Throughout Peter’s teenage years, the late sixties and seventies, his father would pack the family off in a Citroen Safari to spend the summer months at a campsite near the town of Porto Vecchio in Corsica; a view out to the Ile de Pinarellu from the beach of the campsite is featured on the cover of Mazzeri. And, whilst his father worshipped the sun and his mother, brother and sister battled with the vagaries of sunstroke, tents, ants, mosquitoes, sand, yet more mosquitoes, and portable loos and showers that stopped working the moment you’d lathered your hair, Peter spent his time battling with the same, but also swimming, fishing, diving, sailing, exploring-including some of the local discotheques-and learning about the FLNC, the Corsican separatist movement.
One particular summer, the owner of the campsite, Giacumu (name changed), a raw and forthright individual, a machjaghjólu or man of the maquis as they are called, fell into disagreement with an old comrade.
Maurice (name changed), a bald-headed, muscular individual and Giacumu had fought as brothers-in-arms with the resistance during the war, but had become estranged when Maurice took a shine to Giacumu’s daughter. Maurice, being the unpleasantly seedy Lothario that he was, could not resist the daughter’s charms and, even though he was old enough to be her father if not her grandfather, eloped with her. Their liaison flew very much in the face of the old Corsican customs, whereby young men ask future father-in-laws for the hand of their daughters in marriage before so much as kissing them and observe many other strict proprieties. As a result, having suffered a loss of face and in the process put up with a reduction in his standing as head of the local families, Giacumu swore revenge on Maurice and their estrangement mushroomed into open hostility.
Maurice, a man of some needling humour, would sail his garishly coloured, rather jerry-built motor yacht into the bay of the campsite some mornings and toot his ship’s hooter to remind Giacumu of his indignity.
One night, whilst Maurice’s yacht swung at anchor in the bay, Giacumu and his henchmen stole the outboard from Maurice’s tender and took it ashore.
Maurice, on learning he had been robbed, came ashore with a group of his heavies to reclaim what was rightfully his.
Soon enough, with Maurice at one end of the beach and Giacumu at the other, a terrific gunfight ensued.
Hot summer nights under canvas could be uncomfortable and Peter and a friend often slept in a dugout on the beach. On this particular night, as they lay in their shallow grave, bullets whizzed to and fro inches above their heads.
Later on, during the night, Peter’s father found Maurice, leant up against a pine at the back of the beach: he had been shot twice in the chest with a pistol and was very dead.
When morning came though, the chest of Maurice’s corpse was caved in from the blast of a shotgun. The significance of this mutilation lay in the law of the land: Death from a shotgun was not, in those days, considered murder. As an ‘agricultural’ weapon used primarily for hunting and, on occasion, to protect one’s property, a shotgun was not classified as the kind of weapon used for a premeditated act. Death from a pistol was another matter entirely. Clearly, whoever had shot Maurice had tried to dress his crime up as little more than a case of self-defence.
The gendarmes came for Giacumu and eventually, and after he had fled to hole up in the mountains for a few months, he was arrested for the murder of Maurice. Giacumu was tried, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to serve, what was considered by many, all too short a period of incarceration in the dungeons of the Third Republic.
Back then, there were many adventures of this nature in Corsica and the separatist movement still prevailed. The FLNC maintained a policy of burning down foreign-owned villas, assassinating Prefects appointed by Paris and committing many other militant, rebellious and illegal acts. Even now, many of the road signs bear the hallmarks of a people unbowed in their pursuit of separatism.
As recently as February this year the BBC reported that Corsica has the highest murder rate and unsolved crime rate per capita in Europe:
Corsica may well be the birthplace of Napoleon, but it is also the
untameable island. It is the petulant, recalcitrant child of the Tyrrhenian no one wants to
adopt. But then, many beautiful children...
At the end of his last summer in Corsica, the matriarch of a nearby village presented Peter with a notebook of local proverbs and aphorisms. Many of the truisms and the atmosphere they engender are employed in the premise, tone and resonance of Mazzeri.
Some years later, Peter found himself taking day work in the old port in Cannes, on the Côte d’Azur, and sleeping rough on the rocks beneath the harbour wall. Every now and then, bands of marauding Algerians would set upon the small community of day-workers that congregated to sleep there. On one of those nights, Peter was mugged and, sadly, his book of proverbs, amongst other things, was stolen.
That same summer, Peter spent the night of his twenty-first
birthday sleeping on a bench in the grounds of the citadel in Calvi, on the
north-western Corsican coast. Some would say it was not much of a birthday, being
alone in a foreign country, but a few glasses of Pietra, the chestnut flavoured beer, and a plate of figatellu, the hearty pork sausages,
made the hard wooden bench and the cool night air seem a good deal more acceptable. It was a good birthday!
Last year Peter and his wife, Carol, returned to the south of the island to complete his research before writing Mazzeri. This time they stayed in small hotels like the Colomba in the backstreets of the citadel in Bonifacio. There are as yet no large hotels in Corsica; nobody dares to build them.
Having said all of that, I have recently been accused of possessing 'anti-Corsitude ', a charge I thoroughly and absolutely refute. Corsica is one of the brightest and rarest of the jewels which grace the Mediterranean. You will be hard pressed to find air that is sharper than the air of the mountains around Carbini, or a beach where the sand is softer or the water clearer, or the atmosphere more calm and restful than the beach at Pinarellu, or a view that can compete with the view from L'Ospedale. But, above all, Bonifacio is a citadel more beautiful than any citadel I have yet set eyes on. When I can no longer hold the pen in one hand, I hope I will still have the strength to hold a fishing rod, and Bonifacio is where - if the gods allow - I will sit and wait.