Just six years ago, Peter Avis died in Brighton. He was cremated in Woodvale cemetery on 11 January 2013. He was an honorary citizen of Dieppe, so although his body is still in Brighton, his heart and soul have probably remained in the French town. And Peter Avis remains firmly in the heart of les Dieppois – the people of Dieppe.
As with so many influential people, there is the short version of their life, as in their obituaries (such as that in The Guardian), and then there is the real person.
The obituaries will tell you that Peter Avis was a journalist on the Observer (politically centre left), the Guardian (centre left), the Morning Star (left) and the Evening Argus. A tribute to the intellectual honesty of a man who started out an out-and-out Communist and later turned to support the Green Party.
One French newspaper quotes Margaret Thatcher as calling him l’horrible journaliste français [that awful French journalist]. Perhaps the greatest compliment Mrs T could have paid Peter the francophile and Peter the left-winger. The same newspaper calls him Le malicieux et truculent Peter Avis – two adjectives which are the falsest friends you could find: malicieux merely means mischievous (Peter was not above teasing both the English and the French) and un personage truculent is a colourful character. Peter to the letter.
After his retirement as a staff reporter, Peter continued to write, for L’Humanité (l’Organe central du Parti communiste français de 1920 à 1994), and for local papers such as the Argus in Brighton, Les Informations dieppoises and Le journal de bord (the in-house journal of the Dieppe Municipal Council). He turned all his journalistic skills and all his energy to promoting links between Brighton and Dieppe.
The Great Dieppe Trip organised by Peter was a fixture on the Brighton-Dieppe friendship calendar for many years. Joyce-Edmond Smith recalls those days:
“… These were his wonderful Great Dieppe Trips; organised as annual visits to Dieppe over a long weekend usually in September. Started in 1976 these tripswere aimed at those he termed les progressifs. There would be people with a wide variety of views, opinions and life experiences – politicians, journalists, artists, anarchists, always those searching for ways to a better world. Soon, this man, a bit shorter and chubbier than most, earned the deep affection and esteem of everyone.
“The Great Dieppe Trips were always entirely Peter’s work and were researched and organised to enable us to gain more knowledge and understanding of his beloved Dieppe. There were visits by coach to some municipality or area where social projects were undergoing or cultural jewels to experience. We were also always welcomed by the Mayor of Dieppe, and it was uplifting to see Peter speaking for us all in perfect French and to see the amity and fondness between them.
“No-one could be in town with Peter without encountering café owners or passers-by giving a nod and bonjour, if not a long discussion. At our final Saturday night dinners there was not only good food to be had, but wonderful accordion playing and great sing-songs, – of progressive songs, naturellement!
“Amongst many other things, Peter produced the wonderful guide book A Taste of Dieppe. This contained everything one would want to know, and as he said – “It is less an official guide than a personal reflection.” And indeed, over the years each one contained the heart and soul of Dieppe … and much of Peter himself. No wonder the Dieppois loved him.
“I have thought of Peter over the past Brexit dominated years. Peter never lost his passion and commitment to a better world and I can’t help but think of his sadness at the sometimes anti-European atmosphere that pertains.”
On a somewhat more academic note, Peter also was guide to the members of the Regency Society when they visited Dieppe on a study tour in 2003. But he was no snob and, a 2010 blog of the Brighton and Hove branch of the Clarion Cycling Club recounts how:
“Peter Avis, expat character, blogger and author of the delightful Taste of Dieppe booklet – kindly met us at the terminal and led our bicycle procession into Dieppe and up to our hotel, L’Etap.” There was always a warm and well-informed welcome for Brightonians from Peter, whoever or whatever they were.
Peter Avis, (seated centre) chats to Brighton and Hove Clarion Members at the Bar O’Metre at the western end of Dieppe.
Such short trips to Dieppe would be almost impossible without the often-embattled Newhaven-Dieppe ferry. Each time there was a threat of closure, Peter leapt to its defence and preservation. Once example was in 1998 when he joined with Lewes M.P. Norman Baker and the Communist Mayor of Dieppe, Christian Cuvilliez, in a delegation to lobby Parliament to save the link.
His most heartfelt and characteristic plea for the ferry, and for its benefits, came at the end of a short piece, quoted in a blog by a Dieppois:
On parle de l’Entente cordiale, mais cela a été toujours une affaire concernant les hommes politiques ou les diplomates plutôt que les peuples. Nous avons essayé d’élargir le champ, mais pas assez ; il faut recommencer ce travail. Aujourd’hui, comment les enfants et les jeunes gens de Dieppe peuvent-il faire un premier pas à connaître les voisins au nord lorsque les horaires de la Transmanche ne sont pas bien adapté pour un aller-retour dans une seule journée ? Oui, il faut mieux tisser des liens entre nos deux pays. D’une nouvelle façon imaginative. Et en engageant ceux qui s’intéressent à autre chose que les visites officielles à travers les frontières. Peter Avis Résident de Dieppe et Brighton
[People talk about the Entente Cordiale, but that’s always been something to do with politicians and diplomats rather than ordinary people. We have tried to widen the field, but not enough; we have got to start all over again. These days, how are Dieppe’s children and young people going to be able to take their first steps in getting to know their neighbours to the north if Transmanche’s timetables aren’t suitable for a day trip? We must, do better at forming links between our two countries. In a new, imaginative way. And by engaging anyone who is interested in anything other than official international visits.]
Despite many changes to the running of the service, Newhaven-Dieppe ferry still runs.
Peter was interested in all things French (of course) but also in helping the French and the English get to know each other, as is testified in his very last blog, written just a few days before his death:
“The contemporary debate has been hotting up in Britain (where the production of foie gras, meaning ‘fatty liver’, is now illegal), although it makes few waves in France, where the pressure of unrestrained taste buds is perhaps more influential in shaping public policy.
“My British friends in Dieppe are far from unanimous on the issue: some are taking advantage of the foie gras bargains at nearby superstores, while others are declared abolitionists. Two French intellectual friends who are devoted to defending human rights told me in Dieppe this week that they saw no reason to campaign also for the rights of ducks and geese not to be pumped with excessive food to make their livers expand up to ten times the normal size. So foie gras may be on the Christmas or New Year menu this year.”
Peter Avis has been honoured in Dieppe. He has a square named after him. Brighton and Hove have put him on a bus. Could this city not do better than that?
Many thanks to Joyce Edmond-Smith, Andy Winter and Alan (Fred) Pipes for their invaluable information for this article.