Goodbye 2020! You will not be missed. At a time when morale is low and with the prospect of a lonely Christmas for many, I’m hoping this blog will remind us of some of the things that make life worth living. Its inspiration is writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. In his most famous book, The Little Prince, banned, like his others, under the Vichy regime, he has written a story which has moved and comforted millions of readers since its publication in 1943. Its themes – love and friendship, loneliness and loss– strike a special chord today.
‘On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.’ ‘It is only with the heart, not the eyes, that one sees clearly.’ Through the book’s best-known quotation and through the humanist philosophy expressed in his other works, in particular Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars), dedicated to Henri Guillaumet, Saint-Exupéry opens our hearts to the wonder of many things – the miraculous bond that grew between a small inhabitant from asteroid B612 and an aviator stranded in the desert; our planet and its place in a vast universe; our custodial duties towards it–the protection of nature, roses and gardens; our desire to go further, to explore, to learn, to surpass ourselves; the power of imagination which fires both scientific and artistic creation; the memory of where we come from, and the fact that all of us children of stardust must face an end to our earthly existence and the sadness of parting.
Saint-Exupéry’s connection to Toulouse is well-known. This was the place where he began an apprenticeship which was to make him into a great writer and a somewhat less-great aviator, the place where he forged unbreakable bonds with comrades who would help to shape his destiny. Pierre-Georges Latécoère was the visionary businessman who, in 1918, laid the cornerstone of French civil aviation at a small airfield on the outskirts of the city, launching what would become one of the world’s legendary airlines, the Lignes Aériennes Latécoère, later known simply as ‘La Ligne’, then ‘l’Aéropostale’ . His head of operations was Didier Daurat, a man revered by those he trained in the importance of their mission – delivering the mail to France’s overseas territories and beyond. In the modern world where an electronic Christmas card reaches its destination in a second it’s hard to imagine how eagerly, sometimes desperately, letters were awaited by people living thousands of miles apart at a time when transport by road and sea might take weeks, months even.
Daurat’s aviators were a larger-than-life bunch of daredevils who risked their necks daily on flights across the Pyrenees, Spain and the Mediterranean to West Africa in flimsy aircraft with rudimentary instruments and cockpits open to the elements (120 died in the service of the line). When, in May 1930, Jean Mermoz, one of the greatest pilots in history, crossed the Atlantic from Senegal to Brazil, a distance of 3450 km in a flight time of 21 hours and 15 minutes, the way was open for Aéropostale’s South American network. Passionate about their vocation, these men also had an appetite for life and l’amour (toujours l’amour), prompting Daurat to arrange for them to lodge at a respectable boarding house/pension, Le Grand Balcon, in the heart of the pink city. Daurat was counting on Lucie, Henriette and Risette Marquez, the genteel sisters who ran the place, to keep his young hotbloods in check. Instead, the sisters fell under the charm of their lodgers, and, seduced by their tales of exotic lands, vast deserts, jagged mountain peaks and violent storms, ‘forgot’ to charge them for their dinners and turned a deaf ear to the creaking floorboards as the aviators, their giggling inamoratas tossed over one shoulder, tiptoed to their rooms for forbidden nights of love from which they would emerge bleary-eyed at dawn to catch the no. 10 tram to Montaudran.
In December 2017 I was able to test those creaky floorboards for myself. Santa (in the shape of the MDM) had brought me a marvellous present – a night in the Suite de Saint-Exupéry. As we passed through the foyer of the hotel I heard the drift of a ghostly tango from the salon where the lodgers used to push back the furniture for impromptu dance evenings, and where today three huge photographs dominate one wall: Jean Mermoz, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Henri Guillaumet, the most famous members of the band whose exploits, like those of their American counterparts years later – Chuck Yeager, Gus Grissom, John Glenn – became the stuff of legends (pause while I blow a kiss star-wards to the great Chuck, who died this month aged 97) . Mermoz was the poster-boy; nicknamed the Archangel after emerging unscathed from the wreck of a plane in the Andes; his wavy, swept-back hairstyle, ‘la coupe Mermoz’, became le must-have in barbershops the length and breadth of France (we have a dashing photograph of the MDM’s dad sporting it.)
His room was number 20, Saint-Ex was on the floor above in 32 where, on one notorious occasion, his workmates found him asleep in the bath, a book floating next to him, and had to drag him out so he wouldn’t miss the tram to work and incur the wrath of Daurat.
A propensity to forget the time was one his most notable characteristics; his absent-minded dreaminess and habit of jotting down notes for his books while flying led to many an incident; as Henry Alias, his unit commander in 1940, remarked ‘When the flight is normal, Saint-Exupéry is dangerous; given complications, he’s brilliant’; for the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, he was a man who came into his own ‘to the degree to which he (ran) into danger.’ In short, Saint-Ex possessed that quality known later as ‘the right stuff’– a coolheaded resourcefulness that got him out of many a scrape .
For his first, crucial interview with Didier Daurat in 1926, he turned up an hour late, a crime which would normally have led to him being sent packing but for some reason didn’t. Daurat, ex-fighter pilot and hero of Verdun, was a stern, inflexible man who believed in duty and abhorred pride and pretentiousness. He was able, though his own unshakeable beliefs, to instil in his team the desire to surpass; his pilots were an elite, the brightest and best. Joseph Kessel wrote that, for Daurat ‘the mail had become religion.’ Saint-Ex, recalling that first interview said ‘I learned that any delay is a dishonour regardless of the reasons.’ He left an indelible portrait of him in his novel Vol De Nuit, published in 1931, bearing the dedication ‘A Monsieur Didier Daurat’.
Mermoz, a pilot with 600 flying hours beneath his belt, never forgot the humiliation of his first test flight where he launched into a dazzling aerobatics display to impress the great man. Coming in to land, he saw no trace of Daurat.
‘You’d better pack your bags’ said Rozes, an old hand standing at the side of the runway.
‘What have I done?’ stammered Mermoz.
Seeing the chief coming out of the hangar he rushed over.
‘Pleased with yourself?’ asked Daurat. ‘We don’t need acrobats here. Get yourself off to the circus.’
Daurat relented, but not after giving the scarlet-faced young man a terrible dressing down which he never forgot. Kessel later asked Daurat for his version of what happened.
‘I saw straight away that Mermoz was first class,’ he told Kessel. ‘But what he’d demonstrated was vanity and individualism. In order for La Ligne to work, we didn’t need that; it was a unity, a corps, not a showcase for individuals.’
On the night of December 4th 2017, as the MDM unlocked the door to Room 32, I was remembering all those stories, and trying to keep calm at the idea I was about to step into a page of history. I perhaps gave my gallant escort a little shove as I shot past – straight into a time-warp. The iconic hotel has been carefully modernised, leaving Room 32 dans son jus, as it was when its famous occupant left it.
Floor-to-ceiling windows, bare floorboards, the bed with its original brass and iron bedstead, the ancient black marble fireplace complete with art deco clock, the mismatched nightstands and Art Deco armoire. And what was behind the wooden screen with its embroidered panels? A bidet, was what, with a retro washbasin on the wall next to it.
From an early age Saint-Exupéry had taken to the world of books like a duck to water, reading them, writing them and doings his own illustrations in the margins. In her fascinating biography, Stacy Schiff describes how he would write late into the night, falling asleep then waking at his desk, head on his arms. Looking around that night, our eyes were drawn to a writing table, set in front of a corner window with a view of the main square and the rose-coloured 18th century Capitole building. It was essentially the same view Saint-Ex would have seen, raising his head from his arms, except that the façade of the Capitole that night was glowing electric blue in the Christmas lights, and the lamplit square was covered in market stalls.
The MDM was hoping for a ghost as the clock struck the midnight hour. I’m not sure what I was hoping for (a man in a helmet and goggles?) The MDM swears he saw his ghost. I didn’t get the man or the goggles but there was an undeniable frisson, something in the air that alerted the senses, a sort of psychic electricity… As the street noises faded and I drifted in and out of sleep I fancied there appeared among the shadows on the ceiling dancing black and white images from that golden age. There, in the old salon, three floors below, was a nervous Saint-Ex on the eve of his maiden flight to deliver the mail, begging the help of Guillaumet, ace pilot of the Ligne, more skilled even than Mermoz. The two were plotting the route at a lamplit table covered with maps. The jagged mountain peaks, swirling clouds, treacherous turbulence and magnetic storms which shook the frail aircraft like a leaf–all disappeared, magically transformed by Guillaumet, ‘the poet-guide’ who was showing Saint-Ex ‘his kingdom’, the Pyrenees and Spain, and the path through them with its welcoming landmarks – a row of orange trees here, a quiet brook there, a herd of sheep, a farmer on a remote mountain top.
In that moment a life-long friendship was born, and henceforth Saint-Ex would exercise his two passions, flying and writing, in thrall to the siren song of foreign landscapes, the vast remoteness of the Saharan desert and the harsh majesty of the South American continent, in the company of a fellowship of men who also had the stars in their eyes.
The idyll would come to a sordid end in the early thirties. The man who loved to write and fly would meet his death somewhere over the Mediterranean Sea in 1944. In an article in The New York Times, Schiff writes “rarely have an author and a character been so intimately bound together as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and his Little Prince…the two remain tangled together, twin innocents who fell from the sky”.
It’s impossible to squeeze just a few of these inspiring adventures into one blog. They will pop up again next year, to keep things in perspective. But I’d like to finish with a reference to Vol de Nuit /Night Flight, and its unforgettable descriptions of the anguish of men on lonely flights through the blackness of the South America night, racing to deliver the mail between Buenos Aires and Patagonia, Chile and Paraguay, and, fearing the worst, longing to see amid the claustrophic darkness a glimpse of dawn appearing on the horizon ‘like a beach of golden sand’.
It’s a feeling we can all empathise with as 2020 draws to a close. But as another great Frenchman, Victor Hugo reminded us ‘Même la nuit la plus sombre prendra fin, et le soleil se lèvera.’
‘Even the darkest night will draw to an end, and the sun will rise.’
From The Cowshed on a Hilltop in The Tarn – here’s to the dawn of a new year and a brighter future. Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année to one and all – oh, I almost forgot my present to readers -Books 1 2 3 of the French Summer Novels are all FREE for a bit of sea sex and sun escapism (26,27 and 28th December) – just click on the book covers to the left.
PS A special thought for those who lost dear ones this year; and for the never-to-be-forgotten James Lawrence, who left us bereft one December night 24 years ago. Apart from being a wonderful father he was also a keen astronomer, who, one night, aged 70, in the service of his passion, shinned up a concrete lamp-post and affixed a homemade cardboard shade around its offending orange light so as to better contemplate the beauties of the constellations.