Horatio Clare made a seasonal appearance on Radio 4’s Open Book on 19th January. His subject was the literature of winter and he roamed, with ease, across The Snow Queen, The Shining and Miss Smilla by way of Robert Harris, Angela Carter, Jack London, T H White and Patrick Hamilton. Our last glimpse of Frankenstein, he recalled, is in pursuit of his nemesis across the ice flows. As a radio programme it was all mighty cold.
But the programme touched upon Shelley and his poem of summer being contingent upon the passing of winter. It takes a farmer, or a horticulturist, to feel the seasonal passage most intimately. Monty Don’s book is the literary equivalent of basking before a mood-elevating lightbox.
The Road to Le Tholonet is soaked in smell and colour. Don picks out a quotation from a letter by Van Gogh to brother Theo. The date is 6th September 1889 and Vincent writes of ‘my journey to the south…the difference of the stronger light, the blue sky that teaches one to see’. Cếzanne’s studio, Don discovers, is in a delicious green shade. ‘It also smelt good. Pine, sand, sun, stone, cistus, thyme mingled to make that particularly oily, musky, southern fragrance.’
To be a travel writer is to be a reader’s companion, and Monty Don is a good one. Paul Theroux may be right on Angola in The Last Train to Zona Verde but he is been a grouch, ever since that last train to Patagonia. His trip across the Pacific, The Happy Isles of Oceania, made me wish never to go near the place.
Don has an open, generous eye for what he sees and a breadth of sympathy that is only rarely ruffled. His narrative in fact comprises several journeys. He adores the TGV, equally for its speed, comfort and environmentalism, as much he is put out by the indignities of low-cost flying. While he soaks in French gardens, markets and cooking he enjoys the occasional Theroux-vian snipe at things British. Spying some fellow Britons at ‘a low-slung, mean affair’- that is, a regional airport- he sees ‘badly dressed people, all looking a bit too red, speaking with loud English accents’.
He knows the French and is clearly indebted to Graham Robb and his path-breaking book of 2007 The Discovery of France. In social manners Don notes the differences. The French display more formal respect. Tempers may flare but there is a lesser inclination to violence.
Their Cartesian tradition extends to their gardening. In his introduction he observes that ‘modern gardeners like Gilles Clement receive great respect, as much for the ideas as for the gardens themselves’. In fact the plant life comes second. At a great garden, La Louve, he writes that ‘the constituents of a good garden always owe more to good design than to horticulture’.
Don has certainly earned his critical spurs. Without ostentation he slips in mention of gardens in the Amazon or Chandigarh, where thousands of garden figures have been made from building rubble. The French and British traditions vary. France was later to industrialise and connotations of class are different. ‘The image of the tweeded gentleman or lady in twinset and pearls with dirty hands’, he writes, ‘weeding in a border is very rare in France.’
The allotment in Britain is inseparable from the Second World War and the drive for food. It is a cramped piece of urban land. Allotments in France have mature fruit trees- figs, plums, apples, pears, apricots and cherries. Most of all the Britons are obsessed with the process of gardening rather than the outcome. The garden is a domain that exists on its own. ‘Art and gardening are awkward bed-fellows in Britain’ he says. Ian Hamilton Finlay is an exception ‘but we like our gardening “experts” to be unsullied by anything as flaky as art’.
Visiting Sericourt Don likes ‘the sense of play that runs parallel to the deeply serious themes’. At le Jardin de Plumes, near Rouen, he admires a hedge clipped like sharks-fin waves, ‘a piece of pure theatre.’ Giverny to his mind, apart from its annual six hundred thousand visitors, brings out a mixed reaction. At certain times of year ‘the sweet rocket, roses, eremurus, clematis…make great washing waves of colour that I floated in deliriously.’
Food is similar cause for sensory surfeit. Don is of that generation old enough to recall the over-hang of the rationing culture. Even the notion of pasta was a novelty. If it appeared at all it would be ‘boiled to a pulp and floating in grey watery mince’. France is the country of ‘ruby chard and red lettuces, purple kale, purple and yellow beans as well as green ones, crimson-flowered broad beans and lovely rich chocolate-coloured mangetout peas’.
Slivers of biography and travellers tales run though The Road to Le Tholonet. Don learns that Cếzanne’s father had had a hole cut in the eaves to provide a northern source of light, a nice gesture to a son who had sold not a painting before the age of thirty-five. Don’s own father-son relationship is a very British one. When the youth of October 1973 sets out for the south, with no money but a guitar to do the earning, Dad is there muttering ‘if you do any f—ing, wear a Johnny’. Don adds ‘It was hard to know which of us was more embarrassed’.
The writer has been seasoned in the four decades that follow. He had no knowledge then of the susceptibility to Seasonal Affective Syndrome. The book touches lightly on the 1980s, the shop in Knightsbridge, the life mixing with high fashion, and the calamity that ensued.
Travel itself has changed, smartened, slickened, but soured. The sexual accessories he discovers in a hotel left behind from a gathering of swingers are a source of surprise. But it is a different time that sees some salmon and marmalade, a gift in Dundee, confiscated for destruction when he attempts a flight to Birmingham.
A late section in the book starts with a poppy and leads to the subject of war graves and the Great War. It is a beautifully composed sequence of some gravity, an example of travel writing assuming moral seriousness without sacrifice of narrative colour or sensual relish.
The publishers have not matched this relish with the quality of illustration. The pictures in a mute black and white are not brilliant for a book priced at twenty pounds. Nonetheless, the arcade of the Palais Royal- ‘pale gravel below spangled with light’- is wonderfully evocative. A beef tomato is pictured of an astonishing size, its flesh so meaty and bulging and its skin so thin as to make it unfit for transport from its home market.
There are no two adjoining countries on earth that share the relationship that exists between England and France. No nation elsewhere owns homes and property in the way that Southern England has taken root in rural France. The USA is beloved by its southern neighbours, but the investment is hard-headed, laundered or tax flight money. Little-England-in-France is a love affair that runs as deep as the condemnation of the country’s economic dirigisme by the neo-liberals of the Anglo-US polity. The Road to Le Tholonet is all at once expression, examination and celebration of that love affair. That bulging, bursting tomato says it all.