Author Peter Mayle, 78, passed away on Thursday, 18th January 2018 after a brief illness. The news was discreetly put out by his publisher Alfred A Knopf, a short statement appearing on his Facebook page. And that was that.
In the UK, Mayle’s passing was noted in obituaries on the BBC and in a number of newspapers: The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail all carrying mentions (even The New York Times further afield).
However, considering the impact that Mayle had on the British middle classes in the latter part of the 20th century, I am staggered by how muted the marking of his passing was.
A Year in Provence will be his legacy. The Telegraph cites six million copies sold after an initial print run of just 3,000. The Daily Mail has a charming story of a pilot reading the book during the first Gulf War reading a copy whilst waiting for order to fly into battle.
They’re cute anecdotes. But their real value is as the symbol of the man who invented the modern British middle class dream. Before that period in the late 1980s, there was little talk of “foreign” food and property abroad.
The only people wanting homes in foreign fields were bank robbers and Ronnie Biggs. Mayle changed all that.
Before long, anyone with a property to mortgage and grown dependents were indulging their taste for property speculation and moaning about foreign building regulations. There’s not been a conquest as sudden or all-encompassing since the Normans sharpened their arrows.
Later, he suffered from the Law of Unintended Consequences. His picturesque descriptions of truculent natives and long, lazy lunches in bucolic settings famously invited visitors; fans of the work pitching up to say hello and becoming so intrusive that he and his wife were forced him to leave Provence. Initially they relocated to America and Amagansett on Long Island; later returning to his beloved southern France – although this time not being quite so free with his location descriptions that people could actually hunt him down.
Latterly, Mayle’s novels seemed to want to cater to an American audience. His old eye for the market, formed in his advertising days meant that, in such fare as his Sam Levitt triology The Marseille Caper , The Vintage Caper and The Corsican Caper, he drew characters from both Britain and America.
These light as a soufflé romp almost always included beautiful French locations, women whose beauty was echoed in the vistas, clumsy Hugh Grant-lite Englishmen and villains redeemed by chicanery and the power of a decent lunch. Capers were apt descriptions.
Unsurprisingly, he was ill-served by the English language literati who paid little mind to his work. This is reflected in the paucity of his output available on Audible and the seemingly extraordinary lengths one had to go to obtain copies of these novels online. The fact that France gave him the Legion d’Honneur in 2002 is a testament to their generosity when you consider how many Brits of dubious use to the French state followed him.
Personally, I enjoyed his novels. He had a talent for plot and kept the stories whipping along and always ending happily – with sun. And lunch. And wine. Or dinner. Or lunch with sun and wine stretching through to dinner. With wine. Bliss.
It is sad to think that there is no more of his work to come. Maybe I am the right age, the right demographic to have enjoyed his work. But I did. I’ll miss tracking the new book down. Luckily, his back catalogue remains.
Farewell to the Sun King.
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