Paul Lamarra meets France’s only British-born mayor in his office in rural Normandy
Tall, grey haired and sporting a closely cropped white beard, Yorkshireman Ken Tatham has the look of an archetypal Plantagenet king. Yet his looks and origins have not precluded him from the top political job in St-Céneri-le-Gérei, an extraordinarily picturesque village that nestles in Normandy’s Alpes-Mancelles; for Ken is the first and so far only British-born mayor in France.
His election was all the more surprising when you take St-Céneri’s long history and its collective memory into account, extending as it does all the way back to the 14th century and the Hundred Years War when the Earl of Arundel laid siege to the castle and then razed it to the ground.
Sitting in his office in the small town hall Ken, 68, now looks back on his first election with amusement. “Some people in the village said: ‘Bloody hell, the English demolished the castle, and now they have come back for the town hall.’ At the time it created quite a buzz, but it didn’t last long.”
It was the only time in the 45 years that Ken has lived, worked and raised a family in France that he has been regarded as first and foremost as an Englishman.
It was no more than expedient political rhetoric during Ken’s first election campaign, and in the end it failed to persuade all of St-Céneri’s 150 voters. In the first election back in 1994, Ken squeaked in by one vote and was then elected by his 10 fellow councillors as maire. In the two subsequent elections, he has won by a landslide; winning more than 80% of the popular vote.
There are, however, worse things than being English in Normandy, according to Ken. “The Normans, and especially the farming community, are very suspicious and I tended to be more easily integrated than my wife, Christiane, because she is a woman and she is from Paris.
“Around here, they regarded anyone who did not come from the village, whether it be from Paris, England or Tours, as a Parisian. I thought it quite cute that they also regarded me as a Parisian.”
Built entirely of warm honey-coloured sandstone on a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Sarthe, St-Céneri is both one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France and within the densely wooded Parc Naturel Régional de Normandie-Maine.
Very few people would need any further incentive to start a new life here, but for Ken who was embarking on a television career in South Africa in 1970, it was his father-in-law’s offer of help to open a restaurant that lured the couple to the village and back to France.
“It was a bit of blackmail really to get us to come back from South Africa,” recalls Ken, adding that the restaurant was very hard work, with up to 300 covers a day.
“It was a very happy 11 years though. We were in the prime of our working life and it was great – as pensioners it would have killed us.”
The division of labour saw Christiane working as chef and Ken as front of house. A traditional French restaurant, its signature dish was trout. “It wasn’t caught in the river but it was kept in the river and people used to see us going down there to fetch it; a bit macabre when you think about it,” he says laughing.
As well running the restaurant, Ken and Christiane raised two sons, Christopher and Stuart, and on top of that, Ken undertook the task of renovating his father-in-law’s small holiday home, which sat adjacent to the restaurant.
“We bought the house from my father-in-law in 1975 and it needed a lot of work to refurbish it,” remembers Ken. “I did most of the work myself and turned what was then a very little house into a three-bedroom home.
“It was built in 1658 and it lies at the centre of the village, so we had to respect the architecture which was a real challenge, and in those days, of course, there were no grants or help,” he adds.
When Ken took up a job as export director for a French clothing company in the late seventies, the restaurant had to go. However, when the company was sold 16 years later, Ken found that he simply did not have enough to do.
“My wife was the village’s first female councillor and you know how it is when you are talking to your missus. I was saying, you should do this and you should do that and why don’t you … and of course, I was becoming a bloody pain in the neck, so she said, ‘why don’t you do it?’
“So it all happened very quickly. The company had been sold off, I got a nice cheque and I could take time off. I was very interested in the maire’s job, but I didn’t think it would last 19 years.”
Initially, Ken found that British nationals living in France had few voting rights, and in the first instance, he decided to take French citizenship just to be able to vote in all elections, which was, incidentally, a necessary step on the path to becoming maire.
It isn’t the biggest job in French politics and Ken is just one of 36,782 French mayors, but it is a job that carries many important responsibilities and especially in St-Céneri where the careful conservation of the many historic buildings needs to be balanced by people’s day-to-day lives.
The first test of his mayoral mettle came along almost immediately when the local préfet ordered the village to carry out FF300,000 worth of repairs to a collapsing pillar within the 12th-century frescoed church, even if it meant raising taxes and incurring many years of debt.
In what was one of the first internet campaigns and the effective use of Photoshop to show the church in a tumbledown state, St-Céneri attracted the attention of the world’s media; forcing an embarrassed department to adopt the church and carry out the repairs.
“We really had to shout and scream and in the 19 years I’ve been maire, that is the most important thing I have done; not as it turns out, the most expensive, but certainly the most important.”
Despite the initial anti-English rhetoric, it was apparent that the village needed to be woken from its 600-year slumber and action taken to safeguard its future; and, with hindsight, it is apparent that the villagers were voting for a fresh perspective after 27 years with the same mayor.
“A fresh perspective yes,” said Ken hesitating before continuing. “I don’t think they’d be very happy to hear me say that we’ve done a lot of things a French mayor wouldn’t have done. The English are a bit more pragmatic and I had a very different set of priorities.”
Apart from getting to grips with French local government’s arcane accounting methods, Ken’s priorities were to make the village more visitor-friendly and to re-evaluate many of its assets.
One incredible discovery was the rather macabrely named Room of the Decapitated in the upper room of what was a 16th-century coaching inn at the centre of the village.
Many of the 19th-century’s leading artists were drawn to St-Céneri to paint its picturesque bridge, the oak woodlands and the water mills.
At night, while sitting up late drinking, the artists used soot to make permanent the silhouettes of their heads that were created by the shadows thrown onto walls by the flickering candlelight. Of the 66 silhouettes, 33 have been identified and include Corot, Harpignies, Pioger, Renard, Veillon and Claire.
For Ken, the room was something that had to be saved.
“The fellow who inherited the auberge from his great uncle said he was going to have them plastered over and turn the house into a gîte, but the building is now a museum and it has become something people come to see, and it is now in all the guidebooks.”
Further changes to the village saw the area around the old auberge pedestrianised, pavement areas created, so that the restaurants and cafés could put tables outside and an annual art festival, Rencontre des Peintres, held during the Pentecostal holiday weekend, was established by Ken’s wife, Christiane.
Art and artists are, once again, working in the village and visiting all year round – even the church has become an exhibition space.
Ken is stepping down at next year’s municipal elections and is looking forward to having more time in order to write a novel, a book of mayoral anecdotes, as well as an autobiography. However, there is a lingering anxiety about what will become of the role of mayor.
“So many small villages are having to come together to survive; sharing a mayor and a town hall. I think it is a shame, for mayors do not cost anything really and they have always been close to real people,” claims Ken.
Having France’s only British-born mayor has certainly brought St-Céneri lots of attention and it is a rare day when the village is not thronged with visitors.
For Ken, however, it is all down to that fresh perspective.
“When you come from outside, you tend to look at things with a new kind of wonder.” LF
[box out]Mayoral facts
As mayor, Ken receives a monthly stipend of €578 to cover his expenses. In return, the people of St-Céneri more or less expect their mayor to solve all their problems; a kind of Republican parish priest.
His official duties include registering births, tagging the dead, setting and collecting local taxes, administering the annual budget of around €100,000 and he is the gendarme of last resort, but Ken has also been called upon by a motorist to clear the road of rocks on Christmas Eve and settle a dispute between a brother and sister, who had not spoken to each other in 65 years, over who had the right to be buried in the family plot.