The little museum at Cléry dedicated to the works of Ambroise Fleury is today but a minor tourist attraction. Most visitors go there after dining at Clos Joli, unaminously celebrated by all the guides of France as one of the high spots of the country. The guides meanwhile acknowledge the existence of the museum as "worthy of a detour". In its five rooms are to be found most of the works of my uncle which have survived the war, the occupation, the battles of the liberation and all the trials and tribulations our people have endured.
Whatever their country of origin, kites are all born of the popular imagination, their trace of naiveté being their genius. Those of Ambroise Fleury are no exception to the rule; even his last pieces created in his old age, retain this mark of innocence and freshness of spirit. Despite the small interest the museum excites and the modest subsidy it receives from the municipality, it runs no risk of closing since it is so closely bound to our history. Nevertheless, its rooms are for the most part empty since ours are times in which the French seek more to forget than to remember.
The best photo of Ambroise Fleury is in the museum entrance, where he is to be seen as rural postman, with his uniform and peaked cap, his hobnailed boots and his leather satchel on his stomach, between a kite of a ladybird and one of Gambetta, the face and body forming the balloon and gondola of his famous flight during the siege of Paris. There are many other photos of him, long nicknamed "the potty postman" of Cléry, since most visitors to his workshop at la Motte took a snap to laugh at. My uncle posed willingly. He had no fear of ridicule and complained neither of the epithet of "potty postman", nor of that of "original soft-head", and if he knew that the local people called him "that blooming old fool", he appeared to see in it more a mark of esteem than of contempt. As my uncle's reputation began to grow during the '30s, Marcellin Duprat, proprietor of Clos Joli, hit on the idea of getting post cards printed, showing my guardian in uniform amongst his kites, with the words "Cléry. The famous rural postman Ambroise Fleury and his kites". Sadly, the cards were in black and white and failed to capture the cheerful colours and forms, the smiling good-nature, and what I used to call the "eye-twinkle" that the old Norman used to launch into the sky.
My father was killed during the First World War and my mother died not long afterwards. The war likewise claimed the life of Robert, the second of the three Fleury brothers. My uncle Ambroise himself returned after being wounded by a bullet through the chest. To complete the history I have to add that my great- grandfather Antoine perished on the barricades of the Commune. I believe that this vignette our past, and above all the two Fleury names engraved on the monuments to the dead of Cléry, played a decisive rôle in my guardian's life. He had become a very different man to the one he was before the 14-18 war, a man, reputedly, with a ready punch. People were amazed that a decorated soldier never missed an opportunity to voice his pacifist opinions, to defend conscientious objectors and to condemn all forms of violence, with such fire that was in the final analysis, perhaps simply a reflection of the flame that burns at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Physically, in no way did he resemble a soft-head. His sharp features, hard and self-willed, his grey crewcut hair, and one of those thick and long walrus moustaches that truly qualify as "moustaches de Gaulois". The French still know (Lord have mercy upon them) how to cling to their historical memories, even though they be no more than the whiskers on their faces. As for his eyes, they were dark in a way that is always a sign of underlying cheerfulness. People in general considered that he returned from the war shell-shocked, thus explaining his pacifism, and also his hobby, consisting of spending all his free time with his kites: his "gnamas", as he called them. He had come across this word in a book on Equatorial Africa, where it apparently signified everything having the breath of life: men, midges, lions, ideas or elephants. Undoubtedly, he had chosen the profession of rural postman because his medal and two citations in military dispatches gave him the right to a reserved occupation. Or perhaps he just saw in it an activity that went well with his pacifism. He often used to say to me:
"With a bit of luck, my little Ludo, if you work hard, perhaps you too will be able to escape into a job with the Post Office."
It took me many years to find my bearings amongst his qualities of seriousness and deep faithfulness, mixed with a derisive streak which seemed to stem from those shared reserves in which the French seek to find themselves when lost.
My uncle used to say "Kites have to learn to fly, like everyone", and from the age of 7, I used to accompany him after school in what he used to call the "training", sometimes in the meadow in front of la Motte and sometimes further afield on the banks of the Rigole, with a "gnama", the glue hardly dry.
"You have to hold them tight", he used to explain "because they tug, and sometimes they get the upper hand. Then they get too high and they take off into the blue, and you don't see them again, that is unless people bring them back in pieces".
"And if I hold on too tight, won't I fly off with them myself?"
He used to smile, making his huge moustache look even more kindly.
"That might happen" he would say. "You mustn't let yourself be taken."
My uncle used to give his kites affectionate names: Croquemuche, Batifol, Clopin-clopant, Patapouf, Zigomar, Palpitar, Aimable, and I never knew why one name rather than another; why Titube, a hilarious frog with front legs waving "Hello!" in the wind was so called, any more than Clapote, shimmering in the air with its silver scales and pink fins, or why, in the meadow in front of la Motte he would fly his Popotin more than his Mimile, a martian, which to me seemed so kind, with his round eyes and his wings in the form of ears, which would begin to flutter as it rose on the wind - I used to try to imitate him with some success, beating all my class-mates in our competitions. When he launched a gnama of a design I didn't understand, my uncle used to explain:
"You have to try and make them different from anything you've ever seen or known about before. Something completely new. But that's when you have to hold the end of the string even more tightly, because if you let go, they take off into the blue and most probably they'll crash in pieces when they come down again."
Sometimes it seemed to me as if it was the kite which held Ambroise Fleury at the end of the string.
My favourite for a long time was good old Patapouf, whose stomach used to blow up astonishingly when he gained a bit of height, and for a little breeze, would do somersaults, beating his paunch with his paws as my uncle pulled and slackened the line.
I used to let Patapouf sleep with me; as a sun-dweller, a kite needs plenty of friendship otherwise it easily looses form, it sinks below its proper level and gets to feel dejected. It needs the height, the freedom of the air, and plenty of sky around it in order to blossom in all its beauty.
My guardian passed his days traversing the countryside in the pursuit of his occupation, delivering to the country-folk the mail he had collected in the morning from the post office. But on completing the five kilometre walk home from school, I would nearly always find him on the meadow at la Motte, in his postman's uniform, with his eyes raised towards one of his "little friends", fluttering high in the sky. The wind there was always better towards the end of the afternoon.
And so it happened that one day we lost our superb Quatremer, with its twelve wings which would inflate with one puff of the wind. It was torn from my hand, complete with winder, and as my uncle watched his handiwork disappearing into the blue, he turned to me and saw my eyes flood with tears.
"Don't cry", he said. "That's what it was made for. It's happy, up there."
The next day, a neighbouring farmer in his hay-cart, brought us a bundle of wood and paper, which was all that remained of Quatremer.
I was ten years old when the Honfleur Gazette ran an article written in an ironic tone about "our citizen Ambroise Fleury, rural postman of Cléry, a pleasant, out of the ordinary chap whose kites will one day doubtless bring fame to these parts, just as lace brought glory to Valenciennes, porcelain to Limoges and sweetmeats to Cambrai". My uncle cut out the article, framed it, and hung it from a nail in his workroom.
"As you see, I'm not without a touch of vanity", he said to me, with a mischievous little wink.
The article in the Gazette with the photo which accompanied it was reprinted by one of the Parisian papers, and soon our barn, from then on known as the "workshop", began to receive not only visitors, but orders as well. The proprietor of Clos Joli, an old friend of my uncle, used to recommend this "local curiosity" to his customers. One day, a car stopped outside our farm and a very smartly dressed man got out. What impressed me most about him was his moustache which reached up to his ears, joining his side-whiskers and dividing his face in two. I learned afterwards that he was a notable English collector, Lord Howe. He was accompanied by his valet with a trunk; when it was opened, I spied, carefully arranged on a specially fitted out base of velvet, magnificent kites from various countries - Burma, Japan, China and Siam. My uncle was invited to admire them, which he did in complete sincerity, being totally devoid of chauvinism. His only slight quirk in this regard was to affirm that only in France in 1789 had the kite achieved nobility. Having admired the English collector's pieces, he in his turn showed some of his own creations, among them a Victor Hugo carried by clouds, inspired by the famous photo by Nadar, and which wasn't without resemblance to the Poet of God the Father when aloft. After an hour or two of inspection and reciprocal adulation, the two men took to the meadow and, each choosing by way of courtesy a kite from the other's collection, they brightened the Normandy sky until all the youngsters from the neighbourhood came running to join in the festival.
The notoriety of Ambroise Fleury continued to increase but never went to his head, even when his Grande Demoiselle in Phrygian cap (he was strongly republican) won first prize at the Nogent meeting, or when he was invited to London by Lord Howe, where he demonstrated several of his creations in the course of a meeting in Hyde Park. That was one of the numerous manifestations of the Franco-British alliance which took place at that time as the political climate in Europe began to darken with Hitler's rise to power and the occupation of the Rhineland. I kept the photo from the Illustrated London News showing Ambroise Fleury with his Liberty Enlightening the World, posing between Lord Howe and the Prince of Wales. After this semi-official recognition, Ambroise Fleury was elected, first a member, and then as honorary president of Kites of France.
Curious visitors visited us in increasing numbers. Posh ladies and smart gentlemen came in their cars from Paris to dine at Clos Joli and afterwards to pay us a visit, requesting the "master" to put on a demonstration of a few of his pieces. The posh ladies would sit on the grass while their smart gentlemen, puffing on a cigar, would struggle to maintain a semblance of seriousness while enjoying the sight of the "potty postman", his Montaigne or his Peace of the World on the end of the line, looking skyward with the penetrating gaze of some great mariner.
I finally became aware of the insult in the little laughs of the posh ladies and the superior looks of the smart gentlemen, when I heard their remarks, disagreeable, or tinged with pity. "It appears he's not all there, up top. Apparently he was shell-shocked in the 14-18 war." "He says he's a pacifist and a concientious objector, but I think it's funny how well the shrewd fellow knows how to advertise himself." "I could die laughing!" "Marcellin Duprat was certainly right to say it was worth a detour!" "Don't you think he has the head of Marshal Lyautey, with his grey crewcut and his moustache?" "He has something of the look of a fool." "But surely, darling, it's the spark of genius!" They would buy a kite as if paying for their ticket at some spectacle, and then throw it into the boot of their car without a second glance. It was so much more painful because my uncle, while he abandoned himself so to his passion, became indifferent to what happened around him, and didn't notice that certain of our visitors were amusing themselves at his expense. One day I returned to the house fuming at the remarks I had overheard while my guardian made his all-time favourite circle in the sky - a Jean-Jacques Rousseau with wings in the form of open books, the pages of which fluttered in the wind. To contain my indignation was beyond me. I walked behind him in big steps, with knitted brows and hands in my pockets, stamping my feet so hard that my socks were down to my heels.
"Uncle, those Parisians were making fun of you. They were treating you as an old fool."
Ambroise Fleury stopped. Far from being cross, he appeared well satisfied.
"Really? They were?"
So from my full height of four foot seven inches, I threw at him a comment I had heard Marcellin Duprat use about a couple who had complained about their bill:
"They're people of small minds."
My uncle replied, "it's not that people are small-minded".
He leaned over, gently put his Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the grass, and sat down. I sat down beside him.
"So, they made out I was a fool? Well, work it out for yourself. These smart gentlemen and posh ladies are right. It's perfectly clear that a man that has devoted his whole life to kites is not without a grain of folly. It's just a question of interpretation. There are some who call it a 'grain of folly', and others who talk of a 'sacred spark'. It's sometimes hard to tell one from the other. But if you truly love something, or someone, then give to it, or to him, or to her, all you have, and all you are. And don't bother yourself with the rest.
A flash of mirth passed across his huge moustache.
"That's what you need to know, if you want to become a postmaster, Ludo."
-- oOo --Chapter 3