Soon after I signed on the dotted line and the House With No Name officially became mine (help!), I wrote my first and only fan letter. Well, actually it was an email, but it was to a journalist called Michael Wright.
I’ve been reading Michael’s Saturday column in the Daily Telegraph for eight years now and I’m still as gripped as ever by his tales of leaving his safe South London life for a dilapidated French farm with only a cat, a piano and a vintage aeroplane for company. In the intervening years he’s married the lovely Alice, a childhood friend and former intensive care nurse, and they now have two little girls.
Actually, my fan letter turned into a rambling missive about how Michael’s hilarious accounts of moving to the Limousin had steadied my nerve about buying my tumbledown wreck with a dodgy roof and years of building work ahead of me.
But within hours an encouraging email from Michael pinged into my inbox, cheering me up no end with its positive talk. “The secret with your farmhouse is, I think, to make friends with some of the local French and to ask around about a good builder who is sérieux,” he wrote. “Make friends with this man, and make him feel that he wants to help you. Ask him to recommend people too, to do the things that he won’t touch. One day it will be, I feel sure, a wonderful house again.”
Wise words, so when I spotted that Michael was speaking at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival I booked a ticket straight away. He was teamed with actress Carol Drinkwater, who played Helen Herriot in the BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small and has written a clutch of bestsellers about her olive farm in Provence. The pair hadn’t met before the event but they made a great duo. Carol told how she and her now-husband, TV producer Michel, found the olive farm (and fell in love with it and each other at the same time), while Michael recalled how moving to France on his own helped him “to become the kind of man I always hoped to be when I was a child.”
Along the way the two writers reminisced about their early years in France. Even though Carol is married to a Frenchman, she perfected her French by doing a course at Nice University. Michael, however, took a slightly different approach. As well as chatting to neighbours and poring over Balzac and Baudelaire, he found that reading photo love stories magazines helped him learn colloquial French. He also joined the local tennis club, where the art of losing with aplomb, he said, was his “contribution to international relations.”
The massive marquee was packed to the gunnels for the event and we were so entranced by the pair’s tales that afterwards scores of us queued up to buy signed copies of their new books – Michael’s Je t’aime à la Folie and Carol’s Return to the Olive Farm. I snapped up both but didn’t look at what Michael had written inside my book till I got home. “To Emma,” he’d scrawled. “Cheering you on in your dream!”