OFF TO Montpellier to the annual Book Fair. It's official title is La Comédie du Livre, and before anyone else comes up with ho-ho explanations of why it's got a name with overtones of farce, take it from me that every year at the end of May the cultural authorities in Montpellier put up a kind of tent city in the vast pedestrianised central square, which is called La Place de la Comédie because at one end of it there's the opera house, originally called l'Opéra-Comédie. So now you know.
I go at the invitation of a Montpellier bookshop which specialises in English books, with a seasoning of German thrown in. The name of this bookshop is baffling, too. It's called Book in Bar. I don't know why. It used to be called As You Like It, which with its Shakespearian echoes takes a step nearer the literary fare on offer inside. I keep meaning to ask the staff, silver-tongued, raven-haired Raphaëlle and tall, willowy Pauline why their place is so called, but every time I go in I'm overcome by the niggling apprehension every writer is prey to and I forget to ask. Apprehensions? No, not writer's block (although that's bad enough) nor fears of writs for plagiarism (ditto): the burning question is ARE MY BOOKS PROMINENTLY ENOUGH DISPLAYED and if they aren't is this because THEY'VE SOLD OUT?
'Yes' is hardly ever the answer to either question, but none of this applies at the tented Book in Bar pavilion at the Book Fair. They've made a nice display of my books and all I have to do is sit down, look agreeable, and wait for the punters to turn up. And they do, not so many as to form a queue, but enough to pass a pleasant couple of hours chatting to old friends (including one I didn't recognise, Lena from Norway, and if you're reading this, Lena, I'm so sorry, I'll do better next time), making new ones and doing my best to stave off the nutters that usually infest these bashes.
Chris working hard at the book fair
In the past there have been drunks, illiterates trying to steal text-only copies of the Kama Sutra, aggressive whingers claiming the evil jackboot of English imperialism has moved on from territorial acquisition to the deliberate grinding of nobler and better pedigreed languages (i.e. French) into the dust and what do I propose to do about it, lunatics wanting to try out their one English sentence over and over again ('Allo, mister, you like my vest?' - veste in French meaning coat or jacket). No such distractions this year, however, and the only diversion from signing books is Josephine appearing with a giant strawberry ice-cream. Wonderful.
* * *ON DUTY again in Montpellier a couple of days later to bring the tiny English contribution to the Book Fair to a close, this time as a member of a forum to discuss The French Experience. The official title is table ronde, round table, which implies a to-and-fro discussion, an exchange of ideas.
It's very wet in Montpellier, and probably many Book Fair devotees are drawn by the possibility of folding their umbrellas and attending an indoor event, because the prestigious Salle Molière, a mini-theatre or recital room within the Opéra-Comédie, is pretty full. There are a few Brits and Americans in the audience, but it's mostly French come - apart from considerations of sitting down out of the rain - to hear what expat authors think of their hosts, to see themselves as others see them.
No French appear to overdose on enlightenment, and I should think the prevailing impression gained from listening to members of the panel is - well, I'd say profound superficiality, if it wasn't an oxymoron. It's microphone-led, but there's no trailing mike in the audience, so there's no discussion from the floor. The French Experience descends into a series of anecdotes. With each anecdote about embarrassing linguisitic slips and the idiosyncrasies of French electrical wiring and diabolical driving habits and the like, more and more of the audience get up and leave.
I try to stem the flow by initiating discussion about the French love of polémique, something so French that there isn't an exact English equivalent: it's the French aptitude for political discussion, in which the parading of elegant and reasoned points of view is much more important than achieving consensus. In Britain, where we take stances and get hot under the collar, we find it hard to understand this open approach . . . but it's no good. The anecdotal trend wins the day, much to my chagrin and that of a fellow-panellist, a German poetess with very little French, whose amiable remarks have to be translated by the s-t, r-h Raphaëlle. By which time half the audience has left.
* * *BUT IT'S true. On Thursdays my little choir Les Jeudistes come to our house to rehearse. Sometimes in the intervals of singing political discussions arise, as something perfectly natural and ordinary. In the UK this wouldn't be seen as logical, desirable or polite, even. As one well on the way through life's traverse from political extremities to the centre, I get quite cross when some thoroughly likeable Jeudiste comes out with some pretty ripe extremist ideas. It's then that I realise how subject I am, like so many other Brits, to the tradition, in company, of putting a taboo on discussion of politics, religion and sex. So I bite my tongue and beam at everyone, left, right or centre.
* * *WHICH BRINGS me to an extraordinary thing. The other morning I was watching Télématin, the French flagship breakfast TV programme. It's presided over by an iconic French figure, William Leymergie, a relaxed, urbane and imperturbable anchor-man, although off-camera he has been known to be a bit hard on his team of girly reporters and hardened journos and has had to be 'rested' from time to time. One of the Télématin slots is called Les Quatre Vérités, the four truths, when leading politicians are interviewed for a few minutes before the 8 o'clock news.
Rosalind Bachelot, the French health minister, a very capable woman verging on the motherly, was Les Quatre Vérités guest. Midsummer in France is marked by La Fête de la Musique, when all over the country amateurs and professionals in all fields of music perform in the streets, at specially arranged concerts, in sports stadiums, churches, wherever, usually for free. You would have thought that this was perhaps more the domain of the Ministry of Culture, but Mme Bachelot informed her interviewer that she was well aware of La Fête de la Musique coming up in a few days' time, and that her ministry had arranged, in anticipation, for the distribution of several million contraceptives.
The Prieuré de St Julien
As our contribution to La Fête de la Musique, Les Jeudistes are singing in the hushed and hallowed surroundings of the 9th century Prieuré de St Julien. No package has so far arrived from the Ministry of Health. H'm. I do hope our programme of sacred motets and Renaissance part-songs and madrigals doesn't lead to any undue over-excitement.