Pas encore Provence

 

Time was, when travel writing meant traversing the ends of the earth on your hands and knees, eating such local delicacies as roasted sheep's eyeball and attempting to communicate with native tribes who had never even seen a camera crew, let alone been featured on a National Geographic TV documentary. There was a strange, exotic and faintly dangerous world out there, and it was the job of the travel writer to bring it to the reader settled comfortably in his or her armchair back home in suburban semi-land.

But over the past decade a new genre of travel writing has emerged. Instead of the world being brought to the armchair, the armchair is being brought to the world, as semi-land heads south in search of suburbia in the sun. It is not, perhaps, a genre so much as a set of variations on a theme: middle-aged writer, usually male, rents or buys a house, usually in a picturesque rural corner of the European Union, spends a year holed up in the attic peeping out at the neighbours and, eventually, produces a bookful of tartly-packaged observations, usually entitled A House/Year/Valley in Umbria/Sicily/ Somewhere Sunny. The spin varies from book to book, but the staple ingredients are much the same - sunshine, food, funny foreigners, beautiful views and wine by the bucket-load. Especially wine by the bucketload.

The mother of all these books is, of course, Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1989, translated into 22 languages and still selling steadily as a Penguin paperback. Whether Mayle's book simply tapped into the prevailing Zeitgeist or started a trend is anybody's guess, but it has undoubtedly spawned a huge number of imitations - including his own follow-up trio, Toujours Provence, Hotel Pas- tis and the recent, and somewhat insipid, En- core Provence. But are we ready to declare, "Non, Pas Encore Provence!"? Are we heck. Walk into any bookshop, and you'll find half a dozen of a similar bent before you can say "Provence, si'il vous plait." Why? Determined to pin down the parameters of this latest literary phenomenon, The Irish Times headed for the nearest armchair, armed with Harry Clifton's On the Spine of Italy, Ferenc Mate's The Hills of Tuscany, Paolo Tullio's North of Naples, South of Rome, Daphne Phelps's A House in Sicily, Lisa St Aubin de Teran's A Valley in Italy, Natasha Spender's An English Garden in Provence and Mayle volumes one and four. The verdict? Well, there's no denying that these books are amusing. In fact, apart from the wine, their most notable feature is a consistently self-deprecating humour, allied to a shrewd awareness of what will entertain the folks back home in bestseller-land.

Take the topic of the weather, for example. We northerners are suckers for blue skies and endless golden evenings (it's a fair bet that nobody will rush to publish A Year in Novosibirsk) and we love to bask on the terrazza with the best of them. But not all the time. Stuck in the dismal drizzle of endless winter, we want to read, not just about long hazy days in the olive grove, but about the hilarious calamities which result from the writer having overlooked the fact that, even within an ass's roar of the Mediterranean, summer sooner or later comes to an end. Nothing, it seems, pleases us more than the spectacle of the disconsolate writer typing away in overcoat and gloves, or poking hopefully at a long-deceased stove. A major leitmotif, of course, concerns the acquisition and renovation of the dream house. Almost always there is the rhapsodic moment when, after pages of fruitless searches, the ideal property floats on to the horizon. Here's how Lisa St Aubin de Teran finds hers: "As our cortege of cars turned into a drive past a triple row of venerable black cypresses, I saw the house I had been looking for all my life. It was standing like a jilted beauty still dressed in its ancient best. The abandoned facade was groaning under tons of sculpted terracotta. There was row upon row of long, graceful windows reaching down to white marble sills, there were dozens of arches, a loggia, a roof, a balcony and a cascade of wisteria."

Jealous? Don't be. There follows a brisk account of how she moves in, cooks pasta in fizzy bottled water over an open fire and drains the saucepan into the sink - only to discover that "not only did it have no water, but it was not even connected to the most rudimentary drain, and a thick steaming paste ran over the kitchen floor". As she, her son, her teenage daughter and two Irish au pairs (don't ask) camp out on beach mats for month after month, she makes another discovery. The house is gobbling up every penny she has ever earned, and more. Admitting to cash-flow problems is an unusual move. People in these books generally behave like characters in French art-house films; they dress beautifully, live in houses full of antiques and eat out at restaurants all day long without any visible means of support, like a job. Can writing travel books really be that lucrative? However, before you think about doing one yourself, pause and consider whether your digestive system is ready for it: because whether you and your hapless reader, trapped in a world where tomatoes taste like round red bits of plastic, like it or not, food and drink has to be given the ooh-la-la treatment. "When I started this memoir," writes Ferenc Mate, "I swore I would not clutter it with dissertations about food, but I soon realised that writing about Tuscany without talking about food is like writing about the Titanic without mentioning that it sank."

It would be wonderful if somebody would write one of these books without devoting page after page of ecstatic prose to the wretched truffle, but it won't happen. Truffles are de rigueur in southern suburbia, as are figs you can pick simply by leaning out the kitchen window and - yes, thanks, another glass of wine would be just fine. Native neighbours, meanwhile, offer endless opportunities for pouty shrugs and linguistic misunderstandings, most of which can be sorted out with hugs, kisses, and yet another bottle of wine. The locals - even those with no teeth - usually turn out to be charming and characterful, like Mayle's postman Marcel the Parcel, or Faustin the farmer next door, who is forever presenting himself at the kitchen door with bunches of asparagus tied up with red, white and blue ribbons.

Builders who grow to be part of the family are another must, as are visitors of any kind - especially the unwanted kind, too mean to buy their own slice of sun but only too willing to cash in on the author's. If, like Daphne Phelps, you can produce celebrities of the order of Caitlin Thomas or Bertrand Russell, or Natasha Spender's pals, David Hockney and Iris Murdoch, so much the better.

There are, of course, exceptions to this genial parade of Bernards, Michels, Antonios and Rosannas. Paolo Tullio, a restaurateur who lives in Co Wicklow, makes some astute and occasionally even acid observations on the Italian character - but then, he is Italian.

Harry Clifton ran into some pretty hairy local hostility when he spent the winter in a priest's house in an anti-clerical mountain village, and his description of a run-in over firewood with the sinister Silvio brings an unaccustomed chill to the proceedings, prompting Clifton to muse, "We were haves who had come into a village of have-nots, and we were battening on its limited resources". Here, no doubt, lurks a truth of sorts. These books are all, in one way or another, demonstrations of Europe's north-south divide. Uncomfortable truths not being particularly welcome within these pages, however, most stoutly ignore this and bang on about the beauties of nature in a southern climate. And, to be fair to the writers concerned, they do it very well. "If you turn and look back from here," writes Mate of his new home, "you see the rolling hills of young, green wheat rising like giant waves against the sky. And in a cleft in their midst, as if on an ocean, Montepulciano, sun drenched, sailing between the earth and the heaven." Mayle's touch is never less than feather-light, Clifton brings a poet's eye to his purple passages, and Tullio's description of the fireworks displays he can see from his balcony are so vivid you can almost smell the sparks.

The south, however, has a way of striking back. Last month, the house in Provence on which Natasha Spender, widow of the poet Stephen, lavished 35 years of tender loving care burned to the ground in a forest fire, along with the magnificent garden celebrated in her book. Newspaper photographs of the frail 70-something as she stood amid the ashes of her life told a very different story to the usual tales of fun in the sun. Suddenly, they were shifted to where they rightfully belong - on the bookshelf marked "fantasy".