After only a year or so at ITN he returned to his true vocation as a writer, and worked on The Observer from 1960 to 1966, covering a wide range of cultural and French topics. It was to be his last regular employment. He devoted the last 40 years of his life to writing a series of brilliant books, mainly about France, as well as numerous articles and television programmes.
His first major work, The New French Revolution, appeared in 1968, the year of the student-led revolt against de Gaulle. As he put it in a last-minute preface: “Suddenly, in May 1968, the calm was shattered by a general strike, and the word ‘revolution’ in my title – which refers to a long-term process of economic and social mutation – looked as if it might acquire another, more dramatic significance.”
It was a long book, covering society, industry and culture. Characters such as Michel Debatisse, of the Breton artichoke growers, and Edouard Leclerc, the Messianic promoter of cut-price supermarkets, became known around the world. The nouveau roman (the new novel) and the nouvelle vague (new wave) in films of those years were also grist to Ardagh’s mill. The French translation of the book, La France vue par un anglais, sold well, thanks to the French desire to know what others think of them. The book was cleverly updated and reissued in subsequent versions: The New France (1973), France in the 1980s (1982), France Today (1987), and France in the New Century (1999).
Ardagh’s next important work extended beyond France, while continuing to focus on the provinces. A Tale of Five Cities (1979) covered Stuttgart, Bologna, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Toulouse and Ljubljana. It is summed up in its sub-title Life in Provincial Europe Today.
He then set out to apply the same treatment to other countries as he had to France, in a way reminiscent of John Gunther’s Inside Europe series. Germany and the Germans (1987) was well received, though he lacked the same knowledge of German that he had of French. Ireland and the Irish (1994), like so many books about Ireland, gave a good account of his ancestral country, but gave offence to a leading politician.
In addition to his chief works Ardagh wrote or co-wrote numerous guidebooks to France and Germany, particularly on rural and cultural themes. He was for a time managing editor of the Good Food Guide, and for 25 years European editor of the Good Hotel Guide. He was able to turn his pleasure in gastronomy and good company into a profitable sideline. He was made a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government. He remained almost to the end of his life a prolific and much valued contributor of obituaries to The Times.
John Ardagh was married four times, and showed his cosmopolitan streak in his choice of wives: English; Czech (rescued from the Prague Spring of 1968); Australian; and German (the guide and translator for his book on Germany). He is survived by his fourth wife, Katharina, and a son.
John Ardagh, journalist and author, was born on May 28, 1928. He died on January 26, 2008, aged 79
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