why there were notices in the supermarkets forbidding clients to buy more than - I think - ten kilos of sugar.
There wasn't a shortage or something, was there?
No, there wasn't. It was to make it difficult to get a good stock of sugar together to doctor the wine.
So, back to the murder.
A lady had moved in with a gentleman in his fifties, much given to the local male habits of hunting and drinking.
After a while, she observed that he was spending much more on these hobbies than on her so she transferred her affections to another gentleman, in his seventies, who lived out in a hamlet...in the house next door to Jacquot's place.
This relationship prospered, to the fury of gentleman number one who was missing his home comforts and one evening, returning to a cold hearth after a day spent hunting and drinking, he had had enough.
He took his shotgun, went up to the house of gentleman number two and, seeing lights in the bedroom, blasted the occupants.
He killed his rival, but the lady escaped, fleeing to Jacquot's house in her night attire while the murderer collapsed in an alcoholic heap in the garden.
Jacquot took the shotgun, but then was faced with a problem.
The gendarmerie had to be called...there was no alternative.
But there had been an incident involving illicit stocks of sugar in the next village and the gendarmerie had been sniffing about, so at the request of his friend, Jacquot had hidden the stuff in his neighbour's garage.
The dead neighbour's garage.
Well, as you are always told in France, if you have a problem, get hold of the maire.
Jacqut did just that and was told to do nothing...the maire would see to everything.
With his wife comforting a sobbing and shocked lady in his kitchen, and a comatose drunken murderer in the garden next door, Jacquot thought that he had enough problems - and then he heard a car engine approaching only to stop outside his house.
'Putain de merde! Someone's called the gendarmerie!'
No, it was not a kepi which emerged, but the flat cap of the maire, followed by the flat cap of the council workman. They had arrived in the municipal Renault van to remove the sugar.
Or rather Jacquot and the workman loaded the sugar while the maire - as first magistrate of his commune - took a statement from the lady.
Only when the van was well away did he call the gendarmerie.
After all, as he said later. gentleman number two was dead, gentleman number one wasn't going anywhere and the lady had been treated for shock by Jacquot's wife, so no harm was done by a little delay.
The maire, needless to say, was a vigneron and knew the importance of sugar and as he was wont to say when talking about the incident
'If the first guy had stuck to wine instead of beer and whisky, the lady would never have left him!'
A further photograph showed the entrance to my barn, with a group of young men standing or lounging in front of it.
'Oh, that's the lads going off to the army.'
Edith explained that it was the custom for the young men being called up for national service in the army to get together to have a last celebration of freedom before they had months of drill under the grim eye of a sergeant major.....a collection would be taken up and they would make a night of it.
Why my barn?
Because your house used to belong to the estate, and the owners had always given permission to use the barn because it was out of the way.
Edith's husband had been one of those lads and, having the bad luck to be of military age in the last war, had ended up as a prisoner of the Germans, returning home only after six years' away, a shadow of the young man she had married.
Books about France are not all about chateaux and romance....there is a whole genre of 'miserylit' on the hard life of the poor which sells well.....but no book can bring a photograph to life as well as the voice of someone who had lived close by and knew the lives of the people who stand, so stiffly posed, in front of their houses.
Thanks to what I learned from Edith, even a visit to an 'antique' shop takes on meaning.
I know from her that those cast iron and enamel stoves which 'incomers' love to buy to beautify their houses were the very devil to use......the tiny firebox needed continual attention if the fire were not to go out.
Better for the farmer's wife the cauldron over the fire.
Better still the earthenware pots with concave lids....you put your stew in the pot and laid it in the hot ashes, piled more ash into the top of the lid, and off you went to the fields for the morning, sure of lunch on your return.
I see piles of books from house clearances when I go to Emmaus and I sometimes wonder if, one day, the books which speak so clearly to me will end up there too, mute for lack of a listener.