TRAVEL / Memorable Journeys: Band on the folklorique run: Fay Weldon - On a jazz Tour de France

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A FAMOUS woman leaves her husband for a married, trumpet-playing lover. They set off in a battered minibus with his fellow musicians on a jazz tour de France.

That was Fay Weldon's novel, Leader of the Band, a witty and moving yarn of witty people on the move. As for Fay Weldon's life, in 1987 she did go to France with a trumpet-player - her husband Ron. Her heroine is an astronomer who has discovered a new planet and who initially takes stick from her fellow travellers for having her photograph in the Sun. Weldon was at the time famous for The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (her latest novel, Affliction, is out in May) and found, at the start of the trip: 'There was quite a lot of suspicion of me because I'd had my name in the newspapers.'

The Avalon Stompers, her husband's band, were West Country semi-professionals who played traditional New Orleans jazz. One of the musicians had met a woman in a Cornish pub who was organising some jazz events in Brittany. Suddenly they were on the road in the battered minibus.

'It was a 12-day mixture of work and holiday, one of those extraordinary events which are half planned, half not, as is usually the way if it's anything to do with jazz. There was a hired driver, whose duty it was to look after us and not to drink.'

Driver and van combed the West Country like a school bus, picking up players, wives and children. The youngest passengers were Weldon's nine-year- old son Sam and his friend Alice. It was a tight fit; the tuba, which took up two seats, didn't help. Finally they all squeezed in and reached Plymouth. 'I was very pleased the ferry wasn't a ro-ro and didn't tip over with its bow doors open.'

The first gigs were in north- west Brittany: 'Morlaix, Quimper, Quimperle. Inland from them was a little area where we did our gigs and sessions, 'organised' by the lady in Cornwall.'

After a few days they pottered south to a different series of sessions, at folk festivals or folkloriques, down the minor roads to Nantes, home of the most recent of France's Gothic cathedrals, St Pierre (begun in 1434, completed in 1893) with vaults higher than those of Notre Dame. But the town was packed and the musicians were not in sightseeing mode. Though, predictably enough, they did stop at Cognac before heading down to Barbezieux, just short of Bordeaux and inland from the Gironde estuary. The nearest place of any size is the old town of Angouleme, with stunning views from the ramparts on the hilltop.

The places on the Avalon Stompers circuit, though, were not notable landmarks. 'Off the beaten track' would be too grandiose a description. 'What we saw was the municipal France of town halls and schools, and how the local authorities organised themselves. It was completely unlike any other way of experiencing France.' A folklorique turned out to be a banner strung across the high street and a collection of ethnic dancers, many from Eastern Europe, strutting their stuff.

'It was like the circus coming to town. In Britain we have pram races. In France, when everyone leaves the cities over August, a folklorique is something to bring them into the small towns, with music and street theatre. The folk dancers were imported from everywhere, yet none seemed to be truly reflective of any region, but rather of the human race's desire to channel tribal hostility into dancing. You can't deny its skill but I hate folk dancing - it's so artificial.'

Folk dancing is not known for its sense of irony, but Fay Weldon is: 'You became very conscious of the war, because of bullet-holes everywhere and the roadside tributes to members of the Resistance who had been executed. You felt that the folklorique was a mockery of natural existence.

'The band itself seemed to me to be natural. This group of troubadours travelled as musicians have done for ever, with the same tensions, the same rivalries, the same back-row and front-row conflict.

'There is the 'temperament of the gig'. You don't know if the gig is advertised, or if you will get an audience or even if the doors will open. You never trust the organisers to pay you; the person who hired you is likely to say, 'Oh, we gave you a glass of wine and a sandwich.' Just occasionally there is a really good session, so you forget all this and experience the music working properly, and the exhilaration that goes with it.'

Fay's astronomer heroine reflects that she would have handed out photocopied sheets of the itinerary to everyone on the bus. In real life, Fay found herself saying, 'We've got all this distance to cover, we've got to get accommodation.'

Meanwhile, 'night is falling. You would get there after dark and the festival office would be closed. We'd end up sleeping in school dormitories, but then they would provide you with marvellous food: carrot salads and duck in something or other.

'The wives always wanted to have lunch and stop to look round and be comfortable, but musicians tend to be naughty little boys. They bond with each other, not with their wives. I chickened out at one stage and took a room with the children in an hotel.'

But she did enjoy it. The other wives forgave her for having had her name in the papers. There was the shared hardship to remind them that they were all in the same bus, hot and dusty together. 'Considering how ill-considered it was, it worked quite well.'

It certainly worked well for the daughters in the party: 'The regimental bands would turn up and the teenage girls would go silly and rush into the soldiers' arms.' It reminded Weldon, who once adapted Pride and Prejudice for TV, of Jane Austen.

Finally they had to prise the girls from their military embraces and hurry north to their ferry at Cherbourg, this time via the major roads. 'I ended up in Exeter hospital - from exhaustion, but it was worth it.'

Everyone on this working holiday had to pull their weight. Sam remembers selling the band's souvenir badges and tapes - even though, at nine, his French sales-patter was not what it might have been.

The chief contribution of his little friend Alice was to scare the living daylights out of the other passengers, who lived sheltered lives in the West Country. 'She let it be understood,' said Fay, 'that she came from Kentish Town, and frightened the musicians' wives with tales of everyday mayhem, rape and murder in inner London.'

That, we hope, was all fiction. Leader of the Band, which Weldon sat down to write that summer, certainly purports to be. 'Background' is all that the tour is said to share with the novel. But if I were 'Pedro' the guitarist - long greasy hair, spitting wine through the gap in his teeth - I'd consult a lawyer.

(Map omitted)

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