Fixed to a telegraph pole at the foot of the hill below the chateau is a loudspeaker. At irregular intervals throughout the day it emits a two-tone chime like those that precede flight announcements, and then a voice booms out. ‘La population est informée…’ that the travelling butcher’s van is now parked in the village square and open for business, or that the post office will be closed tomorrow for training, or some other indispensable item of civic information.
It’s extraordinarily intrusive, as well as being mostly unintelligible on account of the fact that the amplified voice bounces off the chateau and its terraces, the walls of the Canal du Midi which flows below us, and any other solid surfaces within a fifty metre radius. It’s intrusive particularly because we’re here to write, the ten of us who have come together on retreat at Chateau Ventenac; though it must be equally irritating, I’m sure, for the ordinary holiday-makers staying nearby or moored in their barges on the canal.
Jolted each time from my thoughts, I find myself imagining we’re being summoned to a guillotining, or at the very least a village assembly and a couple of rousing choruses of the Marseillaise. Although it’s only information of a (moderately) useful nature, there’s a distinctly Orwellian feel to the whole thing. If it were to start ‘Attention citoyens!’ one wouldn’t be surprised. And it comes with an image of a prim woman in a khaki uniform sitting at a microphone in a booth somewhere in the bowels of the mairie, waiting for the next official to solemnly hand her a piece of paper.
Then there are the motocyclettes, the smirking, sniggering teenagers of two-wheeled transport, designed surely, with their defiant, hornet whine, for the sole purpose of deafening and infuriating. For all that, the benefits of Chateau Ventenac far outweigh its disadvantages: a building full of character, plenty of shady nooks and corners for working, a swimming pool, a superb chef. We are all managing to write and in the quiet hour before dinner we gather on the terrace with a drink and take turns to read. Then the loudspeaker is silent, the motos are garaged or parked outside bars, and we are alone with our words. That’s what we’ve come for.