My Father’s Grave, France and me – a memoir

At high tide the waves from the Atlantic really rush in at Beg Legeur in Brittany’s Bay of Lannion. It’s a pretty little out of the way place, with its yellow gorse and scattered groups of French families; a good spot for a holiday. But, as I watch my grandchildren play in the surf, I look along the beach and wonder where it was exactly that two young brothers found my father’s body in 1944.

It was quite early in the morning, I’ve been told, and the boys were playing “shipwrecks”, when they came across his corpse, left behind by the receding tide. It wouldn’t have been a good sight. His body had drifted something like 150 miles from the Western Approaches where the Royal Navy craft on which he’d been a passenger had been sunk in a storm.

The authorities, I imagine, would have been quickly notified, and, after a mass for the dead, the body was buried at the nearest churchyard in the village of Servel, half a mile away. Then my father’s wallet, with its sea-stained photographs of me, aged 3, and my sister, 6, was sent to the War Office in London, to eventually be forwarded to our house in Lancashire.

I have half a memory of the day it reached us. We’d been staying with my aunt in Manchester, and, on arriving home, my mother discovered that she couldn’t open the front door. Eventually a young girl neighbour was able to scramble through an unlocked window and let us in – to find the wallet (and with it the final certainty that my mother was a war widow at 30) jammed under the door. It must have been delivered while we’d been away.

My mother had never been to France, neither had my father until his body was washed up there – much of his war having been spent with the Royal Navy in the United States. But, as the decades have passed, I’ve begun to wonder if that little beach at Beg Legeur was subconsciously the trigger for my lifetime’s love affair with the mysteries of France. Perhaps my sister felt the same. She and her family have lived in France, just over the border from Geneva, since the early Seventies.

Certainly, like millions of fellow Britons who every year visit France more than any other country in Europe, I’ve seen much more of France than I have of England, be it the wheat prairies near Auxerre, the mountains of Haute-Savoie, the Lot or Corsica. At one time I wrote half a novel in Paris, and, later on, another in Provence; while much earlier I dabbed the holy waters of Lourdes on my tongue in the teenage hope of a miracle cure for my stammer.

That happened when I was sixteen and on a school trip that involved sitting for days on a coach, and stopping off to say a Hail Mary at what seemed like every other church between Calais and the Pyrenees.

The son et lumière at Lisieux left little impression and the magic of Lourdes didn’t work, but I met a girl in the hotel where we were staying who became a pen friend. “Christiane, qui pense bien à vous”, she would formally sign off her weekly letters, before eventually I got a “Christiane, qui pense bien à tu”. Not much going on there, you might think. But to me the shift in familiarity was virtually epistolary heavy petting.

I failed O-level French at first – I was in love with the idea of France: not obsessed with its language – but I improved a bit two years later after I’d been hitch-hiking down to the Riviera with an older medical student who was keen on my sister. You don’t see many people hitch-hiking these days, and it’s a shame. There was something almost medieval about the way you would link up with people on the roads in those days.

On this occasion a couple of newly-weds, he in his forties, she her twenties, picked us up in an old Land Rover outside Arras and took us to Nice, the first night of their honeymoon being spent in a meadow in a double sleeping bag. I parked mine a discreet distance away, and woke up to a sparkling day, soaked with dew, and then cadged a breakfast of a glass of milk still warm from a cow’s udder at a local farm.

Then on we rolled between avenues of poplars and horsechestnut trees in those pre-autoroute days, Chalons-sur-Marne, Lyons, down the Rhone Valley and into the paradise that was and remains Provence. I’d never seen a vineyard before, and scarcely ever drunk wine. We had tea with every meal in our house.

The newly weds were on their way to Australia overland, though whether the marriage, let alone the Land Rover, lasted the trip, I rather doubt. When we finally hit Nice the young bride burst into tears when her husband told her that he would be sleeping with us in a men’s only hostel and she would have to go in one for women.
“Sorry, lads,” he apologised, when she refused to be consoled. “I’m going to have to find a b and b for her and me.”

Reluctantly we said our goodbyes. He was a jolly good bloke. It seemed to me that, even if it was her honeymoon, she was being a bit unreasonable. I was very young.

For a boy from grey and rainy Lancashire, who had only just become aware of the French Riviera while watching Grace Kelly not quite seduce Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief, discovering the South of France with its vanilla light, its lavender patches and its parasol pines, was like encountering Technicolor for the first time. Whenever I now land at Nice or Marseilles, I still have the feeling that an extra light has been turned on in the sky.

A couple of weeks after saying goodbye to our newly weds, there was no light anywhere when, a hundred miles south of Paris, my travelling companion, ditched me when the first car to stop all day could only take one of us. So, there I was at midnight one Saturday night wondering what adventure might be facing me.

Several hours later I was sitting in the cab of a milk truck being given an early morning guided tour as we swept past the Louvre and along the empty Champs Elysées. What a perfect way to discover Paris at 18.

Interestingly my mother, who, by the way, gave my selfish travelling companion a roasting when she heard how he’d abandoned me, only finally asked to be taken to my father’s grave when she was nearly ninety. It would have been virtually impossible for a woman in her circumstances to have visited the grave in the years after the war, and her focus of attention, like that of so many others at that time, had to be on the present, the future and her children.

In fact the war was rarely mentioned when I was a boy, and her initial reaction to France, when I drove her for a holiday in Italy in 1960, was directly the opposite of mine. I was nineteen, and her astonishment at seeing so many buildings still war damaged turned into disappointment as we drove out of Calais and down the road to St Omer. A greater horror was to follow with her discovery of the French unisex lavatories. After that, her centime would, as often as not, be spent behind roadside hedges.

Nothing, however, could come between France and me, not even when a little later a French girl friend broke my heart when she began sleeping with someone else while continuing to write me passionate letters. I understood then why insouciance is a French word.

As a student, French movies of the nouvelle vague suggested the life I thought I should be living, particularly those directed by François Truffaut. And if anyone ever wondered why the first movie I wrote, That’ll Be The Day, ended on a frozen frame of David Essex taking hold of his first guitar, it’s because Truffaut’s Quatre Cents Coups (Four Hundred Blows) had ended on a similar frozen moment involving the young teenager Jean-Pierre Léaud.

And how did I spend the first flush of decent money I made from That’ll Be The Day? I bought a beautiful white Citroën DS, the car with the extraordinary suspension that all French directors used for seemingly floating over the Parisian cobbles while filming. I was married by this time, Plum and I naturally having spent our honeymoon in Paris. And, yes, I still drive a Citroën.

For decades most of our family holidays were spent either in Corsica or in Provence, where, in a large house deep in a valley in the forest, my mother and aunt would usually join us. My pipe dream was to buy the house and have our three children and their partners and then our grandchildren spend every summer there, but when the time to buy came, I couldn’t afford it. Instead the happy fantasy has turned into a recurrent and sad dream about loss.

Inexplicably, and somehow rather shamingly, because it wouldn’t have been a difficult task, until my early-fifties I didn’t actually know where my father was buried, only that it was somewhere on the French Atlantic coast. Then in 1994 a BBC television producer asked me to present a programme about World War 2 casualties, and took me to the grave so that he could film me there.

Is it possible to cry for someone you never knew? I don’t think so. But as the television camera focused on me at the graveside and I talked into the microphone about the pain of war, I finally gave in to tears, not for my father but for my mother and his parents whose lives had been broken by his death.

Now we go to Brittany nearly every year, Plum and me, some of our grown up children and our grandchildren, and we visit the grave in Servel, spotlessly maintained as the only Commonwealth war grave in the little cemetery. And then we drive down the lane a little way and sit on the beach at Beg Legeur and I watch the waves and the incoming tide, and think about how it must have been in 1944.