He knows a little place

Douglas Johnson

  • Expensive Habits by Peter Mayle
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 191 pp, £14.95, October 1991, ISBN 1 85619 055 2

The contents of this vulgar and irritating book – can the author have deliberately set out to be irritating? – are totally predictable. It is, however, unexpected that we have to wait until page 166 before encountering a familiar example of what some consider to be admirable behaviour. A man leaves a restaurant, naturally a grand and expensive establishment, after paying his bill. The mâitre d’hotel follows him and asks if he has not forgotten something. The diner, heroic in his conviction that the mâitre d’hotel has not done his duty by him, produces a ten-pound note. ‘This was for you,’ he says. But, instead of handing it over, he produces his cigarette lighter and burns the note in the face of the mâitre d’hotel, bids him good evening and goes on his way.

Such stories always flourish at times of economic difficulty. During the great depression of the Thirties, young men at Oxford were reported to light their cigars with five-pound notes. During the last war, American officers in London nightclubs were also said to favour this method, and more recently, in various underdeveloped countries, we are told that the wealthy have been seen to impress the indigenous poor by this same eccentric display of contempt for the real value of money. It is doubtful whether this simple yet complicated ploy (presumably one must first light the bank note before lighting the cigar with a more grandiose flame) has been observed as frequently as legend suggests, and it is not clear whether or not Peter Mayle himself witnessed the burning of the ten-pound note that had masqueraded as a tip (although he claims that the perpetrator of the deed is a friend).

But why then does this legend persist? Presumably because, for some, the idea of wealth, power and luxury goes hand in hand with that of ostentation (what is the point of being rich if you don’t display it?), waste (what is the point of being rich if you don’t throw it away?), and the humiliation of those who are not rich and who would dearly like to possess the bank note that is consumed in flames before their eyes (what is the point of being rich if you can’t show that it has made you powerful?). We are a long way from Cyrano de Bergerac, who threw his purse to someone who was content to receive it. But Cyrano was giving away all his money, and when reproved for this folly, was justified in boasting: Mais quel geste. The gesture of those who light their smokes with paper money, like the stories of those who pretend they have observed this phenomenon and the apparent admiration of those who write about it (even if they express themselves, as here, in a complacently jokey manner) is different and distasteful.

The idea of luxury presents many problems. The BBC programme Desert Island Discs invites those who take part in it to choose, not only their favourite recordings and their favourite book, but also a luxury article. Most people reveal that their notion of a luxury is limited, and they tend to say that they would like a bottle of champagne (Lord Dacre insisted on a crate) or of perfume, or they would prefer to have writing materials or a radio powered by the sun. Only a few avoid these obvious choices. If memory serves, Sir Thomas Beecham wanted a revolver, Arthur Scargill chose the Mona Lisa, a former Lord Mayor of London sought to have a flower picture by Van Gogh, Dame Ninette de Valois suggested sleeping pills, and a well-known playwright expressed the wish to be accompanied by Lena Horne. Would anyone, does anyone want the sort of luxury Mayle writes about? Do they want hand-made shoes, a personal tailor, a special shirtmaker who will take up an afternoon of their time, special cigars, expensive mistresses? There are many who dislike truffles, who find caviar distasteful, who disapprove of the way in which geese are forcibly fed to produce pâté de foie gras. Are these the luxuries that most other people yearn for and despair of ever possessing, so that they will read the fulsome pages of this book with envy, and wonder that one so young should have attained all this? All the less so since, these days at least. Air France automatically serves caviar to those who travel business class from Paris to Nice. Is the author right to suggest that the very mention of the word has us ‘mentally rubbing shoulders with the rich and knees with the beautiful’? It is more than doubtful.

Mayle explains how he is treated as a special customer in his local shop in Provence. The owner keeps the waiting housewives jostling with impatience (this is told with simple pride) whilst he goes to the back of his establishment in order to fetch the real foie gras, costing about £40 for three-quarters of a pound. Mayle tells us that he will not be deceived by the ‘communist entrepreneurs’ who have infiltrated the fattened-liver business. Foie gras, we learn, is what a racehorse is to a donkey. But as it happens, tourist trips are organised so that one can learn all about foie gras and how to cook it. You can go to the Fortress of Charry, in the Quercy (which used to be the residence of Catherine de Medici’s capitaine des gardes) for a very reasonable price. Has not Mayle been taken in by his local trader? He tells us too that the wine to drink with foie gras is Chateau d’Yquem, which costs at least £60 a bottle. Hence he is looking for venture capital so as to invest in a case of two and see if this is correct or not. But an unpretentious shop in the rue d’Odessa in Paris would give him sounder advice.

Much the same can be said about his account of buying truffles in Provence. Early on a winter’s morning, men stand mysteriously in the cold, pressing wads of notes to each other and glancing guiltily over their shoulders. They sniff and weigh something that is handled with almost reverential care. Are they rustic dealers in dope? No, explains Mayle triumphantly. They are dealers in forest truffles. Well, as with foie gras, there are many other and easier ways of obtaining these delicacies before they end up in what he calls ‘the frantically chic Parisian delicatessens such as Fauchon and Hediard’.

There are morsels of advice scattered throughout this smart-alick book that we might care to pretend we find useful. You should not, for example, when being driven in a Rolls-Royce, enquire about your chauffeur’s health or shake him by the hand. Whilst the limo, as he calls it, should always be black, draw the line at having black tinted windows. Clear glass will enable your friends, or better still your enemies, to catch a glimpse of you as you place phone calls and get to grips with the crystal decanters. Maxwell, you should be living at this hour.

We are also recommended to stay, when in London, at the Connaught Hotel, although he admits that, at £1500 for three days, this is expensive. That does not include tips and, incidentally, you should always tip before you have received any service. We will all have to follow the example of the Mayles and avoid magnums of champagne, bottles of claret that break through the £300-a-bottle barrier and midnight snacks of Grand Marnier soufflés. He assures us that the great attraction of the Connaught is the atmosphere created by the people who work there. That, apparently, is what you pay for, and that, he tells us, makes it worth the money. We should also be attentive to his advice that we should never tip the salad waiter. He does not discuss what we should do about the second pastry cook.

Other comments are more surprising. We are told that, when a man acquires a mistress, he goes on a diet, has his hair styled, buys new suits, a new car and a different after-shave. Does he? It has usually been assumed that the only outward sign of such ventures is the stockpiling of underpants. We are also told that the only places where one can take such newly acquired mistresses are the most expensive of restaurants, where one is not likely to encounter colleagues or friends. Really? It’s always said that the National Gallery or a pizza parlour in Saint Albans are the usual places for clandestine assignations accompanied by nourishment. We also learn that mistresses, in addition to requiring roses and silk underwear, will demand floor-length sable coats.

Mayle envies a certain man whom he can single out amongst hundreds of travellers. Whilst others are travelling with hefty holiday paraphernalia, or waiting to claim their tardy and mutilated suitcases at the airport, this man strolls through the customs with nothing more than a magazine and a couple of books. He has a second home. That is to say, he has a luxury hotel where he has made a series of guaranteed reservations over some three or four years. He leaves his clothes there and can claim them on arrival; his place, whether in the restaurant or bar, is guaranteed. A likely tale. The man who turns up at such a hotel and reminds them that they have his mohair suits will be met with hot denials from employees whom he has never seen before. We are also told that in Manhattan we can occasionally pick up a limo after it has disgorged its owner, and can hire it unofficially. This desire for economy is welcome, but will the mistress in her silk underwear and floor-length sables accept the inherent uncertainty of such a move?

We should not, of course, take all this too seriously. We are having our legs pulled, even if it is in an unpleasant manner. Yet this vulgar book and its author presents us with some problems when one considers the book trade and the reading public. Some of these stories are set in London, Paris and New York. But there are many references to Provence, and Mayle’s two books about this region, A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence, have won the author fame and fortune.

The same themes are present in all these writings. Mr Mayle is always anxious to demonstrate that he has gone one better than the rest of us. Most of the Provence books are about eating and drinking. But he does not tell us anything that is worth knowing about either. All we are told is that at some meal the Mayles ate so much that they walked home pushing their stomachs before them, oblivious of cold, incapable of speech and about to sleep like the dead. When they eat omelettes with truffles their greatest pleasures is to reflect on how much more they would have paid for the same meal in England. They like to compare some little place, where they are known and respected, and where there are 14 different sorts of hors d’oeuvres, to some smart restaurant in Fulham where unfortunates are obliged to go. If he goes to buy veal, he meets the greatest expert on the Provençal stew called pebronata (who has written a book about it). A floor-cleaner discusses the relative values of neighbouring three-star restaurants. The local plumber turns out to be a clarinettist and an expert on ecology (and seems to offer potential customers marsala, although perhaps this is reserved for Peter Mayle). He and his wife go out of their house to have a final glass of wine and, as they contemplate the moon, they think about the rabbits that are eating their lucerne in the summer and will taste all the better for it in the winter. It’s not only the customers in Fulham restaurants who are made to feel inferior.

There are many English people who have bought properties in the French countryside, usually because they are cheaper than in England. Their lives are not like the paradisal Mayles. They are, or have become, do-it-yourselves experts. They depend on off-centre shopping, their freezers, and their ability to get English-speaking television programmes. Once a week, they drive to a hypermarket on the outskirts of the nearest town and stock up with supplies, including many goods of English manufacture. They do not read local newspapers, they seldom venture into the town itself, they do not know many French people – and how many do the Mayles know, apart from the ones who have worked for them? But they have a more rational view of the French nation than this author has, seeing them as ordinary people who are not dissimiliar to themselves. Mayle depicts the French as a series of inferior music-hall impersonators. Everyone shrugs their shoulders, taps their noses, grimaces, puts their hands expressively on their stomachs, smites their foreheads, raises the index finger, indulges in a great rolling of the eyes.

In his books about Provence, Mayle tells us little that is useful. In his world, all paths lead to pastis (there is even ‘a professor of pastis’). But what of the water that he puts into his pastis? The subjects of French water and its high quality, the organisation of the French water industry and its penetration of the newly privatised British market, are of considerable interest to British people at the present time: fortunately, Mairi Maclean’s French Enterprise and the Challenge of the British Water Industry[*] deals with them in a serious manner and deserves to be recommended. Nor does Mayle tell us much about luxuries in Expensive Habits. There is no mention of beauty, design, craftsmanship, taste, fashion. All is glitz. He should ponder the wisdom of the Figaro’s pre-Christmas message: le luxe prend le pas sur le luxueux. Surely a writer who is airing his sophistication should have avoided some of the old adages. But how is it that the Provence books have been best-sellers and that Mr Mayle was (according to his dedication) allowed a lordly expense account to produce this one. I shrug my shoulders (the habit must be catching). C’est curieux, I say. And I mean it.

[*] Avebury, 144 pp., £30, 7 November 1991, 1 85628 100 0.