Allan and Nira, who own the Maison d’Estella ,cycle along the river to meet us for lunch at la Ginguette. (See last year’s Post Last Walk To La Ginguette). This is the unique the open air cafe situated where the silver-green River Hérault joins a spur of the limpid green Canal du Midi. The Café has a small stage and a tiny dance floor and we talk, eat and drink to the mournful heartfelt romantic songs of, among more contemporary singers, the French chansonniers – the traditional singers who are said to be the last vestige if the medieval troubadours.
On the walls are poster images of singers and crooners from across the world but an especial place is saved for louche retro images of great French chansonniers such as George Brassens and Jacques Brel. I searched the walls of La Guingette for an image of Jean Sablon, a favourite of my mother’s. I have some scratchy memory of my father singing one of Jean Sablon’s songs -J’Attendrai – to my mother when I was small. As my father died when I was nine and couldn’t speak French this should be impossible. But if it’s a false memory it’s rather a nice one.
Whether that is a true memory or not here on wall are images of these fabulist singers talking and smoking with a sophistication lost in our own age,
As it is lunchtime rather than evening at La Guingette, there is no dancing, and the music is on tape. But still it enhances the raffish atmosphere generated by the posters and the distinctly improvised decor as we eat from plastic tables among rustling greenery.
Adopting something of a louche style ourselves we enjoy the food and wine and talk about books we’re reading, exchanging titles and favourite writers as readers do. We share news about current creative projects and family events. Nira talks about the new novel she is reading; Allan is developing a new painting studio; I’m writing my new book; Avril’s thinking about her new poem; Debora’s writing her excellent articles and thinking about a book; Sean and Bryan are talking about our journeys; we hear stories of Allan and Nira’s son Tom who working as a crew member on a luxury yacht taking a three year journey round the world.
Nira says she’s waiting for my new novel Starr Bright to come out, as it’s set in this, her town, in the Maison d’Estella, the house where we’re staying. (One day a group of tourists peered through the big wooden door and the leader asked about the novel – whether it would be available in a French edition...) I’ve been thinking I might change the title but more news of in another post.
Later in the afternoon Allan comes over to the house by arrangement, so he can tell me a very interesting true story from his home ground of Somerset, set at the turn of the twentieth century. I ask lots of questions and we record his story on my radio recorder for future reference.
I find myself listening to a wonderful intergenerational tale emerging from a small run-down fishing port in Somerset. It involves generations of seafaring men and their widely interlinked families. Into the lives of these ordinary people an important artist comes. There is even a prince involved. And at the core of this story, in my view, there is this surprising coincidence to do with painting and art and this practically minded sea-going family.
Although he is sceptical I suggest to Allan that he himself, in a way, personifies somewhat that coincidence: a painter first and foremost, he is an accomplished sailor – although he insists it is the aesthetics, not the athletics, of sailing that he enjoys. And it occurs to me later that the kitchens of their houses here - which he develops himself – seem to me to have the polished wood and shipshape design of a boat’s cabin.
I don’t know that he agrees, but it’s an interesting thought.
Will Allan’s Somerset tale make a novel? Surely. There’s only the matter of the four or five years it would take to research and develop it of course,
One thing’s for sure. Stories pop up everywhere in this place.