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In 1987, Peter Mayle and his third wife, Jennie, moved from Devon to a farmhouse in Ménerbes, in the Luberon region of Provence, which they intended to refurbish while he worked on a novel. Months later, he wrote his agent a long letter explaining his lack of progress on his fiction by detailing the tribulations of dealing with the French. “Do another 250 pages of that,” his agent replied, “and I’ll find a publisher.” The book that resulted, A Year in Provence (1989), became a bestseller, was adapted for television, and spawned a series of sequels as well as a flood of imitators.
A Year in Provence tapped in to the rising affluence of the British middle class, and its growing appetite for a lifestyle beyond Elizabeth David and a week’s holiday on the Côte d’Azur. It might be seen as the starting point for the tidal wave of books and reality programmes about cooking, travel and property speculation. Mayle’s relaxed amusement with the French villagers appealed to traditional British frustrations at dealing with their neighbours, and more important, it linked into what the writer George Mikes once described as the English love of enduring hardship: the lavender-scented pleasures of Provence came only at the cost of adapting to life among the locals. Mayle, who has died aged 78, conveyed his enjoyment with an exuberance that reflected his training as an advertising copywriter; in effect, he sold Provence first to Britain and then to the world.
Mayle was born in Brighton, East Sussex. His father worked for the foreign office and his mother part-time as a beautician. He was educated at Brighton college, where he boarded unhappily, and left at 15 to join his parents in Barbados, where his father had been posted, and where Peter took his O-levels. On his return to the UK, he took a trainee job with Shell, in their public relations department in London. He recalled accompanying his boss to Paris, and receiving instructions on how to behave. “Don’t try their lingo,” he was warned. “Speak English forcefully enough and they will understand you.”
Shell’s advertising was handled by Ogilvy & Mather; Mayle recalled his “one skill was writing good letters” and he sent one to David Ogilvy in New York. He was offered a post as a junior account executive, but sat their copywriting test and in 1961 became one of what we now think of as Mad Men. He returned to London after an offer to become head of creative from the Papert Koenig Lois agency which doubled his salary; his colleagues there included the future film director Alan Parker. In the mid-1960s he and a partner bought out the company, and four years later they sold it to the US group BBDO, where Mayle became creative director.
In 1974, “fed up with the rat race”, he moved to Devon and began writing. His first book, Where Did I Come From? (1973), was a young person’s guide to the facts of life; he turned out many such guides, ranging from Divorce Can Happen to the Nicest People (1979) to Anything But Rover: The Art and Science of Naming Your Dog (1985), as well as more traditional children’s books. But his biggest hit was the Wicked Willie series, illustrated by Gray Jolliffe, about a cartoon penis dubbed “Man’s Best Friend”.
The move to France came with his again wanting to break from the grind of his book production. Even when A Year In Provence found a publisher, expectations were not high. But Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson at Hamish Hamilton recognised what would sell the books; he arranged a dinner with eight key booksellers, and Mayle so charmed them that they gave it priority. He also benefited from an unusual serialisation in the Sunday Times: one excerpt per month, following the flow of the book’s year.
A Year in Provence eventually sold millions and in 1993 was made into a TV series starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan. Mayle returned to his theme with Toujours Provence (1991) and Encore Provence (1999), and moved to fiction with light-hearted books set in France, beginning with Hotel Pastis (1993). But by now tourists were beating a path to his door in Ménerbes, and the last straw came when he found a photographer from the Sun hiding in his bushes hoping for a shot of someone sunbathing naked – in February.
Mayle sold the house and moved to the village of Amagansett on Long Island, a summer playground for New York’s rich. It was a good place to work; Mayle wrote the novels Anything Considered (1996) and Chasing Cezanne (1997) as well as a children’s book, A Dog’s Life (1995). But he could not resist the lure of France and in 1999 returned to Provence – to a secluded mansion between the picture book village of Lourmarin and the even-tinier Vaugines – and to books about Provence. A Good Year (2004) was adapted into a film starring Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott, a friend from his advertising days and a neighbour in Provence. With The Vintage Caper (2009), Mayle began a series of light-hearted crime novels set in the south of France; the fourth, The Diamond Caper was published in 2015.
Mayle’s books were criticised on both sides of the Channel for a portrayal of the French that conformed to English stereotypes. There were complaints that he encouraged tourists, who failed to adapt as easily as he had, and he was often blamed for the rise in house prices caused by buyers of second homes. He was also accused of incessantly mining the same vein, to which he replied in a 2006 interview with the Telegraph: “It is a very rich vein and I haven’t even started to scrape the bottom of the barrel yet.”
Yet Mayle was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 2002, and his love of his subject matter always shone through. He told another interviewer: “I’m very lucky. I really couldn’t be happier with my life … oops, I’m getting smug again, forgive me.”
Mayle’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by Jennie, and by three sons, Simon, Nicholas and Christopher, from his first marriage, to Pamela, and two daughters, Jane and Joanna, from his second marriage, to Nicola.
• Peter Mayle, writer, born 14 June 1939; died 18 January 2018
Source: The Guardian
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