Wild violets are appearing in our garden, the first sign of spring. Today’s blog gets passionate about their cousins, les violettes de Toulouse, emblem of the city where I lived for many years. Here’s a story about them.
Toulouse, France 1918: As a terrible World War enters its final year, one man is thinking about the future.
Dusk was falling over the pink city as Pierre-Georges Latécoère stepped out into the immense square. Friday night, and la Place du Capitole, the heart of Toulouse, was busy. Children ran shrieking and laughing beneath the echoing arcades where cafés were filling up with workers and shop girls stopping off to enjoy a glass of Lillet or Dubonnet before catching the tram back home.
Rumours were circulating that the war that had dragged on for so long was finally reaching an end as the Allies continued to advance on the western front. It was a conflict that had claimed its toll of young men from the south and worn to the bone those who remained at home, struggling to make ends meet, eking out an existence between meagre rations supplemented by the fruits of the orchards and vegetables from the allotments that stretched out around the city.
But there was definitely something different in the air this evening, thought Pierre-Georges, something uplifting and joyous, like the fragrance of the Toulouse violets that he stopped to buy from the flower seller on the corner. Seize the day. That was his motto, even though those who knew of his dreams laughed and said he was crazy. But this ‘madman from the south’, a visionary and a humanist, working at his father’s engineering factory, had imagined a future after the war, one in which the winged machines of destruction designed to kill the enemy could be transformed for the benefit of mankind.
“L’aérien pour relier les Hommes”- aviation as a means of connecting people, linking them by pathways through the skies. He planned to make this vision reality at the small airfield of Montaudran outside the city, from where former military aircraft would set out on a new mission: carrying the mail across the mountains of the Pyrenees to Spain; from Spain across the Mediterranean Sea to France’s colonies in North Africa; from there across 2800 km of inhospitable desert terrain to Dakar, Senegal, and after that…Pierre-Georges bent his head to inhale the fragrance of the posy tucked into his buttonhole. ‘La violette’, such a tiny, frail flower, yet with such a sweet and potent perfume. Yes, he mused, after that, the greatest adventure of all. On to a third continent, across 3000 km of Atlantic ocean to South America; from Brazil down to Buenos Aires and then the final, the supreme challenge: crossing the mighty Andes, the chain of mountains separating east from west, and where his fragile birds, piloted by intrepid aviators, buffeted by unimaginable winds and raging storms, might one day break through the clouds and see below them the shimmering blue waters of the Pacific.
But first, a daunting challenge awaited, one nearer home, in a government office in Paris where the bureaucrats he needed to convince said his project didn’t have a chance…
Though the scene above is a product of my imagination, the essential details are true. Latécoère’s response to government scepticism was reported by his chief of operations, Didier Daurat:
‘Gentlemen,’ he told the team ‘I have re-done all the calculations. Our idea won’t work! Our one job now is : to make it work !’
(‘J’ai refait tous les calculs…Notre idée est irréalisable! il ne nous reste qu’une chose à faire : la réaliser !’)
On December 25th 1918 Pierre-Georges Latécoère completed the inaugural flight of the Lignes Aériennes Latécoère, flying across the Pyrenees from Toulouse to Barcelona in a Salmson 2A2, a tiny one-engine machine piloted by Rene Cornemont. The following March, he took off from Montaudran with pilot Henri Lemaitre. After an overnight stop in Alicante he arrived in Rabat, Morocco the next day. He was welcomed by the French Resident General Hubert Lyautey, to whom he presented a copy of the previous day’s newspaper, Le Temps, and, to Madame Inès-Marie Lyautey, a bouquet of Toulouse violets.
‘La Ligne’, the first transcontinental airmail service was born; an agreement was signed for eight weekly flights between Toulouse and Rabat. Though prevented from becoming a pilot himself due to the poor eyesight which had prevented him serving in the war, Latécoère, through his perseverance, spirit of enterprise, and humanitarian convictions, wrote the first chapter in the story of French civil aviation, opening the way to a golden era peopled by legendary figures- Saint-Exupéry, Mermoz, Guillaumet, Daurat and other heroes, many of whom gave their lives in the pursuit of this pioneering dream.
In a month which has seen severe floods and rising COVID infection rates here in the Tarn and where a catastrophic vaccination campaign by the EU has raised alarm at the WHO and prompted the German Vice Chancellor to utter a very rude word, there is perhaps a ray of sunshine on the horizon. After her mea culpa before the European parliament on Wednesday, Ursula Van Der Leyen announced the creation of a task force to ‘get rid of the grains of sand in the vaccine pipeline’, hopefully increasing the trickle if not to a gush, at least to a reassuring flow. Heading the force is a man with a cheeky smile and a hugely impressive CV in both public and private sectors: Thierry Breton–former French Finance Minister, Harvard Business School professor, CEO of several major companies including France Telecom, winner of numerous accolades and awards, and just to round out the picture, author of three highly-praised sci fi novels. Baptised ‘a turnaround whizz’ (Wall Street Journal) and ‘Breton the Bulldozer’ (Capital magazine), he is a demanding boss whose work methods are reputedly unvarying: ambitious objectives, detailed budgets, strict deadlines, weekly progress reports and transparent results. Arriving at the Astra Zeneca plant in Brussels last week, he told the press: ‘the time for arguments is finished; now it’s time for action.’
Can Breton bulldoze those grains of sands out of the clogged EU pipeline? Can the turnaround whizz get the Commission spinning on their heels? Is this perhaps the shimmer of the blue Pacific at the end of a turbulent ride? Chances are that Breton is familiar with the words of his famous countryman in 1918:
‘I have re-done all the calculations. Our idea won’t work! Our one job now is: to make it work!’
NB Vintage posters like this one on the left can be ordered from:
Happy Valentine’s Day to lovers past, present and future, masked and unmasked!
If you’re dreaming of a romantic virtual trip to exotic climes, the above bouquet of 3 French Summer Novels is yours for less than the price of a Starbuck’s cinnamon dolce latte, and free if you’re a member of Kindle Unlimited, no vaccination passport required.
Keep safe, keep sane, keep hoping 😉
This blog is dedicated to the memory of two generous and inspiring friends, Mercedes Quevedo who died in Providence, Rhode Island on December 16th 2020, and Andrée Lagarde, who died in Toulouse on February 2nd 2021 and whose garden had many violets.