A bit of history

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My good friend Alex in Madagascar looks after the British War Cemetery in Diego Suarez, which unsurprisingly, therefore, is immaculate. Buried there are the soldiers who died liberating Madagascar from the French forces loyal to the Vichy regime in May 1942, an episode I wasn’t even aware of till I visited. You might think this is surprising, since the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was anchored nearby to provide support, and on it was my dad. But like many of his generation, he didn’t speak much about the war, and Diego Suarez, though important, was one among several engagements in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Nor did he actually land in Diego, as he was a Telegraphist Air Gunner and despite the loss of a couple of aircraft, aerial combat itself was not extensive. Just as well perhaps – instead of hearing me tell his story, Alex might have been looking after his grave. Walking round Diego today, it’s difficult to imagine how strategically important it was back then – but a visit to the cemetery brings a sombre reminder.

Previous operations in Africa involving the Free French forces having not gone well, de Gaulle wasn’t informed of the attack on Diego – a slight which had lasting repercussions on his later dealings with Britain and America.The whole of Madagascar didn’t come under Allied control until November. Administration was then returned to the Free French, but the events of the war loosened their grip over the country, and in 1947 the Malagasy were emboldened to rebel. Their bid for independence was brutally crushed, with an estimated 30,000 dead. While the wars of independence in Algeria and Indo-China have received a lot of attention, the Malagasy uprising has been practically airbrushed out of French History. Strange, n’est-ce pas?

Non, rien de rien… Cheer up!

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 worthwhile. ‘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?’

***

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 Marseille, when communists were plentiful and la chanson française was thriving. This 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 by then started her eventful and illustrious career. 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.