In the ’60s most parents of upper middle class girls sent their daughters to Paris to learn French. It wasn’t ‘just’ to Paris they went. It was to the seizieme arrondisement and the hosts were usually descendants of survivors of The Revolution who had managed to hold on to their heads, titles and a mention in the Almanach de Gotha. They probably had lost their Hotels de Ville but they still drank from crystal, laid the exquisitely embroidered, starched tablecloths with monogrammed Sevres and spoke correct French. There but for the Grace of God and Edmund Burke would have gone many of the antecedents of the English parents. It was reassuringly O.K. to send their daughters to these unknown families even though they were French. It was equally O.K. for the French to augment their reduced income in this way – their payees were at least of parallel stock despite being English.
I was not. I was the daughter of Malcolm Messer, a one time research fellow at the Oxford Agricultural Economic Research Institute who had been head-hunted by Lord Beaverbrook to work as technical editor of Farmers Weekly. In due course Sir Edward and Lady Hulton bought Farmers Weekly and Picture Post and with other publications such as the children’s comics Eagle, Girl, Swift and Robin, created Hulton Press. It attracted a number of Oxbridge graduates among them Peter Cooper who became a friend of my father’s. He had recently married the daughter of a second generation English shipping agent based in Marseille and when my father was faced with the decision of what on earth to do with his rebellious 17 year old daughter, Peter and Mary Cooper suggested that he sent me to stay with her parents. There was a good art atelier that I could attend while doing something that I appeared to enjoy and the only school report in which I had not been lambasted was French. A term there would see me through to 18 when decisions might be easier to make.
I landed at Marignane airport at about the same time as 450,000 pieds noirs, fleeing the Algerian war, were disembarking from any ship that they had been able to board. O.A.S. (Orginisation Armee Secrete) was daubed in white paint over advertising billboards and the walls of street corners. Marseille was also at its height as the main embarkation port for the heroin and cocaine trafficked to America – The French Connection. It is estimated that 5,000 lbs of heroin alone was being shipped each year. Not infrequently police would be seen making a circle round a corpse lying on the pavement, blood trickling onto the old cobbles of the Vieux Port.
Marseille was a million miles from the safe and respectable seizieme. The frisson was electric. Even had Mary’s mother, Madame Fenton, not made it abundantly clear that I was expected to play her game, by her rules, I no longer felt the need to rebel. Simply being in Marseille in the ’60s was individual enough.
Not that the house and my adoptive family were anything other than totally respectable. Margit Fenton was Swedish, the daughter of the one time Swedish Consul General. She was ram-rod straight, had her hair done once a week, wore crippling high heeled shoes (so had bunions earlier than most), ran the Association France-Grande Bretagne and played bridge. Her husband John, kept a thin cheroot, on which he frequently pulled, between his long fingers. He spent hours trying to hold the family business together and when he had time, painted detailed and accurate monochrome water colours of sailing ships.
The house, high above the Corniche facing East towards Cassis, was a mixture of Swedish yellow and blue souvenirs, pink velvet curtains with gold brocade trim, his paintings and a collection of Copenhagen Christmas plates, that were added to each year and symmetrically arranged on the eau de nil walls. Year later I learned that the neighbours were Mafioso which explains the black cars, men with arms that hung away from their bodies like gorillas and the quietness of the avenue.
M & Mme Fenton, were at the heart of the diplomatic community and were invited to all the parties. When the British Navy docked they were invited on board. When a ship carrying one of his cargoes docked the captain, purser and first officer were invited to lunch. Their son Anthony had returned from learning about shipping in various European ports to help with the business. I made up the family and tagged along. “La Petite Anglaise” although when I arrived there was nothing much petite about me as I had spent the months at the London crammer living on minestrone and pasta and it showed.
I went to the Atelier six days a week. It was housed in one of the converted warehouses above a restaurant on the Quai de Rive Neuve on the south side of the Vieux Port. As the Fenton’s office was above another, posher, restaurant at the head of the Vieux Port, Anthony was usually persuaded to drop me off on his way to work. He was seven years older than me and he made it clear that having a lumpy teenager in the passenger seat of his Triumph sports cars (TRs 3 & 4 if I remember) hadn’t been the plan and did nothing for his street-cred. As if in order to prove to any onlooker that he was cool, he would put his arm over the low driver’s door and stub out cigarettes on the tarmac at traffic lights. If ever he was cajoled into giving me a lift to anything social and he had a chick in tow he would make me lie on what was effectively the rear parcel shelf. The already ungainly and rather frumpy Anglaise never did manage to extricate myself with any semblance of elegance and I felt even more ungainly when observed (pityingly?) by the blondes who managed to simply swing their long, tanned legs out of the car.
Madame Margeurite Allar was a senior and respected teacher at Les Beaux Arts de Marseille and accepted about 20 students to her own atelier every year. Plaster casts of everything from Michelangelo’s foot of David, corinthian capitols to death masks covered the pink plastered walls of the two-storeyed loft of the old warehouse and each week we had to spend from 9 until 1 drawing one of them in charcoal. 24 hrs each week on a single cast chosen by Mme Allar. We had two hours off for lunch which I spent with the Fentons at La Pelle club, swimming and sunning and enjoying lunches of steak, salade and frites. Back at the atelier until six o’clock we studied architecture, graphic design, perspective and L'(H)istoire de L’Art, that Mme Allar dictated in clear, rasping tones that must have been audible above the traffic through the open windows, on the pavement three floors below.
Despite being of gnat-like irritation to Anthony everyone, including him, was incredibly kind to me. Although I had been at boarding school for over ten years it was my first experience of family dynamics. Since my mother’s death it had been only me and my father and until her death, my grandmother. The Fentons took me everywhere with them whether to buy fish, pre-whipped Chantilly cream, flowers in the market or Sunday papers and croissants. They took me to Cassis for lunch on Sundays and I sat at the top table when France-Grande Bretagne had their annual Christmas dinner – quail, whose heads flipped over so they looked at you when you tried to cut into their breasts; Le Roti de Dindon followed by Le Christmas Pudding.
Possibly thinking that I might be homesick for my pony, they got me invited to help round up cows in the Camargue. I knew that the gardians were just waiting to see l‘anglaise try to do rising trot in one of their cork cowboy saddles but luckily my childhood laziness meant that I had ridden bareback so that I didn’t have to clean my saddle. It stood me in good stead and when they realised I could ride their way, they taught me their game of galloping with a flower held high to see who kept it until the end and would be the next to marry. They asked me to complete an outward facing mounted circle to protect one of them from an evil looking cow, that pawed the ground. A gardian had dismounted to check a sickly calf. Cow, as oppose to bull, fighting regularly happened in the Roman amphitheatre in nearby Arles. Twenty of us sat down to lunch at a single table and polished off a sheep cooked on a spit over the open fire.
Although I had done well at French at school I had managed to get by in Marseille without engaging in much actual conversation. Moliere-speak didn’t cut it. After a couple of months I dared to chip in. From that moment I was no longer l’anglaise but “Soo”. As my time there neared its end my fellows asked whether I was really going home. It was a sad thought. For the first time ever I really wanted to stay somewhere – other than home. It was a most exciting place to be and I loved it. I felt that I was learning to draw and to speak useful French and was becoming quite good at both. I was actually achieving something. I broached the possibility of staying with the Fentons. They must have telephoned my father and they must have telephoned Mme Allar. The next day it was agreed. I was to return home for Christmas but would be back for the remainder of the academic year.
In the end I stayed for nearly two years. Abroad had hooked me good and proper.
(Although never intending to stay at Farmers Weekly longer than a couple of years, after my mother’s death my father sold the farm they had bought together at Aynho and retreated to London to bury himself in the bustle, among friends and work. He ended up editing Farmers Weekly for over 30 years making it the most successful trade publication in the world.)