Poet plays peacemaker as Montague’s adopted Nice is torn apart
John Montague and Elizabeth Wassell are heartbroken over the attack in Nice
John Montague: got married at Nice town hall in 2005 and spends much of the year there. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
John Montague was Poetry Professor of Ireland when he and his wife, the novelist Elizabeth Wassell, first visited Nice in 1998. The couple married at Nice town hall in 2005, and spend much of the year there. “I love the light most,” says Wassell. “Always radiant, never harsh, intensely blue, but with a tinge of silver.”
“Writers are always looking for a place to work. I found one here,” says Montague, age 87. He produced his “late period poems” in Nice, and is preparing a volume tentatively titled Second Childhood.
Montague wrote for this newspaper in Paris in the 1960s. He saw the French side of the Algerian war and the May 1968 revolution, and was friends with Samuel Beckett.
According to the 2013 census, 21 per cent of Nice’s population is of immigrant origin. Most are the legacy of French history: pieds-noirs (Europeans who had migrated to North Africa) Christians and Jews who, in Montague’s words, “had temporary ownership of Algeria”; local Algerian Harkis who fought on the side of the French army, and Arab Muslims who sought a better life in France. “It was what I had left in Northern Ireland,” Montague says.“Sets of people who distrusted each other, but who were intimate.”
A pied-noir bar owner was Montague’s best man. “After a few glasses, they begin to speak about their childhood and how the sun always shone,” he says. “It’s everything I read in Camus. It made me able to understand Orangemen better.”
Montague and Wassell’s apartment is in an immigrant quarter near Nice train station. When we meet at the cafe downstairs, she says she’s “heartbroken” over the attack that killed 84 people on July 14th, and Montague describes himself as “deeply depressed”.
[CROSSHEAD]Méchant wind[/CROSSHEAD] The couple had started down the hill on foot to watch the fireworks on the Promenade des Anglais. “A méchant wind came up, blowing dust in our faces, so we turned back,” Wassell says. “It wasn’t ‘gone with the wind’; it was ‘saved by the wind’.”
They didn’t sleep that night, as family and friends telephoned from around the world. When they went out the next morning, “We met our neighbours in the street and they were crying,” says Montague.
Relations in Nice between secularists and Muslims, Europeans and Arabs, have never been easy. According to Otmane Aissaoui, the rector of the grand mosque, 30 of the 84 people killed by a Tunisian lorry driver last Thursday night were Muslim.
Women wearing Muslim headscarves at Monday’s homage to the victims were told to “get the hell out” and “go back where you came from”. Le Monde reported that four louts in dark clothing sang the Marseillaise and shouted “F**k Islamic State” before raising their arms in a Nazi salute on the promenade at the weekend.
Montague and Wassell fear the fragile peace of their neighbourhood is threatened. “That’s why we went to the bar in the rue Paganini where the North African men drink,” he says. “The owner was very aggrieved. He said, ‘This has nothing to do with Muslims; he was just a psychopath’. He was very hurt, and very pleased to see us.” [CROSSHEAD]Extended strife[/CROSSHEAD] Montague owns two copies of the Koran in English. “I’d like to understand if there is something inherently . . . ” He hesitates for a long moment, doesn’t want to use the word “violent,” finishes the sentence “inherently awkward in Islam . . . I think we’re in the middle of extended strife. If you’re bred in Northern Ireland, you are always trying to understand.”
After dinner, we explore their neighbourhood, under an egg-shaped moon. It is 10.45pm. “Don’t stare,” Montague warns as we walk past evening prayers in the rue de la Suisse. Shoes are stacked on shelves at the entrance to two ordinary-looking shops, where dozens of men are lined up, prone, facing Mecca.
French authorities have shut down five such prayer halls in Nice since the state of emergency, accusing them of radical leanings. An extreme right-wing group called Nissa Rebela has in the past held “pork and plonk” parties in rue de la Suisse, to defy the Muslims.
France is paying for its colonial past, Montague says. He and Wassell feel caught in a “tug o’ war” between east and west, witnesses to an ill-commenced and troubled century.
Montague sums it up with a quote from his friend and fellow poet, Seamus Heaney. A year or two before his death, the Nobel laureate wrote to Montague in a letter: “All the world is becoming a big Ulster.”