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Provence, ad nauseam

PETER MAYLE has just completed his first novel, Hotel Pastis, which is to be published in time for the summer holidays. It is about a former advertising man who sets up a hotel in Provence, and thus will be subtly different from A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence - his accounts of how a former advertising man set up a home in France. Both proved phenomenally successful, but not so the BBC television adaptation. 'An idiotic concoction of travelogue shots, condescending portraits of comical French artisans and hammed-up linguistic clumsiness', is a sample of the bile. Poor Mayle. All he did was retire and write a successful book, or two, and then fall into the hands of the rapacious marketing men. (The best idiomatic translation for 'board a gravy train' is probably trouver un fromage, or 'find a cheese'.) Mayle's neighbours, French and English, have long complained of the effect he has had on the Luberon's ton, and now his house is on the market, as he tries to escape the fans chasing a glass of wine and an autograph. One report this week suggested that hordes of anglais had trooped to Provence after episode one of the BBC series and begun picnicking on his lawn. This, as his publicist, Karen Geary, points out, would have been tricky, 'as it snowed in Provence last week and in any case Peter doesn't have a lawn. People do turn up unannounced, but the worst offenders are invariably the media.' Nevertheless Channel 4's Fragile Earth will bolster the Mayle backlash this Sunday, when it draws a link between irresponsible tourists and the massive forest fires - 4,000 or so a year - that are also devastating Provence.

YESTERDAY'S Times carried John Birt's letter answering critics of his tax arrangements. It concluded: 'I moved quickly to join the BBC's staff because I did not want anyone . . . to think that my commitment and dedication to the BBC were less than total, which they are.'

So much for the 'mission to explain'.

What are friends for?

SO JUST what did Mona Bauwens, the daughter of a member of the PLO's executive committee, get from her libel settlement with the Sunday People? In 1990, you'll remember, it ran a story questioning the presence of David Mellor and his family on holiday at her villa, just as the Gulf war was beginning. Last September a jury could not reach a decision on the case. On the face of it, yesterday's settlement profited Bauwens little: she got no damages and it seems that she received little or no payment for her substantial costs. But she does get an apology, of sorts: the paper has said it intended no personal criticism of Bauwens. Something not very different, we gather, was on offer from the People two years ago. The other difference between now and then is, of course, that if Bauwens had accepted, David Mellor might well still be a minister.

BUSINESS opportunities. For a mere pounds 50,000, according to a small ad in yesterday's Financial Times, you can buy a 70 per cent stake in WWR Publications Ltd and 'Become Famous Instantly'. How? Well, this desirable company owns the magazine Scallywag, which is, as the ad admits, currently being sued by John Major (and the caterer Clare Latimer) for libel. Nevertheless, there's 'great potential for expansion and profits'.

Gore blimey

MATTHIAS WISSMANN, the German minister for research, was overjoyed the other day to receive a personal phone call from Vice-President Al Gore. 'Oho]' Wissmann exclaimed gleefully. 'Good to hear from you. Wonderful.' Wissmann was fascinated to hear about a secret US mission to build a perpetuum mobile and impressed by Gore's plans to establish a world postcode system based on electromagnetism. Only problem: Gore was not Gore at all, but a reporter from the German satirical magazine Titanic. That, at least, is what Titanic tells us - but we've said we won't give them any publicity unless they telephone Norman Lamont for a chat about the Budget posing as Chelsea Clinton.

DOES the appointment of a man with a goatee to the editorship of the Economist at last rescue this facial embellishment from the ghetto where reside the chins of former beatniks, King Philip II of Spain, the Devil and grunge- rock stars? Will bankers and business bigwigs worldwide tease their fur between finger and thumb as they plot the further progress of the recession? Umm, probably not, actually.

Death certificate

WITH masterly timing, the Open University has launched just the course for a country in the grip of moral malaise, spiritual decay and economic gloom: a home study pack on 'Death and Dying'. A snip at pounds 200 plus VAT.


10 March 1916 Raymond Asquith writes to Perdita, his five-year-old daughter, from France: 'My pretty Per, Your mother sent me the other day a very nice little story about a widow in the snow which you had written. I thought it most interesting. If you ever feel inclined to write another you might send it to me, as I don't get many good stories to read out here. There are plenty of widows here but it is the rarest possible thing to see any of them making a snow man. I went on to the top of a hill the other day to see a battle but it was a very poor sort of battle and I came away much disappointed. I hear that you have lost some of your front teeth. Please grow some new ones as quickly as possible, because I want you to be exquisitely beautiful again, when I come home to see you. But I'm afraid that won't be for some time yet.'