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Peter Mayle: 20 years in Provence

Two decades have passed since Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence was published - but what does he think of it now?

PROVENCE has “added a dimension of sheer contentment and enrichment” to Peter Mayle’s life – not just for the series of books that have been translated into 28 languages and brought in millions in sales but for its lifestyle, people, customs and gastronomy.

It has been 20 years since he made the region his home and, seemingly by accident, wrote A Year in Provence.

Mayle, with his wife Jennie, had stumbled into Provence in the early 80s, having never been there before.

They were hooked, and in 1986 sold up in the UK, and relocated to an old farmhouse in the Luberon.

Apart from a brief absence, they have lived in the region ever since.

His original intention was to write a novel, they had enough cash for six months. But while renovating their Ménerbes house Mayle, now 70, became so fascinated by the character of Provence and the larger than life characters, that instead of a novel, he wrote a few opening pages of a diary and sent them to his agent who, fortunately, knew a gem when he saw one.

So popular was the book, the house was under siege by a constant stream of uninvited callers and autograph hunters. Complete strangers would wander through the garden, some even taking a dip in the pool.

Privacy became almost impossible and on one occasion he found a tabloid photographer lurking in the bushes around the pool, apparently hoping to “see someone naked”.

Finally, he had to sell up. They moved to Long Island in south-eastern New York for four years in what sounds a very glamorous solution.

“But it wasn’t Provence.

“I have lived at various times in London, New York, Devon, Barbados and the Bahamas. For me nothing comes close to Provence.”

He enjoys the democratic environment of French life, a lack of class structure and the polite good manners.

“It truly is a democratic country, and there is no self-consciousness about it.”

These days, and with the experience of Ménerbes behind him, he takes great care of his privacy preferring to meet reporters at his favourite café in Lourmarin, the village of just 1,000 people where he now lives.

Although he loves his visits to Paris, always staying on the Left Bank, and eating at favourite one-star restaurants, he says he has become the devotee of the simple life, a particular pleasure being Lourmarin’s Friday morning market where he always bumps into friends.

A more typical day sees him up early: “I take the dogs for a walk, and after breakfast I write for three or four hours, 500-600 words, until one o’clock.

“After lunch I usually spend the afternoons doing research or working in the garden.

“I have an evening walk, when I think, and always revise what I have written before going to bed.”

That does not mean the books are constantly rewritten: “I tend not to leave things until they are half way decent – until I know they work.”

Asked if there was a particular book that was more troublesome to write, he suggested: “Possibly my A-Z of Provence. There was so much information my problem was what to leave out.

“It took two years to write.”

For anyone with curiosity about the region, history and customs, A-Z of Provence, is packed with information, both encyclopaedic and quirky, and written in irrepressible Mayle style.

He felt that style was lacking in the BBC Television version of his book and he admitted that he was disappointed with the way it turned out.

“It came across as a story about retirement which was a long way from the truth. And John Thaw, who played me, seemed to be in a perpetually bad mood, whereas I was absolutely delighted with my new life in France.”

He was, however, quite content with Ridley Scott’s interpretation of his A Good Year, with Russell Crowe. Although not exactly the scenario that was written in the book “as a light romantic comedy in such a glorious setting I enjoyed it.”

With a father in the Colonial Office and overseas postings, young Peter was a boarder from the age of seven at Brighton College, and Harrison College in Barbados.

The decision to become a writer, he says, was inevitable as “it became clear to me that I was useless at mathematics and anything technical. I was not drawn to politics or big business, or indeed any endeavour where I had to report to committees and bosses.

“English also happened to be my favourite subject at school and the only one at which I was any good. Independence was what I wanted and writing I thought was how to achieve that happy state.”

Journalism never appealed but “advertising seemed like much more fun and it was better paid”.

In the 60s he went to New York, working for advertising giants David Ogilvy and George Lois and believes writing advertising copy imposed disciplines that have been vital in his new career.

“You are obliged to stick to the plot – to be concise, informative and if possible entertaining. These are not bad qualities for a writer to cultivate.”

Entertaining it was, like his well-known catch phrase in a bread commercial. “Nice one – Cyril”.

With copylines like that on his CV it seems hard to understand how Mayle could throw in the security of an advertising executive for the life of a novelist?

“I would not ever associate security with advertising, which always was a precarious occupation,” he said.

“I was able to leave the business because my books were starting to make money and I was able to get freelance advertising work.”

“Writer’s block” has never been a problem: “I have had plenty of dark moments in my life, but I have never suffered from writer’s block, perhaps thanks to my years in advertising, when if one idea did not work you tried something else.”

Mayle sums up his strengths, saying: “I am well organised, determined – some, including my wife, would say stubborn – and I have a robust sense of humour that helps in dealing with life’s problems.”

Surprisingly, his weaknesses include “idleness” but also, less surprisingly, “a disinclination to take things, or people seriously”.

Look at his book French Lessons – Adventures with a Knife, Fork and Corkscrew, where he travels through the country sampling gastronomic festivals. They were all fascinating but he says he loved the Chicken Festival in Brest, “A thousand beautifully trussed birds laid out on stalls surrounded by appreciative visitors”.

With four of his children living in the US and one in England and with seven grandchildren they exchange visits as often as is possible but they always keep in touch. One thing he does notice on his visits is the Francophobia that still infects UK media.

“I am surprised by the degree of resentment shown by some British towards the French. It is pathetic, ignorant and spiteful, and so shrill it is impossible to take seriously.”

There are no signs of Peter Mayle easing himself into retirement – despite that BBC portrayal – and he says “with luck” he would like to write a “book every two years – either fiction or non-fiction – until I keel over. God knows there is plenty to write about.”

He laughs as he admits that he always writes with “tongue very firmly in cheek” and adds: “I do not take anything too seriously. You have to, life is too short'.

The background

WHEN A Year in Provence was first published in hardback in 1989 it was an instant sensation and has since sold five million copies.

It brought thousands of visitors to the region and almost as many with money to buy themselves a share of the lifestyle.

Some fans went too far and intruded right into his home and garden – as recounted in his 1991 book Toujours Provence where he finds people sitting in his kitchen.

His other French books include:
Expensive Habits 1992, Hotel Pastis 1993, A Dog’s Life 1995, Anything Considered 1996, Chasing Cezanne 1998, Encore Provence 2000, Bon Appetit 2001, A Good Year 2004, Confessions of a French Baker 2005, Provence A-Z 2006.

Born on June 14, 1939, Peter Mayle left school at 16 and became an advertising copywriter and executive for 15 years, before leaving Madison Avenue in 1975 to write educational books for children.

His first book, Where Did I Come From? (explaining the facts of life to children) was published in 1973 and is still in print today, more than three million copies later.

The latest book, The Vintage Caper, is a crime novel set in Hollywood, Paris, Bordeaux, and Marseille where Mayle gets the chance to use his wine knowledge and include tasting notes on the likes of Lynch-Bages and Léoville Barton.

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