My appearance at last weekend’s Caen Book Fair (Salon du Livre Caen) in Normandy, northern France was, as most of my European trips seem to be, an uplifting and enlightening experience.
Invited by Jean-Marie Le Callonec, owner of the bande desinée bookshop La Cour des Miracles and subsidised by the Caen city council, I did my duty and signed and sketched for an almost unending line of punters at the weekend event. As legend suggests, the French comic-reading public includes not only the typical black tee-shirted unwashed fanboy, but also a good proportion of children and entirely ‘normal’-looking people of all ages. The apparent casualness at which a middle aged lady was happy to pay up fifty euros for a set of the three Strangehaven albums by an English ‘auteur’ that she had never heard of was refreshing, to say the least.
Like Angouleme, Le Salon du Livre Caen was held in a number of marquees, but here in Caen, these were placed within the remains of the castle walls which also housed a permanent art gallery (currently exhibiting a show by Alberto Giacometti) and sculpture garden, where nine sizeable representations of mythological creatures sculpted in aluminium by Huang Yong Ping stood atop tall wooden poles.
Around a quarter of the exhibition space in the main marquee consisted of incredibly talented bande desinée auteurs, among them Baru (Road to America), Edmond Baudoin, Didier Cassegrain, Tierry Gioux, Christophe Quet and Jerome Lereculey. Also Fred Duval, who is currently writing six or seven concurrent album series (he can’t actually remember how many), which is an impressive workload.
Caen, so the locals were fond of telling me, is the resting place of William the Conqueror (or according to Wikipedia, just his left femur following some revolutionary troubles); and the town was almost completely destroyed in battles during the Second World War. One of the few surviving streets is Rue Froide, home to no less than four bande desinée bookshops, including the 16th Century building that houses La Cour des Miracles. In fact, Caen is just crammed with bookshops in general, 23 in total, most of which are so concentrated in one small area of the town that you could cover them with a blanket.
My hosts Jean-Marie, his wife Sophie and their staff and helpers Nicolas, Lucie, Stuart, Stephane and Olivier kept me plied with drinks and snacks all weekend, and all of whom who could speak English to a vastly superior standard than my French. Thanks guys, you really made my weekend! Especially when rescuing me from the Mayor’s reception at the Town Hall and taking me to a rather extraordinary clubhouse, walls lined with surrealistic art and sculptures in glass and metal, with a rockin’ French DJ, crazy dancing and a selection of buffet food and alcohol. A refreshing contrast to the Bristol Expo’s Saturday night booze-up in the Ramada bar.
I couldn’t help smiling to myself at the accuracy of the French stereotype, drinking red wine, smoking, their love of British music, coolness and political awareness. The Fair was disrupted for an hour or so due to parents protesting against a cut in teacher numbers by singing and chanting. The attendees took it all in their stride. Nicolas shrugged, “We are French. We are revolutionaries.”
I experienced another insight into the French BD reader’s psyche en route to Paris on the home leg of my journey. A well-dressed young woman boarded the train, sat down near me, took a album from her bag and proceeded to read the whole book, without any apparent embarrassment; something I have never seen in the UK.
I must not forget to thank Sophie Bentot for seamlessly taking care of my travel arrangements and accommodation. Of course, travelling to events such as these have their drawbacks. Apart from being away from my girlfriend and dogs, I had to suffer screaming kids on Eurostar, trudging across the Paris metro, distinctly average hotels and unfamiliar and occasionally unpalatable food. But on balance, it was hugely enjoyable, highly successful and extremely memorable trip, and I have promised (without a hint of irony) that I will return when Strangehaven volume four is published.
[PHOTOS TO COME]