In memory of the Mayle Man

26th April 2018 |

I only recently learned that Peter Mayle has died, much too young, at 78. David Ogilvy, the advertising wizard,  used to call him the Mayle Man but you may know of him as the man who wrote a hugely successful book, A Year in Provence, followed by many others.  I knew him long before all that.

It was just after I’d come back from my four-year ride around the world, in 1977. My life – I should say my mind – was in considerable turmoil. I hadn’t yet started to write Jupiter’s Travels and couldn’t get to grips with it. Nothing that I had experienced in those four years seemed real. Although I remembered everything clearly it was only as an observer, as though I were reading a cold government report. To write about it I had to be able to feel again the emotions that those experiences had aroused in me but it all seemed clinical, lifeless. I was close to desperation, because writing the book was all-important.

At the same timeI I was torn between two people that I loved and made a terrible hash of it, bouncing back and forth between the two. All the celebrations of my return were behind me. I’d ridden the Triumph back to London, enjoyed the champagne and a cuddle from Miss Great Britain, delivered the bike back to the Triumph factory which was still at Meriden, and come back to France on the new Triumph 750 they’d given me in exchange.

I was back in my 13th century semi-ruined home trying to find some way to reconnect with my memories when I got a message from a friend, Ernest Chapman, to say that he was over on the other side of France, about two hours away, and would I like to visit.

Ernie was a solicitor with an old, very staid firm called Russell, Cooke, Potter & Chapman at Grays Inn, but he had liberated himself from doing the estates of deceased duchesses and had taken on more colourful clients. He became Jeff Beck’s manager, and also on his list was Peter Mayle. He was visiting Peter at Gordes, in Provence, and that’s where I went on my Triumph, looking for some relief.

I stayed with them for a few days and I have very happy memories of that time with Peter, his wife Jennie, and Ernie. They were warm and wonderful company. “You are such good value,” Jennie said to me once, and I never forget a compliment. We ate and drank and laughed a lot together. Then, reluctantly, I got back on my bike, rode down the hill and straight into the path of an oncoming van. It was an inexplicable accident. After four years of riding safely through every imaginable situation I had failed to see a vehicle in front of my eyes.

The rest of that story is in Jupiter’s Travels, including the prophesy that remains a mystery. Like all my accidents so far I was very lucky. The front end of the bike was destroyed, but all that happened to me was that I sat down rather hard on the road. My friends rescued me, we did what we had to do with the wrecked Triumph, and very generously Peter Mayle lent me a small Citroen Mehari with a canvas top.
I kept it through that cold and miserable winter, still struggling to find a way into the book. After a while I took refuge with friends who lived over the hill in a small chateau they had reclaimed from dereliction. Then in early Spring one of my loves, Carol, came to visit me to tell me that she was going to marry someone else. I knew that if I put my mind to it I could persuade her to change hers but I simply couldn’t find the energy to do it. She stayed with me in the chateau for a week and one windy day we drove to my house to fetch some things, including a beautiful Kashmiri carpet I had brought back on the bike. At the top of the hill, as we returned to the chateau, I stopped at a junction where we met a bigger road. On my right was a big enamelled road sign on posts, four feet high at least. Behind the sign the mountain side dropped away steeply among loose rocks and gorse. Suddenly a gust of wind powering up the mountainside behind us lifted the car up over the road sign and dumped it down the mountainside. The car did a complete roll and landed across a boulder which prevented it from rolling any further. Astonishingly we suffered only minor injuries. The car was totalled. The carpet disappeared and was never found.

Peter Mayle was very forgiving. The car was insured and he asked for nothing, but I don’t think he or Ernie ever really believed my story.

Soon after that I found my way into the book, and it took over my life. I lost touch with Peter Mayle after he moved to that village in Provence, and I never saw him again. A pity. I see him still very clearly, full of life and fun. He had exercise machines and was waging war against potatoes, “those little brown buggers,” for fear of putting on weight. I am so sorry he’s gone.

PS: I am writing an autobiography, mostly for my son’s sake and for his son too. My publisher likes it but thinks not enough people would buy it. Would you? If so, please let me know, at tsimon@mcn.org Thanks.