Memoirs (2) The “Mas Michel” and Noel Guckian

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Noel Guckian, owner of the Mas Michel (which he had bought from Lee Durrell) died in 2020. A former British ambassador to Oman (2005-2011), Dr Noel Guckian CVO OBE, in retirement, founded the consulting firm of NjG International, and actively pursued olive production and viniculture at the Mas Michel. We publish here an account of David Green’s meeting with Noel Guckian and friends at the Mas Michel.

Finding Mas Michel: memories of Noel Guckian and the Durrell’s peasant cottage near Nimes, 2015

On a warm afternoon with storm clouds brewing black over the clay coloured hills, Denise and I and our friends Catherine and Bienvenido struck out over the back roads from Avignon to Nimes, back to our Mazet Dodo, with its olive trees and gunfire on the Garrigue, expecting that upon arrival, the day would be over and we could relax on the terrace before an early night. But it was not to be. 

Pulling up at Mazet Dodo late in the afternoon, we heard voices from the driveway of the Mas Michel where Lawrence and then Gerald Durrell had once lived. Catherine said, “Quick David, go talk to them!”

Well, I had been sipping Chateau San Pellegrino rosé (pilfered wine in a mineral water bottle) on the dusty drive over from Avignon so, thus emboldened, I ran over the Chemin des Calvas and up the driveway where a group of posh sounding Englishmen were manoeuvring into a parking position a large trailer from which an old Austin Healey had just been unloaded. In mint condition, the owners were about to embark on a rally the length of Italy from Sicily. “Hello, Monsieur! Je suis un aficionado de Lawrence Durrell,” I called up the driveway to an eccentric looking man of about 60 who had the appearance of propriety, possibly the diplomat we had been told about, “I’m David Green from Australia. I’m doing a Lawrence Durrell tour of Provence. I believe he used to live here?”

The man turned away from the parking operation, focused his gaze on this antipodean invasion and said, “Do you know you the are first Durrell person ever to have come here?…er…I suppose you had better come in and have a drink.” I’d expected an Oxford-intoned “bugger off!” So, what could I say but “Sure, OK with me.” The Austin Healey purred into life and rolled down the driveway and as English friends departed, Denise, followed by Catherine and then Bienvenido began a battalion assault on the mas. We were all cordially invited to drinks on the terrace by Noel, who appeared to have had a few already, and his friend John, a fairly fit looking man and possibly Noel’s minder.  The fortress had been breached, achieved by a combination of boldness, hospitality and alcohol. What a mix. For me, to stand on that terrace, see that house and that view, was intoxicating and not easy to describe but the Paris Review got it pretty right:

It is a peasant cottage with four rooms to which he has added a bathroom and a lavatory….the sitting room, where the interview was held, has a large fireplace and a French Window leading onto a terrace constructed by Durrell himself. From the terrace one has a view of the small valley at the end of which he lives. It is a bare, rocky district, full of twisted olive trees destroyed in a blight a few years back.

–       Gene Andrewski and Julian Mitchell, the Paris Review, 23/4/1959

The wine and talk flowed spontaneously, tours of the house and garden followed including the old shepherd’s hut where Larry used to burn rubbish and ‘the Garden Louisa’ named after Gerald and Larry’s mother. The original Mazet bought by Larry and Claude in 1957 remains intact but has been added to, first by Lawrence and later by his brother who created a new wing, and bunged in a 12 metre swimming pool. Noel has made some alterations of his own to accommodate his children and to bring in some modern amenities.. He has had the place for about 17 years after purchasing it, in three stages from Lee Durrell (Gerald’s widow). In 1997 Noel first bought the Mazet and 8000 square feet, then added the 1000 square foot ‘Forest Louisa’. Finally, in March 1998, Noel acquired the rest of the land on the East side of the Chemin des Calvas. The Durrell land on the west side has gone to others, including Beatrice of the Mazet Dodo. With the acquisition came most of the original furnishings. The big fireplace still works. Gerry’s favourite chair is there and so is an old cistern in which they used to ‘swim’. Noel conducted a complete tour of the property and as we walked, he spoke of future plans that came from a man with seemingly deep pockets and also from a man who clearly loved the place and had a great respect for the former owners. Of the purchase, he said, “Lee was marvellous. An American but an English rose nonetheless.”

Back on the porch a crisis had emerged. Noel said, “I’ve only got one more bottle of wine!” Agape, we all looked at each other. Bienvenido came to the rescue with another bottle of Chateau Pellegrino. Before long, this too had gone and, as tongues loosened and bonhomie increased, to my great delight, Noel invited us to dinner on the terrace.

“The problem is, it was just going to be John and me. There isn’t much, just some cannelloni and strawberries and cream.”

Noel looked a bit helpless, then Denise and Catherine offered to drive into Nimes to the marché of Mustafa known to Catherine as ‘Mustafa cash only’ for reinforcements.-        –      

To cut a long, vinuous story short, the evening evolved into a fiesta. Dinner, hastily prepared by John and Bienvenido, consisted of salad, vongole & pasta, olives, cannelloni, eggs with mayonnaise, salami and melon draped with Parma and, of course, baguettes, followed by the promised strawberries and cream – all served under lamplight on what was once Lawrence’s old timber table and washed down with fresh bottles of rosé. In between talk of the Durrells and other obscure subjects, Noel kept apologising for his lack of hospitality. Hardly his fault that on a quiet summers evening his peace had been shattered by three garrulous Australians and a guitar wielding Spaniard. John ribbed him gently as old friends do (and spoke knowledgeably about world affairs). There was laughter, discussions, toasts to the Durrells; for Noel is himself a Durrell brothers fan and has a fine collection of their books left to him when he bought the place. He is also concerned to maintain the property in the spirit of the Durrell family.

Then Bienvenido’s guitar came out. Flamenco and songs ‘des paysants’ began, dancing too and the wine continued to flow. Noel said he was delighted to meet such enthusiasts and offered us the use of the swimming pool for the rest of our stay (he being off to England in the morning). The night ended in great merriment, oaths of friendship and exchange of details – and if I look a little stunned in some of the photos it was not the wine, but the almost unbelievable experience of dining on Larry’s terrace adjacent to the stone wall one sees in the pictures and in a manner, as Noel said, of which Larry would have heartily approved. As Renata Vassiliou said to me in a 2009 letter: 

He used to start the white wine at 10 o’clock and then sat down to give a mini concert while I was fighting with his typewriter. His brother Gerry very much liked the Gigondas Cote du Rhone (15%) and so did I. I remember the ‘joyeuse ambience’ at the birthday of Lee Durrell in the Nimes Mazet one year when Gerry and Lee stayed for several months. Well, c’est le passé maintenant..

A ‘joyeuse ambience’ indeed a night never to be forgotten by those who remember it; I went to bed that night hoping that the spirits of Larry and Gerry were smiling down on us from somewhere amongst the stars. 

The next morning, the morning of our departure for Paris, I went swimming in the pool at the Mas Michel and, as I swam, I reflected on Larry’s love of swimming and my own; on Larry’s love of wine and my own – it is certainly an effective hangover cure though the Sydney surf works better that a 12 metre pool. Swimming past those rooms that Gerry used to carouse in, walking on the stone terraces and paths where Larry had entertained, where Paddy Fermor, Diana Gould, Alan Thomas and others had walked and talked and drank and laughed, seeing what they saw…it was a truly moving experience and a strange chemical reaction seemed to take place within. I could see Larry leaning on the stone wall above, smoking a cigarette, watching me. Then he was gone.

David Green 2015/2020.

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