Cool Babylon

We originally thought of calling our book ‘Farewell to Babylon’, having checked and found only one title remotely similar, — ‘Adieu, Babylon’, in French. As luck would have it, when we were nearing production stage that book became translated into English as ‘Farewell Babylon’ (by Naim Kattan: a good read), so we had to think of something else.

Skimming through the Amazon book listings, ‘Babylon’ brought no fewer than 3,102 results. I noted 64 titles bearing the name before giving up. I have to admit, also, there are 8,865 entries bearing the ‘E’ word for Eden. We have hardly been original in our eventual choice.

What started me on this literary musing was a headline in last weekend’s London Sunday Times: ‘Villa Babylon’. It was above a piece by author Imogen Edwards-Jones whose latest book ‘Pop Babylon’ was published yesterday. It seems our Imogen is rather fond of Babylon: this is her fifth work using the name (the others being Hotel B; Air B; Beach B and Fashion B).

But Villa Babylon?

It turns out to be a whopping plug for her parents’ Tuscan farmhouse, which just happens to be for sale for £776,000. It is ‘1,500ft up, cool in summer and warm in a dank Italian winter.’ We know all about that, having been there, bought a farmhouse ourselves, made our sacrifices. Where we were in our own particular Tuscan idyll, also 1,500ft up, ‘cool in summer’ often translated as ‘hot as hell’ in late July or early August, and ‘dank Italian winter’ was simply perishingly cold and damp. We survived 14 years on the mountainside — the story I told in my first book.

Nothing against the family: we wish them the best of luck as they sell up and move on, now that ‘the world and his wife and their friends have poured into Tuscany.’ They are planning to relocate to Gascony. That’s pretty cool and dank; windy, too, as we recall. I hope the world and his wife might be put off visiting for a while, but I have my doubts.

Imogen started her piece by saying: ‘When my mother announced, 20 years ago, that she was selling up and moving to Italy, I thought she was joking. People just didn’t do that sort of thing in those days. There were no property programmes, no relocating shows, no glamorous presenters in flowered frocks poring over websites and telling us how to make the best of the burgeoning Spanish/Italian/Croatian markets.’ (No double-page spreads of free publicity in one of Britain’s best-selling Sunday papers, she might have added).

Well people did do it. We did it. As we recall only too well, we had no Internet, let alone broadband. No low-cost Ryanairs or easyJets. Frances Mayes had yet to discover Cortona, and turn it into an international tourist target through her seminal work, Under the Tuscan Sun. (It was a good read, though excruciatingly patronising and saccharine. By way of reprisal — not that I am in any way in the same league — I had thought of calling my book Under the Tuscan Tractor, but better counsel prevailed and we settled for Catching Fireflies. Go figure, as they say).

Now we live in France and love it for many reasons, none of which is exactly original. We’ve travelled a fair kilometre and have friends, Paul Eddy (the author) and Sara Walden (the journalist), living in the Luberon where France’s elite and what used to be called the ‘gauche caviare’ have holiday homes. Nowhere is immune from the phenomenon of ‘résidences secondaires’, and the tourist invasion. And although we do not know Gascony well (foie gras and Armagnac apart), it does stick in our memory for one outstanding reason. It is the only area where we have actually been shocked at the state of a toilet in a restaurant (which is saying something, as the general standard is shocking: a peculiar oversight for a nation rightly proud of its cuisine). ‘Primitif’ hardly comes close.

But that’s La France Profonde. I hope the family won’t forget that Peter Mayle did a pretty good job of promoting the southern French way of life (as he saw it) and that nowhere is now considered off-limts by the world and his wife.

‘Due to rural exodus,’ says Wikipedia, ‘Gascony is one of the least populated areas of western Europe, and so it has recently become a haven for stressed urbanites of northern Europe (chiefly France, England, and the Benelux nations) who, in search of quiet and peace of mind, are increasingly buying second homes there.’

Gasconyshire: the fire after the frying pan? For their sakes, I hope it does not turn out to be another Babylon.