I have divided my work in ten distinct categories. What follows below is an illustrative piece from each category. I do hope you will enjoy reading them.
For the last few years I have been writing extensively about France. I have regrouped a ‘best of’ collection of some 60 articles in my book Roast Beef on Frogs’ Legs.
With a client list including British Airways, Saga and the Daily Mail, I have interviewed many of the top people in French industry, and written about luxury products such as Chanel, Cartier and Louis Vuitton. Pretty much each and every aspect of French life – which means that I have prepared photo-essays on subjects as diverse as the nougat of Montélimar - right through to the weird and wonderful Postman’s Palace in the department of the Drôme. From the latest political development concerning François Hollande - to the problems relating to France’s cumbersome system of sécurité sociale - my self-imposed brief is simplicity itself – ‘Anything French’ - be it business, politics, food, or drink.
From Animal Magnetism to Animal Rights
It may have been well over two decades ago. But many of us can still recall John Cleese’s manic injunction – ‘don’t mention the war’. Well, spare a thought for poor old Franck, Brigitte Bardot’s delightful PA. “Don’t mention Brigitte’s past”, he implored, “she would much rather you stuck to issues of animal rights.” Call it a white lie if you will, but I replied rather feebly that I would do my best, entirely aware that I had not even the slightest intention of doing any such thing.
Of course in these days when half-naked women appear to leap out at you from each and every direction, it’s difficult to imagine the impact Brigitte Bardot (‘oh, Jeremy, please do call me Brigitte…’) created in 1956 when she danced sans culottes in Vadim’s And God Created Women. She went on to become a kind of international world ambassador for sex, spawning an army of look-alike actresses, among whom Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda and Julie Christie were but a few. As the writer Sean French puts it in his biography, she was “a myth, an icon, even those two letters had their own vivacious lewdness – BB, pronounced in French ‘bébé’ resembling in their double curves a providential mimetic tribute to the breasts and buttocks of their possessor and yet, paradoxically, meaning ‘baby’”. She was the European Marilyn Monroe of her day who, unlike her American counterpart, went on to survive a suicide attempt in 1960. She also happened to be shrewd enough to realise that her acting career would decline in parallel with her looks and she rapidly reinvented herself as one of the world’s foremost campaigners for animal rights. Do not be lulled into thinking, however, that Brigitte is locked into some kind of a time warp from a bygone era – for her determination to speak up on behalf of those unable to speak up for themselves has ensured that both her eyes and ears have been kept very firmly to the ground.
“More power to Tony Blair’s elbow”, she announces somewhat surprisingly. “I am totally opposed to fox-hunting which I think is absolutely scandalous in this day and age. I fully support the efforts of the British Prime Minister and his government to outlaw it.”
Action, as we all know, speaks louder than words. Precisely why she created the Foundation that bears her name in the mid 1980s. Nor can she be accused of not being prepared to put her money where her mouth is. For she showed not the slightest hesitation in auctioning off a number of items of jewellery and personal effects in order to raise the £300,000 required under French law. She even donated her famed St. Tropez property La Madrague in order to ensure its financial survival and its official recognition as a public-service organization. The Foundation now employs 36 full time personnel working from its Paris headquarters overseeing written and audiovisual publications, lectures, exhibitions special events and educational programs for young people. Shuttling regularly between the Cote d’Azur and the French capital Bardot is its very able top executive working alongside public and private agencies dealing with animal protection and shelter and cooperating fully with other public agencies for new laws and regulations dealing with the protection of animals.
“The Foundation is the best thing I have ever done in my life”, she reveals. “C’est vrai. What I am doing now is the realisation of the entire meaning and objectives of my life.”
I can still see the image of Franck’s wagging finger. But it is time, is it not, to make the link between the old world and the new. Is BB entirely dismissive of her glamorous, glitzy past? Not at all, she will tell you.
“Fame was the only valuable thing cinema brought me. It allows me to fight for a cause that is not only that of animal rights – but also that of the weak against the strong. I don’t decry that part of my life because it enabled me to have the name I have. That name is important in my current work. The name Brigitte Bardot still has a certain resonance around the world, does it not? I am not saying that all doors are open to me – because even for me they do not open that easily when campaigning for animal rights. Of course I don’t always get my way. Far from it. But unlike many others it does often ensure that at least I get a hearing.”
“But were you not yourself on occasions treated like an animal”, I venture to suggest. “I mean in terms of your being exploited by producers, directors and the like.”
“I guess you could say that, yes. There were people who took advantage of my fame as an actress and so on. But that’s all over now.”
“I was just wondering if you have come to love animals more than people.”
“Yes, that’s absolutely true. The less I see of people, the better off I am. I now live in a very sauvage way – with my animals all day long and out in the countryside and as far as possible from the madding crowd. I guess it’s about as far removed from my earlier life as one can possibly imagine – it feels almost as if I have been reincarnated.”
Now the French, as we all know, take their grub very seriously. This has not deterred Brigitte, however, from launching a full-scale attack on the likely contents of the French stomach. For she has spoken out publicly against the production and manufacture of foie gras (‘what people don’t realise is that they are eating an abnormal and diseased liver’), the consumption of horse meat and the French fascination and appetite for frogs’ legs. “They even eat snails over here you know”, she adds helpfully.
“I used to feel extremely French”, she explains. “That was at the beginning of my career – in a different age. But not any longer. It’s impossible to fight against French eating habits. They stuff themselves with foie gras over Christmas and during the New Year festivities. The French do just one thing – think about their stomachs! As you can see, I am no longer crazy about France and the French. I would prefer to describe myself as a citizen of the world.”
She might well have survived her suicide attempt. But no degree in psychology is required to know that fame and fortune did not bring ample lashings of happiness her way. Bardot and Vadim separated in 1956, six years later she divorced Jacques Charrier, and 1969 saw her divorce husband number 3 Gunther Sachs. Nor has her fourth marriage to the right wing politician Bernard d’Ormale been without controversy. Animals must be rather easier to manage, are they not?
“Absolutely”, she replies, without the slightest moment of hesitation. “I do indeed love animals far more than human beings. I am more sensitive to their faithfulness, their kindness and their innocence. Nor do they ask for anything back in exchange. It’s love in its highest and most pure form. Of course as and when I do meet people who share such qualities then I adore them too. But I have to say that they seem to be few and far between.”
What is it, according to Bardot, which prompts man to be cruel to animals? Despite the best part of four decades of active campaigning in the field, she is the first to admit that she is at a loss to explain why.
“The truth is I don’t really know”, she says. “I don’t understand mankind. In the French dictionary we are informed that the word humanité means being sensitive to pain and suffering. And yet humanity all too often seems to me to be precisely the opposite of that. I guess one obvious reason is purely financial – to get rich off of the back of a poor animal who cannot fight back in his own defence.”
Still, at least she is on the right road. Campaigns have been fought and one, have they not? After all back in 1977 she touched upon all of our consciences on the subject of the massacre of baby seals and won a famous prohibition against sales of their fur.
“I am afraid that you can’t even say that. We were successful in our Canadian seal campaign, true. The massacres did stop. But only for a while. In fact things are now worse than before. It’s the same thing with the fur trade. Remember that all the top models were against it? And that if you were to wear a fur on the métro you knew it would be only a question of time before someone would throw paint on it. Well fur is back again with a vengeance. So even though I have been proud of our victories at a particular time, I’m afraid that in truth it’s a little like the waltz – you know, two steps forward and one step back.”
Which probably goes some way to explaining why despite her advancing years Brigitte’s views have become increasingly militant. For I must say that I was fully expecting her to repudiate the activities of the animal rights activists who on occasions take the law into their own hands.
“So what do you say”, I enquire a little provocatively, “to an animal liberation group, for example, who would not hesitate to blow up an abattoir.”
“Formidable”, she replies, without further do. “I support all animal activists who defend the rights and interests of animals. In fact I have supported commando groups in France who have liberated monkeys being experimented on.”
“Look”, she concludes. “We are but a small group of people in the Foundation. We are doing what we can. But it may well be that I don’t live to see the successful results of the work we are currently undertaking. We place expensive ads, launch elaborate campaigns – but often little changes. Or if it does the change might be merely temporary. Humans have a habit, unfortunately, of hearing what they want to hear and merrily ignoring the rest. All I will can say is that for my part, I did as much as I possibly could.”
“Just one more thing”, I add, in Colombo mode.
“Je vous en prie. Go right ahead.”
“You have suffered a lot in your life time. What advice would you give to an up and coming beautiful young actress or singer who has the opportunity to be famous? If indeed it can lead to so much pain and suffering - is it really worth it at all?”
“I did suffer, true. But each person must handle fame and fortune in their own way. But I still believe that if such a young girl comes along – a future Brigitte if you will – and she has an opportunity to be famous – then she should seize that moment firmly and with both hands. Go for it. That’s what I would say.”
On The Art of Survival
Talk about posh. Of course it pains me somewhat to admit to being so superficial and shallow as to be bowled over by fabulous wealth and riches. But Marina Picasso’s pad in Cannes – and I’ve seen a few des res in my time as a writer on the road – surely takes the biscuit. Not an altogether inappropriate turn of phrase, as it happens, since her stunning white villa overlooking the Iles de Lérins and the Med has been described as a wedding cake of a house. A wedding cake which happens to contain dozens of Picasso originals – a dazzling and unrivalled mélange of paintings, sculptures, bronzes and ceramics – each and every item crafted by her grandfather’s fair hand. Fair hand? Hardly. For Marina is poised to relate what to her has become an all-too familiar tale: that the legendary Pablo Picasso was in fact a cruel and sadistic monster who needed to be appeased with human sacrifices in keeping with the best traditions of an Aztec god. “No one in my family managed to escape his stranglehold”, she says. “He needed blood to sign each of his paintings.” Marina was duly called upon to become a blood donor herself but, unlike others, she survived.
For those who might be thinking ‘poor little rich girl’ Marina is obliged to rattle off a series of rather unpalatable home truths, each one chipping away at the enduring myth of the dominant creative genius of the twentieth century. It involves so much misery, such disproportionate quantities of death and destruction that one hesitates to label the Picassos as merely dysfunctional for fear that the word is too weak. Marina’s brother Pablito tried to commit suicide just a few days after Picasso’s death in 1973 – “my grandfather’s second wife, Jacqueline, wouldn’t let us near him, whereas all Pablito wanted to do was to say goodbye to the dead body.” Whereupon she found her brother lying on the kitchen floor, blood haemorrhaging from his mouth, having downed the best part of a bottle of bleach that perforated his stomach lining. Three months of intense suffering later, aged just 24, he was dead. Marina was obliged to borrow money to pay for his coffin - which rather knocks the ‘poor little rich girl’ theory for a six, does it not?
Her beloved grandmother (the most formative influence in her life) – the once beautiful Olga who had danced in Diagilev’s Ballets Russes died ‘not only paralysed but humiliated, degraded and betrayed’. Then it was Jacqueline’s turn – she chose to end her own life by putting a bullet through her temple at Picasso’s home Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci in Mougins – while Marie-Thérèse Walter, the artist’s muse, duly hanged herself from the ceiling of her garage in Juan-les-Pins. In other words it was not exactly happy families chez les Picassos – and I have spared you the details of the miserable life and times of Marina’s own parents where the watchwords were alcoholism, abuse and neglect. It is entirely attributable to the Picasso effect, Marina will have you believe, a burden which she too has been carrying for the whole of her life. But she considers that with the modest tally of just one nervous breakdown, dozens of fainting fits and fourteen years of psychoanalysis - that she got off rather lightly.
“When I began my therapy I introduced myself not as ‘Marina Picasso’ but as ‘Picasso’s granddaughter’. For I too had succumbed to the Picasso virus - we all fell victim in our different ways. This virus was subtle and undetectable”, she says, “a combination of promises not kept, abuse of power, mortification, contempt and, above all, incommunicability. We were defenceless against it.”
Far be it from me to spring to le Maître’s defence, especially after what I’ve just heard. But I do feel obliged to point out that in life things are seldom black and white – even Hitler loved dogs, for heaven’s sake – and that there surely must have been some tender moments together, as one would expect between a grandfather and granddaughter.
“I am sorry to disappoint you but there were not. I would love to be able to tell you how he had loved us all, of how he would take me in his arms with my dolls and hug me. But that just didn’t happen.” And Marina Picasso proceeds to develop her theme of contempt – describing how her grandfather would only have to sign a paper tablecloth in a restaurant to pay the bill for forty people. And of a man who would boast of being able to buy a house without needing a lawyer by handing over three paintings that he would not hesitate to describe as ‘three pieces of crap smeared in the night’.
Which leads me to enquire if Marina appreciates the works of art that adorn her very walls. Having inherited a quarter of her grandfather’s fortune (including some 400 paintings) you can hardly look up, or to the left or right for that matter, without a Picasso of some shape and form staring back up at you.
“That’s precisely why I refused my inheritance”, she explains. “I was convinced that all of our family’s misfortunes flowed from this man – this God, this King, this Sun, this Genius”, she says dismissively, mocking the adjectives of adoration which are bandied about as soon as his name comes up for dinner party discussion. “You might think that that sounds rather funny – but when I would try to go and visit my grandfather in Cannes – this was precisely the message which Jacqueline would communicate to my brother and I via her gatekeeper – that ‘the Sun is resting.’”
When the director of the BNP bank in Paris offered to open the doors to the vault containing her share of Picasso’s work, she flatly refused. Persuaded by her legal advisers that the refusal of a legacy was not possible according to French law, she duly but reluctantly accepted –promptly stacking the paintings against the walls on the grounds that out of sight meant out of mind. Meanwhile, the artist’s three illegitimate offspring – Claude, Paloma and Maa – had thrown their hats into the legal ring, anxious to see their slice of the action. Whereupon there followed an acrimonious ten-year legal battle – all part and parcel of Picasso’s plan, according to Marina, to suck everyone into his vortex upon his death, precisely as he had planned.
Call me cantankerous if you will. But my unconscious desire seems to be to want to speak up for the old man. I can’t even explain why. Maybe I too have digested and imbibed the myth that Marina is so anxious to dispel. And unlike other reporters who know that there job is to sit down and shut up, I can’t help but throw in my two centime’s worth.
“Nevertheless the fact remains, Madame Picasso, that here you are, hugely wealthy, living in this amazing home which once belonged to your grandfather, with his works of art adorning each and every wall. Is there not something a little unwholesome about your describing him as a kind of blood-sucking vampire whose sole ambition in life was to destroy?”
Convinced that I am about to be given my marching orders, Marina Picasso is entirely unfazed. Maybe she has heard it all before.
“I am perfectly well aware”, she retorts, “that everything I have in financial terms is entirely attributable to Picasso. All I have been trying to do is to tell my side of the story. I have come to appreciate both the quality and quantity of his work. In fact I have even gone out of my way to buy some of his works to be able to complete my collection.”
“Does this mean”, I enquire, “that you have been able to forgive him for all that you, and the other members of your family, have been through?”
“To forgive implies that I am in a position to be able to judge him”, she replies matter-of-factly. “What I can say is that I have made a huge effort to understand him.”
“Pardon my impertinence - but that doesn’t sound like much of a forgiveness to me.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but some of the past simply can’t be undone –especially the death of my brother. I was at his bedside for 3 months watching him die and that’s beyond repair. I too am a Picasso – and even though you may see me now in this somewhat luxurious setting I too have paid dearly I can tell you.”
It was at this point that a bubbly 13-year-old Vietnamese girl walked into the lounge. Having completed her day at school she was evidently happy to be home.
Marina Picasso then explains that she has made the plight of abandoned children her particular concern. And through the work of the Marina Picasso Foundation – she says she has been able to recapture the childhood she was denied. These were no idle words. For back in 1990 she adopted a four-month-old Vietnamese boy, Florian. So successful was this adoption that she returned to adopt two more Vietnamese babies, Mai and Dimitri. It was Mai who had just walked in. Marina’s ‘Village of Youth’, as it is called, is situated in Thu Doc, a northern suburb of Ho Chi Minh City and it consists of a school, gymnasium, swimming pool, a park and a number of small houses designed to create a family atmosphere – precisely what was denied to Marina in her own upbringing.
Having recently published her no-holds-barred biography I conclude by asking what le Soleil might have made of her book. Of course it’s an impossible question to answer.
“To be honest I think it would have done him a power of good. It might have got him thinking and made him realise that he was not the only person in the world where everyone was speechless, in awe or on their knees before him. My greatest regret is that I was never able to get to know him as a mature woman. No guardian of the sleeping soleil would have prevented me from seeing my grandfather. Now I know that you have to learn to climb walls, to break windows to get what you want in life. But then, as a child, I stayed in my place – suffering in silence. It does give me great pleasure though, I must say, to know that its Picasso’s legacy which underwrites my Foundation and which gives hundreds of children a chance in life which would otherwise have eluded them.”
I am just about to set off when there is a sudden downpour. As Marina sees me packing up my affairs and doing my best to prevent my tape-recorder and camera from getting wet, she waves goodbye. She has been a delightful hostess.
“You know what you could really do with now?”, she shouts out across the forecourt, “its le Soleil! Terribly sorry but he’s not in just now!”
Which indicates to me that unlike others in the fold, Marina Picasso knows all about art: the art of survival and of winning through.
Right Under His Nose!
He will only say so if pressed. Although why he should be so hesitant is unclear. “Well on my passport it says that I am a perfumer”, says Jacques Polge, the top man at Chanel. Part of the truth - but certainly not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. “Its just that to most people it sounds a little odd if I give a more accurate description of my job”, he confides. “And what might that accurate description be, Mr. Polge?”, his interviewer insists, evidently eager to hear him articulate the magic words. “Well”, Polge replies a little uneasily, “I am a nose”.
He is far too modest that Mr. Polge. For not only is he a nose, he is undoubtedly the leading nose in the world. Based in his elegant fourth floor offices in Paris’s smart Avenue Charles de Gaulle, and just a stone throw from the Arc de Triomphe, Polge’s brief is daunting indeed: entrusted by Chanel to interpret the aromatic heritage and spirit of the late Mademoiselle herself, his constant challenge to adapt and create new perfumes for the contemporary world.
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was perhaps the most influential couturier of the twentieth century, her glamorous designs helping to liberate women from the plumed and corseted extravagance of Belle Epoch costume. Freeing women from ostentatious displays of wealth, she instituted a classically elegant modern style that persists to this day. All the more ironic, therefore, that the most successful of her ventures was the launching of the apparently eternal fragrance No. 5, introduced with much fanfare back in the early 1920s. A classical heart, introduced by a rush of dizzying sensuality, and surrounded with a multitude of light floral notes, No. 5 was dazzling, upsetting each and every conventional aromatic notion of the day. Almost immediately the reputation of No. 5 spread overseas to become one of the great mythical symbols of our time. After the liberation of Paris, G.I.’s who wanted to take a bottle of the celebrated perfume back home could be seen waiting patiently to enter 31 rue Cambon, forming queues over 500 meters long. Nor has its popularity waned - even to the slightest degree - with a whole generation of younger women rediscovering Marilyn Monroe’s definition of voluptuousness - to sleep in nothing more than a few drops of No. 5. And therefore surely something of a difficult act for Mr. Polge to follow, n’est ce pas?
“Most definitely”, he admits. And all the more so because he never had the opportunity of meeting Coco Chanel, the self-proclaimed Queen of Haute Couture, whose reign endured for almost six decades. “Of course it is a handicap having to create perfumes without her. But I try to overcome this by having my own private dialogue with her. And I think that goes for all of us employed here at Chanel, in perfumery and fashion alike.”
So how does Mr. Polge go about creating a new fragrance? Well, its all in the mind, he insists. That is to say a perfume is established in his thoughts and imagination, only setting out to produce the formula for what has already been ‘smelled’ somewhere deep down in his psyche. This creative process can take place at work, whilst in his lab (aptly situated in the Avenue des Parfums) or, just as likely, whilst bellowing out Maurice Chevalier songs under the shower. Whereupon he declares the French equivalent of ‘by George I’ve got it’. He must have been working in the lab or showering a lot, of late, for during the course of the last few years he has come up with best selling brand names such as Coco - a homage to Mademoiselle, of course - Égoïste, Christalle and Allure, the fresh and sophisticated abstract-floral scent which Chanel is confident will blaze a trail well into the next century.
“Please forgive me if this sounds rather rude - but your nose looks quite ordinary to me.”
“It is”, Polge retorts with a smile. “A nose is made, not born. I haven’t got a ‘better’ nose than you. Its just that I have had a certain training; I am used to working with my nose as a matter of course, and as such I am able to put order into what I smell. Its like becoming proficient at the piano - there are certain muscles that have to be exercised regularly. Its the same thing when it comes to perfumes - you need to train and work your nose.”
Do not even think of interrupting Polge at this point, for he is in full flow. Anxious to explain the universal appeal of perfumes, he is moving onto interesting terrain. Its time for sex, philosophy and religion - subjects which are traditionally taboo for the Anglo-Saxons - but without mention of which no day would be complete for any self-respecting Frenchman.
“Perfume’, he asserts, “is an internal dimension of femininity. Nor is it a coincidence that some 98% of perfumes sold today are from the famous marques of couturiers. If companies such as Chanel became interested in perfume - and we were the first - then of course its related to commercial reasons. But it is also to do with deeper reasons, which are telling us that perfumes are to do with an invisible prolongation of the work being carried out by the couturier. In other words the couturier acts on the outside - and the continuation of what he does is his perfume. Plus olfaction is most definitely the most ‘wild’ of our senses - smell being directly linked to primitive instincts such as sex. People often ask me what makes a beautiful perfume. To which I reply its the perfume which the woman you love is wearing.”
“I am afraid that we noses are a breed on the way to extinction”, he explains a little sorrowfully. “Its just in the old days each marque used to employ its own nose. What tends to happen now is that very few companies actually make their own perfumes - they buy in or have it made for them. To me the future doesn’t seem very rosy.”
Despite Polge’s pessimism about the future, however, he has been unable to deter his 23 year old son Olivier from wanting to follow in his father’s (how should one put it?) - footsteps.
“I tried to talk him out of it”, Polge confesses. “But then I thought about it and concluded that I didn’t have the right to do any such thing. I can’t say that I will be able to make a great nose out of him. That’s impossible. But of course I hope that one day he too will become the nose of Chanel. Because for someone passionate about perfumes, there really is no better position in the world.”
A sentiment with which the great, late Mademoiselle Chanel would no doubt concur wholeheartedly
Adored like a god or feared like a demon since early antiquity, the crocodile has always occupied a special place in the imagination of man. And a very special place in the imagination of one man in particular, Luc Fougeirol, who together with his brother Eric runs La Ferme aux Crocodiles at Pierrelatte, just outside of Montelimar in the Drome department of southern France. Close cousins of the dinosaurs, these big predators first appeared over 200 million years ago and have survived all the catastrophes which annihilated the reptiles of the second era. For the last 70 million years they practically haven’t changed, as beneath their primitive appearance they are extremely efficient animals. Carrying out an important ecological role as super-predators in humid environments, they control the numbers of many animal populations which, without them, would proliferate excessively. Their only weakness has been to possess a skin of great value. For this reason they were hunted so excessively that they were brought to the verge of extinction in many regions of the world. Thanks to breeding and a number of protective measures taken by the international community during the 1970s most of the different species of crocodiles still exist today. But as Luc Fougeirol is quick to tell you, there is not the slightest room for complacency, his crocodile farm now at the forefront of a worldwide drive to protect and promote the interests of these animals which, love them or loathe them, are unlikely to leave you feeling indifferent.
Spend a couple of hours in the company of this 41 year old Frenchman, who speaks with all the passion of a convert to the cause, and you are likely to emerge with everything you need to know about crocodiles but were afraid to ask. Did you know, for example, that their nostrils are equipped with a muscle that allows them to be closed under water? No, you did not. Did you know that their eyes have changeable pupils with a membrane to protect them under water? That their ears are in the form of slits situated behind the eyes. That although crocodiles are usually represented as green, they are not - more of grayish-brown, really. That crocodiles are the only reptiles which utter a range of sounds. That the reason they spend a not inconsiderable part of their time with their mouths wide open is not in order to facilitate the entry of some hapless victim but to regulate their body temperature. That they eat 10% of their body weight when they are young - but just 3% when fully grown. And that they mate, hunt and hide in the water, where they can spend several hours without breathing.
Luc is in charge of the crocodiles and plants, Eric looks after more mundane matters relating to money and management. Considering that their farm has only been open to the public since the June of 1994, it has been something of an overnight success, now attracting close on one quarter of a million visitors per year, far exceeding their own more modest expectations. And as for Wednesdays and Sundays - feeding time for the crocs - well, its strictly elbow room only, as Eric launches salmon heads, rabbit heads and chicken carcasses into the basins housing some 330 crocodiles below, to the delight of the assembled crowds. As he does so you come to realize that these prehistoric animals can move at the speed of lightening when it is in their interests to do so. Of course it is hardly a handicap that the Fougeirols’ farm is situated almost exactly between Lyon and Marseilles, and just 10 minutes drive from the A7 autoroute, which happens to be the busiest stretch of motorway in the whole of Europe. Which in turn means that its one coach load after the next during the busy summer season, your motorway service station with a difference.
But it was not always such a cozy picture of entrepreneurial flair and success. Far from it. In fact when Luc first approached a number of banks with a view to providing the funds for his project he was not only shown the door pretty smartish, he was also given that look as if to say that a visit to the men in white coats might be more appropriate. And not just a thumbs down from one particular bank - but from 44 separate financial institutions. Enough to deter Luc from pursuing his dream? Hardly.
“I guess I was lucky”, he relates rather modestly, “because in the end my father decided to put up £90,000 of his own money - which proved to be something of a turning point - for it was enough to convince one bank, the Credit Lyonnais, to back me. My father had always told me that I used to get on his nerves as a child with my pets, but in the end he accepted that doing this was the only way I could succeed. Plus the Mayor of Pierrelatte, himself a vet by training, could see that this was my passion in life, my dream, and something which could put our town on the map in terms of attracting tourism. You could say that it was a long birth - but not a particularly painful one.”
Fougeirol’s love affair with the crocodile can be traced directly back to his formative years in a small village in the south of Morocco, where he was introduced by his uncle to reptiles such as snakes and lizards, and taught to overcome his initial reaction of fear. Before long he was hooked. In fact almost the first thing he did upon his return to France at the age of 14 was to head to a pet shop in Marseille and buy a Venezuelan Cayman for the princely sum of 50 francs.
“My mother wasn’t all that happy about the Cayman”, Luc admits, “but she objected even more to my vipers, which she encouraged me to keep at school. I was happy to do this, because like that more people could share in the sheer joy of these animals. I guess, if I am honest with myself, when I was that age I very much enjoyed the fact that I was ‘different’ from the rest. Perhaps I still do.”
Luc was so busy tending to his collection of reptiles that it soon became quite clear that academic success was unlikely to come his way. So when he flunked his bac at the age of 18 hardly anyone was surprised, least of all young Luc.
“One of the greatest moments of my life was when I was officially recognized as being competent to look after crocodiles, and awarded a certificate by the Ministry of the Environment, which in effect allowed me to import and export. That was just 7 years ago - and it was the first exam I had ever passed in my life.”
Armed with a duplicate of his diploma, Luc headed off to a crocodile farm in Pretoria, South Africa, where he promptly purchased a number of baby crocs - which were flown over to France in the specially heated hold of a plane, all of them surviving the 27 hour journey. For three years they grew steadily in a nursery until the moment Luc had been waiting for, releasing the crocs - by then almost 2 meters long - into his own new centre, La Ferme aux Crocodiles. It was, and still is, the only crocodile farm not just in France but the whole of Europe too. Nine television crews were there to witness the event - the BBC and NBC included - with 50 journalists and photographers waiting eagerly in the background. One reporter whispered to the proud owner that if there were a lot of journalists, then there would in due course be lots of visitors too, a prediction which turned out to be entirely accurate.
“People always ask about accidents”, he continues. “Well, touch wood, there haven’t been any. The most that has happened has been that we have had to bash one or two of them with a spade - because I or a member of staff go down into the basins every day to clean up. But never near the water - because they always attack from the water towards land. When they are on dry land they usually wouldn’t dare to attack. At least at the size they are now. But they are continuing to grow all the time, and our centre is going to have to grow with them. One section is already so crowded that we have nicknamed it Tahiti beach!”
Luc is far too self-effacing to classify himself as the Crocodile Dundee of France, or even as Monsieur Dundee. But Paul Hogan does remain his hero - and it is his dream to invite him over one day - perhaps having him open the new section once the planned extension has been completed.
“I don’t really consider this work” Luc concludes, with a mischievous smile on his face. “Its just that to this day I get enormous pleasure from watching and being close to these animals. The more you know - the more you want to know. They are just fascinating animals, perfectly adapted to marsh and swamp lands. To think that they emerge from an egg - they can go from 25 centimeters to 6 meters long. That they can end up weighing a ton and live for over a century. That’s impressive. People often inquire if I think its a good existence to be a crocodile. To which I say, not half. At least here at Pierrelatte. Just think about it. They have water at 30 degrees. They are admired all day long. And for every male there are 10 females. Now that’s not a bad life if you ask me!”
The Jolly Oyster Man
He is the epitome of a jolly fisherman - plump and pleasant, warm and welcoming. Although, as Jean-Louis Masson is quick to point out, he is really not a fisherman at all. For his chosen field of speciality is that rather gooey bivalve mollusk found in temperate and warm coastal waters around the world - the oyster. Running his own business at Bouzigues, on the Bassin de Thau, near the handsome city of Montpellier in the sunny Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, he is one of the top ten oyster producers on the entire Mediterranean coastline, supplying wholesalers, multiples and private purchasers alike.
“We have just been awarded the silver medal at the Paris agricultural salon”, he explains with understandable pride. “And the reason for that, I say, is because our oysters have a stronger taste than those in the Atlantic, the sea here being smaller, more enclosed, saltier and iodised.”
It does not require the presence of Sigmund Freud to know that Jean-Louis Masson is a happy man. Could this be because he spends a not insignificant part of his working day popping his products into his mouth, the reputation of oysters as an aphrodisiac dating back to Roman times? Well, even a fleeting visit to Masson’s modern production unit certainly gives the impression of a well-run happy ship, where workers and management alike go around with that same contented grin on the face, giving rise to the suspicion that Jean-Louis is perhaps not alone in conducting regular spot checks throughout the day - all in the name of quality control of course. “Attention aux effets secondaires”, Masson kids his staff, “watch out for those well-known side-effects”. One is left feeling a little uncertain if his advice is designed to reduce the consumption of stock by his own employees, or to protect them from excessive chandelier-swinging upon completion of the working day.
But is there any truth in the randy reputation of oysters? Well, certainly oysters are low in fat, high in minerals, and as such quite a healthy food. Phosphorous, iodine and zinc can all do a lot of good, especially zinc, which is said to increase both sperm and testosterone production as well as the secretion of a vaginal lubricant. And the great Casanova himself is reputed to have been a firm believer in oysters, eating 50 of them every morning in the bath together with the lady who happened to be the object of his desire. That said, recent research has revealed that a group of male pearl-divers on the island of Kamaran, who get most of their nourishment from oysters, have a very low sex drive indeed. Perhaps, then, it is all in the mind. Whatever the case, Masson is not complaining, for despite a sluggish export market to England, business is booming.
Come the month of December you are likely to find both Jean-Louis and the entire team working flat out, no less than 70% of annual turnover being achieved between the 15th and 30th of that month. For whilst Brits are tucking into turkey and Christmas pud - the French are busy prizing open the two valves of the oyster shell, held together at their narrow ends by an elastic ligament, and devouring the contents - the vast majority of oysters being eaten raw, and therefore not for the squeamish or faint-hearted. By the time the oyster meets its maker, so to speak, it is likely to be approximately three years old. Prior to those fateful festivities the oyster would have survived by its tiny hairlike structures called cilia drawing water inward by means of wavelike motions - some two to three gallons of water passing through in an hour.
In common with just about every other businessman in France, the greater part of Masson’s anger is directed towards his own government, whose expensive and cumbersome social security system means that for every single franc paid in wages, almost the same amount again has to be paid in charges, hardly an incentive for recruitment, and very possibly one of the reasons why France now has the highest rate of unemployment in the whole of Europe.
There are approximately 2700 platforms or tables operating in the Bassin de Thau, a lagoon afforded some protection by the ancient fishing town of Sete, which itself sits on a narrow tongue of land between the Mediterranean and the lagoon. What makes these platforms unique is that they are composed of nothing more elaborate than disused railway track, from which either rubber tubing or ropes are suspended into the water below, and to which the oysters attach themselves naturally and grow. It is an environment in which Masson feels entirely at home - although he really only stumbled upon his chosen metier by chance.
“My father had a farmhouse near to the lagoon”, he explains, “but he spent most of his working life tending to his own vineyard. He wanted to have his boat on the lagoon, but at the time licenses were only being granted to professional oyster growers, because the area was being developed with that in mind. I only went into the oyster business, therefore, in order to get a place for my father’s boat on the lagoon. We eventually got him that license - but I got the bug like many in the business and have been working with oysters ever since.”
Masson sells his oysters from anything between 50 centimes (55p) to 1 franc 50 (166p) per piece - that price then being doubled by the time his sea-food finds its way onto any number of retail shelves. Those prices might not sound excessive - but do remember that unlike most foods by far the greater part of the weight is taken up by the immaculately formed dark gray shells.
“It’s worth every centime” Jean-Louis is quick to retort. “For not only do they taste delicious - oysters are one of our last remaining natural foods. They are entirely natural - no fertilizers, no chemicals, no additives - nothing.”
So there you are. Oysters, slimy and slithery perhaps, but good for mind, body and soul alike.
Oh - And If One Green Bottle
At Fawlty Towers we all knew the rules. Don’t mention the war. Well, its a similar story at the Perrier plant in Vergèze, situated near Nimes in the Languedoc region of southern France. Although there the unmentionable is nothing more than a date - February 1990, to be precise. For it was then the minute traces of poisonous chemicals were detected in bottles of Perrier water in the United States. And well, eau la la, things have never been quite the same since.
The French Prime Minister Michel Rocard went on national television and publicly downed vast quantities of the world’s most popular sparkling water in an attempt to diffuse the crisis and reassure the public - much as John Major once found himself tucking into sirloin steaks and hamburgers at an alarming rate at the height of the BSG crisis. But in both cases it was too little, too late. Carefully sizing up its wounded adversary it was not too long before the multi-national Nestlé moved in for the kill, buying out the entire Perrier plant before any of its green bottles had been put back up on the wall.
“Its not for me to comment on”, Roland Chazal, the new Vergèze chief muses. “But let’s say that with hindsight it probably wasn’t a very wise decision to recall a billion of our bottles worldwide. That meant that supermarket shelves were empty for some 3 to 4 months whilst waiting for fresh supplies to arrive, which in turn meant that our competitors snapped up the new opportunity. I’m a little reluctant to criticize the old management team - but let’s say that there might well have been other, more sensible options.”
Seven years down the line Perrier has still failed to recapture its market share; ‘steady progress’, Chazal explains, but nothing to write home about. Still, spring water (mountains? - there are none) combined with carbonic gas (volcanoes? - none to be seen) continues to gush at the Source Perrier just as it has done through the centuries. Situated in the heart of what was once Narbonne Gaul, Vergèze lay on the route from Rome to Spain, ancient records revealing that Caesar’s Roman troops would stop to drink there. The story then leaps forward almost two millennia when a certain Dr. Louis Perrier from Nimes acquired the site in 1898. Perfecting a new bottling technique, he began to look around for an associate able to finance the venture. Step forward Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, proprietors of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph respectively. Harmsworth saw great potential for the site once known as Les Bouillens, ‘the bubbling waters’. He bought shares in the property and christened the spring after the dedicated physician who first brought it to his attention. Though confined to a wheelchair after a car accident, he remained keen on sport, the Indian clubs he exercised with in his gymnasium providing the idea for the distinctive shape of the Perrier bottle.
Mindful of his fellow countrymen, an dedicated to the notion of empire, Harmsworth saw to it that civil servants and military personnel posted to the four corners of the earth had a constant supply of uncontaminated water to mix with whisky, Perrier thus becoming better known in Delhi and Darjeeling than the French capital itself. When Harmsworth died in 1933 he asked for his ashes to be cast over the Channel, a symbolic gesture signifying that France was his second home.
Things have never been quite so cozy ever since. Back in French hands after the second world war, the company embarked upon a huge expansion programme, building vast new plants and glassworks capable of producing up to 130 million bottles, a quarter of them for exportation. Visit the glassworks today and you will see a magnificent sight of molten blobs of orange glass being cut off by giant pairs of crab-like scissors, 120,000 bottles being churned out 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The cooled glass is then press-flattened, the bottle blown, before being sent in a steady stream to an annealing tunnel. Before long you have the distinct impression of being surrounded by vast green snakes, rattle snakes to be precise, as the newly-formed bottles head off to meet their sparkling new tenants.
Despite its financial woes, the statistics continue to impress: 99 lorries setting off each and every day; 25 trains do likewise; 140 countries still serve the drink daily. The whole story, Chazan will tell you, is fou. Crazy perhaps, but with dynamic firms such as Badois snapping at Perrier’s bottle-tops, the whole management team knows that variety and momentum are the keys to long-term economic success and stability. Which in turn means problems with the all-powerful French trade union the C.G.T., desperate to protect jobs in a country with the highest rate of unemployment in Europe. He wouldn’t dare say so, of course, but you don’t need a Ph.D in psychology to tell that he is a secret admirer of the union-bashing dame de fer.
With its usual slick advertising, Perrier launched its long-awaited new product in June of last year. Its called FU - and, panic not - it will be launched internationally later this year. And guess what? Its 89% Perrier, with sugar, citric acid, natural aromas and vegetable extracts thrown in. Tasted like a mixture of Tizer and Lucazade to me - but its apparently going down a treat in France and Chazal is optimistic about its wider appeal in the market as un soft drink in its own right.
Down but most certainly not out, then, is the message from Vergèze. Keenly aware that the company cannot afford a second poisoning scare, Perrier is now doing everything possible to ensure that protection of the environment is at the very top of its agenda, the whole ethos of the company now as green as its celebrated bottles.
“Millions more green bottles”, Chazan chortles, “and none of them shall fall.”
Flushed With Success
How a British plumber has found the good life in France
French plumbing, famed for its poor piping and hole-in-the-ground toilets, and the butt of many jokes by the millions of British tourists who holiday in France every year, has nonetheless served the interests of one particular Londoner rather well. Paul Sephton, 47, who was born and brought up in South Ruislip, Middlesex, set off for the south of France in 1973 and says that the thought of returning to England has never once crossed his mind. It is not difficult to see why.
Sitting in the gardens of his attractive, detached villa, situated just outside of Montpellier in the sunny region of the Languedoc-Roussillon, and sipping a cool beer next to the swimming pool which he constructed himself a few years ago, Paul claims that it is his Englishness that has enabled him to succeed in France.
“People out here are very happy to have an English plumber. It’s a sort of status symbol. It sounds good. I have one customer who tells his friends that he has the Queen’s plumber - le plombier de la reine. Down here in the south at least half the people have Latin roots. That means that they have no idea of what being on time means. So if you are punctual and reliable they look at you with amazement and consider that they have found a friend for life. Of course people kid me - worrying that I might put the pipes the wrong way round because we drive on the other side of the road. But you can rest assured that I give as good as I get.”
Paul, who is more than a little modest about his success, attributes everything he has acquired - which includes a small boat moored at the nearby resort town of Palavas - to luck. Having fallen out with his brother-in-law boss over two decades ago, he hired a van, put the few items of furniture he owned in it, and drove down towards Montpellier in the hope of finding a better life in the south of France, with his French wife by his side and £500 cash in his pocket. His timing, though far from his choosing, proved to be impeccable: the city happened to be on the brink of changing from town gas to natural gas and within a week he had managed to secure full-time employment, setting up on his own a few years later.
Having fared well in France, eventually managing to master the intricacies of the French language - including its specialist plumbing vocabulary - Paul is now quick to spring to the defence of his adopted homeland:
“That whole thing about French plumbing not being up to scratch is a load of old rubbish anyway,” he insists. “Some members of my own family still won’t come out to France because they think French plumbing is so bad. They have got this thing in their head about Turkish toilets. In fact plumbing is more advanced than in England: we have 10 sizes of pipes over here - whereas only 2 exist in England. And here you have to be able to work your pipes, to make piping aesthetically attractive: in the UI I seem to remember that everything was shoved under the floorboards, including sloppy workmanship too.
“There is just one problem here,” Paul admits with a slight lilt that has begun to betray his many years in France, “and that is the social charges. They take 60 per cent of what you can earn - there are so many taxes its crippling - the worst system in the world.”
Whereas in England plumbers often rely upon central heating work for their income, the balmy, Mediterranean climate means that only a minority of homes have boilers and radiators installed. Fortunately for Paul though, the main water supply, which comes from the Cévennes mountain range, is so full of lime that piping, machinery and appliances soon come to be coated with thick layers of corrosive white chemical, the repairing and removal of which continues to provide him with brisk business indeed.
He might well have ruled out a return to the green and pleasant land of his childhood, but he will readily admit to an occasional yearning for life a l’anglaise, whether that be drinking a pint in the local pub or enjoying a nice strong cup of tea - deficiencies only partially remedied by relatives and friends (but not his brother-in-law) bringing out an apparently endless supply of Tetley tea-bags and various other goodies such as Garibaldi biscuits and Bistro gravy granules.
“For me it has all been a great success. I had nothing when I came here. Now I had a house, a pool and a boat. I don’t think all of that would have come my way in England. Here I stand out - people remember me - whereas in England I do think that would have remained one of the crowd. Some English people who see my way of life here, which includes quite a bit of golf, look on a little enviously - commenting that it must be very nice. It is. But you still have to work. You still have to pay your bills. And when I got to work outside the temperature can be anything up to 35 degree - and that hits you. And then it’s my turn to be working while I watch other people with their feet up by their swimming pools.”
It will perhaps come as no surprise to discover that Paul is prepared to heartily endorse the title of Edith Piaf’s well-known song:
“No regrets. Of course not. No regrets at all. I would even encourage others to have a go. But not too close to my small patch please!”
Growing Up In The White House
Eleanor And FDR’S Grandson Curtis Roosevelt
On His Quest For A New Deal Of His Own
“I was treated as a kind of child movie star. My sister was too. We were both given nicknames by the press – Buzzy and Sistie – with our every move closely followed by the American people. I guess an analogy would be with how the British press is fascinated with William and Harry today. I have to say though that it was totally fascinating to live in the rarefied atmosphere of the White House for the simple reason that there was always something going on. The servants, the secret service, the staff of FDR - I loved every moment of it. More often than not I was the focus of attention, which I very much enjoyed – for in truth I too was a Prince in all but name.”
So much the focus of attention, in fact, that Dean Acheson (then Assistant Secretary of the Treasury) would later complain that it was often impossible to get his political master, the 32nd President of the United States, to seriously focus his attention on fixing the gold price. Why? Because Franklin Delano Roosevelt – the legendary American wartime leader and the only President to have been re-elected three times – would much rather be larking around in his bedroom (where these early morning meetings would take place) with his beloved Buzzy and Sistie.
And they all lived happily ever after? Hardly. Now 71 years old and living in a stylish villa on the outskirts of Nimes in the south of France, Curtis Roosevelt is the first to admit that his childhood in the White House was not exactly – well – black and white. And that the price paid for having being born a Roosevelt could be very high indeed. Which encourages me to ask if that illustrious surname has been more of a burden than a blessing.
“It most certainly has”, he replies with disarming honesty. “The burden comes from other people having a conception of you, of always pegging you not as a person in your own right but, in my case, as the oldest grandson of FDR. I had the delight of recognition on the one hand – but I also had my grandmother Eleanor’s admonitions not to respond to that recognition in any way. That left me immobilised – dead centre. I had no ambition – and whenever I would have an opportunity I would muck it up. I consistently made a mess of whatever I was engaged in professionally– certainly this was true of the 18 years I spent working at the United Nations. It’s bad enough to be compared at school with a brighter or more able sibling. Imagine that – then multiply it by 10,000 and you might begin to get some idea of what it’s like.”
And yet despite having apparently had his fill of the Roosevelts Curtis R (one hesitates now to mention the name) must have appeared in at least 20 television documentaries about the life and times of his famous grandparents. He even featured in one about their dog Fala – perhaps the best known Scots terrier in the United States in his day. Which begs the question, of course, as to why. After all, if having been born a Roosevelt was indeed such a beastly business, then surely one’s inclination would be to find something else with which to occupy one’s time. Not so.
“My sister (Eleanor Seagraves) and myself are the only people alive today who actually knew FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt”, Curtis Roosevelt explains. “We lived with them in the White House very shortly after FDR was inaugurated in 1933 – and then came back again as teenagers during the Second World War. So that confers upon us, in my view, a duty – among other things – to set the record straight. Especially when there is so much rubbish written or said about them. Take a couple of recent examples. In the recently-released film Pearl Harbour there is a scene in which FDR is depicted in front of his dejected generals and admirals as struggling from his wheel-chair to his feet - the sous-entendu being that they too can struggle to overcome adversity. Such a depiction is totally erroneous – it is a total misuse of his paralysis and totally denigrates FDR. Then there was a television programme purporting to be about the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human rights, in which she was instrumental – but it decided instead to focus on some rubbish about her sex life – about some so-called lesbian affair which never took place. It was just down-market scandal mongering – but apparently all that was required to prompt Gore Vidal, for one, to leap in and say ‘oh, I’m so glad to know that Eleanor Roosevelt had at least one satisfying relationship’. That sort of thing makes me really mad – and I see it as my role to rebut such ludicrous stories.”
Listening to Curtis Roosevelt speaking so lucidly – and with such energy and vigour – I find myself struggling to accept his earlier self-deprecatory remarks concerning his own failures. Is he not being a little too harsh on himself?
“Unfortunately not”, he continues. “I only left the White House when I was 15 years old – shortly after the death of my grandfather. By that time, as you can imagine, I was fairly well known. But as soon as the word Buzzy would come up I would immediately have a whole mantle of identification draped over my shoulders - and that was it. I soon realised that that meant that I didn’t then have to make my own way. Doors would open for me. But that, I now realise, is the illusion – for unless you perform once you have walked in – people will say ‘oh gosh, what do we do with him now?’ And I didn’t perform – for elementary things like really being able to work were quite beyond me. Because I had never had to. Everything had always been too easy. Given to me. For a long time I was simply waiting for that Roosevelt magic to work - just as it always had done in the past. In due course that came to create a serious problem of identification – an issue with which I have been wrestling for the best part of half of a century.”
“You couldn’t live with being a Roosevelt”, I intervene. “But you couldn’t live without it either. True or false?”
“Absolutely true”, Curtis R is happy to admit, with the pleased gaze of a headmaster awarding a gold star.
“That’s right. Because you ended up wanting the recognition. It was like needing a fix – an addiction, if you will, with all that that implies. I grew up knowing nothing other than public adulation. It’s not something I would recommend. My uncles had the same burden - and nobody can say that any of them were great successes. James Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt junior both had presidential ambitions – and both of them made a hash of it. Due to, I think, this terrible problem of other people making something of you that you are not. You are offered all sorts of opportunities. Uncle James had moved out of college at Harvard to go into the insurance business and was making a pile of money – when all of a sudden he was appointed president of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer! He knew absolutely nothing about the movie business – it was just on the basis of his name as the eldest son of FDR. I too was constantly being offered things which I had not earned and did not deserve.”
Still struggling to come to terms with the weight of the Roosevelt baggage, Curtis Roosevelt is now putting pen to paper in the form of an autobiography in which he describes his early White House years. One of the most stimulating chapters is likely to be his recollections of the dinner time conversations of his grandfather at the full height of the war. Conversations in which he was surprised to have the popular view of France’s General de Gaulle as a valiant war leader of the resistance movement knocked for a six by FDR. He vividly recalls his grandfather’s raised eyebrows and looks of exasperation, as he would set about describing De Gaulle as difficult and impossible to work with. Not that FDR was alone in this regard, mind you, for Churchill too once described De Gaulle as ‘our bitter foe’.
If this was designed to dissuade the young Curtis from a lifetime’s love affair with France – then clearly FDR was unsuccessful. For having taken early retirement from the UN – Curtis Roosevelt first of all headed off for the Balearics, settling in Mallorca. But horrified by the crude and reckless development of the island, he set off for France in search of something more peaceful – and stumbled upon a beautiful home not far from the historic Pont du Gard. Together with his wife Marina (born in Belgium but brought up in England) they bought it there and then.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong impression from all of this”, Curtis concludes, “for there were many good moments to compensate for all that I have described. In fact they were not so much moments – more a background that can give you a sense of perspective. True, I might have been immobilised by having grown up alongside one of the towering figures of the twentieth century – my grandmother Eleanor Roosevelt – but she also gave me a perspective which I value very much indeed. I was born into this family, shaped by it, influenced by it, and had to learn to deal with the expectations because of the name. Not only have I survived, you can say that finally I have been able to prosper from it. I have prospered from climbing out of the well – prospered as a person. To speak easily and to look candidly at yourself without making any excuses – that to me is not to be underestimated. My goal has always been to be as realistic with myself as I possibly can be. So you could say, I guess, that the burden has, with the fullness of time, become a blessing after all.”
O-J’s Powers Of Seduction
Prove Hard To Resist
L’Oréal’s CEO Lindsay Owen-Jones demonstrates that his
Welsh roots and multiculturalism are the best possible
foundation for the French cosmetics giant
True, they might not be the world’s most favoured set of initials – but being known by one and all as ‘O-J’ has apparently not harmed the career of Lindsay Owen-Jones. Or the economic interests of the French cosmetics giant L’Oréal which he has headed up as both Chairman and CEO since 1988. For apart from consolidating L’Oréal’s position as the world’s leader in cosmetics, the group has positively soared ahead with over a decade of double-digit growth since his hand has been at the helm. Not bad going for a Welsh boy from Wallasey, n’est-ce pas, confirming the suspicion that the Principality has long since been capable of producing more than merely one wise and wily Welsh wizard.
One thousand and one. One potato. You can count a second out loud however you like – but whatever method you use – know that L’Oréal will have sold no less than 85 of its products during that brief interlude of time. Impressive statistics abound: the group is present in more than 150 countries, has more than 42,000 employees on its payroll, produces approximately 13% of all cosmetics purchases made around the world – and the value of its stocks rose by no less than 900%, thank you very much, during the 1990s. It might well have been marketing hype on Owen-Jones’s part, but when he addressed a UNESCO conference nobody batted an eyelid when he had the chutzpah to describe L’Oréal as ‘the United Nations of beauty’. And it seems that there is now no stopping O-J, as he reported net results of 464.0 million Euro - up by 22.5% - for the first six months of trading this year. All of which might lead one to believe that Lindsay Owen-Jones is a happy man. Which, needless to say, if far from being the case.
“No. Not at all”, the handsome 54 year-old is quick to retort. “I am never satisfied. I am always striving for something that I will never totally achieve. The figures might suggest otherwise, but I try to convince both myself and the people around me that we might not be winning. Complacency must be fought off at all costs.”
It all seems a far cry from Owen-Jones’s first job as a sales rep with L’Oréal back in the late sixties, when he would spend many a day traipsing round a wet and windy Normandy in the north of France selling Dop shampoo. But as the years went by he astutely, and repeatedly, played his trump card – a multi-cultural background – an engaging blend of internationalism with which no other eager L’Oréal recruit could possibly hope to compete. Having left Wales to study English literature at Oxford, he had gone on to study at one of France’s prestigious grandes écoles, the Fontainbleu-based INSEAD. He then married an attractive Italian woman by the name of Cristina (‘every man should have an Italian woman in his life’, he jokes) – and he has a French-born daughter. And unlike many Brits who balk at the idea of speaking anything other than English, O-J is fluent not just in his mother tongue but French, Italian and German.
But this is not just multiculturalism for multiculturalism’s sake. For Owen-Jones has gone out of his way to practise what he preaches – by making a conscious effort to diversify the cultural origins of his brands. Why? For the very simple reason that it happens to make extremely good business sense. And in sharp contrast to other aspirational western brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds which offer only a single cultural icon, L’Oréal can entice Asian consumers, for example, with a taste of French chic, New York attitude or Italian elegance.
One of Owen-Jones’s first moves at L’Oréal was to bring more focus to the company through a huge pruning of brands and activities. Five core businesses and technologies were identified: hair colour, hair care, skin care, colour cosmetics and fragrances. Focus was the watchword. He also decided to concentrate on no more than 10 global brands – which now account for 85% of sales. But what brands! For how many people know that its L’Oréal pulling the strings behind names such as Laboratoires Garnier, Maybelline, Redken, Lancôme, Helena Rubinstein, Biotherm, Vichy and Ralph Lauren Parfums? You are anxious to buy into a part of the American dream – then Maybelline New York is there for the taking. ‘Le latin way of life’ (as the company’s PR people put it) – then Giorgio Armani is there for the taking. From the Owen-Jones camp, therefore, the message is quite clear: its multiculturalism at home – and multiculturalism at work. And thus turning what many marketing gurus consider a constraint into a marketing virtue.
This approach has also turned out to be something of a shrewd move politically. In the aftermath of the embattled economic summits of Seattle and Prague the top executives of McDonalds and Coca-Cola are now loathe to articulate the word ‘globalisation’ at anything more voluble than a murmur. And you would certainly never hear anyone who wants to keep his job mention the dreaded G word at a press conference. Not so chez L’Oréal. This year’s annual report could hardly be more clear: ‘L’Oréal is engaged in a policy of accelerated globalisation, the role of which is central to the further growth of the group.’ So while McDonalds restaurants are smashed up from time to time by rioters in London or occupied by irate farmers in the south of France – the show goes on for L’Oréal. And it does require some stretch of the imagination, it has to be said, to see a rioter reaching over the cosmetics counter and seeking out the label Lancôme before reaching for the bottle and smashing it to the ground in disgust. So vive the absence of a homogenised brand says Lindsay Owen-Jones.
Bernard Ramanantso, dean of the French business school network Groupe HEC, is convinced that he has hit the nail on the head in terms of explaining Owen-Jones’s success: the fact that he is a ‘seductive’ leader.
“Here is a person who is at ease internationally, adaptable – and able to give a larger meaning to his own employees”, he says. “Owen-Jones is considered a charismatic. But really he’s a seducer. The charismatic is the one on television. The seducer is in his company. Owen-Jones turns down practically every invitation to talk in public. Why? Because all his energy is directed towards his company and his co-workers.”
And what would the business school boffins have to say about this? That O-J’s notion of market research is to head off to the hustle and bustle of the big stores – and to talk to people in the street. With any particular objective in mind?
“Sure. Because I want to know if the theory matches the facts”, Owen-Jones affirms, “and whether or not the facts match the theory. We might have this great strategy back in the head office at Paris and of how we are going to implement it world-wide. But when you go out and look at what’s happening – be it in New York or Shanghai – you want to know whether or not there a big gap between your projections and the reality of what you see and hear?”
L’Oréal’s energetic boss is also likely to enter an appearance in the boardrooms of other cosmetic companies this coming year – chequebook in hand. Having already acquired 6 companies during the last 5 years, he is actively exploring acquisition targets in Asia and elsewhere. For as the European market becomes increasing congested Owen-Jones is looking further afield – to India, Africa and a number of countries in Latin America too.
“We are constantly on the look out for acquisitions”, he confirms, “for companies that will complete either our brand portfolio, our technology families, or our geographical presence.”
Often first in the office and the last to leave, O-J sets an example to the troops by packing in an extremely long working day. Which might lead one to the suspicion that all work and no play makes O-J a dull boy. Hardly. To begin with, weekends are sacred. And once out of the office you are likely to find action man Owen-Jones heading off to pilot his private helicopter, to the Mediterranean to race his 77-foot Wally or to the French Alps to ski. ‘Anything that requires total concentration’, he says. He also has a taste for the finer things in life – notably French wines.
“I do have the most superb cave of Bordeaux”, he confides with a twinkle in his eye. But don’t confuse me with my friend Bernard Arnault (head of the luxury goods group LVMH) who collects grands vins but never tastes them. I’m quite the opposite – I’m all in favour of opening every bottle!”
Good food, good wine, a good break – and then its back to work on the following Monday morning - batteries recharged and suitably refreshed.
“I’ll be honest with you”, Owen-Jones concludes, indicating with his head that he is about to confide a great confidence.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I am a great stickler for detail. I like to know everything that’s going on here at L’Oréal. But I have learned to delegate. Gone are the days when every single decision was taken here at our Paris HQ. Nevertheless, I’m perfectly well that I drive people mad and can be a complete pain the arse.”
‘And what about that well-reported massive salary’, I was about to ask. No, no, no. Not a good question. It would be too awful to hear that well-known L’Oréal line - ‘because I’m worth it’. Even though I have not the slightest doubt that it’s perfectly true - right down to the last centime.
The Postman’s Palace
‘It has to be seen to be believed.’ The inscription carved on Ferdinand Cheval’s extraordinary creation is far from an exaggeration. Whether born from vision, obsession or madness, Le Palais Idéal stands as a singular tribute to what can be achieved by one man with a strong belief in his dreams.
Martin Luther King was not the only one, you know. For Ferdinand Cheval, born one century before the eloquent black civil rights leader, had one too. Ferdinand who? You might well ask. “I was not a builder, I had never handled a mason’s trowel, I was not a sculptor. The chisel was unknown to me; not to mention architecture, a field in which I remained totally ignorant.” So who was he? Why, a humble postman, of course, in the village of Hauterives in the picturesque Drôme department of southern France. An ill-educated, little-travelled postman who would single-handedly construct a magnificent temple to nature now classified as an historical monument in France, his 33 years of blood, sweat and tears now feted by artists and intellectuals alike. Not bad for someone who the locals liked to classify as the village idiot.
Ferdinand Cheval’s round consisted of 32 kilometers a day, often covering broken ground with poor access, steep climbs and a difficult, rocky terrain. For ten years he would walk the same route. During this time he would sleep in barns, warm himself by the fire of a friendly farmhouse, before setting off again on his long and lonely rambles in all weathers. Deep in his solitude, Ferdinand would make his way - a mystic, a visionary, wandering off towards the unknown. Although he never quite understood the meaning of his strange visions experienced in what he would refer to as ‘a trance-like state’ - he was for a long time haunted by images of a dazzling palace. Then one day in 1879 le facteur Cheval, as he was known, tripped on a stone. Hardly an earth-shattering event - more like an everyday occurrence - but the 43 year old postman examined the stone closely and noticed that it seemed to have a strange and unusual shape. Overcome with giddiness and spellbound by his find, the stone reactivated his secret dream of building a palace - a fantastic castle. Returning to the same spot the following day, he gathered a series of even more attractive examples. He began to collect them, filling at first his pockets, then baskets - and finally a wheelbarrow.
“There is a long way to dream from reality”, as the legendary postman himself put it. Indeed. 10,000 days, 93,000 hours and 33 years of toil - to be precise - the first two decades being spent on the outer walls alone. “Should there exist a more determined man than myself, then let him set to work” - another of Ferdinand’s eloquent exhortations which are inscribed in virtually each and every nook and cranny of the Palace. No one ever took him up on that challenge, mind you, least of all in the remote village of Hauterives, 30 miles north-east of Valance, where the locals continued to view him as an object of ridicule and derision. Perhaps it was as well, then, that he appeared to keep his sense of humour during these long and lonely years - “I would be the first to agree”, he also recorded, “with those who call me insane. The tongues started to wag in my hometown and surrounding district. They quickly made up their minds that ‘there’s a poor mad fool filling up his garden with stones’. I was laughed at, disapproved of and criticized but, as this kind of mental alienation was neither contagious nor dangerous, they didn’t see much point in fetching the doctor and so I was free to give myself up to my passion in spite of it all.”
Which was just as well for the rest of us. Because, cliché though it might me, words alone cannot describe the postman’s work. Nor do the photographs quite do the trick. His Palais Idéal really has to be seen to be believed - a bizarre combination of styles which seem to have emerged from far beyond the outer limits of human imagination, where khmer temple, mosque, Hindu sanctuary, feudal castle, Swiss chalet and the manger in Bethlehem somehow all come together and meet. And all around as a host of ostriches, geese, eagles and flamingoes flap their wings tirelessly, angels soar in a cloudless sky, whilst united for the occasion Julius Caesar, Vercingetorix and Archimedes mount the guard now and for ever more. Not bad for a man who had left school at the age of 13 before going on to become an apprentice baker during his teenage years. Always working alone and often at night, he would toil away with an oil lamp, somehow managing with only 2 or 3 hours sleep a night - and that after his arduous 32 kilometer round at that.
Driven by a combination of stubbornness and pride, as well as a staggering power of endurance, his goal was to create something that would last forever. All along his round he would carry baskets of stones on his back. Gathering together 40 kilos in small heaps, he would return to fetch them at night with his wheelbarrow, thereby adding between 8 and 20 kilometers to his round each day, quite apart from the incredible work he would perform on the construction itself. The hillsides, ravines and rivers of the Drôme yield their best stones, cut, worn and eaten away by the centuries. In fact Cheval himself was often surprised by the forms and images he created, often wondering how he, one without any training whatsoever in the arts, could possibly have been responsible for creating them.
And then the intellectuals stepped in to herald him as a genius. Some before, but mostly after his death. André Breton described the facteur as the “uncontested master of medianimic architecture and sculpture”. Others have seen in the Palais the temple of Angkor, a cave, the art of Gaudi, modern sculpture, the decor of Méliès, Neuschwanstein castle, candy sugar creations and the underwater seascape. In fact well before Dali, Cheval cajoled unwilling matter into soft or fluid form, such as the petrified jets of water above a fountain. Inspired by his own vision, this simple, uneducated man reinvented the canvasses of Gustave Moreau, the drawings of mediums, the graphical work of Victor Hugo. Not that Cheval used these materials to build his castle - he was ignorant of the rules of architecture and sculpture. And yet he diverted materials from their conventional use and incorporated them into his fantastic schemes. Before long everyone was rushing in to hail him as a great, the surrealists, the theoreticians of ‘art brut’ - even Pablo Picasso paid a visit and put in a good word.
That soon shut up the locals - or rather the next generation of locals, 90% of whom now earn their keep via the tourist industry generated by Cheval, with over 120,000 visitors admiring his Le Palais Idéal each and every year.
The Palais Idéal can be viewed as the fruit of the creative wanderings of Cheval, who dreamed for years in his country ramblings of building a wonderful palace. In this fusion of the real and the imagined, and thanks to his own uniquely poetic vision, he built an uninhabitable edifice, the creation of his palace possibly making him a poor peasant (at least in his own mind) the equal of the gods, since he too created a paradise.
But do not be lulled into the belief that Cheval downed his tools upon completion of his palace. Nothing so simple. Although it had been his intention to be buried inside his creation ‘in the manner of the Pharoaohs’ - in a final act of spite - the local authorities refused to grant him the necessary permissions. Not one to be outmaneuvered by some petty bureaucrat, at the age of 78 he embarked upon the building of his own vault in the parish cemetery - another magnificent creation - only finishing the job eight years later. Finally, on August 19th 1924, twenty months after his work was complete, the remarkable Facteur Cheval died in Hauterives at 88 years of age.
A few years ago there was a meeting in the town hall of the local village. There was one item on the agenda. Would it be a fitting tribute to commission a bronze bust of the Facteur and place it in front of the post office? Every single person attending that meeting gave his or her vote of approval. So if you visit the village of Hauterives today, allow an extra few moments to examine that more recent work of art. Because it has been said by some that there is a twinkle in the Facteur Cheval’s eye. One can well imagine why.