| Cradle of the poets
History is taking its revenge amongst the oak, poplar and myriad fruit and flowers of this sequestered corner of south-west France that Henry Miller called “the cradle of the poets.” If British imperialism was India’s second Aryan coming, as Nirad C. Chaudhuri believed, the Dordogne boom marks England’s second invasion of France.
The walled perfection of Monpazier town, built by the English in the 13th century to repulse the French, recalls the first; the MCC (Montcler Cazal Cricket Club) is the second. Montcler is a small village under the shadow of a 15thcentury chateau, Cazal another English bastide, as fortified towns are called. At the MCC’s annual match it was as if the war had never ended. Rock music blared from Montcler’s village fête on one side of the chateau where nobody spoke English. Rudyard Kipling’s “flannelled fools” gambolled on our side where no one wanted to speak French. The women took time off from chattering to murmur clapping, “Oh, jolly good shot!” Fête and match were supposed to fuse into a single celebration. When I told a jolly MCC wife that I had hoped to find Frenchmen yelling “Owzzat!” she replied scornfully, “They wouldn’t know what it was about!” Two Frenchmen left their game of boule to walk up to the pitch, stare and drift away. One brave local lad did don pads but a slow ball hit him squarely on the nose. It might have been England’s retaliation for Simon de Montford, whom the French stoned to death in 1218 or for the axing of the Earl of Shrewsbury 200 years later.
If time had really stood still since the Hundred Years War, Trilokesh Mukherjee, a graphic designer from Oxford who came to the Dordogne 15 years ago with his Lancashire wife, Margaret, could not have taken me to the match or umpired it. Trilokesh identifies every birdsong in the bushes, every wild flower on the verge and every little animal that crosses our path as we tramp the chestnut woods. Riding his Peugeot through picturesque villages covered in vine and Jerusalem trumpet, by winding rivers and a landscape studded with chateaux, is like a royal progress. There’s an exchange at every gate and with every car. “Bonjour…ça va'…au’voir”, a continuum of handshakes, hugs, kisses and torrents of excited French.
Such enthusiasm and popularity would make him an ideal mayor — maire — of Campagnac les Quercy, I say. Wisps of grey hair floating about genial face and balding pate would look good above the sash of office. He pleads that his interests do not extend beyond organizing drawing competitions for Campagnac children and events like the MCC match and the village fête, where a monogrammed cufflink drops off while we dance to the music of an accordion. The bonfire outside is a reminder of Joan of Arc.
Campagnac village has 290 people in 49 hamlets, of which La Seveille, a cluster of seven cottages, is one. Trilokesh and Margaret live there in Maya. Margaret, serene and sympathique, is the perfect foil for his gushing goodwill, her silences masking keen observation and a wry but gentle sense of humour.
Unlike good Americans who go to Paris, good Britons have come to the Dordogne since Cyril Connolly battled with enemies of promise and Nancy Cunard, socialite, rebel and writer, inhabited a hotel in Gourdon, our railhead. A few English graves nestle in a corner of Campagnac cemetery. The English came and the French left, driven out by poverty and failing agriculture. I am told that a thousand farms disappear every year. Although the European Union handsomely subsidizes those who still till the land or keep cattle and pigs, the sons of a stony soil crave urban respectability as in India.
But the best walnuts in France grow here. Tobacco flourishes, despite official discouragement. Fat geese wait patiently in the fields for their fatter force-fed livers to be ground into pâté. Sarlat, with its narrow lanes and Gothic steeples, witness to war and religious strife, is France’s pâté de foie gras capital. Maya’s garden provides courgette and sorrel, currants, potatoes and walnut for the Mukherjee table.
I learnt from Trilokesh that a scion of the Elmhirst family — shades of Santiniketan and Dartington Hall — “discovered” this part of the Dordogne. Later, over drinks on a patio overlooking a wide valley, I met a grand-daughter, holidaying from Tehran, of the Elmhirst woman who bought a house forty years ago. Our hostess, naturally also English, owner of the patio, villa, adjoining swimming pool and surrounding acres, has visited Calcutta. We talk of the maharajah of Cooch Behar and the vanished splendour of Woodlands.
The feudal spirit is comfortable for this is Aquitaine, Eleanor’s dowry: the battles were all over the English king’s lands and titles over which the French king claimed suzerain rights. As readers will remember, when Shakespeare’s Catherine of Valois tells Henry V that she cannot marry her country’s enemy, the victor of Agincourt replies brazenly that he loves France so much he will not part with a scrap of it. “Everywhere was solitude, desolation and misery” recorded a 14th-century chronicler, “fields are deserted, houses ruined and empty except in the walled towns; everywhere you see the fatal footprints of the English and the hateful scars still bleeding from their scars.”
Some say that the scars did not heal until an exiled Charles de Gaulle made his peace in London. History was re-enacted then with the Germans attacking Castelnaud Chateau overlooking the Dordogne river because it was a hotbed of the Maquis. But the English had already discovered, appropriated and found an English name for the region’s wine. Just as no one in Germany has heard of hock, the light white Rhine wine fashionable in London clubs, no Frenchman uses the English word, claret, for Bordeaux.
Annie Aldhuy pours the full-bodied dark red wine for us to taste at her Domaine de Fantou in Cahors where the Mukherjees buy it by the barrel. Bernard, her husband, drives up in a machine scattering unwanted vine leaves. Perhaps it did take one war to unite the divisions of another. “The alliance of France and England has been a political and military necessity,” André Maurois wrote from his Dordogne retreat in 1939. “It must become a human reality.”
More remote reality survives at Lascaux, whose wondrous bulls and cows were painted 17,000 years ago. Groping along the subterranean tunnel, one understands why the caves have been called “the prehistoric Sistine Chapel”. Cro-Magnon man lived in the Dordogne 35,000 years ago. This has always been an eclectic region. The Moors came up to Poitiers. Les Milandes castle keeps alive the memory of Josephine Baker, the black American dancer who nursed there her “rainbow tribe” of children of all races and religions. A Francophone black lords it in another chateau. Like the ubiquitous English, Dutch settlers like our landlord have also converted stone farmhouses. An 82-year-old Dutchwoman, whom the Japanese interned in Java, gives us tea in her fragment of a 450-year-old abbey. Names and features echo distant worlds — Scandinavia, Germany, Indonesia and South America. There are even some French.
At Rocamadour, site of miracles, we laboured up 216 steps cut into the hillside to the ultimate universalism of the black Madonna. No wonder France earned Hitler’s contempt for being colour-blind. It is even more significantthat not until the 17th century did anyone notice the Virgin was black. As I tell Trilokesh again, an ethnic Indian maire with an English wife to boot would honour the region’s diversity. If a part can be greater than the whole, that is the Dordogne, according to Henry Miller with whom we began. To end with him too, “France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the soul of men.” Amen to that.