There’s more to the French Riviera than sun, sea and shady people. Indeed. It’s long been a cultural centre of great importance ... and that’s an interesting storyJulian Hale’s The French Riviera: A Cultural History (UK: Signal Books) is one of those books on the area which will survive long after more frothy accounts have been blown away. He’s done a lot of reading and – this shows – a lot of legwork to produce something over 200 pages from which even well-informed veteran residents will learn a lot. I wonder, for example, how many inhabitants of La Garde-Freinet are aware that the Saracens, the Muslim bogeymen of the very early middle ages, held out in that little town for well over a century after they had been driven out of the rest of France. Again, few of us would have imagined that po-faced Maynard Keynes, once lured into the Monte Carlo Casino, would have become so addicted to roulette that he lost all his money and had to scrounge his return fare to England.
A whole regiment of writers
But there’s more here than a string of anecdotes. Hale begins by looking back at the early settlements by the Greeks and Romans and then considers the area as a theatre of war which it has often been. Next he turns a largely critical eye on Monaco, quoting negative impressions from Queen Victoria down to Wapping smartarse A.A. Gill who wrote that Monte Carlo is “the sort of slum that rich people build when they lack for nothing except taste”. He depicts Louis II (Prince Albert’s great-grandfather) as the slimeball he was but he could have highlighted more clearly his overt Nazi sympathies (until it was clear the Germans would lose the war), as in his notorious letter to Hitler of 1942 in which he offered his “collaboration with the Reich, both sincere and without reluctance”.
Hale looks in turn at the British, American and Russian presences on the Coast, and their cultural contributions. Long before the arrival of uncouth oligarchs (“rich, rude and filthy”, as one Cannes hotel general manager once put it to me), the Russians had a reputation as vulgar and noisy (with Chekov and Nabokov among the exceptions). In considering the French attachment to the Riviera he can evoke a whole regiment of writers who came here. Some of them could hardly avoid the ubiquitous Brits. Prosper Merimée had an ambiguous view of les Anglais, observing them living in Cannes as if in “conquered territory”, but at one point agreeing to become president of the English Archery Club.
Hale then looks at how other creative artists have flourished on the Riviera, including painters, musicians, architects, landscape gardeners (he gives a visa to Thomas Hanbury) and, now for almost a century, film makers. Writing of these last he notes (a new one on me) that in 2018 the city of Nice will have the right to take over the site of the Riviera (ex-Victorine) Studios and build whatever they like on it. On verra ... Hale rounds off his book – lots of legwork here – with a look at perched villages and offshore islands. As I was working through his pages I was often made to pause over a particular quotation. This, for example, from Tobias Smollet, living in Nice in the 1760s: “We are pestered with incredible swarms of flies ... in the daytime it’s impossible to keep the flies out of your mouth, nostrils, eyes and ears.” The insects were encouraged, and for long after Smollett’s time, by the presence everywhere of stagnant water and horseshit. Thank God for modern drainage systems and the horseless carriage! And one negative point: the book’s illustrations, murky and unhelpful, are a misguided economy on the part of the publisher. But Julian Hale’s text certainly merits une mention très bien.