The genius of Cezanne

Pity the poor curators of major exhibitions struggling to find fresh takes on famous masters. The curators of Tate Modern’s new Cezanne blockbuster have begun by dropping the acute accent from his surname, apparently a Parisian affectation not in use on the artist’s home turf. Anticipating grumbles about another major exhibition devoted to a dead white male artist, they have emphasised Cezanne’s outsider status by painting him as a provincial from Provence. It was a role the artist liked to play in Paris, once famously excusing himself from shaking Manet’s hand on the grounds that he hadn’t washed in a week. Cezanne’s peers put their money where their mouths were,

The global elite and me

Here come the global elites. They love it here. Their spiritual second home. The heat, the rosé, the food, the service, the quaint and deserted villages. One way and another I get to meet some of them. Catriona manages holiday villas and those renters she likes she asks up to our place for a drink. The day Boris resigned a couple of these elite social-equity fanatics floated up to the house speechless with ecstasy. Post-Trump, Boris was their Satan, prince of lies. Now he’d resigned. Or as good as, if princes of lies can ever be believed. One last heave and they’d done it. Got the bastard out. Thankfully, a

French kissing with the French

Every year Vernon celebrates the gathering in and pressing of his olive harvest by inviting friends to a ceremony at his house. This year there were seven of us. He poured about a third of a pint of the freshly pressed, very green oil on to a central white china plate. We each took a small piece of toast, rubbed it with a garlic clove and soaked it in the oil. Then we removed it from the oil and rubbed it against the pulp of a quartered tomato. Apparently it’s a Provençal peasant tradition. The new green oil catches the back of the throat and isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

A tale of bitter brotherly rivalry

For early humans there was no distinction between spirit and matter. There was no idea of self; no barrier between consciousness and the world. Eventually, evolving self-consciousness and thought put a barrier between the two. Object was irrecoverably divorced from subject. Or so I’ve read somewhere. Something like that anyway. Very recently yet another barrier has been erected between human consciousness and the world in the form of the smart phone touch screen, putting us at not one but two removes from reality. No wonder everyone’s lost the plot. On Sunday, at the very forefront of the evolution of human consciousness, I took human evolution a step further by watching

My happiness has given way to a paralysing melancholy

From our hypothetical drone-mounted camera let us look down into a secluded valley in the same series of valleys as Brad and Angelina’s celebrated Provençal vineyard. Cultivated olives and vines on ancient terraces descend to an English lawn encompassing a pretty stone cottage, formerly a beekeeper’s. The lawn is wide and green and must take an enormous and perhaps illegal amount of water to keep it alive through the scorching summer. Moreover, the smallish blades of grass and the mosses suggest an English species of lawn. There has been no compromising here with a broader-leafed, hardier, uglier, tropical variety. To see an English lawn here, in this harsh climate, coterminous

A tale of many swimming pools

My two grandsons are staying with us here in Provence for a week. Roman soldier Catriona flew from Marseille to Stansted and back in a day to get them out. Oscar, aged 11, is a regular summer visitor and knows the ropes. Klynton, ten, is here for the first time. Klynton is what used to be described as ‘a bit slow’. At school he stays two years in the same class to everyone else’s one. He is a cheerful, polite lad with a phenomenal memory for football statistics. He can hardly dress himself but can tell you that last season Sadio Mané scored 11 goals with seven assists and is

I found a confused elderly man in my bedroom

There are several cave houses built into the cliff. Ours is the highest and can be reached only by a precipitous footpath with a lot of puffing and panting. The postbox is at the foot of the path, but occasionally the postman carries up something or other that needs to be signed for. When you go to the door to answer his knock, you find him doubled over, his hands on his knees, pouring with sweat, gasping pitifully, unable to speak. Guests likewise. The path up to the house is a public footpath that is part of a tourist trail called ‘Visit the Grottos’. One pays €2 at the tourist

Nuns, a maquisard and the Devil’s Own Rum: a Provençale pilgrimage

Avid Spectator reader Mr Brown had endured the very strictest of lockdowns for family health reasons in Tunbridge Wells. Since March he had interacted only with delivery drivers, his wife and their two children. He was therefore quite unsocialised when he stopped with us for a night on his journey from Kent to the Pongo Delta in Guinea, where for the next 12 months he will be organising the security for a mining company trucking bauxite 200 miles through bandit country. I found him standing outside a village bar looking at his watch because I was an hour late. He heaved a shopping bag for life filled with booze and

Low life | 1 November 2018

I apologised, was gladly granted an indulgence, and on Sunday I packed a small bag and reached into a drawer for the passport. I was going back to the cave house in the Provençal village. Back to France and the French and to speaking my trousers-on-fire French. Salut! Tu vas bien? Viens m’embrasser, mon petit chou. Back to a country where, as Barbara Cartland put it, you can make love in the afternoon without people hammering on the door. Back to village bells clanging off the hours of the day, back to early rising and trying to be witty, or at least sentient, in French with the insanely jolly woman

Low life | 13 September 2018

The long table was set out under four beautifully pollarded plane trees festooned with coloured lanterns and red balloons. Twenty party guests. Above us the clear night sky was brightly peppered with stars. Three and a half years ago, Catriona fled to France with a broken heart and shattered confidence. She returned to the village where she had spent family holidays in happier years; an expat family friend had offered his empty villa as a refuge. In that lonely time she used to stand at the bedroom window and look out at those pollarded planes, bare and dripping in the rain, and wonder what was going to become of her.

Low life | 22 March 2018

During the past three years I have spent quite a bit of time in a rented house in Provence. Volets Bleus is a rectangular breeze-block bungalow perched on the side of a hill. In front of it is a tiled south-facing terrace resting on concrete pillars. The terrace looks over the tops of the trees that grow out of the valley floor, and further out over a commercial vineyard, and then to a distant line of oak-forested hills. Our nearest neighbours are a Dutch couple who live in a pretty old property a quarter of a mile away and high above us, currently on the market for €1.2 million. Kukor

Low life | 17 August 2017

On Sunday morning we went, Oscar and I, to a vide grenier in the ancient, picturesque Provençal village. Vide grenier means ‘open attic sale’ — which is the French equivalent of our car boot sale. Oscar had €20 with which to buy homecoming gifts for his Mum and her partner, and his three half-siblings. The stalls were set out under the shade trees of the village boulodrome. Ex-dustman Grandad loves browsing in skips and charity shops and at car boot sales and he was in seventh heaven. At the first stall, I was very drawn to an old hand-tinted framed print of two peasants standing in a furrowed field. The

Low life | 10 August 2017

My grandson and I are reprising the 1968 film The Swimmer. Burt Lancaster is an advertising executive at a pool party who attempts to swim eight miles home via his affluent Connecticut neighbourhood’s outdoor swimming pools. We don’t have a pool, but our friends are generous with offers to use theirs. Our aim is to take advantage of these offers by swimming in a different pool every day and working our way through the expat society of this remote part of the Provence. It’s Oscar’s first trip abroad; he is staying for a fortnight. Today was day four. The effect of the contrast in his plastic mind between a flat

Low life | 19 January 2017

Our friend Anthony was reportedly dying and a party of four drove over to the nursing home to say cheerio. The journey across deepest Provence was an hour and a half each way and we went in my old Mercedes. I fixed my attention on the badge and the twisting road beyond it, rhythmically chewing one square after another of 4mg fruit-flavoured nicotine gum. My morning dose of 75mg Venlafaxine filtered out extraneous thought, self-criticism and fantasy, leaving me feeling unusually self-possessed. The mental picture I keep of Anthony is just the eyes, which are a startling shade of light blue. I’ve never got used to them. Since I have

Low life | 13 October 2016

Six months ago Sally was living in a third floor flat in Glasgow. Then she was thrown into the back of a car, drugged, and driven down to Provence. Since then I had watched with interest how she has adapted herself from life in a Scottish city to the heat, light and alien smells of deepest Provence. Sally is a small to medium sized chocolate brown mongrel with the grey hairs of old age showing on her muzzle. Her brown eyes are calm and intelligent. What she is comprised of is hard to say. Her head, jaw and teeth are from some sort of terrier; her deep chest suggests that

A toast to Provence

Friends have a house in Provence, near the foot of Mont Ventoux. Even in a region so full of charm and grace, it is an exceptional spot. Although nothing visible dates from earlier than the 18th century, the house is in the midst of olive groves and there has been a farm dwelling for centuries. I suspect that one would find medieval masonry in the foundations. Beginning life as a simple farmhouse, it has been bashed about, added to and poshed up. On the western side, the exterior has pretensions to grandeur. The other elevation is more feminine; you expect to find Fragonard painting a girl on a swing. At

Low life | 28 July 2016

We returned to the house early the next morning, on the way pleading special permission to pass through the police roadblocks. A strip of blackened hillside about one kilometre away showed the extent of the blaze before it was extinguished. The online local newspaper said that 500 firemen had tackled a blaze that had destroyed 400 hectares of forest — roughly speaking the two round Provençal hills between the house and the nearest village. It seemed a small result for so much smoke. And I wondered why the French state should have gone to so much trouble and expense to protect perhaps a dozen properties, including our breezeblock shack. (A

Low life | 16 June 2016

Michel is one of those Frenchmen one encounters now and again whose shining saintliness is beyond rational understanding. This great bear of a man, with heavy silver rings on his fingers and thumbs, is always cheerful, always kind, always puts others before himself. Whenever he speaks with me, it is always under the pathetic delusion that he might learn something from me that he did not already know. The only thing that makes him in any way contemptuous is my pointing out his goodness to him. Michel was a teacher. For many years, he taught English at a private school in Somerset. Now retired to his native Provence, he has

Low life | 4 February 2016

Denis was my guide to and from the new out-of-town Lidl superstore at Salernes in Provence. I drove. The road was a smooth ribbon of asphalt newly laid through an ancient forest of dwarf oaks. The in-car conversation with Denis was, as usual, easy and undogmatic and wide-ranging, which is the only sort of conversation I am capable of, for I can never remember what my opinions are, let alone which set of beliefs gave rise to them. In this uncommitted way we drifted aimlessly on a gentle swell until we bumped up against the subject of ghosts. I had never seen or heard or felt a ghost, I said.

Why would a dissolute rebel like Paul Gauguin paint a nativity?

A young Polynesian woman lies outstretched on sheets of a soft lemon yellow. She is wrapped in deep blue cloth, decorated with a golden star. Beside her bed sits a hooded figure, apparently an older woman, holding a baby. In the background is a huddle of resting cows, suggesting that the setting is a barn or stable. There is something familiar about the set-up — baby, young mother, farm animals — but it may take a while to notice certain details. The head of the woman on the bed is encircled by an area of darker yellow, which forms a sort of halo, and the baby’s head is similarly ringed