New novel a satire on the life of English expats in France
- Credit: Chris Proctor
During the first lockdown, with a rush of nostalgia familiar to many people stuck at home, Highgate journalist Chris Proctor chanced upon a set of diaries.
These diaries, which he calls “a dreadful, time-wasting habit”, recounted his five years living with his young family in the Dordogne region of France in the early 1990s, and formed the basis of his new self-published novel, French Leave.
The novel became an escape for Chris, who has written for the Sunday Times and the Guardian, as well as working in communications for trade unions. As a first-time novelist, accustomed to non-fiction writing, it was an exercise in “keeping the brain alive during the pandemic”.
French Leave is a love story, featuring the rom-com trope of “two people who are terribly incompatible”, paired with a local man’s reflections on his village’s past and present.
Chris, however, is most proud of his side characters satirising the oddities of the English expat through “the scams they come up with to keep alive, the things they do and their attitudes”.
“It’s an antidote to those twee accounts… where the characters dance around the sunflowers and have a pet peasant whom they patronise,” he said.
While he does not consider his work to be “a serious polemic” against the condescending attitudes of the English in France, he does take some joy in lampooning stereotypical behaviours (“very few of them work, they just drive smart cars and sit in restaurants all day”).
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“The market for the French is a place to go and socialise, but often you’d find that English people would walk around it like a tourist site and then go to the supermarket," he said.
This distinct lack of recognition of local values he links with resentment triggered among the locals, with the region’s history of constant foreign "intrus" — ranging from the Celts, Romans and Vandals to Richard the Lionheart and the Nazis.
Nevertheless, he is eager to emphasise that during his time in France there were exceptions, saying: “There were lots of people who loved what they were hearing, loved learning the language, loved finding out about the traditions.”
Chris places himself firmly in this category, speaking affection about the people he encountered, especially a local pilgrimage he joined to a pond associated with the Virgin Mary.
He feels he gained an appreciation for the simpler facets of rural life, saying: “In London, you don’t really need to notice the weather, but there the weather controls everything that goes on, everyone’s eyes are on the horizon.”.
To Chris’s dismay, this rural community is declining, in contrast to the expat romanticisation of village life. A local church, during one of the years he was resident, hosted twenty funerals and only one baptism, and one fifth of local houses are owned by English expats. This sense of loss is captured by the French narrator of half the story, Jean-Marie, whose meningitis distorts his retelling of local history, and leads him to view the introduction of new agricultural machinery as yet another invasion of the village.
Still, Chris feels the concept of living abroad as an expat is not outdated, but “useful if done properly”. Does he have any advice for those longing to live abroad?
“Go well intentioned, appreciative but not patronising," he said, citing his wife’s role as a English teacher as a way of providing something to the local community.
According to Chris, there is also value in embracing your status as a visitor in a community that is not your own.
"There’s something quite interesting about being an outsider, since in London we’re used to seeing people immigrate from all over the world," he said. "[As an expat] you begin to appreciate how those people feel.”
French Leave is available in paperback and on Kindle.