Palm And Pine
( Originally Published 1938 )
Somewhere between Marseille and the Italian frontier lies the goal and haven of every ambitious gigolo and gangster's moll, of every speculator engaged in a shady financial deal. "Let me just pull this one thing off, and I will go south, to some place where there is the sun." This is the famous Cote d'Azur, the land of romance and passion, rivalled only by Egypt and the South Seas as a setting for the novelette. But it does not really begin, except in name, until you get to Toulon; while St. Raphael is the most westerly resort, a stay at which, at the appropriate season, can be held to constitute the process referred to by English ladies of the old school, as they sip their cups of China tea at Cheltenham, or stroll out to inspect the roses, supported by an ebony stick with a silver handle, as "wintering on the Riviera." Hyeres is a solitary outpost of Englishry, separated by many an untracked mile from the other meridional haunts of Lady Fustenthwaite and Colonel Bloodenough.
The road from Marseille to Cassis winds dangerously among scrubby and forbidding hills. Ascending steeply from the suburb of Ste Marguerite, it is furnished with a parapet, and on this some enthusiastic royalist has painted, in letters of fire, Vive jean Ier, Roy de France et de Navarre! The "y," and the reference to Navarre, provide that touch of honest archaism, without which no expression of royalist sympathy can be reckoned authentic. As a matter of fact, a constitutional monarch and a rehabilitated aristocracy would probably furnish an excellent tonic for the Gallic spirit. The curse of contemporary France is littleness of soul, the pettifogging, penny-farthing attitude of mind which the petty bourgeoisie is able to impose on a whole nation when the class traditionally dedicated to the maintenance of other standards is discredited. The average contemporary Frenchman is probably a much more wideawake, intelligent, and realistic person than the average Englishman, and he does not go in for any nonsense about Old School Ties; on the other hand, the obvious disadvantages of a society in which everybody is so frightfully realistic that nobody trusts in the integrity of anybody else, whether in the field of politics or business, remind one that it does not always do for a whole nation to be too clever.
Beyond the village of Vaufrege the road, which rises to an elevation of about a thousand feet, traverses a barren and almost entirely uninhabited desert, covering an area of a hundred square miles or more, bounded on the north by the Marseille-Aubagne road, and on the south by an inhospitable and rocky coast. For ten miles or so the only signs of human influence or habitation, apart from the road itself, are a signpost pointing to the Champ de Tir, and a solitary homestead set in the middle of the wilderness. A more desolate piece of country it is hard to imagine. Any one possessing a wealthy female relation, who has a weak heart and has made a will in his favour, would find it profitable to take her for a drive along this road, of which the surface is extremely poor, and which twists and turns above steep slopes in the most terrifying fashion. At last one sees the Mediterranean at close quarters for the first time since leaving Marseille, and some gaunt grey cliffs rising from it. The road turns away, makes a wide loop, and then, leaving the desert, swoops down into a narrow valley which runs down to the sea.
Cassis, where Bloomsbury makes holiday, is a little fishing village situated in a rocky cove. Like most places to which the half-world of art and letters has turned its attention, it possesses many of the disadvantages of being in the fashion, without any of the amenities that sometimes attend on being fashionable. It is less beautifully situated than several villages of the same type in Cornwall; and its communications are bad enough to be an irritation to the traveller, without being bad enough to keep away the crowds. Many people go to Cassis assuming that, because it is visited by many artists and people with small incomes, it will be cheap. It is true that one can live cheaply in any French village; but the deduction is not a valid one. In the first place, people with small incomes frequently get less value for their money than people with large incomes; secondly, a small place with any reputation as a resort is always relatively dearer than a large one. The reason is simple: in a large place there is more competition; hoteliers and restaurateurs vie with each other to attract the custom of the traveller. A distinction should be noted between French and English practice in this respect. English restaurateurs strive against each other, too, and he achieves the triumph and rewards of success who contrives to provide the cheapest fare, irrespective of quality. In France the object is to give the best value for a certain sum of money. The French restaurateur is catering for those who know what's what; the English, for people without standards.
For complicated reasons of taste and prejudice, Cassis, though I think it pleasant and picturesque enough, would not be my choice of a holiday resort. But no one could deny it the advantages of sharing in the Provencal heritage of sunshine, and of being a place where you can wear old clothes if you want to. The very smart and efficient young woman in the office of the bus company at Aix informs me that she spends all her summer holidays at Cassis. (Martigues she recommends for an afternoon or weekend excursion, if you have a car; l'Estaque, as she rightly says, is infect.) With typical Gallic realism she recognizes that it is better to succeed in a lesser field than to fail in a greater. Bandol and such resorts are too pretentious, one needs too many clothes, there is too much chichi. If my estimate of the clientele of Cassis is correct, I should think she manages to be easily the best-dressed woman there in the summer.
At Cassis there is a restaurant where you can taste bouillabaisse done as well, I believe, as it is done anywhere. This much-vaunted confection of sea-fruits is a good coarse dish, to be put beside pork and beans or Irish stew rather than to be ranked with the great achievements of culinary subtlety. In origin it is a peasant dish, and it retains the attendant characteristics of pungency and richness. But if it is coarse, it is not simple. It owes its appeal largely, I believe, to the pleasure everybody takes in the successive contemplation of a number of varied and contrasted elements, which the addition of another, transfiguring and blending with them all, connects and links together, while at the same time it gives to the whole a touch of mystery. Eating bouillabaisse is like walking through a half-familiar landscape on a foggy day. Its existence must, I think; be taken as settling any controversy respecting the relative merit of langouste and homard. 'Who would expose the homard to the indignity of being stewed in the company of such uncomely monsters of the deep as the thorny rascasse and the guttapercha cuttlefish, or mask the perfumed flavour of his flesh with saffron? Langouste is a good creature, a very good creature, but he is not homard.
After lunch I walked out into the country behind the little port. The vines and fig trees were well advanced in leaf, and wistaria was out in the villa gardens. It was very warm and sunny; this was English summer weather. I like this country less well than Roussillon, but it is undoubtedly very pretty. Returning to the village I passed from the quarter of the villas to that of narrow streets inhabited by the natives of the place, but at that moment chiefly peopled (if that word be permissible) by a large number of extremely under-nourished cats. A high proportion of the population is Italian; and the Italians interpret kindness to animals in a different sense from the Anglo-Saxon races, and even from the French, who have recently developed a new sensitiveness to pets, which their more prosperous classes have discovered, I suspect, to be tres snob. Like those of the Cote Vermeille, the women of Cassis wear bedroom slippers out of doors at all seasons. A friend who was at Cassis during that terribly severe winter, some years ago, when the temperature of the south of France was the same as that of Moscow, and the Vieux Port of Marseille was frozen over, tells me that the female population of the village was reduced by hundreds, on the occurrence of the almost unprecedented phenomenon of a snowstorm, owing to the inadequacy of umbrellas and bedroom slippers to keep the feet dry in these circumstances.
I was recalled by frantic shouts and wavings from the end of the jetty, where I had walked, to catch a packed bus going to the station. There are no hampering restrictions about excess passengers in the south of France. The driver inserted me with a shoe-horn, so to speak, rammed in some seven or eight passengers who had fallen out when he opened the door to admit me, and off we went. The station of Cassis is a good two miles from the village, and the tariff for a car is high. The station bus, and that by which I had come from Marseille, are the only public vehicles that go anywhere from Cassis. This I should regard as a matter for congratulation, if Cassis really were a quiet place; but since, despite its comparative isolation, it attracts a good deal of traffic, a certain inconvenience is apparent. I was compelled to perform the next stage of my journey in a stuffy train. From Cassis to la Ciotat the coast continues to be high and cliffy; but from la Ciotat onwards we see the gently sloping, wooded shore, with pine trees growing almost down to the sea, and often with low hills rising gradually inland, which is typical of the greater part of the Cote d'Azur.
La Ciotat is something of a commercial port, with dock yards and a summer plage to the East. Under the name of Tauroeis it was a colony of Greek Massilia. Its situation is in many respects superior to that of Cassis; but of its claims as a resort I cannot speak. Proceeding eastward, we enter the department of Var some five miles beyond la Ciotat. This is a boundary of some importance. If in one sense the Cote d'Azur begins at Marseille, and in another at Toulon, in a third it begins here. The whole of the area which, apparently, most people understand by the words "the south of France" is included in the two departments of Var and' Alpes Maritimes. Even French people are not always free from this curious delusion. "I think I have heard of that place," said a Frenchman in Aix to whom I had spoken of the Cate Vermeille and Perpignan. A brochure issued at Bandol proudly invites the tourist to visit the neighbouring Cap Sicie, "Pointe extreme sud de France." As a matter of fact, the whole of Roussillon, the Cerdagne, and a good deal more included in the Pyrenees Centrales are further south.
Les Leques, the first place in the department of Var, is just one of those little places. A girl in beach pyjamas and a wide hat, one pink house and one the colour of stale mustard, a pine tree, and a splash of yellow sunshine, make up a sort of glyph which will stand for a hundred of these small resorts between here and Italy. Bandol is larger. It stands on a charming bay, almost landlocked, providing a harbour for many pleasure boats. If it is not so far south as it would have us think, it has certainly a southern look. I found here the first vigorous and sturdy palms I had seen since leaving the Cote Vermeille. A good effect has been achieved by varying them occasionally with less exotic growths such as are indigenous. This place is very definitely a resort, with many dress and perfume shops, where you can buy expensive sandals, parasol hats, and sunburn lotions. The women who own them, those who work in them, and half the female population of the place besides, wear trousers cotton, silk, or linen in the summer, serge or some such stuff in winter. It is a solemn thought that there are probably women on the Cote d'Azur who have not worn a skirt for years.
By these tokens Bandol sounds a vulgar place; and so it is. Its hotels, while not large or sumptuous like those of Cannes and Nice, are apt to run to radio and flashiness; its huge new Casino is tolerable in form but intolerable in colour, resembling decaying meat or an ill-made raspberry ice, and is poorly situated. Nevertheless, I can imagine that Bandol might be quite a good place in which to spend a certain rather foolish kind of holiday. After all, what do most people want from a holiday? Fresh air and sunshine, a little exercise, a certain amount of erotic stimulation? Bandol provides them. And these, if they are not very lofty demands, are very understandable and human ones. There is no need to feel offensively superior because people like to see girls in beach pyjamas. It is better than not liking to see girls at all. I have just been reading an article in which one of our most popular authors and professional intellectuals, who has made a very good thing out of his particular brand of peevish discontent and sentimental cynicism, complains that civilization has made Red Indians read Spicy Detective and hang up photographs of actresses in scanty clothing. Well, except perhaps on grounds of the strictest racial purity—Pocohontas in the nude would be better, I suppose—these seem to me to be very natural and healthy proceedings, to which only the querulousness of a disappointed voluptuary could take exception. This author fails to perceive that the real objection to civilization is not so much that it leads the almost illiterate to read Spicy Detective, as that it leads the almost literate to read him. Or rather, not that it leads them to read him—for he is often a very entertaining and stimulating writer—but that it leads them to read him uncritically, without remarking the occasional superficiality of his thought, the frequent vulgarity of his style, or the grave shortcomings of his heart and mind. Or one might put this criticism of the age in another way, and say that in no other would it have been possible for an author possessing the same great gifts to be guilty of the same transgressions.
Next day I discovered some more of Bandol round the little western cape, a quarter whose existence I had not previously suspected. This I found from the map to be the Bait de Renecros, the site of a summer plage. Its appearance this morning was rather desolate and chill. It was very windy rounding the little promontory. Here it was a nice, bright, sunny morning, after the manner of our east coast, where you have to take your fur coat when you go sun-bathing. But on the promenade where the biggest palm trees are, one could sit in front of a cafe drinking coffee with enjoyment. I must confess to a romantic weakness for these exotic creatures. There is something about the fronds of a palm tree waving gently against the background of a Mediterranean sea and sky. . . I need not add that the curving bay, the dancing light, the trim, white-painted yachts, made up a scene. . . . In short, I began to feel like Eastward Bandol extends in a thin line round the bay. On the other side of the jutting cape which is its boundary in this direction, in the next bay, is Sanary—a similar place, a little smaller and of less reputation. Going to Toulon from here, one cuts across the neck of Cap Sicie, driving through an agreeable, hot looking landscape. Oillioules, on the left, has gorges reputed to be worth a visit, though I have not seen them. Tamaris, which you can either pass through or leave on the right, is a summer resort to the north of the neck of the isthmus leading to Cap Cepet. La Seyne is virtually a part of Toulon; and Toulon, being long and narrow, gives the impression of being smaller than it is, and is, I think, as agreeable a place as Marseille is disagreeable.
There is something intimate and domestic about Toulon, which makes it hard to believe it is a town of more than a hundred thousand inhabitants, and, after Brest, the greatest naval port of France. In this intimacy lies its charm. The town has many small streets but few grand ones. There are few sumptuous public buildings to impress the visitor, and the naval dockyard seems to take up half the town. It is as if a little port had gone on growing and growing without losing its original character of business like simplicity.
Arriving about lunch time I set out to look for a restaurant. Having discovered one, I was amazed to find that there seemed to be no way of getting into it. The closed door which I had taken for a supplementary entrance appeared on further search to be the only one. There was a cafe next door. I went in there and, not seeing any waiters, asked a man behind the counter, who was probably the proprietor, if he could tell me where the entrance to the restaurant was. "Come this way," he said. He led me out through a side door of the cafe into a gloomy, stone-floored hall, and handed me over to a pale young man of sinister appearance. "This way," said the sinister young man. I started to ascend the stairs. " o, no, this way." He opened a small door, which I had overlooked, at the back of the hall. I passed through it with some hesitancy, and found myself in a dark cubby-hole hung with hats and coats.
"Where are you taking me?" I demanded.
"But to the restaurant, m'sieur," said the sinister young man, with a nasty leer. I took a firm grip on myself, and prepared to sell my life dearly. It was obvious that I was being lured into some den where I should be robbed and murdered. A door at the back of the cubby-hole opened, a man appeared, and said something in a low voice to my conductor, who slipped behind me and disappeared. It was too late to retreat; I advanced, and found myself in a bed-room. There was a bed with 4 blue silk counterpane, a telephone disguised in one of these crinoline-doll affairs. I felt like someone in an early William Faulkner. Through a narrow doorway in a corner of the room came the sound of voices. I passed through it and kind there was a very ordinary and trim-looking restaurant, with plush seats and mirrors. A very respectable clientele was consuming civet de lapin with as much calmness as if it were the normal thing to hunt the creature through a warren of halls, cupboards, and bedrooms before eating it.
An explanation of these Mysteries was not long in coming. Why the secret and furtive entry? I asked the waitress who took my order. Had I not heard? It was the strike of waiters. Any miserable blackleg who had the bad taste to order a mutton chop in public was liable to be rudely spoken to; while as for the abandoned wretch who dared to serve one! It was only by keeping the door of the restaurant closed, and permitting the clients to enter through her bedroom, that Madame la Patronne was able to carry on her business. Most of the restaurants in Toulon were closed.
Well, what was the strike about? I asked. Who knew? All of her calling whom she had spoken to were quite satisfied with the conditions of their employment, though one grumbled a little, naturally. Since some time they had been granted one full holiday a week, with pay; but now it was said that they should demand the forty-hour week, which would not be at all convenient in their business, for it was necessary to be open when the clients demanded it, otherwise they would cease coming, and then there would be no tips, and how would the proprietaires make the money to pay their wages? In some industries, doubtless, the forty-hour week was an excellent thing, but in theirs how was it possible? She was sure the majority were against the strike. But someone—somewhere—she did not know where had said that they must strike; a few hot heads had listened to him, and they had forced the rest to stop work by cajolery and threats. What would I like to drink?
While I was eating a man came in to chat with the patronne at her desk. It was quite true, he said, that most of the restaurants were closed. Madame had done well to bolt and bar her front door, for who knew what might have happened had she not done so? He himself had eaten at a small place, where he had been served by the proprietor himself. But not everyone had been so fortunate; some people, probably, their usual restaurant being closed, would get no lunch at all. There had been some violence. At one place a waiter who had gone to his work as usual had been savagely attacked. It was said that a man had been arrested. : . . The patronne smiled. Her two waitresses would not desert her; provided her luck held, the strike would fill her restaurant every day; the good God had clearly chosen this method of rewarding her manifest devotion.
After lunch I strolled about the streets, so narrow, twisty, and unplanned for a French town of this size. I looked at fountains, churches, shops. A band was playing in the Place d'Armes. It played the usual tune. All brass bands in France play the same tune, an epitome of all the marches ever writ-ten; and they generally play it very badly. I visited the old cathedral of Ste Marie-Majeure, degraded to the status of an ordinary parish church. Originally built in the eleventh century, it was enlarged and restored in the seventeenth and eighteenth, to such a good purpose that it is now in imminent danger of collapse, and is shored up with great baulks of timber. The interior is dark and rather gaudy, reminding one a little of the half-Spanish church interiors of Roussillon. There is a sad air of decline and shabbiness about this church. Its coquettish Renaissance facade wears the haunted, desperate expression of a woman who was once rich, beautiful, and courted, and now rides in a bath-chair at Cheltenham.
A few yards above Ste Marie-Majeure are stalls where they sell for a few pence flowers which would cost a for-tune in London at this season, fruits and vegetables, and every kind of sweetmeat. Round the corner, in the other direction, is the Quai de Cronstadt. This is Toulon, this is what a place like this should be, but (except in this case) never is! There are quayside cafes here where you can sit for hours over a liqueur or a cup of coffee, building a pattern, your own poetry or music, from the milling of the various and shifting crowd, refusing a score of bill-board offers to transport you by water to Marseille, la Seyne, or the Golden Isles, watching the sunlight burning brazen on the water. There are shops along here where you can buy a sword, a row of medals, a naval uniform, a box made of sea-shells, an elephant's hair-ring, a stuffed ape, a very vulgar post card, necklaces and pendants of amethyst and garnet, and of coral from the vasty and unfathomed deep. There are a hundred such establishments, where you can obtain (what you certainly require against emergencies) a diver's suit, complete with leaded boots and helmet, a pair of serge trousers, a striped vest, and a hat with a red pom-pom, without which a life on the ocean wave would be no more than an egg without salt or an unraisined curry. Here you may suffer the sweet agony of that most delicate attention, the tattooing of your sweetheart's portrait on your forearm, or on whatever more private portion of your anatomy may be selected by your taste and hers, receiving and offering a pledge for the lack of which to go down to the sea in ships would be but a thankless task, a fruitless journey and a sleeveless errand. This is Toulon. Behind it are the bare, gaunt, whitish-grey cliffs of Mont Faron, filling the town in summer with a sweltering reflected heat and a blinding glare. Up here (they have been saying for fifty years) is some day to arise the great resort of Toulon-Superieur, which is to divert all the fashionable traffic of Cannes, Nice, and Monte Carlo. This is Toulon. They will never make a resort of it, I think. But it is an altogether charming place.