Print Posted By Lost in France on 22 Sep 2005 in Real France - French Life

Monsieur Le Mairie

In the picturesque Normandy village of Saint Ceneri le Gerei meet MONSIEUR LE MAIRIE (otherwise known as Ken Tatham from Yorkshire - and Leeds United fan extraordinaire).

Saint Ceneri le Gerei Maybe it's entirely attributable to an excellent teacher of religious education. Or maybe there's something deeply spiritual blowing in the fresh and bracing Derbyshire air. Whatever the case the fact remains that Repton School in Derby has produced three of the last four Archbishops of Canterbury. But just one Mayor. This latter honour falls to an affable 55 year-old Yorkshireman by the name of Ken Tatham. His fiefdom, however, happens to be on the other side of the Channel in the tiny Normandy village of Saint Ceneri le Gerei - where he was recently re-elected to office with a thumping majority.

Not that Saint Ceneri le Gerei can be classified as one of the teeming metropolises of France, mind you, on a par with Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux. Far from it. It is a tiny hamlet with just sixty houses, with the last census revealing a total population of no more than 126 souls - precisely what attracted Ken Tatham in the first place. With the River Sarthe running along side dozens of honey-coloured ancient stone buildings, many of which date back to medieval times, Saint Ceneri (named after a seventh century hermit) enjoys a reputation as one of the most picturesque villages in the whole of Normandy.

"I'm afraid I've some important business to attend to in an hour and a half", Monsieur le Maire informs me. Aware that the Mayor of a French village has a number of important administrative matters to attend to, including issues relating to births, weddings and funerals - I reply that such a time-scale is fine by me - for I really have only one question to ask.

The first time I met Christiane she was engaged to a German", Monsieur le Maire relates. "The next time I met her she was engaged to a Spaniard. Anyway, I managed to persuade her to get engaged to me - an Englishman!

" So - go ahead. Fire away", says the bearded Yorkshireman, who exudes a warm and convincing geniality.

"Well, I'm sure you've been asked it dozens of time before, but what are you doing here in the first place and how on earth did you come to be Mayor?" I am more than a little embarrassed by the lack of originality of my question.

Which prompts Ken Tatham (pronounced "Tuttum" by the locals on the grounds that the French have great difficulties whenever a t and an h appear togezzer) to enter into a rather well rehearsed patter. It's all to do with his big mouth, he explains.

"Your big mouth?"

"Well, my wife Christiane was voted in back in 1989 as the first woman municipal councillor in our village. During her six years in office I couldn't help putting in my two centimes worth - I am complete pain in the you-know-where. To which she eventually turned round and said, quite rightly, that if I did indeed have the secret as to how the village could be run more efficiently, then the only thing to do was to run for office myself."

Kenneth Roger Tatham was born in Roundhay, near Leeds in 1945. But the birth was not the joyous, shared occasion it should have been, his father (after whom he is named) a Wellington pilot officer with the RAF having been killed in a tragic accident in Scotland several months before. Which meant that his prematurely widowed mother brought up her only child alone until the age of 7 when he was sent off to prep school in Cumbria - and from where the young Kenneth won a scholarship to Repton School.

Despite his undoubted flair for modern languages he turned down an offer to study French and German at Manchester University (much to his mother's and step-father's disbelief) and in the spirit of the swinging sixties decided instead to 'hit the road' with just thirty pounds in his pocket. Picking up casual jobs - a sewing machine factory employee here, a builder's mate there - he toured round Europe and went through more than his fair share of hard times in the process, sleeping rough in Spain and at one point going down to under 9 stone in weight. Not much for a young man standing at 6'2". Then it was a case of Cupid to the rescue - for when in the south of Spain Ken had set his eyes on an attractive French girl by the name of Christiane. And it was Christiane, it has to be said, who changed his life.

In these circumstances it wasn't a difficult decision to take. Besides, I have always felt at ease in France. I like their priorities, their values - I enjoy the French people immensely. All right, they can be an arrogant lot on occasions - but I have come to understand and respect them

But an Englishman destined to live in France - although he did not know it at the time. For he was soon successfully enticed up to Normandy by Christiane's father who was understandably anxious not to lose touch with his daughter. And when he saw the young couple contemplating a future in South Africa - that complex, far-away land to which Ken's own mother and stepfather had now headed and set up shop - he swiftly played his trump card. He had opened a stylish restaurant in Saint Ceneri - and it was there for the taking, their future secure on the back of a flourishing tourist trade.

"In these circumstances it wasn't a difficult decision to take. Besides, I have always felt at ease in France. I like their priorities, their values - I enjoy the French people immensely. All right, they can be an arrogant lot on occasions - but I have come to understand and respect them. And it is a country that offers a way of life that would have eluded me in England. For here I live in a magnificent sixteenth century cottage in a delightful village, my wife has an art gallery locally, I have a business here - and all in all it's a good life. Over here you can live well without being Onassis."

Do not be lulled into thinking, however, that the entente has always been cordiale in Saint Ceneri le Gerei. For although Tatham is anxious to play down all expressions of anti-English sentiment, his political opponents have on occasions had the knives out for the "Rosbif", which is the Gallic equivalent of what frogs are to the French. Especially come election time when Tatham's foes are reminded, with regular monotony, that 'twas the invading English hordes who burnt down the village's castle back in 1434. But the proof of the ballot box is in the counting, as they say - and any anti-English sentiment was clearly disregarded by the Girois (as the villagers refer to themselves) - re-electing Monsieur Tatham to office with a massive 70% vote of confidence. Maybe that was the Girois' way of saying thank you to their English Mayor - for the word 'merci' is not something which comes easily to the lips of his constituents.

"The French are great grumblers", he admits, "and that is something that can get you down. Nor am I under any illusions that when my term of office comes to an end the locals are more likely to remember me for the things I have done badly or the things I have done wrong."

He surely can't be making a complete hash of Mayoral matters though, on the grounds that he was awarded the prestigious Marianne d'Or by the French government which, in its citation, branded him as 'a truly European Mayor'. With a modest allowance of £65 per week, Tatham is clearly not in it for the money. Which prompts one to ask, of course, why he put himself up as a candidate for a second term.

"I have to admit that it gives me great pleasure to be referred to as Monsieur le Maire. People talk to you as they would talk to a priest. They confide in you. They trust you. If there is a problem, people come to see me. The French have a basic respect for the Mayor - and that is something I enjoy. The office holds a certain aura - and that gives me a good feeling inside. Its about the only good feeling you get mind you. Which is just as well because for a lot of the rest of the time you really are on to a good hiding for nothing."

Small village it might be. But that has not prevented Ken Tatham from rubbing shoulders with celebs and politicos alike. He has met President Chirac on more than one occasion - and has bumped into the likes of former Prime Minister Raymond Barre and the actor Gerard Depardieu when at the Elysee Palace. He also has the opportunity of meeting not just fellow Mayors but top government officials - right up to Ministerial level. And then, after the glitz and glamour, its back to the grind - with paperwork to attend to, holes in the roads to be fixed, councillors to liaise with over building projects - and so on.

"It's a kind of vocation I guess", Ken Tatham muses, "but I love what I do and I wouldn't have it any other way."

And what about Old Blighty? Does he not yearn for a return to the Motherland? Apparently not - although he would happily import a nice Yorkshire pub into his village. Not to mention Elland Road - the Leeds United football ground - the team he has loyally supported since a young lad. "I do miss the socialising which takes place in an English pub. You would never speak to a stranger in a French bistro as you would do to someone at the bar of a pub in England. And a decent cup of tea and an endless supply of Marmite - but that's about it! In fact I haven't been back for quite a while."

In fact Ken's last visit to the UK was for a reunion of Old Reptonians, those erstwhile Derbyshire public schoolboys who, for the most part, had gone on to do very nicely, thank you.

"I dare say that if I had gone to Manchester University I would have become a Solicitor or something like that. When I went back to Repton for the reunion certainly that's what most of my classmates had gone on to achieve. There they were mostly professional people - an assortment of stockbrokers, bankers, lawyers and accountants. I'll tell you one thing though - they all came over to me, each one in turn, and wanted to hear all about what it's like to be the only English Mayor in the whole of France. So I can put my hand on my heart and say that I have not the slightest regret."

It's a kind of vocation I guess, but I love what I do and I wouldn't have it any other way

"Anyway, I'd best be heading off now", Ken Tatham says to me, rising from his chair, that time-honoured signal that your time is up. "I have that meeting to attend to." Whereupon Monsieur le Maire leaves the room - but only to settle down in another part of the house.

Call me nosy if you will, but I couldn't help myself. I had a peak through the door to see precisely what was going on. In fact what was going on was the television. And there he was - Monsieur le Maire settling down comfortably in his front lounge to watch Leeds United give Chelsea a good thrashing at his beloved Elland Road.

It might not be part of the local lingo in Normandy. But it most certainly is in Yorkshire. That 'there's nowt so strange as folk'!

Jeremy Josephs is an English freelance journalist who lives in Montpellier in the South of France, when he's not busy writing he also runs a B&B

© Jeremy Josephs all rights reserved.

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