A few years back, we attended the wedding of our friends’ daughter, quite an enlightening experience as we were seated at a table with eight communists. Despite the festive occasion, they were uniformly glum, which, to be fair, is understandable for members of an endangered species. Being the only Brit, I was slightly uncomfortable, knowing what French communists think of all things Anglo-Saxon. But although they stuck to their glumness, they weren’t actually hostile, and indeed perked up a bit when I expounded upon the superiority of France over Britain in food, wine, climate, countryside, health care, social security, public transport – basically everything that makes life worthwile. ‘But,’ I said, expecting general agreement with this universally recognised truth, ‘The opposite holds in one area, music.’
Silence. The glumness turned to indignation. ‘Do you actually know French music?’ one of them demanded.
‘Well, yes.’ (I omitted to add, ‘unfortunately’). For the next ten minutes I was bombarded with the names of French singers, some of whom I do indeed appreciate – Nino Ferrer or Alain Bashung are perfectly good to listen to. ‘No, all I’m saying,’ I argued, ‘is that, you know, The Beatles? Or The Stones or Dylan or Joni Mitchell, I mean, it’s not quite the same league.’ More silence, heavy now with a barely concealed outrage.
‘Wow,’ I said, ‘this strawberry cake’s delicious, don’t you think?’
This week’s Izzy May I: The Write is about the music that features in what we’re reading or writing. I actually have a story on the go where one of the characters is called Fabien Chansonnier, which means singer or songwriter (it’s not quite the same as chanteur because for a chansonnier, the lyrics, often satirical or political, were at least as important as the music). Fabien isn’t a singer himself but the story takes place in the war in Marseilles, when communists were plentiful and la chanson française was thriving. So Izzy’s post prompted me to look at what was popular at the time. In 1942, when the Germans occupied Marseilles, the big hit was Mon Amant de Saint Jean, sung by Lucienne Delyle.
And of course, Edith Piaf had started her eventful and illustrious career (in December this year France will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of her birth). I was delighted to tell my companions at the wedding that Je Ne Regrette Rien may well have unconsciously influenced my move to France. Bought by my parents in the 50s, it was our first record, which I listened to constantly (I didn’t have a lot of choice – for a long time it was the only record we had). Everyone round the table agreed that Piaf was unique, and amicable relations were restored. I would have liked to report that by the end of the evening, they’d emerged somewhat from their gloom. Sadly, it wasn’t the case.