Continuing website editor Val Hewson’s reading journey
In the late 1970s, I spent a year in France as part of my university course. I was the English assistant in a school, the Collège Jules Ferry, in the small town of Montluçon.
If you look at a map of France, Montluçon is just about in the centre, near Vichy. It is at heart a medieval town, with a castle on the top of the hill, a 12th century church below and narrow streets twisting around. The castle was home to a hurdy-gurdy museum (the only one in the world, they told me). Around the historic centre is the newer town, with some beautiful 19th century houses, modern apartment buildings and, across the River Cher, a Dunlop factory. The school where I worked is based in a former convent near the centre. For a few weeks I lived there, before I moved to a tiny flat on the banks of the Cher.
I must have taken books to France with me. I would never have gone so far away for so long without cramming as many as I could into my trunk. But I don’t remember titles. Fiction rather than non-fiction, I think, for relaxation. Catch 22 is a possibility, as I read and re-read it then. Loyalty oaths, the soldier in white and Major Major promoted by an IBM machine with a sense of humour. Almost certainly I packed at least one of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond novels, as I was devoted to these long, intricate tales of a 16th century adventurer. Maybe there was a Georgette Heyer – Frederica, at a guess. Filled with good intentions, I might have put in set texts like Madame Bovary and Germinal. No, never Germinal, which I hated.
At all events, these books would not have lasted me long. Clearly I needed to find other sources of reading material. If there was a school library, I never found it. There was a bookshop in town, with lots of Gallimard, Garnier Flammarion and Livre de Poche paperbacks. I used to go to a newsagent, for the local newspaper, La Montagne, and for magazines like L’Express or the occasional Paris Match for celebrity news. I remember a story in Paris Match that the Duke of Edinburgh was mysteriously ill, and a teacher begged me to ask my mother if this was known about ‘chez vous, en Angleterre’. I also used to buy the International Herald Tribune, where I discovered Doonesbury.
Some books came through the radio. BBC Radio 4 on long wave gave me Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, read by Robert Powell. ‘Midnight Orgy at Number 10!’ and Agatha Runcible saying ‘too, too sick-making’ (a phrase I still use). And I learned the Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
At some point, I realised that Montluçon had a public library. I think I had to pay a small subscription. I embarrassed myself at the registration desk by using the verb ‘joindre’ [‘to attach’] than ‘s’inscrire’ [‘to enrol’], and was glared at by the librarian. In hindsight, ‘attach’ perhaps better describes my feeling about libraries. I suppose I did read some original French novels but mostly I borrowed English and American detective stories in translation. There was one about a woman being told that one of her aunts – she had seven? – had murdered her husband and trying to work out which one. I would love to know the title. Anyone?
Just before Christmas, the grumbling appendix I’d had for some years finally had enough and I ended up in the Centre Hospitalier, having an emergency operation for peritonitis. I spent the next ten days there. (As the first ever English patient, I was a sensation and staff came from all over to see if I was the same as the much more familiar French patient. One nurse looked at my freckles and informed me that I could probably have them surgically removed. Perhaps it was a joke.) Lots of my students, their parents and the teachers visited me. Most brought marrons glacées and the like, which was nice, but someone – one of the English teachers? the headmaster’s wife? – thoughtfully arrived with two books. She had bought, she said, the only English books in the local bookshop. This was, for someone twitchy if there was no book within a foot or so, the best thing she could have done.
The books were by Agatha Christie. There was her autobiography and a Miss Marple story, Sleeping Murder. I remember Fontana paperbacks, with distinctive covers. I rationed them carefully, as I didn’t know where my next book would come from. Christie’s autobiography was, helpfully, very long, although it failed to explain her famous disappearance in 1926. Sleeping Murder is the rather creepy story of a young woman who, visiting England for the first time, stays in a house she finds she remembers. I’m not a great Christie fan, but both books were wonderful distractions from stitches, glucose drips and the tea served in French hospitals.
Still in France at Christmas, I was farmed out among various kind teachers, until I was strong enough to fly home. Wanting me to enjoy my first Noël, they gave me a hand-printed silk scarf and a book, Joachim a des Ennuis [Joachim in Trouble], by Goscinny and Sempé. I still have both scarf and book, and I still laugh at the story of Nicolas being pursued about the house by his visiting Mémé [grandmother]. ‘Un bisou! Viens encore me faire un bisou!’ [‘Come and give me another kiss!’]