Tuesday, July 26, 2005



I live in rural South West France. Visitors here relax within hours of arriving, their shoulders sink, they breathe the warm air, they revel in the colours of the vineyards, and at neatly cultivated fields, estuary flatlands, hilly woodlands and the great empty sky above my house. They wonder at the open faces of people, particularly of the young, who look you in the eye and smile - something that would cause you to do a double-take in most parts of poor, suspicious UK. "This is what we have lost in England," they say. "It's like the 50s! No wonder so many English want to share it."

We do want to - but what we so love is going - and our very presence is a symptom of its passing.

A film was shown, last night, in the next village. It was made by the film-making daughter of a resident, and projected onto a huge screen in the village church. Elsa is an extraordinary girl whom I have known for some time. She decided early last year to organise a cultural festival in the district - and with charm, determination and unlimited chutzpa - beguiled the sceptical local mayors to support it. Her friends brought their paintings, their photographs, their music and their acting.

Her own film was the highlight of the few days for me. She depicted the village of St Ramée over the course of the year; empty roads, beautiful old doorways, winding roads, dusty sunshine and huge sky - but the raison d'etre was to allow the villagers to speak for themselves. The film was entitled "Traces".

The oldest inhabitant; frail and bald and smiling toothlessly under his beret and with the wrinkled papery arms of a very old man, began and ended the film. His eyes gleamed into the camera with humour,with regret and with no trace of self. He spoke of the soil - and what he meant was the warm earth in his fingers and under his care for the past 75 years. "Anyone without land may as well not bother to live..."

He has cultivated the land all his life and it shows in his whole face and body. He has a reality that makes most of us look two-dimensional. He was sitting in the front row of the church to watch the film, beaming.

The one schoolmistress, still with her single plait and greying hair, shows photographs of the last class of children in 1986 before the school closed down. The fastening of the huge shutters on the still recognisable classroom as she leaves after talking to Elsa about how it all used to be, returns the room to shadows.

The young man who cuts the verges with a whining Flymo, smiling shyly in the sunshine of the square and unable to express his feelings about the lost opportunities for the young and how they all leave the village now.

A middle-aged agriculture worker talking proudly of his little grandson and his hopes that he too will be a paysan and go on working the land - "Yes, he has the choice - but I hope he will." The eyes hold anxiety as well as warmth.

Many, many others tell Elsa about the days before television, before supermarkets, before all had to be concentrated into big enterprises, before modernity emptied the streets and everyone had had a cow and a bit of land. The blacksmith in his blue overalls, capable and aware of his skill in mending the tractor's ploughshares, was fourth generation - but the forge is closing.

The grapes that grow outside the village are collected by a deafening, belching and snorting machine. It gobbles leaves, mud, insects and anything else that happens to be around the bunches of grapes. The old man said that he cannot even begin to talk to the others about how they used to work - "with such cleanliness" - at the time of the vindange, "They would not believe me..."

No one pretended that this is progress. The land and the houses and the sunshine and the fields are still there but a centuries-old way of life has changed within the memory of most of the people in the village. If the traces still visible seem to us like the 1950s this is an illusion. The vague foreboding, the sense of an invisible but unstoppable juggernaut crushing them, is just under the gentle expressions of the faces of the people who sit in the church watching -with new eyes, one felt - the huge screen, their landscape, their old houses, their streets and fields, themselves. At the end there was silence and then huge applause. Many grasped the hand of the film maker, Elsa, as they left. Many could not speak. I couldn't.

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