childhood holidays in France … and adverbs

On the strength of a Buy recommendation in the FT I am reading Laetitia Rutherford’s so far marvellous memoir, Our Hearts Hang From The Lemon Trees.  It is published by Short Books, the discerning publisher of my French cycling book, so that was another reason.   The book starts with childhood holidays in Antibes.  One chapter in, I already make a better vinaigrette.

LR contrasts the stifling atmosphere of her snobbish grandparents’ house with the airy freedom of life outside: all day on the beach in flip flops and t-shirts (shouldn’t they be T-shirts?), among crêpes and frites, starfish and crabs.

She only has to mention the dry stone stairs behind the olive trees and dried seedlings of pine trees making a springy mattress under her feet, to transport us to a scented Mediterranean paradise by Dufy.  At her age I was shivering in the rain at tennis tournaments in Beckenham.

My turn in the Midi came when I was sent on the return leg of my French exchange.  The family arrived three hours late to collect me from Marseille airport and soon afterwards collided head-on with a truck on a tight bend in the Baou.  I spent the first evening on a bench outside Aix en Provence hospital while the Baron had his broken rib cage strapped up.  The starry night was a magical Van Gogh moment, unappreciated. 

In their classically distressed château near Barjols every other step on the staircase was too dangerous to tread on, and the unfiltered swimming pool water stayed Limpopo green regardless of the iceberg-like chunks of blue chemical matter they chucked into it.  I passed the long hours playing solitaire tennis against the wall and trying to decide whether to dilute the wine or drink it neat.  Adding water would make it more palatable, but there would be more of the foul stuff to swallow.

After-lunch conversation on the terrace seemed interminable.  “France and I are not going to get on,” was the characteristically mulish opening sentence of the first letter I wrote home.   There were compensations: a solex to ride, and fridge raids for mid-morning sandwiches made of baguette, sweet butter and chunks of cooking chocolate.  My mind was closed to them.

An absentee from the Rutherford family’s summer trips to France was Laetitia’s father Malcolm, an influential political journalist and rigorous stylist who despised, among other things  (and people), ‘the flabby compromise of the adverb’.  Statements like that can be relied on to send the insecure and untrained writer running for the mirror of the cuttings file, in search of damning evidence.  A quarter of a century after the event, I can still feel my cold shiver of panic when a friend recalled her days in a newspaper office where she learned the golden rules.  And what would those have been?  ‘Oh, you know – the obvious ones, like never to use which or very’.   Which? was my employer at the time, so that was a difficult rule to implement, but I took the ‘very’ rule on board and a very good rule it is too.

My new adverb awareness coincides with the arrival of the latest Where to Ski and Snowboard or at least an emailed press release announcing the possibility of its arrival, at a ‘heavily discounted price’ (unspecified) if I by-pass the book trade and order direct from the co-authors, co-editors and co-publishers Chris and Dave, a double act whose chatty style for some reason always reminds me of an eccentric couple of TV naturalists from my childhood, the Belgian Armand Dennis and his Yorkshire-born Barbie-doll wife Michaela.

The new and ‘completely revised’ edition of ‘the most eagerly awaited guide to the winter holiday season’ contains ‘incredibly detailed and uncompromisingly honest assessments’, photographs that ‘perfectly convey’ each resort’s character, as well as ‘brutally frank’ verdicts and maps with key aspects of the mountains ‘clearly highlighted’.  I don’t think Malcolm Rutherford would have been tempted, even at the heavily discounted price.

Fact-checking is not good enough for Where to Ski and Snowboard: according to Chris ‘we check and double check every last fact.’  I hope he has checked and double checked that last fact.  Double fact-checking must require a double labour force.  No wonder the book is so expensive.

I am relieved to find that Laetitia Rutherford does allow herself the occasional adverb.  Rules are there to be broken, and a memoir is not a newspaper column.

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