Fortune Favours the Bold? I am not sure that I agree. Pliny the Elder is thought to be the first to have exhorted his sailors thus in 79 AD (“Fortes inquit, fortuna iuvat…”) when taking his fleet to see whether they could rescue Pompianus from the erupting Mount Vesuvius and look what happened to him and his sailors. I think fortune favours the fortunate, just as money sticks to money. Now that I am in my eighth decade I reckon I can safely say that whatever happens next I have been incredibly fortunate.
To be able to spend my late teenage years in Marseille was one of my great good fortunes. There can’t have been many more exciting place to be in the 60s. Some of my father’s friends raised their eyebrows when they learned I was there. It was a town with a bad reputation: Mafia, hard drugs and Algerian terrorists. To have been landed on the Fentons not only meant that I could be in such a place but could be there safely and I have remained one of their family ever since. The great-grandchildren come to stay regularly.
I was taught to look and to draw by Mme Allar and by the time I left I had amassed such a respectable portfolio of work that I was one of the lucky 1 in 10 offered a place at St Martin’s School of Art, then in Charing Cross Road. I became virtually bilingual in French with or without a Marseille accent. I felt able to stop rebelling and I lost my English teenage frumpiness and could nearly pass as sassy French. I learned to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road – and driving in Marseille anyway is not dissimilar from driving dodgem cars only a great deal faster and involving more expletives. I learned to make a good Ratatouile, not to eat olives direct from the tree and I saw such extreme poverty in ‘les plastiques‘ beyond the docks that a few decades later the shanty encampments of Asia did not come as so great a shock.
I think my greatest advantage, when I finally returned to England, was that I had been able to see my country from the outside, through other people’s eyes. I had learned for instance that history taught in England had a quite different spin to that taught over the channel. We had been taught that Wellington had put an end to the adventurer Napoleon’s trudging roughshod all over his European neighbours, not to mention making his army battle to the gates of Moscow, to dissuade Czar Alexander I from trading with the British. The French had been taught of how he had not only rescued France from post Revolution ‘La Terreur‘ but how he initiated all sorts of improvements including those to agriculture, education, and finance, and the legal side of things – the Code Napoleon, most of which still hold good today. Neither were ‘fake’ history, just two sides of the same coin.
About fifteen years later my husband and I, while driving through France, happened on a riverside chateau. We only found it because we spotted a signpost poking through the verge-side vegetation. The lane, with a boggy ditch on either side, meandered through high reeds and willow trees and then opened out to a round sweep in front of an exquisite long, low chateau. Unlike the enormous Chateaux de Chambord or Chenanceau this was the size of a large manor house and the cycle that had been propped against the arch of the front door indicated it was still lived in. We rang the bell and a woman in her fifties appeared removing her gardening gloves to shake our hands.
She led us into a Long Gallery that ran the length of the building that had been built the width of a narrow terrace from the banks of a small, fast flowing river. The gallery would have been an interesting space if only because of its outlook, but the floor of this room, that must have been over 60ft long, was entirely laid with Delft tiles. Even before she started to explain one could see a distinctly ordered pattern of painted blue blocks divided by white blanks, disappearing to the far end of the room.
This turned out to be Napoleon’s Grande Armee as it marched to Moscow. Each tile measured about 10cm square and represented a platoon. Some were decorated with blue infantry figures, some cavalry, a few at the back were camp followers. Platoons were arranged into companies and companies into regiments or battalions. At the head of each section were the commanders flanked by their officers. George knew his military history and walked with our guide picking out the generals by name: Oudinet, MacDonald, Ney. Presumably having overheard an unusually well informed visitor as he walked beside the army “Davout?” and then “Berthier?”, the chateau’s owner appeared from another room and joined in the conversation. By the time we had reached the final tile of the great Emperor himself riding Marengo at the head of them all, we had been invited to join the owners for un verre. As we headed for the family salon he asked our name. The second he heard that it was Bathurst he chucked us out, pointing to the open front door with outstretched hand and rigid index finger.
George’s antecedent was the 3rd Earl Bathurst who was Secretary of State for War and the Colonies at the time of Waterloo. It was he who directed Napoleon be exiled on St Helena, where he died. Although our history tells us that Napoleon probably died of stomach cancer, there are many French who have been taught that he was poisoned and it is just possible that somehow he may have ingested arsenic that was used in decorative paint. Whatever the cause, 160 years on we, as Bathursts, were still responsible and were the most unwelcome of visitors.
We left a lovely place and its charming owners with much regret. It had been a sharp reminder that not everyone sees us as we see ourselves.