I sometimes wonder about Frédéric Mistral. You've never heard of him? Nor had I, until I came to live in France. I knew the word 'mistral' as the name of the icy wind that roars off the Alps down the Rhone valley, chilling many a Provençal holiday-maker to the marrow, but the man himself, apparently named after a wind, remained a closed book despite having a street in practically every southern French town named after him. You know the kind of thing: white lettering on blue enamel plaques at first floor height saying Rue F.Mistral, Boulevard Mistral, Avenue Frédéric Mistral, whatever.
Maybe he was really called Dubois, but called himself 'Mistral' to give himself a bit of a lift, an air of something essentially Provençal. Easier than calling yourself 'Ratatouille' (a mess of vegetables stewed in olive oil) or 'Bouillabaisse' (a stew of coarse fish), no doubt; but you might as well have a poet of the night sky in general, and of shooting stars in particular, calling himself Porkpize because they're meaty, all right. Meteorite, see? Ho ho.
H'm. Enough of this. Mistral is the poet of Provence just as Robert Burns is of Scotland or William Barnes is of Dorset, and all these languages or dialects come first equal for impenetrability. All I know is that Frédéric Mistral won the Nobel prize for literature in 1904, not only for his poetry but for contriving a consistent system of spelling for Provençal. Until his time Provençal was mostly oral, and when written down was as unfettered by spelling rules as Shakespeare's English, a period beloved of schoolkids because whatever rubbish you wrote down in spelling tests you were bound to end up with 10 out of 10 and a gold star.
But did Frédéric Mistral ever meet Joseph Pujol? They were both on the go about 100 years ago, as the 19th turned into the 20th century, Mistral turning out Provençal verse and Pujol taking the stage at the Moulin Rouge in Paris for a bizarre, not to say louche, act. Mid-performance photographs exist of Pujol, a baker by trade, in a sort of evening dress consisting of cutaway jacket and knee breeches; he leans slightly forward from the waist, his face taut with the physical effort of breaking wind in the name of art.
Apparently his performance was as musical as mastery of only four notes (C, D, E and the C an octave above, for any musician reading this) would allow, so presumably someone else (someone called Carter, perhaps?) was the hero of the limerick which ends
He could play everything
From 'God Save The King'
To Beethoven's 'Moonlight' Sonata
- but Pujol's performance was popular enough with Moulin Rouge punters to earn him the nickname Le Pétomane. Imitators occasionally appear on French TV variety shows, the land of Rabelais being a country where you can get away with this sort of thing, for better or worse. There's an obscure tribute to Joseph Pujol and his creative flatulence in Mel Brooks' wonderfully zany film Blazing Saddles, where a posse of cowboys charges along the Governor William J. Le Petomane Thruway. It's true, thundering hooves on the Autoroute Frédéric Mistral wouldn't have quite the same ring to them.
If you want to delve further into the lives of both Mistral le Poète and Pujol le Pétomane, the standard French encyclopedia is usually referred to by the publisher's name, Larousse. (Mistral really was the man's name, apparently.) The Larousse logo is of a girl blowing a dandelion clock, with the motto Je sème à tout vent, which I suppose you could translate as 'I sow with every blow'.
We're not enormously troubled with wind here in our corner of the Languedoc. Even the mistral goes by another name: they call it the tramontane, the north wind that scours the great central plateau of France before sweeping its gusts and eddies into the secret places of our valley. If it isn't the tramontane gusting our garden furniture off the terrasse and into the road below or scattering ripe cherries into the swimming pool, it's the marin.
The marin, warm and wet, blows in off the Mediterranean, heavy with rain laced with orange dust. Goodness knows where it comes from. We call it Sahara dust, as though passing cyclones had scooped up sandstorms in distant Timbuktu and deposited the finer débris all over Josephine's midnight blue Saab. Orange and indigo, very 1960s.
There were alarming images on French TV news a few weeks ago of typhoons in America with waterspouts sucking up cars and depositing them considerable distances away. It couldn't happen here, could it, reversing the process? We've never really wanted to go to Timbuktu, not even as part of a meteorological car-wash package.
Last month's competition, nothing to do with wind in any sense, drew a big entry, every single one correctly identifying Charles de Gaulle with France's newest aircraft-carrier, Paris' number one airport and the village of Colombey les Deux Eglises. Congratulations to early oiseaux Robin Quinn of Ottawa, Canada and Philip Humphries of Bellingham, Wa., USA, both of whom receive a complete mint set of recent French presidential election voting slips.
Philip has won this competition so often that his house must be entirely furnished with small, unimpressive knicknacks he's picked up from this column. He has an advantage, of course: when Campbell's Diary comes on stream, presumably at 00.01 on the first of the month (I've never stayed up to see), it's only 3 o'clock in the afternoon in Washington State. Just nice time to rub your eyes after your siesta, see what's on offer on the French Connections website, a quick shuffle through Larousse, and Bob's your oncle.
Phil, you've won another, cumulative prize: you get to set the next competition. D'accord? Ça va?