Letters of introduction in white, red and blue

In Artemis Cooper’s wonderful recent biography of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, she describes how, in the course of his walk across Europe in the 1930s, he managed to meet and stay with a succession of eccentric and often brilliant aristocratic families in Germany and middle Europe. In the main this was thanks to some letters of introduction provided by a friend of his landlady’s in London. And, of course, as he stayed with more people they provided further letters of introduction to their friends and relatives to help him further along his route to Constantinople.  

It reminded me of the only time in my life (to date – who knows what may happen tomorrow?) when I was given a couple of letters of introduction.

Nearly 40 years ago I was living in France and working as an English language assistant in a lycee in Grenoble. On my university course I was also studying Russian and the wife of my professor, with whom I took some translation classes, finding out where I was going to do this stage in France, gave me a letter of introduction to a White Russian family by the name of K—– (can’t resist the anonymising device of old Russian novels) who lived in Grenoble. One there, I hung on to the letter for quite a while, as there were so many other distractions in my life at that time. And then one day decided to make contact with them.

Details at this distance in time are hazy. I recall there seemed to be quite a few people in the flat and I never quite worked out who they all were. The reason for the introduction was so that I could speak Russian to them. Remember, this was the early 1970s so access to native Russian speakers in those days was rare. My Russian at that time, even though I was studying it at university, was to say the least not good. In fact to me it was mainly a written language and my main exposure to it was via nineteenth century literature. In the circumstances, and given the fact I felt very self-conscious about speaking it, It was hard  to make conversation in the language, so we spoke mainly in French.

I remember that they sort of invited me to a party or event that may have had some connection with the (Orthodox) church. Looking back, if I had had any sense I would have tried harder to speak Russian and to make friends with them. However, I didn’t and that was undoubtedly my loss. One of the main things that sticks in my memory though about that one and only meeting with them was when we got onto the subject of politics.

Pompidou was nearing the end of his presidency and life – he died in April 1974. But in the last few months of his life there was much speculation about his health. Magazines and newspapers showed pictures of him with a very swollen face. Clearly something was wrong with him, but of course he denied it. There was therefore much talk of an upcoming election and after so many years of Gaullism, a sense that the country was going to take another direction, specifically a lurch leftwards. My White Russian family, mindful of the Russian Revolution and its upheavals (and who knows what personal tragedies it brought them), were horrified at the prospect of a Communist government coming to power in France. In fact they were so frightened of it, they told me that if it happened they would pack their bags and leave the country.

I thought at the time they were being alarmist. I remember people in England saying the same sort of thing at the prospect of a Labour government in the early 60s. But looking back and knowing a bit more about that period now than I did at the time, I can appreciate why they felt the way they did.

The main leftwing parties in France at that time had united under Le Programme Commun, driven mainly by the Communist Party. I remember buying a copy of it, a book the size of an average paperback, though I never did get round to reading it.  However, this leftwing coalition, in order not to alienate too many leftist sympathisers, had the sense not to elect a leader from the Communist Party. Instead they selected François Mitterand who, ironically when he did become president in 1984, started to drift as far away from the left as you could imagine.

Fast forward a few weeks and it is a warm evening in the Stade de Glace in Grenoble. It is 4 May and the last night of the quick presidential election campaign called following Pompidou’s death in office. I am sitting up in the balcony with a couple of English friends surrounded by several thousand fervent French leftwingers. We are waiting for Mitterand to appear and give his last address of the election campaign. Grenoble was no doubt  chosen for the climax of the campaign because at the time it was a socialist stronghold, with a forward thinking socialist mayor called Hubert Dubedout who was doing great things for the city.

We have had a few warm up speeches, including one from Pierre Mendès France, a longstanding leftwing politician. He was an anticolonialist who in the late 40s had started French disengagement from Indo-China by negotiating an armistice with Ho Ch Minh. Later he clashed with de Gaulle over government policy on Algeria. Then amazingly a slight woman with black hair and wearing a long black dress emerges on the stage, trailing a single red rose (the symbol of the leftwing alliance). The audience goes wild. It is Juliette Gréco, and she proceeds to give us some of her great songs.

However, it is getting late. By law electioneering has to stop at midnight. It’s now gone eleven and there’s still no sign of Mitterrand. Even Juliette is struggling to hold the audience’s attention. When it gets past 11.30, the audience are boiling with frustration at Mitterrand’s non-appearance. Then suddenly there he is on stage, giving a speech which is greeted almost hysterically by the audience. At one point we sing the Marseillaise. I say ‘we’ because I jumped to my feet and joined in, giving it full voice, whilst my English comrades pointedly remained seated. I enjoyed that bit enormously but was later treated to a bit of lecture about the dangers of mob hysteria.

Then it was midnight and, like Cinderella, Mitterrand slips away. Amazingly this election turned out to be one of the closest in French history. The Gaullist candidate, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing failed to get a majority in the first round and it went to a second ballot where he won by about 400,000 votes – or a whisker as we psephologists prefer to say. No doubt my White Russian family breathed a huge sigh of relief.

My second letter of introduction was to a French nun. At the time I was going through my Catholic phase and before leaving for France had been taking instruction from a Jesuit to ’embrace the scarlet woman’, as they used to say. In spite of the Jesuit’s urging I had refused to be stampeded into a decision. Somehow and from a Catholic friend I imagine I had managed to get this introduction. I held on to it for a long time, not sure what I would have in common with a nun. Eventually out of curiosity I rang her up and she invited me to the convent one Saturday afternoon.

As it turned out, she was quite entertaining. She was a teacher of English and I was able to help her out be recording some pieces from her textbooks for her classes. We had tea and cake in the communal area of the convent with some of the other nuns, who all seemed very calm and quite jolly.

One event stays in my memory all these years later. She invited me to the convent one Sunday afternoon for an outing. In the boxy convent Renault we drove up into the mountains, my nun friend driving, another nun beside her and me sat in the back with the Profesor of Astrophysics from Birmingham University, on a visit from CERN. I have no idea how he knew these nuns. Perhaps he too had a letter of introduction…

Up and up into the mountains we went, each hairpin bend revealing more and more dramatic views, until at one point flat part we stopped and the nuns pointed at some wild flowers by the side of the road. We got out of the car and walked over to them. They turned out to be gentians. I can still see their intense blue colour, smell the heady scent of pine resin, and feel the freshness of the air in these high mountains. For some reason it remains an intense, clear experience across the years.