Ken’s Norman conquest

Ken Tatham, Mayor of Saint Ceneri-le-Gerei, Normandy
Ken Tatham, Mayor of Saint Ceneri-le-Gerei, Normandy
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Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Wakefield could soon join Doncaster and have an elected mayor. In France a Yorkshireman has done the job for 17 years. John Woodcock meets Ken Tatham.

It’s hardly in the league of Agincourt or the Battle of Waterloo, but in a sublime corner of Normandy Ken Tatham is completing a unique contribution to Anglo-French history.

If the village of Saint Céneri-le-Gérei was sceptical about English rule after its sufferings during the Hundred Years War, the Yorkshireman has done much to change perceptions over nearly two decades.

The first British mayor in France can point to tangible municipal improvements since being voted into power after his French wife, Christiane, wearied over his carping at how things were done in his adopted home.

“If you can do better…” was her challenge, and by common consent he has. He’s twice been re-elected, suggesting that improved street lighting, sewers and car parking are preferable legacies of conquest to when the village’s castle was besieged for months and then demolished by 15,000 English invaders in 1434.

Tatham has opted for peaceful revolution in bringing about change, and is no radical from the Ken Livingstone mould. “Forget Red Ken,” he says. “People here call me French Ken. In my role I’m apolitical. My personal views used to be somewhat Thatcherite but now I’m probably more LibDem.”

His reputation is such that the Normandy Tourism Board included him on a promotional tour of Britons who are making a difference in the region – from those who provide accommodation in historic chateaux, to guides, an author, and a chap who’s established an eco-friendly golf course.

There are more than 22,500 full and part-time British residents in Lower Normandy alone according to one of their number, Alison Weatherhead, who works for the tourist board and is based in Evreux. She also has strong links with Yorkshire – her parents were born in Keighley and an uncle worked on the Yorkshire Post.

Tatham has lived in Saint Céneri-le-Gérei for 45 years and plans to retire in 2014 when he’ll be 68. It coincides with France’s decision to scrap some of its 36,782 elected mayors (a report concluded that the country was over-administered) just when England is encouraging them. In a referendum on May 3, voters in 10 English cities will decide if they should adopt the system, and a yes vote will mean mayoral elections in November.

Can the right elected individual can make a significant difference in challenging times? Here beside the river Sarthe, in the village named after a seventh-century Italian saint and officially listed as one of the most beautiful in France, the evidence is yes.

The warm stonework of Saint Céneri-le-Gérei could transfer easily to the dales of Yorkshire and the exent to which it is having to adapt to upheavals in rural life in the department of Orne strikes a familiar chord.

It once had 15 farms and now has three and its not agriculture which now drives the local economy but tourism.

Since the village shop closed the nearest source for bread, groceries and postal services is four kilometres away. There are grumbles among locals about rising prices. Several residents among the population of 140 commute to Paris and spend only weekends in the village, joined by thousands of visitors in summer.

Monsieur le Maire has plenty to keep him occupied. His legal powers are significant. He’s responsible for registering births, deaths and marriages. When the gendarmes are on his patch, technically he’s in charge of them. He’s also a social worker and sometimes chief mourner.

Mayors in France, he explained, provide a personal contact point for their citizens, especially now that many villages are losing their priests, schoolteachers and shopkeepers.

Ken Tatham handles planning matters and administers an annual budget of €100,000, provided jointly by the state and from local taxes. It pays for a village gardener and the mayor’s part-time secretary and also contributed to the cost of unsightly electricity and phone lines being laid underground.

Ken has used non-Gallic charm to persuade higher authorities to finance the village’s restored ancient church. He’s responsible for the upkeep of 12 kms of minor roads. Electors have called him for advice about all manner of personal problems – a lost dog, a sick wife. He resolved the delicate case of a family burial involving a brother and sister who hadn’t spoken for 65 years after a quarrel.

For doing all this Ken receives no salary, but does get expenses of around €500 a month. He’s also earned a Marianne d’Or, described as a kind of French municipal Oscar. He would like to have done more and four years ventured into bigger-league politics. But he only captured 20 per cent of the vote when he stood for a centre-right grouping in regional elections.

Over a lunch of Norman specialities including andouille (tripe sausage), cider and Calvados in L’Auberge des Peintres, his perfect French suggested a man far removed from his roots in Leeds.

In the aftermath of the Second World War Ken’s father was killed when his Wellington bomber crashed during a training flight shortly before his son was born in Roundhay. He grew up in Whitkirk and saw John Charles playing for Leeds United, the team he still supports. Ken’s grandfather was Leeds City Treasurer and his grandmother worked for the Coal Board.

Despite retaining his British citzenship he says he couldn’t go back. “Too many cars and traffic jams. Britain’s a small, overcrowded country and some of the changes there shock me. I’m told that fish and chip shops and pubs are fast disappearing. And your property prices…

“Things are changing here too, especially in the countryside, but one of the great things about France is its size and the sense of space. Having a bit of land with your home is not the luxury it is in England.

“As for politics, I think the principle of elected mayors is a good one. There’s greater de-centralisation here, and I’m all for encouraging that. Communities like ours have a lot more power than, say, a parish council in Yorkshire. We really can look after things locally.

“In addition a mayor has more status in France. Everyone knows you, and being the first Briton to do the job has given me a wider profile. It’s been useful in obtaining grants and assistance for local initiatives.”

Ken has also been a restaurateur, worked in the fashion business, and has a company called Take French Leave which advises those thinking of relocating to France.

It’s worked out perfectly in Saint Céneri-le-Gérei for Cephas Howard and his wife Jennifer. In the 1960s Cephas played the trumpet and euphonium in the quirky ensemble The Temperance Seven – “three Royal Variety Performances” he reminds you, “and we were knocked off the top of the hit parade by The Beatles.” Now he paints in a studio on the village’s main street and Jennifer sells antiques next door.

But not everyone has taken to the village’s charms. Some Brits returned home disillusioned. “They idealised rural France and tended not to take reality into account,” said the mayor.

“There are plenty of advantages. You can live here with less money than you’d need in England for the equivalent setting, but my advice to anyone thinking of moving would be, don’t burn your boats. Think hard. There’s more to it than having plenty of space, wonderful scenery and great food and drink, what we call forces vives – living forces, real life.

“There are practical issues like obtaining a national health card, which isn’t easy, and watching the exchange rate. Work is not easy to find these days and if you don’t speak the language you risk living in a kind of ghetto. Then there’s the problem of red tape – it’s everywhere in France. And you have to get to know the French.

“Politics are a national sport for them and even at a modest level can be horrible. In my time I’ve been threatened by certain people in Paris. I’m thinking of writing a book about it all. For all the down sides, and jokes about another English invader, they’ve got used to me.

“Frankly, we’re all damned lucky to live here.”

John Woodcock travelled to Normandy from Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries