The New York Times
Childhood at Oriolby Michael Burn
Originally published in a very limited printing in England in 1951, this enchanting rediscovery is set in a small villa among the dunes of Le Toquet. It is the story of two energetic, mischievous and sensitive children and their encounters with a privileged set of adult visitors who are in Normandy for the season and who could well have stepped out of a novel by… See more details below
Originally published in a very limited printing in England in 1951, this enchanting rediscovery is set in a small villa among the dunes of Le Toquet. It is the story of two energetic, mischievous and sensitive children and their encounters with a privileged set of adult visitors who are in Normandy for the season and who could well have stepped out of a novel by P.G. Wodehouse. This magical novel, which takes place between two world wars, will remind readers of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.
Michael Burn will be 95 when Childhood at Oriol is released. As a reporter for The Times, he covered both the abdication of Edward VIII, later the Duke of Windsor, and the faked Hungarian trial of Cardinal Mindszenty.
The New York Times
- Turtle Point Press
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Childhood at Oriol
By Michael Burn
Turtle Point PressCopyright © 2005 Turtle Point Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIn the summer of 1920 an elderly man called Arthur Friedmann came to Oriol, on the north coast of France, to attend the consecration of the British cemetery, in which his only son was buried. The service over, he went for a walk alone in the deserted pine-forest.
He came upon a wide clearing, covered with Army huts no longer occupied, the gunnery camp where his son had been trained. His son had loved Oriol; "after the war" he had once written, "we must turn it into something." In many letters he had described its quiet and lonely enchantment; and now the father began to understand what he had meant. Between the forest and the Channel straggled a soft wilderness of dunes, thick with clumps of esparto grass and sprawling shrubs, out of which the sand emerged in smooth curves, like flesh from rags, white and silken to the touch. When there were storms the sea could be heard in the forest, above the creaking trees; now only a light breeze blew off it, lifting into the air the sticky scent of the pines. The dark trees spread for many kilometres; the branches grew at the tops, leaving bare the tall trunks, which the sun turned gold and copper and bronze. So many winter winds had swept them that not one tree seemed to grow upright; they were like copper ladders left resting against the sky.
Arthur Friedmann lit a cigar and went further. The forest floor of pine-needles, speckled with sunlight, looked like innumerable sleeping lizards. The sand slipped into his pointed shoes, under the spats, and the pine-scent mingled with the aroma of his cigar, the first ever to be smoked there. He was unused to walking; he liked, and owned, a large car, and now and then took a constitutional on foot along a boulevard or a promenade, or in a garden. He was an entrepreneur and a speculator, who envisaged all that he saw as something more or something different. He was ready to leave people, but not things or places, as he found them, and in changing the things he changed the people, not always for the better. The impulse was not avarice, though he had made several fortunes, but a restless creativeness which had no other outlet.
Between two dunes, about a mile away, glittered a strip of sea, and invisible beyond was England, fenced in with a rim of hotels and boardinghouses nearly all hideous to him; even after forty years of living there the absence of desire in England either to woo or be wooed still amazed him. He took from his wallet a letter of his son's, dated June 1917, written perhaps near this very point, and full of projects for building and development. The boy had had ideas; perhaps, he thought, I will carry them out myself. He climbed a sandhill, and looked across a dark swath of tree-tops at the blue slope of the Channel.
There was a cabin on the hill-top with a corrugated-iron roof and a chimney from which smoke was rising. It had a garden with roses and marigolds and hollyhocks, all very unexpected. He did not want to interrupt his mood, half reverie, half prospectus, and was about to move on, when a woman dressed in black came out, followed by a girl of about nineteen, also in black. He remembered having seen them at the cemetery the same morning. The coincidence was too striking; several of his greatest successes had sprung from the recognition of coincidence. He took off his grey Homburg hat and said "Good day."
The older woman replied; her voice, her looks, the kind of garden, suggested that she was English. He went on: "Did I not see you this morning?"
"I remember seeing you."
"I came to visit my son's grave. He was killed at the Marne."
"My husband was wounded there. My husband is also buried in the cemetery."
She opened a small white gate leading from the loose sand into the garden and said: "Won't you come in? My daughter and I live here. Perhaps you would like some tea?"
The cabin was simply and pleasantly furnished, with a wood fire burning; a number of pictures hung from the walls and others were stacked against them, and an empty easel stood in one corner. While the daughter made tea Mrs. Weatherby introduced herself and explained that her husband had been a painter, had come to Oriol several years before the war, and built the cabin himself.
"He showed excellent judgment," said Arthur Friedmann. "It is the first time I have been here, but my boy often spoke of Oriol. It has great charm."
"Anne and I are very happy here. We could not live anywhere else, even now."
With reticence and sympathy he asked a question or two about her husband, to which she replied calmly, interweaving similar questions about his son. She and Anne had worked in the hospital during the war, and she had been nursing her husband when he died. Apologetically she confessed that she had not known his son; the two of them sat for a time without speaking, while the girl brought in cups and plates and looked with curiosity at the dapper stranger. She was pretty and fair; he liked her quietness and her friendly smile.
They spoke of the morning's ceremony and agreed that beautiful ground had been chosen for the soldiers' graves, over-looking the estuary of the river Oriol.
"But it is dead," he added. "There should be some living memorial."
"I would like that, and my husband would have liked that. A garden, or a park ..."
"Or a whole area."
She did not understand him, and the thought was still only germinating. He stubbed out his cigar and drank some tea.
"And you'll be staying on here, Mrs. Weatherby?" He had an old-fashioned almost pedantic politeness; his voice, though low, was rather hoarse, as if he had asthma, and still a little guttural.
"Oh, yes. We have many friends here, and very few in England."
"Aren't you a long way from anywhere?"
"Not as far as it seems. The road is only five minutes away, and a bus goes into Oriol. We have neighbours within easy walking distance; they have been very good to us. My husband was so fond of France."
She paused, and then asked the question which everyone sooner or later asked: "Are you English?"
"I am a British citizen. I was born in Czechoslovakia, and my name is German. I was in business in the City of London when the war broke out, but being of German origin, I was asked to leave it."
"But with your son ...?"
"My son served in the British Army. He was a major when he was wounded, though he was only twenty-two. That was not taken into account then."
He had become quite a connoisseur in the accents of commiseration; hers sounded sincere. He liked the whole household; the husband a painter, the level-headed calm woman, the pretty girl, the air of dignity. The project in his head grew; he skirmished cautiously to discover more facts. Nearly all the land, she told him, belonged to the Baron de Moutiers, who spent most of his time in Paris; his chateau, the Chateau d'Oriol, was falling to pieces. Oriol was little more than a fishing village. There was a wonderful beach, two miles long. The pine-woods were deserted except for her cabin, a villa or two on the outskirts, "and of course the nightingales?"
"Certainly. Not in the pines, but in the thickets. Our house is called Les Rossignols."
Nightingales? They would be an asset. And a beach two miles long, and a decaying chateau, and an owner who took no interest in but might be glad to take some out....
"We had a studio first at Etaples" she went on. "My husband loved to paint the fishing-fleet. Would you care to see some of his work?"
Friedmann admired the canvases with divided attention, wanting to know more about the land. They went outside.
"The nightingales are there," she said, indicating a lighter green among the pines. Far off the dunes dipped into V's and U's that revealed the Channel.
"What was your husband's name?" he asked suddenly.
"James" she answered, surprised.
It was strange; that had been his son's name.
The light was beginning to die along the dunes, the leaning pine-trunks turned red, and the tops of the trees grew darker.
"He always used to say that this would make a wonderful holiday resort" said Mrs. Weatherby.
"It will," he answered.
* * *
Anne had come out of the house at this moment, and it was thus that she always remembered him. There and then he unfolded for them his picture of what Oriol would be, improvised, rough, corrected in motion, but in all the main lines the place that a few years later it became. The village of Oriol was to be a fashionable plage with a sea-front, swimming-pools, and a Casino, the decaying chateau of the decaying Baron a hotel, and the pine-forests the setting for a golf-course. Napoleon-like he pointed this way and that, making a gesture as if throwing down a carpet, and finally turning to their own home and remarking with unforgettable grandeur: "And here there must be a view. You"-to her mother, the morning's ceremony forgotten-"you have been the discoverer of this place. I shall build you a village. This will be the centre of the golf-course, and the players shall have their view of the sea from here."
And a view it became. As there was light when God said so, so there were greens, fairways, a club, hotels, and finally a Casino, when Arthur Friedmann said so. Lorries came and went all day, month after month, year after year. The landscape was invaded, yet never spoiled. Dunes were levelled and shaped, but the wilderness along the coast stayed wild. Many of the pines were felled, but the forest stayed forest and the nightingales still sang, but to an audience. Beyond the swimming-pool and fashionable beach the golden miles stretched untouched. He built the Pine Hotel on the forest edge, and beside it the cottage for Mrs. Weatherby and Anne; and one day workmen arrived upon their little hill, took the cabin to pieces like a packing-case, carted it away, and built the bits into something else; and the two of them moved into their new home. In the wings and on the stage of this vast scene-shifting wandered Arthur Friedmann, known to everyone as the patron, a rose in his button-hole summer and winter, always in spats, always in the grey Homburg hat that really had come from Homburg, bringing the faubourgs into the forest, an elegant restless Jew with slightly weary eyes, and to Anne Weatherby romantic. He would arrive in his long open Rolls-Royce at the limit of the half-made road, walk to some high point and give directions. He understood the atmosphere of places, of people, of works of art, and was sensitive to moods and possibilities which most men miss. He had what in women is called instinct, in matters of taste a flair; in business he had the Midas touch.
He wrote to friends of his dead son's and told them that if they ever wished to return to Oriol they were to come to start with as his guests; they came, and returned later as his clients. Johnny MacManus arrived among the first. He was a very young cavalry N.C.O., robust and good-looking, the son of a riding-master. Soon he set up a stable there, grooming the horses and giving lessons himself, and began to do good business. Anne rode with him. Beach, sea, forest, all were theirs. Memories of the war, like dark curtains looped back into the roof of their lives, faded and began to be forgotten. She fell in love, he was attracted by the idea of marriage, and married they were, in Paris, in 1921. Arthur Friedmann bought them a suite at the Crillon Hotel and paid for all the champagne. Looking earnestly at her as they went away, he warned her, "Be careful of him, my dear"; and she laughed and replied that she would be able to manage him. Three years later she was to wish she had asked Friedmann to explain himself.
In 1924 the Pine Hotel was opened with a splendid banquet, attended by a French Cabinet Minister, the Prefect of the Department, all the local Mayors, and a number of well-connected Englishmen, as well as Mrs. Weatherby and Anne and the "old inhabitants" invited as Arthur Friedmann's guests. The project turned to gold. Streams of Louis began to slither across the green tables at the Casino. The Prince of Wales came for a weekend and the place was made. About this time Mrs. Weatherby died, and Anne and Johnny moved into the cottage; he enlarged his business and kept two hirelings specially for the Pine Hotel guests. During the season he gave lessons all day long, and now the money came in regularly. A son, Merrick, was born, and it seemed to Anne that they had all they could want. The cottage was big enough for them; together they pushed back the dunes and made a garden, hung chintz curtains in the windows and her father's painting on the walls; and she saw no reason not to be happy for the rest of her life.
The change in Johnny came rapidly. As Oriol flourished he deteriorated, becoming the victim of a vanity and a wilfulness she had hardly been aware of before. People began to frequent Oriol who flattered, with more subtlety than Anne had ever shown, his ease, his vigour, and his good looks. His riding-lessons became popular with women, often many years older than himself, who did not care about fresh air or horses and perhaps assumed that a riding-master-elsewhere it might be a ski-ing instructor or a skating teacher-was thrown in with the hotel bills. They wore smart jodhpurs and tweed jackets cut by Paris shops, and Johnny took them for long rides along the beach and in the forest. At first Anne thought nothing of it; she laughed with him at the stories he told about some of them. Besides, he charged fifty francs an hour, a good sum then.
He came home later. He had drinks with his clients in the decorative little bars with window-boxes and striped awnings that enterprising restaurateurs were building in the village of Oriol, now a town; the Normandy, the Perroquet, the Matelot d'Or. He began to relish high-sounding names and titles. He talked aloofly of meeting the Comtesse d'Harcourt, who entered horses for the big races at Auteuil and Longchamps and might appoint him to her racing-stable; and of somebody else with a palace in Italy, and an apartment in Paris, and a villa now building at Oriol, and of this and that important or wealthy personage, all in a tone as if it were something out of Anne's ken. He became a snob; she had deceived herself into thinking he would be content so long as he had the open-air life and could be more or less his own master. She grew jealous. Some of the women he took riding were attractive; and they courted the side of him to which it was neither her wish nor in her capacity to appeal.
This continued for a while, with awkward excuses on his side, awkward remonstrances on hers, and long silences. In the end it had not been even a beauty who took him away from her. There appeared one fine day, in one of the fashionable magazines that had started to advertise the new resort, a photograph of a Mrs.
Excerpted from Childhood at Oriol by Michael Burn Copyright © 2005 by Turtle Point Press. Excerpted by permission.
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