An unexpectedly warm day sees quite a few folk gathered at the local library where I am to offer a reading of my last book, The Road That Runs. Once again, it’s set in that fruit growing area of Provence where one can expect something meteorologically consistent. So much so, in fact, that it’s easy to write against a backdrop of the seasons: the almond blossom of spring; the seemingly endless heat of high summer; the chilly winds of autumn and the sudden arrival and even more speedy departure of Christmas.
An age ago, I stayed in Provence during what passes for winter. The only thing that marks this temporary hiatus between the end of one level of warmth and the beginning of another is the somewhat fabular Mistral. Emulating the hand of Satan, it shuts down the electricity, the internet and sometimes the water supply. Depending on its strength, it closes the motorway or, at the very least, forces mad truckers to travel more slowly than they would like. It makes ladies’ hair stand on end, literally. And people seeking refuge in Avignon, where the wind reaches a climax alongside the Rhône, down which it has hurtled, are accosted by flying placards. But this is a picture of Dorset!
On that long-ago sojourn, having succumbed and adjusted to the nuances of what they like to call winter, I was appalled to wake to snow on the morning I’d planned to go home for Christmas. It won’t last, they said. And it didn’t.
Inevitably, having given a reading, folk always ask whether I have a house in Provence; and if not, would I like one. Well, no actually. Of course, if I was a rich woman, I would. Who wouldn’t? That instantly reviving warmth, the vibrant Provençal markets, the lost-in-time antiquities, the never-ending aperitif and, naturally, all those eclectic friends made over the years. It’s all so – reliable. But I wouldn’t stay all year in that hypothetical house because what’s even more reliable, and more demanding, is home. Some folk seek a warmer winter but I can understand those who hurry home to the grey dampness of England.
Global warming may have led to the English seasons being less discernible than those of childhood but, regardless of temperamental weather, they still exist. The Provençal autumn is marked by gunshot: the onset of the hunting season where anything moving is fair game. The English autumn is signalled by the sight of random berry collectors along the hedgerows. In my books, Madame Martin and Madame Lapin become entrepreneurs selling confiture and pickle made from the goods that Monsieur Martin grows. In my real world, everyone is making crumbles, jam and chutney. Those of us devoid of sterilised jars and inherited know-how, shovel their sloes and blackberries and damsons into brandy and gin.
In France, no-one talks about Yuletide until about half an hour before the Christmas Eve celebrations. In England, we’ve started purchasing gifts in October. Because, largely, we love it. In France, there are beautiful crêches to be seen in December but the nativity comprises a tiny part of the scene which depicts the year-round culture of Provence. In England, which, for me, is Dorset, there is story-telling, Dickens and the Bournemouth Symphony and Chorus performing The Messiah. As I said, it’s all so wonderfully predictable.