Monday 19 March 2018

Obituary: Peter Mayle

Sex education author whose account of his move to Provence became a huge hit

FALLING FOR THE FRENCH: ‘A Year in Provence’ author Peter Mayle. Photo: Andrew Crowley
FALLING FOR THE FRENCH: ‘A Year in Provence’ author Peter Mayle. Photo: Andrew Crowley

Peter Mayle, who died last Thursday aged 78, was the author of A Year in Provence (1989), an account of his rural idyll in southern France that spawned a small army of imitators among people seeking fulfilment in more exotic locations.

A former advertising executive in London and New York, Mayle decamped with his third wife to France in 1988, settling in a run-down farmhouse with six acres in the Luberon region which they had bought for £100,000.

His original intention had been to write a novel, but instead he came up with A Year in Provence, a breezy and affectionate memoir about Provençal cuisine and the tribulations of dealing with local builders, plumbers and tradesmen as he sought to renovate his new home.

Although his publisher was not bullish - the initial print run was 3,000 copies - the book became a bestseller in Britain and the United States; it was eventually translated into some 20 languages, and in 1993 was turned into a BBC miniseries starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan as the writer and his wife. In 1990 Mayle published a sequel, Toujours Provence, which was also a bestseller.

The books made Mayle rich, but he was soon complaining of serial harassment from his fans: "We had people coming up the drive from Japan, from Australia, from Germany, from Sweden, from England, from America. At the beginning, it was really quite exciting... then it just increased in volume until we were getting four, five, six visits a day."

A party of Swiss people elected to have a picnic outside his front door, and on another occasion he was about to sit down to Sunday lunch when he heard splashing sounds coming from his swimming pool: "When I went round to see what was going on, it was a couple of Italians with a video camera in the pool. They were taking photographs of each other with our house in the background."

Finally, in 1993, he put his house on the market for £625,000 and moved to the United States, settling in a rented house in the agreeable environment of the Hamptons on Long Island.

Light-hearted as Mayle's books were, there were some who managed to take offence. In Britain, he was accused of "ruining" Provence by encouraging tourism, and of condescension towards his French neighbours by creating "a fantasy land populated by beret-wearing simpletons".

In the Luberon, meanwhile, many of the inhabitants he had described claimed to find their portrayals insulting, one local shopkeeper declaring: "All he talks about is himself, his stonemason, his plumber, his electrician. He said that we're barbarians because we hunt - here everybody hunts. He earned his money off us, and then he disappeared."

Peter Mayle was born in Brighton on June 14, 1939 and educated at Brighton College until the age of 15, when his father - who worked for the Foreign Office - was posted to Barbados. Having taken A-levels in Barbados, Peter returned to Britain, where he was taken on as a junior trainee by Shell, after a few months moving to the advertising department.

He went on to work as a copywriter for David Ogilvy in New York; as head of Papert Koenig Lois's creative team in London; and as creative director of the international agency BBDO, which involved commuting between Britain and the US.

He is said to have coined the slogan "Nice one Cyril", to advertise Wonderloaf.

By 1974 Mayle had decided he was tired of the rat race, and he moved to Devon to devote himself to writing. He was already the author of a successful sex education book called Where Did I Come From? (1973), and followed this with titles such as What's Happening to Me? (1975), about puberty; How to Be a Pregnant Father: An Illustrated Survival Guide for the First-time Father (1977); and Baby Taming (1978), a sort of "combat manual" for clueless new parents.

In the mid-1980s, with the cartoonist Gray Jolliffe, he embarked on the Wicked Willie series of books featuring a talking penis, which later inspired both a film and a board game.

During their time in Devon, Mayle and his third wife, Jennie, were in the habit of taking their summer holidays in the Luberon region, and in 1988 they decided to buy the farmhouse near the village of Menerbes. "I did come here with the idea of writing a novel," Mayle later recalled. "I thought I'd just sit there in green tranquillity. But I couldn't even sit down for four months. My agent kept asking how I was doing. I said I was going nowhere because of the distractions. So he said, 'Well, why not write about them?'"

Mayle's exile in Long Island lasted five years, and he returned to the south of France in 1999, to a new home at Lourmarin, 10 miles from Menerbes. The area continued to be a rich seam for him. Encore Provence - a further collection of anecdotes - appeared in 1999, and there were also novels, such as Hotel Pastis (1993), A Dog's Life (1995) and Anything Considered (1996, about a scheme to corner the world truffle market).

Another novel, A Good Year (2004), the story of a British expat who inherits a French vineyard, was turned into a film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe.

Between 2009 and 2015, Mayle published a series of light-hearted mystery stories, The Vintage Caper, The Marseille Caper, The Corsican Caper and The Diamond Caper.

"I'm never going to go down in the annals of literature as someone who left a legacy," Mayle told The Independent in 2001. "I don't think I was put on this earth to make an enormous philosophical contribution. But that's all right. As long as I've entertained some people, I am perfectly happy."

He was appointed a Chevalier de la legion d'honneur by the French government in 2002.

With his first wife, Pamela, whom he married when he was 21, Peter Mayle had three sons. With his second wife, Nicola, he had two daughters. There were no children with Jennie, who ran a company making commercials for television.

© Telegraph

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