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Lost in France by Nicholas Shakespeare

One March day in 1937, “feeling very ill and alone in the world”, my aunt Priscilla caught the Paris train from London’s Victoria Station with £5 in her pocket. She was 20, unmarried and pregnant, and had decided to go to France, where she had grown up, to have an abortion.

In 1937, a first class train and boat ticket to the Continent cost £5.15. The luxuriously appointed Train Bleu mocked her with its advertisement: “Sleep your way from the City’s fogs to the Riviera sunshine.” She tried to sleep, but could not.

The train pulled into Newhaven when she noticed a tall man looking at her. His face was lined and he must have been about forty. Speaking in French, he introduced himself. Her heart sank: she disliked intensely talking to people on trains, a trait she inherited from her father, a broadcaster and prolific author called S.P.B. Mais.

S.P.B. Mais was my grandfather. He also happened to be the first writer I ever knew.

“In the train and across the Channel,” he observed in I return to Switzerland, “the Englishman regards his fellow traveler as Cain regarded Abel, and only looks for a chance to eliminate him.” Priscilla wondered how anyone could find her attractive in her present state, but was beyond caring.

Once on a blacked-out train during wartime, while on his way to record a talk to British troops stationed in France, S.P.B Mais reflected on the anomalies of his race. “It is only when notices are put up in every railway carriage warning us not to talk to strangers that we feel the strongest temptation to talk.” Priscilla and the Frenchman were soon swept up in a conversation that lasted to Paris and beyond. “For train travel,” as Ludovic Kennedy put it in his fine anthology of railway journeys, “being constricted both in time and space, magnifies character, intensifies relationships, unites the disparate. Ordinary people become extra-ordinary, larger than life; and in the knowledge that they will not meet again, expansive, confiding, intimate. Let us talk now, you and I: later will be too late.”

By the time they reached the Gard Du Nord, the tall French stranger – Vicomte Robert Doynel de la Sausserie – had fallen in love. He married Priscilla the following December. Shortly afterwards, the Germans invaded France, and for the next four and a half years, my aunt, the young and beautiful Vicomtesse, disappeared from sight.

Seventy years on, I board a Eurostar carriage at St Pancras with the aim of finding out, if I can, what on earth happened to her. I have little to go on – Priscilla was adamantine in her refusal to talk about this period of her life; but by visiting places mentioned in her letters I hope to shade in my aunt’s story during the Occupation. I travel mindful of Paul Theroux’s mantra: “Almost anything is possible in a train.”

I last took the train to Paris a decade ago and cannot reconcile the two experiences. The service has improved beyond recognition. Gleaming waiting rooms; a minimum of bureaucracy and queues; and efficient. The young woman beside me booked her ticket a mere couple of hours earlier. She is a reminder that walking down a train corridor is still an adventure. A student at the Royal College of Music, Evelyne Berezovky received an urgent summons from her father, the Russian concert pianist Boris, who wanted her to page-turn for him. She will appear on stage this evening at the Salle Pleyel, where Chopin performed, in the clothes she is wearing.

“Is Evelyne a Russian name?” I ask as she vets her face in a small mirror.

“I was named after Evelyn Waugh.”

When I reveal that I made a documentary on Waugh that was broadcast shortly before she born – and which her father might well have watched – she invites me to the concert. But I am leaving next morning for Caen.

According to the French writer Jean D’Ormesson, the best way to describe the two years that separate the moment from Priscilla’s arrival in Paris to the September day when France declared war on Germany is to say that it was like a period of time outside time. “Other years led somewhere, formed part of a continuous pattern, and you could make plans in them. But 1938 and 1939 were just an interval, a blind alley.” They were years, D’Ormesson wrote, out of the real sequence of history. “They didn’t count. They were a nightmare, a reprieve, an imaginary stretch of time, an error, an exception, a night in which we were like condemned men dreading the dawn.”

Priscilla and Robert were married in Paris on 16 December, 1938. I have a photograph of them standing outside the church of St Honoré D’Eylau in Place Victor Hugo. Her father has refused to come over to join the cortege. (When he sees the photograph, he remarks that she looks fifteen years old). The other faces belong to her husband’s aristocratic family, who own a chateau in Normandy where my aunt and Robert spend their weekends and holidays; leaving from the Gare St Lazare, and following the same route as the train which would carry her English friends to safety in June 1940. It’s one of a number of mysteries, why Priscilla should choose to remain in France after Germany invaded. Her refusal to flee is no less mysterious, in its way, than the circumstances of her marriage. Perhaps she accepted as a fait accompli that German troops would soon be overrunning the English countryside. Another foreigner who stayed in France was Arthur Koestler, for whom defeat this time seemed as final as the closure, on 16 June 1940, of the British Railways office at 12 Boulevard de la Madeleine. “We did not know that England would carry on the fight alone; nothing in her conduct during the last pre-war decade, nor in the first nine months of the actual war, led one to suppose it.”

At the Gare St Lazare, I settle into my velvet seat and stare out of the window as the long-limbed train eases past the platform’s black metal pillars. S.P.B. Mais championed the idea of awarding a prize for the most colourful flower-bed at railway stations. The only vegetation I see growing here are green weeds between a line of tracks.

Aside from your fellow passengers, one of the blissful things about train travel is the counterpoint between life within the train and life without, touched on in William Stafford’s poem “Vacation”:

There is dust on everything in Nevada.

I pour the cream.

Made redundant by the Daily Telegraph, where he had worked as a leader-writer, Priscilla’s father would finance his summer holidays by providing advertising copy for railway companies. In the 1930’s, he helped to promote the romance of travelling by train with a series of brochures commissioned by the Southern Railway (Let’s Get out of here), the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (Royal Scot and her 49 sister engines) and the Great Western Railway. In 1926, he had met a servant girl in the Sussex town of Plaistow who at 16 never seen or heard a train. Now, for a fee of 15 guineas per thousand words, he would exuberantly describe the pleasure to be derived from steaming through a “western land of Celtic mysticism” while at the same time tucking into an excellent luncheon ordered from the printed menu. Transported by engines bearing resonant names like Tintagel and Trelawney (a rival railway company christened its trains Merlin, Lyonesse and Iseult), S.P.B. Mais took fierce pride in his reputation as “the Ambassador for the English Countryside”, and to the end of his days remained a passionate and unrepentant Englishman. “I am like a fox-terrier attached, and deeply attached, to an old master from whose side I have never before strayed. Just round the garden of England – and what a lovely garden it is – has been good enough for me.” He titled one of his 200 or so books See England First; in another book, “train” was misprinted as “tram”, causing confusion to a number of travellers plotting a holiday in Scotland. He dispensed this advice to the train-traveller: “To double the joys of travel write them down at once and let not the sun go down upon your virgin tablets. Your notes need not be longer than those included in that admirable folder produced by the London and North Eastern Railway called ‘On Either Side,’ which is just as fascinating as any novel. It shows you just the points of interest that lie on either side of the carriage window as you travel from King’s Cross to Edinburgh and Inverness… It isn’t only small boys who wander where all the interesting branch lines go, what spire this is and who lives in yonder mansion.”

S.P.B. Mais lived for his happiest years on the south coast directly opposite France, in the ship-building village which supplied 26 vessels for the siege of Calais and from which Charles II escaped to Fécamp. Even so, he was strangely proud of his inability to master a word of French. His feelings towards France, and in particular that part of north-west France associated with his French son-in-law, may help to explain why he did not attend his eldest daughter’s wedding. In 1930, he had joined a conducted tour from Cherbourg through Normandy and Brittany. The contrast between the sweet-smelling clean English villages and the dirty, unkempt, ill-smelling French ones was so great that he nearly cancelled his trip after the first day. He had never slept before in such a dirty hotel. The charabanc in which he drove to Bayeux and Caen and thence to St Malo was uncomfortable and falling to pieces. The roads were straight and monotonous, the countryside dull, and the villages all exactly like one another, with long streets of dead grey houses innocent of paint. “The country people, all dressed in black, looked as unhappy as the houses they lived in.”

This was the self-same region in which his eldest daughter had settled, and where she was stranded when German tanks rolled into Paris, “steel pachyderms let loose from the zoos of hell,” in the words of one who witnessed the sudden, devastating invasion.

It is true that the two-hour journey to Caen takes me through a flat and unremarkable landscape. I look out at the furrowed fields of late September and hedgerows known as bocages: uneven mounds of greenery in which trees, bushes, brambles all patchily intertwine – like Priscilla’s life.

My first stop: the archives at Caen, where ardent genealogists have untangled the lineage of Robert’s family back to 1066. I search for Priscilla’s name in vain, eventually finding this: “Robert/married an Englishwoman (no children)/divorced.” It’s as though a bocage has grown over her name.

Bombed to flatness, the gaiety of Caen is swiftly exhausted. Even so, I am detained there – a rail strike prevents my moving on, called in protest at President Sarkozy’s plan to raise the retirement age. Intriguingly, on the unique occasion that S.P.B. Mais travelled through France to write a book, The Riviera – New Look and Old (1949), he, too, found himself stuck. “As all the restaurant car and wagons lits staff in France are on strike… there were no couchettes, and no meals for twenty hours.”

At the sight of those empty and redundant carriages, I find myself thinking of the humiliating Armistice inflicted on the French.

No train journey through France can be undertaken without the memory of Marshal Foch’s static railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne. In June 1940, the carriage was towed from a museum in the Invalides to the siding where originally it stood, in order for Hitler to revenge himself on the Peace of Versailles – likewise signed in this, Foch’s mobile office. Outside, draped over a commemorative granite block, a great swastika flag obscured the inscription: Here on 11th November 1918 succumbed the criminal pride of the German people. Feldmarshal Keitel explained. “The historic forest of Compiègne has been chosen in order to efface once and for all by an act of reparative justice a memory resented by the German people as the greatest shame of all time.” Across the table, Hitler and Goering uttered not a word; no concession was to be made to the defeated French before they had supplied their signatures. Afterwards, Hitler had the carriage transported to Germany and destroyed.

The destruction of Compagnie Internationale des Wagon-Lits dining car No 2419 was rarely the fate of railway carriages in England, where for as little as £15 you could buy an obsolete Victorian carriage from the Great Western Railway and have it delivered to your own site. On his journeys through southern England, S.P.B. Mais frequently complained how, atop every hill with a view, his eyes would settle on the inevitable railway carriage converted to a tea-room, its verandah enclosed with coloured glass, and a notice proclaiming it to be the Lucky Dip café. Sybille Bedford, a writer who grew up in France and who came to England in 1935, once lived on the South Coast “in one of those converted old railway carriages by a beach,” where, in an upper bunk by a one-candle light, she used to read herself to sleep.

Grounded in Caen by industrial action, I make a detour to the coastal resort of Houlgate, one of Priscilla’s favourite destinations. It lies 45 minutes away and is reached by a bus that leaves from beside the train station.

On the beach, a solitary pillar commemorates a conquest more ancient than the upstart German one: the departure of Duke William of Normandy for England. The archives revealed that among William’s closest companions on board was Robert Doynel’s ancestor. An old retainer will later recall for me how Robert, during the Occupation, clung to this belief, repeatedly uttered: “William of Normandy left with his fleet from Normandy. A fleet will return from England to liberate Normandy.”

Nothing is stiller than a French beach town in late September. Houlgate’s ornately tiled villas are shuttered and the only figures are cockle-pickers stooped over the tide-pools. But along this coastline the Allies landed, as Max Hastings next day reminds me.

I chance upon my former editor seated alone at the Auberge Normande in Carentan, tucking into a plate of lobster tails and ordering another glass of chilled white wine. I have interrupted him rereading Trollope’s autobiography on an i-pad. He caught the ferry over this morning and has come to Carentan to embrace his French chef, to ensure that he returns next year to cater for a weekend in Hungerford (“He said the least awful place to have lunch was here”); and at 4pm is leading a group of US generals on a tour of Omaha Beach. Alas, even had he elected to invite me, I cannot join him for dessert because I have organised to visit the chateau where Priscilla spent much of her short married life. As well as for Max’s chef, Carentan was my aunt’s local railway station.

The person driving me to the chateau, ten kilometres away, is, like Max, an expert on the Normandy landings. A former shipping agent, Michael Yannaghas retired to the nearby provincial capital of Saint-Lo, christened by Samuel Beckett, after the RAF destroyed it, as “the capital of ruins”. A base for German submarines, Saint-Lo was bombed eight times between June 6 and 22, 1944. In rural Normandy they still talk of that summer as “the time of bombardments”. Nine out of ten houses were flattened, says Michael, who lives, he tells me, “in the middle of a battlefield”. He has dug up in his garden: a grenade, a fighting dagger, an entrenching tool – “and thousands of bits of shrapnel, oh yes.” But he comes from a family accustomed to digging up things in fields. The Venus de Milo was unearthed in his great-great uncle’s field on the isle of Milos. “He sold it to the French consul who gave it to Louis XVIII” ­– the armless effigy being ferried back to France by a sailor from Normandy.

Priscilla’s chateau at Boisgrimot, outside the hamlet of Sainteny, was the scene of the fiercest fighting in Normandy and a symbol of the difficulty encountered in bocage country. (“The casualty figures were extraordinary,” reads a history of D-Day, calculating the attrition at Sainteny: 7,000 GIs in five kilometres). Michael points out mounds of earth used since time immemorial to partition off land. “Everyone thought ‘nice little hedges in Bodmin’ ­– where they had all trained. In the month of June the foliage is thickest. Effectively you can’t see anything. A US colonel said the bocage was far worse than anything he had found in the Guadalcanal.” The Germans fought back hard. The 80,000 dead they left behind are buried in six military cemeteries in Normandy, with fresh bodies still being unearthed as recently as 2003.

Priscilla’s chateau stands milk-white and vacant at the end of a long gravel drive. Destroyed by bombs in July 1944, and sold with panic-stricken haste by the Doynels, it has recently endured a sterile renovation. Visible through a window among builder’s ladders and paint tins is the sole remaining family relic: a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace engraved with three ducks – the Doynel crest.

We call on the son of the former butler. At mention of her name, 80-year-old Joseph Carer claps his head: “Priscilla Mais!” His face reddening, he takes off his spectacles. His father used to collect her by horse and carriage from Carentan railway station… He remembers how beautiful she was, her blonde hair, her green eyes, her fur coat. His eyes are watering.

So what went wrong? Why, immediately after the Liberation, did she divorce Robert and return to England? I go back to Paris and take a train to a town near the Swiss border to find out.

The second author I ever met was the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges who spent part of his youth in Switzerland, where he is buried – and where, as a teenager, he tasted the first of several catastrophic love affairs. Tolstoy is not the only writer for whom the end of an affair is connected with a train. In May 1952, heartbroken after his rejection by yet another woman, Borges walked on his own through Buenos Aires. He stood on a bridge over the railway tracks outside Constitution station, amid the roar of trains as they departed for the south, the pampas, and experienced a sort of ecstasy. At the sight of those trains – “weaving labyrinths of iron” – Borges had a revelation that revealed to him the great diversity of the world, and at the same time he heard an infinite voice rising from “the invisible horizon”. It was as if, he wrote, he was attending the Day of Judgment.

On the platform at the Gare du Lyon, I am conscious of the TGV’s electrical hum and the grating of my suitcase rollers. Priscilla, clutching her rapidly packed valise, would have heard different noises: dog barks and the shouts of German soldiers.

Early on 5 December, 1940, during the coldest winter in memory, French policemen rounded up all women with British papers. The procedure did not vary. A bang on the door in the freezing darkness, often in the presence of a Gestapo officer; half an hour to pack – and no whisper of where they were going. The arrest was conducted in the black-out, without warning and with military efficiency. Since October, the Germans had required British women still at large in France to sign daily at the local Commissariat; on 16 October, a new decree warned that anyone sheltering a British subject must declare their presence, or be shot.

“Urban railways stations, “wrote Sybille Bedford, who had watched wounded German soldiers helped into trains in 1915, “for those not inured by daily use, are places of angst and trauma.” Among those civilians crammed shivering into an unheated train that day was my aunt. Her companions formed a diverse group, from stable boys’ wives to Indian royalty. Some didn’t speak English, but had married an Englishman. Others had been trapped in France, on holiday when the Germans invaded. They numbered governesses, nurses, couturiers, dancers ­like Margaret Kelly (founder of the Blue Belle Girls), plus 500 nuns from 90 Orders. Most were rounded up in Paris and spent the day waiting at the Gar de L’Est. The door handles were removed and rumours spread that their destination was a concentration camp in Frankfurt.

By chance, I am in Paris on the winter day when the chief executive of the French national railway delivers this public apology: “In the name of the SNCF, I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported, and before the suffering that still lives.” He makes his landmark contrition in the suburb of Bobigny, from where 20,000 Jews were shipped to Nazi camps. France was the first European country to give full right to the Jews. And yet between 1941 and 1944, the SNCF was to carry a total of 76,000 European Jews in 76 cattle cars, to the French-German border, and thence to Auchwitz.

Consequently, the British women were relieved when their train came to a halt two days later in Besançon, in the Daubs. German soldiers marched them through the snow to a barracks where they lived for five months. What happened to them there is a little known story, even in Besançon.

At the Hotel de Paris in the old town centre, a businesswoman is seething to change her room. She has a double bed and a shower, but no bath – as specifically she had booked.

The receptionist shakes her head. There are no rooms left.

“My colleague – does she have a double?”

The receptionist nods.

“And bath?”


The woman storms off, and I tell the receptionist that my aunt was three months in Besançon without a bath.

The Caserne Vauban has been closed since 2006, but the Brigadier in command of the 19th Regiment – which is stationed in Besançon and formerly occupied these barracks – unlocks the gates for me. I spend an afternoon wandering through the long empty corridors and courtyards, trying to envisage the place in 1940.

The secrecy surrounding the initial round-up was well-kept, even from the Germans who ran the barracks. They were unprepared utterly for the arrival of an estimated 3,900 English women (no exact record exists of the number), some with screaming babies, some old and ill, all hungry and anxious and cold. The chaos and the filth were indescribable. The barracks until very recently had housed 20,000 French POWS captured in the Maginot Line, who had been sent to Germany, leaving their mess behind. Priscilla was marshalled into a third-floor room in Batiment C with 48 fellow British passport-holders. Inside were old straw mattresses in all stages of decay on the damp floor, old shoes, helmets, and urine and excrement everywhere.

Pretty much all agreed with Elizabeth Hales, a 63-year old New Zealand artist: “The worst thing in the camp is the sanitary arrangement” – 20 privies on the ground floor for 3,900 women. These swiftly blocked and were closed off, forcing queues to form in the snow outside for the “tinettes”. My aunt wrote of these hazardous long sheds, each with a deep trench and planks across the holes on which to perch: “Most of the older people couldn’t cope with the straddling so they performed on the side and everything got frozen up and one sometimes slipped and fell in.” A row of white crosses in the local cemetery marks the graves of the elderly who, in temperatures below zero, failed to scramble back out. The excrement overflowed onto the ground and it was impossible for Priscilla to keep her clothes clean.

A bugle call woke her at dawn. She had to climb down and up 100 concrete steps to fetch water, coal, and food. Of the liquid that passed as coffee, another inmate Maybel Bayliss wrote in an unpublished memoir: “We drank it until one day we found a mass of tousled hair at the bottom of the can. Rats were frequent, some seemed as large as rabbits. These awful creatures would tear the sacks of dried vegetables before our very eyes.” Pricilla’s gums turned black from the diet. Surviving on soup that was little more than warm water with bits of grass floating in it, she invited her room-mates to fictitious banquets.

At Le Coucou restaurant in rue Luc Breton, the patron’s eyes widen when he learns of Besançon’s English internees. “No one ever told me – and I arrived here in 1960.” In 1972, as a 19-year old parachutist, Patrick Langlade spent four weeks’ military service at the Caserne Vauban. “Perhaps I slept in her bed!” But he doesn’t altogether believe what I say. I’ve almost finished eating when there’s an excited shout. “Come over here!” He has Googled it. “Look! Margaret Kelly. She was at Besançon. The Blue Belle girls were prisoners!”

Priscilla escaped after three months, this time by pretending she was pregnant. (In March 1941, mothers with children under 16 were released). Either believing that Robert had not lifted a finger to help, or weary of a stifling existence, she left her husband and fell in and out of love, including with a Frenchman called Eugene who owned a factory in Annemasse making nylon stockings.

Annemasse is reached by train via Lyon, from where I take a two-hour bus journey. It lies tantalisingly close to the Swiss border. By day, you have a splendid view of Mont Blanc tossing off its cloud wrap, and, closer to town, Mount Salève where the teenage Borges went rockclimbing with friends; at night, you look down on the clear lights of Geneva and the old taverns where Borges used to get drunk. It’s a town of pharmaceuticals and chocolate-makers and women with absurdly small dogs. Quite why Priscilla should have sought a fleeting happiness here under another name is no less mystifying than her failure to escape into Switzerland. Was there nothing for her in England? Did she feel Germany’s victory was so assured? Was she so in love with Eugene that she felt her future was in France? Or did she simply submit like a roulette ball, to roll wherever she was tossed.

Like my aunt, the writer Sybille Bedford had spent her formative years in France. Her father initiated nightly sessions of roulette, transforming their house into a gambling club. She remembered the family “dicing with thoughts of ruin” while her father kept up a commentary about young men he’d seen lose all and shoot themselves at dawn in Monte Carlo. The image never abandoned her. “The relation of the single man or woman to history,” believed Bedford, “is that of victim or of escapee – and in that huge context which turn of the roulette-wheel determines the overlapping elements of circumstances, heredity and chance?”

There was a small brown piece of paper in my aunt’s papers that is dated from this period. Typed on it, in French, an astrological portrait of her character carries the following warning. “Gambling: play as little as possible because you will have bad luck. On the other hand, you will have better luck in love.” My aunt has underlined the last sentence in pencil, as well as the prediction: “In your life you will experience difficult passages, but a moment will come when you will know perfect happiness.”

In Annemasse, I visit the Casino and watch a young woman lean her haughty body over the baize and smother it with blue chips. There’s no alteration in her expression, whether she wins, whether she loses. The croupier flicks a white ball. I’m not a gambler, but in memory of my aunt, who liked a flutter, I place a single chip. The ball spins back around the lacquered rim, before rattling into slot 25. I’ve won two euros, not quite enough to buy a bottle of mineral water. “You always win in Annemasse,” smiles the woman next to me.

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