5 Things to Laugh About 5th August

Here’s my occasional self-booster post, to remind me that life can be fun as well as educational.

  1. Catching up on box sets. I never have the time or patience to watch a full series, but I did the impossible these past couple of weeks and watched a few. Chernobyl with the boys: we were all fascinated, if somewhat shaken. Great attention to detail to give you the flavour of living in Soviet Russia in the mid 1980s, but no, people did not address each other as comrade the whole time, except in very official circumstances or in political meetings. The Patrick Melrose series (by myself, I hasten to add), which made me reconsider reading the novels (I’d read the third one but without the context of the others, I was not enthralled), although there’s only so much I can take of a destructive personality. Just started watching Fosse/Verdon as well on BBC2, which promises to be rather heartbreaking though glamorous.
LOS ANGELES – JUNE 5: The Garry Moore Show, a CBS television comedy variety show. Pictured are guests, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Episode originally broadcast June 5, 1962. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Ok, so my choice of subject matter is not the most cheerful, but it’s just nice to be able to follow a story arc from end to end without interruptions.

2. Going to the theatre, of course. My other great passion, beside reading, is seeing words come to live on the stage, as in the production of Europe at the Donmar Warehouse. This is a really moving play about displacement, refugees and the rise of intolerance and Fortress Europe by David Greig. Written in 1994 and clearly inspired by the war in former Yugoslavia, it is once more extremely topical. Two moments in particular had me in tears: 1) when the refugee father says his daughter blames him for not leaving earlier, but ‘you can’t just leave the country to the wolves’; 2) the feeling of suffocation in this small town without any jobs, without any trains, without a future, and the desperate desire to feel part of Europe. I’ve experienced both of those feelings, and still occasionally feel a traitor for leaving my country when it needed me most… until I remember that it decided it didn’t need me. Despite the tears, it was a riveting performance and I’m really glad I saw it. A powerful start for the new artistic director at the Donmar.

Production picture, photo credit Marc Brenner.

On a more cheery note, I also attended an off-stage performance, in an industrial estate beside woodland, with the really fun immersive experience of The Tempest.

3. Hosting a writing retreat at my house

The founder of our writing group severely said to me, as she entered the house and I was showing everyone where the coffee, tea, food was: ‘I hope you are not going to use your duties as a host to excuse your lack of writing.’ Touché! But I didn’t, and managed to edit all of the poems that I’d received feedback on, as well as select (and slightly edit) a new batch to send. Also, it was lovely catching up with what other people were working on. Last but not least, I was most impressed with one of our members, who had rescued and fostered a kitten this weekend. Someone had dumped the sweet little thing out of a car near his workplace, he caught her, looked after her and managed to find an adopted mother for her all within less than 72 hours. Bravo!

4. Older son. While he is on holiday in Greece, we’ve been chatting nearly every day. He’s taken a ton of books with him, has even done some homework (in preparation for the start of his Maths A Level course). I’ve tried to talk to the younger son too, you mustn’t think I neglect him, but he is usually playing computer games and doesn’t want to be disturbed. But what made me really proud of the older son is that he called me last night indignantly and told me that his brother hadn’t brushed his teeth in four days. Normally, I don’t like tattle-tales, but the next bit of his rant amused and reassured me (at least about him, not about his brother): ‘When you’re young, you do things because your parents tell you to, but at this age, it’s high time you realised yourself how important it is for you to be doing certain things. That it’s for your own good, not to shut up Mama’s nagging, that you do it.’

5. Japanese neighbour. A former neighbour, whom I had befriended back in 2009-2011 during my interlude in the UK between our two stays in France, rang my doorbell unexpectedly yesterday. She had returned to Japan with her family while I was away in France but was over for a short visit, revisiting some of her favourite English places, and wanted to see what had happened to her neighbours. It was so nice to see her again and to tell her about our plans to visit Japan in two year’s time! I hate losing touch with people and am always grateful when I can meet up with them again.

Thoughts on L’Adversaire

adversaireA couple of months ago I mentioned that I discovered that we lived in the same village as a notorious mythomaniac and killer, who has been the subject of a book and a film. I recently succumbed to my morbid curiosity and read the book, which pretty much reiterated all the things I had found out from my neighbours. The author Emmanuel Carrère has been accused of romanticising Romand, but I don’t think he does that at all. In fact, he allows Romand to be condemned by his own words and actions (his coldness and lack of remorse are completely chilling), but also revealing the charm and intelligence of a man who managed to fool so many people for so long.  The author is a proponent of the Catholic idea of evil residing in all of us, and that perhaps this ‘adversary’ has been so cunning in this case that the perpetrator has started believing his own lies. 

Instead of a conventional book review, however, I just wanted to share a poem inspired by the whole story.

Village Blues on a Sunny Day

We lived nearby but
in the growth of tulgey wood and velvet moth
he went unnoticed.
A busy town, a hasty life.
We knew each other for hello,
discuss the weather, will it snow,
school events to plan for,
but no substance to the smiles.

I peer from my upper window now
with less envy at your hammock of ease
poolside limbs perfectly tanned
flower tubs pregnant with beauty.
For beneath the poised completeness
who knows what lies, ice fraud,
the curdling compromise of a heart fraught
with keeping up appearances.

There Goes the Neighbourhood…

fete_des_voisinsFriday 29th May was the Fête des Voisins here in France – an initiative designed to help everyone get to know their neighbours better. In our little close we already know each other quite well (the children play together in and out of our gardens all the time), so we decided to avoid the large-scale affair organised by the Mairie and take out tables, chairs and the BBQs just in front of our houses. We had a lovely time eating, drinking and chatting. And for my family of relative newcomers to the area, we also discovered a little more about local history.

For this crime fiction fan here, I was fascinated (and slightly queasy) to discover that one of the most notorious murderers in France had lived (and killed) in our neighbourhood.

OMSJean-Claude Romand is an impostor and murderer, born in 1954 in the Jura mountains. Having failed to pass his second year exams at medical school in Lyon, he began to lie to everybody around him (including his parents and his wife). He never qualified as a doctor but pretended to be a specialist at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, participated in the local (admittedly, transient) community in this area and spent his days studying medical journals and travel guides to maintain his deception. He lived a luxurious lifestyle as befits somebody working for an international organisation by convincing friends and relatives to entrust their savings for him to ‘invest’ in Switzerland.

Romand and his family, video-streaming.orange.fr
Romand and his family, video-streaming.orange.fr

He kept up this double life for nearly 20 years but, when he was in danger of being exposed in 1993, he killed his wife, their two young children, his parents and their dog, and also tried to kill his mistress (who was asking for her ‘investments’ back). She managed to escape. He set fire to his house – which is on the corner just at the end of our road – to make it look like a suicide attempt, but was arrested and finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996. However, he has been so well-behaved in prison, impressing his fellow prisoners, guards and parole board with his sober, mature ‘doctoral’ manner, that he will be released some time this year.

French author Emmanuel Carrere corresponded with Romand in prison and wrote a book based on the case, L’Adversaire (The Adversary). There has also been a film adaptation of it, with actor Daniel Auteuil playing the main character.  It’s a story that continues to fascinate with its sheer audacity: one other French film and a Spanish film were also loosely based on his life, while some UK and US TV crime series have also used his story in a couple of episodes.

What was interesting, however, was seeing how the local neighbourhood is still traumatised by the event, after more than 20 years. His former friends and neighbours still cannot believe that they never suspected a thing. His wife was working at the local pharmacy and was well liked, the children went to the Catholic school nearby. Romand himself participated in meetings of medical associations (except when there was any WHO involvement). A friend once tried to contact him at the WHO but was told there was no such name on their phone list: he put it down to the fact that he was a specialist, possibly working on a short-term or freelance contract.

What people cannot understand is why he put in so much work and effort to maintain a deception, when he could have just as easily worked for real. Yet in an area where so many people stay on short-term contracts and then move on, where luxury can seem to be the norm, where you are on the border between two countries and their respective legislations and taxation systems, it was so easy to succumb to the temptation of a life of ease and to slip through the cracks.

RomandhouseThere was some talk initially of pulling down the cursed house where those events took place, but it has been rebuilt and there is a family living there who are the descendents of the original landlord. (Romand was renting the property and was not always able or willing to pay the rent. The landlord himself died in a suspicious fire in the caravan where he was living, but it has never been proven that Romand was involved.)

Of course there are conspiracy theories that say it’s too unbelievable for Romand to have duped so many people for so long, and that he did in fact work for the WHO and know many high-level politicians, as he claimed. He knew too much, so he had to be silenced. Although, in that case, surely it would have been easier to just kill him instead of everybody around him?

So, yes, get to know your neighbours, but can we ever really see beyond the carefully painted façade?