British writer evoked charms of Provence

Peter Mayle wrote A Year In Provence (1989), which was later adapted into a television mini-series of the same name.
Peter Mayle wrote A Year In Provence (1989), which was later adapted into a television mini-series of the same name.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/PETER MAYLE

Peter Mayle started his career in his 30s with sex-education books for children, before switching to the travel memoir genre

LONDON • When Peter Mayle found success writing about living in southern France, he did not expect that readers wanted to examine his life like an open book.

Many wanted to see the house he wrote of and were not shy about knocking on the door or walking through the yard.

"The summer of 1991 was the worst," he told The New York Times. "It made us wonder whether we had lost all our peace. A day without some visitor arriving out of the blue was unusual.

"Many brought marmalade because I mention in the book that I like marmalade. I think the marmalade pots now outnumber wine bottles in the cellar."

On Thursday, Mayle, an Englishman who started a career in his 30s with sex-education books for children before making a triumphant switch to the travel memoir genre with A Year In Provence (1989), died at a hospital near his home in France. He was 78.

He and wife, Jennie, had moved to the village of Menerbes in the Provence region in 1987, with Mayle intending to write a novel.

However, with renovations to the 18th-century stone farmhouse they had bought in full swing, he kept getting distracted. His agent finally told him to shelve the novel and write about the distractions.

"Everything catastrophic became useful," he recalled in a 1993 interview. "Up to that point, I had kept a half-hearted diary. After that, I took copious notes and the chapters more or less wrote themselves."

The book relates the couple's month-by-month encounters with local builders, lawyers, truffle hunters, boar hunters and more.

Its British publisher, Hamish Hamilton, had not expected much, ordering 3,000 copies. But the book, aided by being excerpted by The Sunday Times of London, just kept selling, reaching the million-copy mark in England and 600,000 in the United States.

It was adapted into a television mini-series starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan, which was broadcast in the US on A&E cable network in 1993.

As the Telegraph newspaper noted in revisiting its success in a 2006 article, the book "somehow tapped deep into a slumbering, latent, hitherto unknown British desire for sunshine and fine wine, for peeling shutters and croissants... and the good life in the French countryside".

Mayle was born on June 14, 1939, in Brighton, England. He started his career in advertising, working for a time in New York. In a 2009 interview with The Connexion, a French newspaper and website, he said the discipline of writing advertising copy later helped him.

"You're obliged to stick to the plot - to be concise, informative and, if possible, entertaining," he said.

His first book, Where Did I Come From? (1973), sought to explain the facts of life to children. He followed that with one on puberty, What's Happening To Me?, plus other advice books and magazine articles.

The Mayles began visiting southern France for vacations in the mid-1980s and liked it so much that they moved there.

Some readers complained that the French people he wrote about in A Year In Provence came across as caricatures, but the book, aided by vivid descriptions of the food and drink, boosted the tourism business there.

Not long after the television series was broadcast - it was also seen on the BBC - the couple moved to Long Island in the US to escape the attention.

But they missed "an entire spectrum of sights and sounds and smells and sensations that we had taken for granted in Provence - from the smell of thyme in the fields to the swirl and jostle of Sunday-morning markets", he said.

They returned to southern France, but to a different house - one whose location they kept secret.

France was prominent in his other books, both non-fiction and fiction.

They included French Lessons: Adventures With Knife, Fork And Corkscrew (2001), Provence A-Z (2006) and crime novels with titles such as The Marseille Caper (2012) and The Corsican Caper (2014).

His 2004 novel, A Good Year, was adapted into a 2006 film starring Russell Crowe and Albert Finney. It was directed by Ridley Scott, another Briton living in Provence.

Mayle was never keen on the television adaptation of A Year In Provence.

"John Thaw, who played me, seemed to be in a perpetually bad mood," he told The Connexion, "whereas I was absolutely delighted with my new life in France."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline 'British writer evoked charms of Provence'. Print Edition | Subscribe