Figeac, the banks of the Nile in the Lot Valley
Figeac, is in the delightful department of Lot, favoured by Brits, in the Dordogne Valley, the latter described by Henry Miller in the 1930s "as the nearest thing to Paradise this side of Greece." Abutting the north-eastern edge of the 435,000-acre Causses du Quercy Regional Nature Reserve, the 12th-century trading town of half-timbered and stone houses, palaces would become a stop on the route to Santiago de Compostela. The ancient mint, Hotel de la Monnaie, is now the Figeac Tourist Office.
Born in Figeac on August 28, 1899, Charles Boyer at 11 monopolised the town's small movie theatre. His phenomenal photographic memory while at Paris' Sorbonne landed the unknown's first break as an emergency stand-in for a star - and he never looked back. Boyer was a Hollywood leading man when I met him when I was one of Madison Avenue's ‘madmen' visiting our LA branch office. The hosts were George & Benita Sanders whose guests were the Joseph Cottens and Charles and Diana Boyer. Before dinner, George and I entertained on the piano, and Boyer performed slick conjuring tricks. A happy, enjoyable evening that ended a decade later in tragedy. Both Sanders and Boyer's wives died of cancer, and the two men committed suicide. Boyer only loved one woman in 44 years of wedded bliss.
Jean-Francois Champollion, son of a Figeac bookstore owner, was born in the town on December 23rd, 1790. He was nine when Napoleon's soldiers had uncovered a stele near the town of Rosetta on the Nile River Delta, and so began a lifelong obsession to unravel the hidden secrets of the world's first super-power. The single most famous slab in the history of archaeology, now in the British Museum, contained a decree from the general council of priests in 196 BC, in ancient Greek, hieroglyphics, that adorn Egyptian monuments, and demotic, a joined-up writing. Only the Greek was understood, until in 1822, the 32-year-old, fluent in Middle Eastern and Oriental tongues, dashed into his brother's office and shouted "Je tiens l'affaire!" (‘I've got it!'), whereupon he collapsed and stayed in bed for five days.
Champollion died aged 41, worn out after having visited Egypt, revealing to the world its 3,000-years of ancient Egyptian history, and fulfilling a childhood dream. I humbly followed in his footsteps, inspired by John Keats' sonnet to the Nile, "Son of the old moon-mountains African! Stream of pyramid and crocodile!." Cruising up the Nile in a floating palace, I visited ancient towns that soared from the desert: Abu Simbel, Edfu, Karnak and at Luxor, Hatsheput's Temple, where pictured is the 4,000 years ago Punt expedition for the fabulous luxuries of spices and gold at the Horn of Africa.
This same Horn of Africa is today destitute, its starving population a scar on the face of humankind. The message was highlighted ("Don't they know it's Christmas") by a charismatic figure, Sir Bob Geldof, who followed Keats' tradition of artists succeeding where politicians failed and raised $100 million. Before I left, I had to talk to Sir Bob. His staff had warned me off so I had to doorstep him at the London Library where he was reciting his beloved Keats to a hand-picked audience of celebrities.
It took all my courage to approach him. After all, he had called a notorious Horn of Africa warlord , a f-----!, and on TV, too. It had stopped the interpreter dead in his tracks. "Go on," said Bob, "translate it." I clutched my BBC World Service mike and headed for the scrum around Sir Bob. Might the former Boomtown Rat, known as much for his expletives as for his tireless campaigning for Africa's poor, decide to "make Hordern history? I'm 6'2", but he, sylph-like towered over me. "How are you, Sir Bob?" "Fine, thank you," he replied. So far, so good. "There were echoes of Keats in your Geldof in Africa book," I said "Wow!" he replied. "That's flattering. I didn't intend to. That's fantastic!" His love of Africa and its people shone throughout the interview, saying "I only feel alive when there."
If my mother, a convent girl from an Order originating the Next County, had not met and wed an Old Etonian car salesman (General Motors) in Alexandria, a stone's throw (je m'excuse) from Rosetta, I would not be here, standing in Champollion's footsteps publicising the wonders of Figeac's native son.