In many ways Tony Mayer was the Englishman's Frenchman. During his 28 years in London he was, from 1945 the Cultural Attache, the senior of the many officials who held that title, but his was a permanent posting: the others came and went after two or three years, while he remained in London until his retirement, and his role never seemed exactly defined.
His presence was discreet but ubiquitous, and seemed to have as much to do with commercial and diplomatic matters as with cultural. He knew everyone and was interested in everything, and he always seemed capable of bringing Anglo-French problems and differences to a satisfactory conclusion. If you approached him with an idea that would enhance the French presence in British life and he agreed with it, the idea became a reality. He was the embassy's fixer.
During his years in office London was fortunate to have some of the more cultured and sophisticated French ambassadors, and they gave a tone to the receptions at which Mayer was ever present, explaining what the guests did in life and their importance to cross- channel co-operation.
Urbane, unflappable, he was a genial host at his own parties, sometimes under trying circumstances, as when Eugene Ionesco, on a visit to London, got very drunk just before a dinner given in his honour. He was put to bed, excuses were made, the dinner went normally, and Ionesco made an appearance later in the evening.
Mayer presided over what can now be seen to have been a golden age for the arts at the French Embassy in the late Fifties and during the Sixties, and although there were others with similar enthusiasm and competence, Tony Mayer was the man mostly responsible. London had a steady flow of French concerts, most of them at the Wigmore Hall, although the Royal Festival Hall, many provincial venues and the French Institutes in different British cities all had their share: French artists of every description, singers, soloists, ensembles and orchestras introduced programmes of French music in all its rich variety, music seldom heard now.
At the same time Mayer found ways to bring French drama companies to perform in London theatres, to perform at the Edinburgh Festival, and to tour. French authors, at his invitation, came to talk about their work or to read it at universities and the cultural institutes that the embassy maintained at Oxford, Glasgow and Edinburgh. French plays were recommended for translation, publishers were helped with their translation costs and receptions to promote novelists and playwrights brought them to the attention of literary editors and critics. Exhibitions of French art were negotiated with museums and galleries.
When de Gaulle came to London after the fall of France in 1940, calling all French citizens who were able to escape the German occupation to follow him and continue the struggle from Britain, Tony Mayer, who had been an exchange agent on the Paris Stock Exchange, responded. As a Jew it was fortunate that he did. During the Second World War he started his concerts (he came from a musical family) and his archives in old age still held the yellowing programmes, typed on wartime paper, of piano recitals, string quartets and chamber ensembles, singers and soloists, some French, some British, many just starting their careers, but the music was always French.
After 1945 these continued with Poulenc, Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, Dutilleux, Jean Francaix and others appearing as artists as well as composers, and Britten, Peter Pears and Marion Stein (later Lady Harewood and Mrs Jeremy Thorpe) were among the many British names. Over 120 French composers appeared.
Peter Daubeney, who brought to London seasons of imported theatre companies, received subsidy through the embassy to bring Jean-Louis Barrault, Madeleine Renaud and Edwige Feuillere in their Paris productions and other impresarios found that Mayer's was the hand that could find ways to make things work: he knew how to approach the London financiers with artistic interests and get them to contribute.
In the 1950s London discovered Sartre, Anouilh, Roussin, then Ionesco, Adamov, and Beckett, then Obaldia, Dubillard and Arrabal. Although that great Francophile Harold Hobson, theatre critic of the Sunday Times, played a large role, the translation of these authors into English and their publication under British imprints would most of the time not have been possible without the strong support that came from the French Embassy. Ambassadors Chauvel and, later, de Courcel gave large and small receptions, and lunch and dinner parties, so that Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras and others could meet the British intelligentsia, and they paid for Helene Cixous and Claude Mauriac to open the new French section of Better Books in Edinburgh.
In 1960, in spite of the opposition of the French foreign ministry, Chauvel, himself a poet and essayist, found ways through Mayer to help subsidise a long-planned publishers' promotional tour of three avant-garde French writers of the nouveau roman to 12 British universities; the disapproval was caused by their having signed a much-publicised manifesto against the Algerian war.
Tony Mayer retired in 1968 and missed the philistine era that came with the Thatcher government, and he was not sorry that he never had to meet her. He bought a spacious house overlooking a fertile valley at Menerbes near Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, where the music and drama festivals found in him an ardent supporter, and where many other old friends were living or were frequent visitors.
Mayer wrote a book about the English, La Vie anglaise, a best-seller in France, which did well in its English version, published by Gollancz in 1958. It gave a brief history of the British people and took an amused but sharply accurate look at English habits and eccentricities; some of his observations were not appreciated. La Vie anglaise covers the same ground as George Mikes's How To Be An Alien, but digs much deeper, although its tone is always warm and affectionate. Those who knew him returned that affection.Reuse content