Published by graham on Fri, 08/08/2014 - 17:15
Most writers I know – English or otherwise – respond to changes of location (in plainer English we call this “travel”). We also, as a tribe, enjoy the chance to meet fellow writers, compare notes, and maybe even bump into one or two folk who have dared to scale our modest fictional alps and have survived to make it back to base camp (we call these “readers”). Roll all these delights into a single weekend and – voila! – you may be lucky enough to find yourself invited to a festival de polars.
My first experience of this full immersion in the delights of French culture was in Paris several years back. I was travelling with a bunch of fellow English scribes. The main event took place in a cinema buried in the suburbs and was scored for no less than sixteen ecrivains de polar. We came from the UK, from Italy, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Norway and Denmark. None of us spoke French and so we were each allotted an interpreter. The result was chaos, spiked with boredom. Each reply passed through the colander of translation and no matter how witty or insightful or plain daft your contribution, the event died on its feet. This table infiniment ronde began at two thirty. It was midsummer. By the time I left, comatose, it was dark.
As a direct result, I set out to learn French (another alp). To my surprise, I began to pick it up. To force the pace a little I refused the services of a translator – and fear did the rest. Nowadays, I can do a decent impression of an English auteur bewildering audiences across your nation with his magnificent – if idiosyncratic – French. My private theory, which serves as a kind of alibi, is that you love foreigners who at least have a go. And having a go is what the English do best.
And here’s the proof. As word spread that I would spare you the chore of laying hands on a translator, the invitations began to roll in: Lamballe, Bruxelles, Lyons, Concarneau, Poitier, Frontignan, Versailles, Neuilly-Plaisance. The sheer range of locations was evidence – to little me – that reading (and therefore buying) was alive and well in France.
Whether you ended up in the Salles des Expositions a Bruxelles or a village hall deep in la France profonde, families would roll in to not simply flick through the odd book but to engage in detailed analysis of a chapter – or a walk-on character – that you’d long forgotten. I’ll never forget the woman in Lamballe who took me to task for not finding Inspector Joe Faraday a nicer, warmer, more sympa choice of partner. A French woman of a certain age, she inferred, would have been perfect. This was impressive enough but later in the conversation I discovered that she’d come all the way from Nantes for the festival. Nantes was three hours by road. And the coach had been full of fellow readers. Chapeau, quoi?
But then came l’invitation havraise, and the beckoning finger of Les Ancres Noires was special for a number of reasons. First of all, as Jacques Salles – producer of Deux Flics Sur Les Docks – discovered, Le Havre is remarkably similar to Portsmouth, where twelve of my polars take place: two ciites at the end of their separate railway lines, two cities earning a robust – meme sauvage - living from industry and the sea, two communities with a faint but perceptible sense of embattlement. After my first taste of the festival a la plage, I felt undeniably at home.
It helped, of course, that Lin and I made friends. Not only amongst fellow writers but with the volunteers who made the festival a reality and put this tiny cultural corner of Le Havre on the map. Ann and Dom Lafosse happened to share a passion for good beer, laughter, and football (not necessarily in that order) and I like to think we’ll stay in touch for a very long time.
One of my best-ever days was a couple of years back when all four of us were invited on set for the first tournage of the “Flics” series. We spent an exceptionally wonderful day watching a couple of scenes come to life amongst the wastelands of the old ocean liner terminal and later the madness of downtown traffic before retiring chez Lafosse to watch Arsenal take on Barcelona in the Champions League over cans of Pietra (a must-quaff Corsican beer). Such stuff as dreams are made of….
Believe it or not, all this matters because it’s far too easy for writers to skid over the surface of a place or a series of conversations, and thanks to Ann and Dom I suspect I’ve inched beyond the foothills of la vie havraise. So much so that I took the liberty of busting out of the crime genre and setting a very different kind of book around – yes, yes – the festival. Strictly No Flowers was triggered by a chance encounter with a woman who lingered for a moment or two at my signing table, followed by a late-afternoon visit to St Joseph’s Church. The rest I blame on my imagination.
But back to the movies. I worked in television for twenty years and I have nothing but admiration for the way Jacques Salles and his team have captured the spirit of my crime-series. No film can ever capture the complexities and nuance that comes with book-length writing but Jacques’ adaptations are recogniseably the children of the stuff I put on paper – and that, believe me, is much rarer than you’d ever believe. The films have also built a sizeable audience in France, a tribute not only to Jacques but to the city itself. One of the on-set conversations I cherish centered on the issue of expectation and reality. The guys I was talking to, on arrival in Havre, had profound doubts about their new location. Yet only months later the place had seeped into their bones. Je suis devenue un mordu de Havre, one told me.
Me, too. Quel regale….