Low life

Jeremy Clarke in France: A couple of formidables, dinner with bucketfuls of rosé, dancing, cognac with sugar cubes and a delightful romance

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

Golly my testicles are shrinking fast. At this rate by Christmas they’ll be down to the size of garden peas. And I might have breasts on the way, too, it says on page 92 of the hormone injection contraindications leaflet. Fantastic! Just what I’ve always wanted.

After two days at the seaside at St Raphaël, me and my incredible shrinking knackers headed inland to a busy, famously pretty little village in the hills. Friends — a sculptor and his wife — put me up in their tall rented house on the plane tree-shaded square for five days. I arrived in the middle of a local’s all-day birthday party at which the 60-year-old, nut-brown hostess, wearing a tiny white bikini, was dancing on the tables, and my pale sculptor friend, magnificent in a thick Harris tweed kilt and enormous sporran, suffered a touch of sunstroke. This was my introduction to the local rosé, the fuller-bodied highly addictive sort, which became a blessed staple.

For four days the itinerary was roughly as follows. In the mornings, I walked in the stony hills, deafened at first by the cacophonous crepitations of the cicadas. But I quickly grew accustomed to the extraordinary noise, after which I was largely unconscious of it. As I walked, however, this strange, other-worldly sound (something like the crackling of overhead high-voltage electricity) would now and then re-enter my consciousness with dramatically increased intensity, it seemed to me, when an idle thought triggered a heightened emotion. And then it would subside as that emotion subsided. It was as though the small dramas of a consciousness even as unexciting as mine were being carefully monitored and imitated by an audience of hundreds of thousands of sympathetic insects hidden in the trees.

It was the first week of August, and yet I rarely saw another soul. And from the eminences you could see for miles and miles across what looked like forested wilderness with not a road or a habitation or a pylon to spoil the view or to remind you of your place in the 21st century. Surprisingly big country, France.

In the afternoons I sat for my portrait. My sculptor friend also paints. I sat shirtless in a chair beside an open window. He crouched on his collapsible stool at an easel maybe six feet away. His canvas was about 15in. by 10in. and positioned at the same height as my head. He told me to look away and slightly up, and for a focusing point I made use of a painting on the wall of the kind of sun-baked village that one might see in a spaghetti western. It was a terrible painting but every afternoon I took a long walk through its alleys, and visited the whitewashed chapel to sit in the coolness and sometimes pray, and so I came to know the painting as a real place in my imagination, so whether the painting was any good or not finally was irrelevant.

After getting quickly over my initial self-consciousness at being intently scrutinised by a man who has been trained how to look and see, I found it a pleasant, relaxing experience to be painted. The window at my back gave out on to the aforementioned classically Provençal village square cooled by the shade of its plane trees and a trickling fountain. The square was decked out with café tables under jolly sunshades and tightly stretched awnings, at which trade was brisk from mid-morning till midnight.

Each afternoon, then, after a rosé-lubricated lunch, I sat in the cool dimness of that first-floor living room, next to the open window, chin tilted at the painting on the opposite wall, listening to the gentle hubbub wafting upwards from the busy square below. Punctuating the low hum of Gallic chatter might be the ring of one wafer-thin glass against another, an outpouring clatter of cutlery, the rude clank of a plate, the beserker squeals of infants playing beside the fountain, the unconscionable din of a passing motorbike, the yap yap of a small dog, the slightly anxious cooing of a dove, an electric guitar muted by distance, a raised voice, a tumble of laughter. And one afternoon, there came a clap of thunder out of an apparently blue sky that set the cicadas off like mad. And when the portrait was completed, I walked around and looked at it and saw for the first time what I looked like, which is quite something.

And in the evenings? Well, a couple of pints of lager, known there as formidables, and dinner under the umbrellas with bucketfuls of rosé, dancing, cognac with sugar cubes, and in my case the (to me) miraculous continuance of a delightful romance begun on the second evening with the stunning, raven-haired Ester from Hollywood, to whom I explained very early doors about my incredible shrinking testicles, but that, as they say, is another story.

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  • Redneck

    Mr Clarke

    I am still not sure if your tales can possibly be real but, as always, a beautifully written article with a bit of everything: poignancy to humour.

    Thank you.

    • Badly Done Emma

      This one is for sure….