Last week I invited some friends round for an aperitif. One of them said he had to leave around 8pm because he was going to another friend's place.
The other friend, Felix, was away in Figueres in Catalonia, Spain. He's Provencal but with Spanish origins and was taking a trip back to his (and Salvador Dali's) home town.
"Why are you going over there when Felix is away?" I asked.
"There's something I want to do for him before he returns" was the answer. "Can I borrow your ladder?"
Ladder lent, most of it sticking out of the back of his car, he departed.
I forgot about the incident but the other day I ran into him and Felix chatting in our local market. Felix was recounting how, on his return from Figueres to Isle sur Sorgue, he found someone had been onto his property and fixed a plaque in an outside seating area he'd created. In fact, to say it's a seating area is pushing it a bit - it's a sort of scrappy courtyard populated by trucks, building materials, old chairs and a tangle of kittens. Felix lives in a huge agricultural hanger that he's converted into a muscular, open-plan, bloke's living space. It's all heavy industrial wooden beams, woodburning stove, forged iron and inox. Sort of New York Loft meets Mad Max. A maçon with his own roofing business, he's also a former sailor, a former chef who cooks like a dream and an artist who paints sinewy, vaguely figurative paintings on large canvases dotted around the mezzanine.
He told us that the green metal plaque that had been installed had presumably been pinched from some town square and said Place Georges Brassens. Felix is an admirer of Brassens' work and was touched by the gift but he wondered who'd climbed over his wall to install it. He'd asked a few friends, who denied it, but now he figured out who it was. My neighbour laughed and agreed that it was his Christmas present to the builder/sailor/chef/artist.
I trundled off to buy Sortilège coffee, ("magic spell...", which I used to misread as Sacrilège.)
As I whisked my purchases through the self-service check-out at Intermarché I wondered about Brassens. I knew he was a singer and poet but other than that I had little idea about his work.
So I had a look online at Wikipedia and found that he was born in 1921 and died in 1981. He was born in Sète, a tough and interesting coastal and fishing town near Montpellier. As well as being a well-regarded postwar poet he wrote songs and set others' lyrics to music. During World War II, the Germans forced him to work in a labour camp, helping them manufacture BMW aircraft engines. Objecting, as you would, to furthering the nazi war effort, Brassens failed to return to the camp after getting a few days leave. He spent the last five months of the war in hiding in Paris. Brassens' view of the 20th century was understandably gloomy. "The century we live in is a rotten century" he wrote.
"Nothing but cowardice and baseness.
The greatest murderers attend the greatest masses
And are the greatest favourites of the greatest kings."
In lighter vein, he wrote - among over 200 songs - a song about a well-endowed gorilla which escapes its cage. Taking a bewigged and robed judge for a woman, the gorilla rapes him. The lyrics contrast the judge's cool and impassive voice when sentencing a man to death with his shrieks for mercy in the grip of the gorilla. The song was banned for a time but is still well known these days in France.
Brassens always credited one of his teachers with having sparked his interest in poetry and songwriting. The influence of this one man led Brassens on to study the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Hugo among others.
"We were thugs" he said "at fourteen or fifteen, and we started to like poets. That's quite a transformation. Thanks to this teacher, I opened my mind to something bigger."
Just the sort of sentiment that is appreciated in Provence (and Paris and Sète) and led to parks and squares bearing the name Georges Brassens.