The recent success of M. Macron and his party En Marche! brought to mind my own entanglements with the French since I first went on a school trip to Paris in the late fifties. Standing on the deck of a Newhaven to Dieppe British Railways ferry, my first visual impression of France was of a gendarme standing on the quayside at Dieppe, sporting a machine gun. The second mental snapshot was of a group of French women washing clothes in a river, seen from the SNCF steam train to Paris.
Still a teenager, at last I was quite literally en marche, (on the move) having saved up for this trip from my earnings as a Saturday boy in Woolworths and Boots the Chemist. I think it cost around £25.
Those first brief images still exist only in my mind, but are as vivid as photographs. Later that week one of the French teachers on the trip asked me why I wasn’t taking photos. I did have a Boots camera, and I had taken a few black and white snaps in Paris, but the real reason for not snapping further was that I could only afford one roll of film and it had run out. Rather than admit that, I pompously answered that the best photos are the ones in your brain, just to shut him up. As it turns out, it’s true, at least for me, but not much use for anyone else I guess.
The idea of the school trip was that we could practice our conversational French. Needless to say that didn’t happen much, but for me it was the start of a love affair with France and the French. I just loved being in Paris – people effortlessly speaking French (how did they manage that?), actually sitting outside cafés, riding the Metro, smoking Gauloises, drinking red wine and wearing fashionable clothes. I had seen pictures in books and even the odd French film, but suddenly this was the real thing. Marianne made Britannia seem rather boring.
Though we hardly realised it at the time, we were lucky the trip had been organised by our own French Teachers, who were only a few years older than us, and typical of the post-war generation of graduates in education, often in conflict with older teachers who were typically re-trained ex-military types or university graduates of our parents’ generation. Imagine our delight in finding we were not living in some Lycée dormitory, but in a faintly louche small hotel near Place Pigalle, and dining not in a student refectory but at a proper restaurant next door to the Moulin Rouge. Imagine too the edgy treat of real (but sadly static) naked young women on stage at that infamous den of iniquity; I for one was acutely aware of being in the company of school friends and teachers. To this day I am convinced that our headmaster knew nothing of this avant-garde approach to secondary education.
I’m pretty sure also that this trip was a not-so-subtle ploy by our teachers to tempt those of us taking French A level to study it at University and in my case I was only too pleased to oblige. When, having vaulted the A level hurdle I found myself waiting to take up a place at University to study French literature, and being generally fed up with school, I came up with the idea of simply heading back to France on my own, albeit with minimal resources. Today’s equivalent would be back-packing, which is now commonplace, but back then it would have been regarded as quite adventurous, not say completely foolhardy, especially for a former prefab boy with little or no means of support. I’m not sure what my parents must have thought, but by now their reaction to anything I did on my own initiative was bemusement, at best.
What I did have was a return train ticket to Lyon, and the promise of a job as a moniteur (group leader) in a colonie de vacances (summer camp) in Savoie, thanks to a rather quaint organisation dedicated to international educational work placements in France. A condition of taking this job was to attend a “stage” – a training course, to be held in the countryside near Lyon. Naturally this was to conducted in French. Gulp.
In the event, I decided not to wait for the training course, so one fine day I set off to travel by train and ferry to Lyon and take my chances. In retrospect, this decision was possibly the best I have ever made. I didn’t fully realise that until my wife and I decided to spend a day in Lyon while on holiday quite recently. We took a suburban train from the small town on the Saône where we were camping, to Lyon Perrache, and as we left this much changed station and descended into Place Carnot I found myself fighting back the tears. Until that moment I had not fully realised just what a personal liberation my trip to France had really been.
In the sixties Lyon was hardly a tourist destination and I could not have afforded a hotel anyway, but I had taken the precaution of keeping my old YHA membership up. I found a Youth Hostel a few kilometres north of the city, right by the river Saône. In principle I was limited to a three day stay, but as things turned out I stayed there for a month, having done a nifty deal with the genial warden Lucien, an old style French hippy who allowed me to stay for free as long as I did some routine work for him from time to time – cleaning mostly.
I have tried to locate this hostel, one of those lovely old neglected mini-chateaux you find all over France, gently decaying in the sunshine, but it seems to have vanished, at least according to Google Maps. I loved it here, passing my time by walking the hills, taking the odd bus trip into town, browsing the central market and chatting to those passing through the youth hostel, but after a couple of weeks my meagre savings were exhausted. Then something happened which not only solved that problem but changed my rather limited view of humanity once and for all.
A young couple turned up, having travelled from England on foot and by bus. They both had foreign accents, and seemed to be very much in love. She was a tiny blonde and he was a skinny fellow who just radiated energy and joie de vivre. We hit it off immediately and I learned that he was Polish, she was German, they were married and they lived in Ladbroke Grove, not far from my home suburb. He had survived the Nazi camps, settled in post-war London as a young man and married a German student there. He had also changed his name to Leslie and now worked as a delivery van driver.
He could remember life in the concentration camps, but was not keen to talk about it. He did not know what happened to his parents. I was astounded that he had married a German woman, and we did talk about that. His view was that the only point in remembering the past is to learn. For him the present and future were what mattered. He also remembered with pride that as a boy he had been champion boxer, with a physique to match. He claimed that he may have survived by entertaining the camp guards in the boxing ring. When I got to know both of them better we talked about how their relationship flourished despite attitudes in post-war London, where racism and xenophobia were the norm.
My lack of funds became an acute problem, and it turned out that my new friends were also in need of some money. Leslie came up with an elegant solution. The most regular overnight hostellers were long distance cyclists (usually German!) who would typically arrive late in the evening, exhausted, staggering into bed and disappearing early next morning. Leslie had noticed that they usually left behind empty soft drink bottles, and he had found out that they were returnable at a local shop in a village a few kilometers away on the far side of the river, and that each empty bottle attracted a few francs on return.
So a plan was hatched, and we collected these bottles for a day or two, then headed over the bridge to redeem them, toiling uphill in the heat of the afternoon. It worked, but only after much protest and shouting by the shop owner, who tried to avoid forking out. She was so scary that I would probably abandoned the enterprise, but not so our Polish leader. For him this was just a skirmish, to be enjoyed rather than feared. Eventually she gave in when threatened with les flics, (the cops) and we repeated this exercise several times later, despite her ever more sullen hostility. It was just enough to last us until Leslie and his wife moved on and I got the phone call summoning me to my summer camp moniteurs training course I had signed up for.
My attitude toward humanity had also been influenced for the better by another experience at the Youth Hostel, when I came down with flu. No joke when you are on your own. Two Australian girls on the traditional world tour took pity on me and even delayed their planned departure to nurse me back to health of a sort. Wherever you are, thanks not only for your kindness, but also for proving that angels do exist.
The training course was duly held at a training centre up in the foothills of the Alps, a few kilometres west of Lyon, and it was run on quasi-military lines, complete with lots of hearty physical exercise and child psychology theory, all conducted in French of course. Fortunately the food was excellent. I agreed with the course leader that I would only speak French and take notes likewise. The only other foreign student was an Irish girl, and she adopted the same rationale, and we never once spoke English with each other. We both passed with flying colours, despite the ice-cold hosing down sessions after long walks and the dire warnings about the dangers of sunstroke. Looking back I am sure I learned more French in that fortnight that at any time later. In retrospect, the only drawback in training terms was – no kids.
That was soon remedied when a convoy of buses rolled up, full of the sons and daughters of Lyon municipal bus company employees, their parents and the staff who were to run the summer camp, organised by the bus drivers’ trade union. Once loaded up, this brave caravan ground its way East, up the lower alpine slopes to a remote château in Savoie, which was to be our communal home for the next twelve long weeks.
Years later I made a detour in an attempt to find this place, but without success.The nearest village was Lépin-le-Lac, near lac d’Aiguebellette, now a popular summer retreat for affluent city dwellers and campers galore. I knew that the building had formerly functioned as a solarium, but nobody I asked seemed to remember it from my description.
For some strange reason, on arrival I was allocated my own bedroom, in a stone tower, while the other moniteurs were housed with the kids. Maybe the boss thought I would not be able to communicate with them properly, or maybe it was simple suspicion of foreigners on his part. (Dislike of the English was not unknown this far south in former Vichy France; a regional tradition which I was reminded of today when Chris Froome beat French rider Romain Bardet to clinch the Tour de France for the fourth time. It happened in Marseille and the French crowd booed.)
I gathered that the colonie was run by two moonlighting school teachers – a common practice apparently. After some preliminary haranguing masquerading as a staff meeting, Monsieur le Directeur was conspicuous by his absence as his number two bullied anyone he could, whether staff or children. I learned a few years later that this too was common practice in French secondary schools. The real work was done day and night by the moniteurs, mostly students, and the support staff. Fortunately this workforce routinely ignored the gang of two and just did what they were good at – inspiring and cherishing disadvantaged but streetwise city kids.
He must also have been remarkably stupid, or perhaps devious, as he put me in charge of the youngest children – four or five-year olds – who naturally found my French a bit hard to understand. A moment’s thought ought to have revealed that this age group had to be the most difficult to care for. For most of them this was probably the first time they had been away from their families, so they cried a lot and sometimes wet the bed. The mystery is why I didn’t just walk there and then. Probably the reason was that I got on so well with my fellow moniteurs and monitrices, not to mention the copious after-hours drinking sessions, or the terrific food kept back and cooked by our lovely Spanish cook. I still occasionally cook a great Moroccan chicken casserole from a recipe I learned from that wonderful lady after hours.
It was a disaster waiting to happen, and happen it did. Children of that age need constant supervision, and these kids in particular were up to every trick not in the book, despite their apparent innocence. No wonder really as they all came from a vast working class high-rise estate on the outskirts of Lyon, where survival of the fittest was the name of the game. The appeal of regular country walks and craft sessions was bound to be somewhat limited. The boys wanted adventure, so their first reaction to nature was to destroy the environment in war games. Their craft sessions were similarly oriented toward one or other form of weaponry, while the girls mostly pined for their mothers or deliberately wet their pants to dodge activities they didn’t like.
Both boys and girls universally hated the afternoon siesta, which appeared to be compulsory, probably having been the subject of a Napoleonic decree or some such. It wasn’t much fun for us either as the kids were diabolically adept at staying awake and causing trouble.
When disaster did strike it was a consequence of boredom, the impossibility of watching every child all the time, and, I suspect, the sheer malevolence of one or two miscreants apparently already in training for a life of crime. One of the younger kids, a lovable boy called Gilles, came down with a mysterious fever, allegedly caused by my negligence. The French love generalised ailments like fevers, and the more mysterious the better, so Monsieur le Directeur, apparently gifted in interrogation techniques, traced Gilles’ condition to having drunk bad water from a ditch, egged on by his peers while they created a distraction of some sort. Or so it was alleged.
I was duly carpeted and given the third degree by the boss, with his evil minder in attendance, unable to suppress his delight at the turn of events. I could not win of course – either I knew about the alleged event, in which case I would be subject to criminal investigation, or I didn’t, in which case I was simply negligent and incompetent. Initially I wondered why he did not fire me, (I was by now quite keen to quit anyway,) until one of my colleagues, Roland, who was an old hand at the summer camp game, pointed out that M. le Directeur’s own head would be on the block for having put a relatively inexperienced and untrained foreign student in charge of very young children, and he probably feared exposure of the repressive regime he and his creepy henchman ran up there in the mountains anyway.
By the way, I had already noticed a fashion among some French professional men to sport a beard without a moustache. M. le Directeur was a typical example. A strange consequence of this experience was that I developed an irrational aversion to this affectation, amounting to a prejudice which has stayed with me. Fortunately, like all fashions it seems to have passed, but when I was doing some research on colonies de vacances I stumbled upon an archive film clip which shows a (apparently nicer!) summer camp director with similar facial decoration, albeit from a previous decade, which suggests the fashion was widespread among Frenchmen in positions of authority.
In its entirety this clip has given me an interesting insight into the colonies de vacances phenomenon for other reasons, as it portrays to the point of absurdity scenes of sublime happiness among staff and young people alike. It suggests to me a kind of ideology based on the healthy-body-healthy-mind concept, rather like the Scout movement or the American summer camps. I have often wondered why the idea never really caught on in Britain, especially as a laudable post-war attempt to bring happiness to working-class children and to widen their experience beyond their home circumstances. Sadly the colonie movement has apparently become “professionalised” – a convenience for well off parents who want to dump their kids during the school holidays.
Anyway, the bad-water incident galvanised my colleagues, who by that time were themselves pretty fed up with the way they were being treated. Roland apparently organised a deputation to make it clear to the evil duo that the moniteurs would shop them to the authorities if action was taken against me. My first experience of worker solidarity. He also invited me to quit with him and travel by scooter down to the Côte-d’Azur to catch up with a girl he had fallen for. The summer camp was almost finished by now anyway, so I didn’t feel too bad about deserting, but we agreed to stick around until we were paid, and just to irritate you-know-who. Gilles got better, and on open day his parents thanked me personally for looking after him so well and for teaching him to make bendy figurines out of pipe-cleaners.
So off we went, Roland and I, riding due south down the incredible Route Napoléon as far as Digne, where we pitched his faded orange tent. This is the same route taken by Napoléon in 1815 on his march from Elba to Grenoble. If you haven’t travelled it, you should, but if you are on two wheels, you’ll be fined on the spot if you don’t wear a helmet. Trust me, most of my wages went in one go, gathered up by a smiling traffic cop. Inaugurated in 1932, the modern highway, classed as one of Europe’s most dangerous and spectacular roads, winds its way through the mountains of Provence following the route that took Napoleon and a thousand men a whole week. Today you can drive the entire route in about eight hours if you don’t stop. But if you don’t stop it’s a pointless exercise.
Unfortunately Roland was unsuccessful in his quest. I think he did manage to get an invite to the home of the girl he was after, whose father was wealthy and influential, but I suspect he was playing out of his league. I was due to return to England to take up my place at Leicester University, but I still had time to kill, and the money was running out again, so we somehow got a part-time job with an Italian family, selling cacaoettes (chocolate-coated nuts) to Scandinavian and German tourists on the beach at Juan-les-pins. (I like to think we were really working for the Mafia.) This was easy money, exploiting the rich, dependent on the time-honoured skills of spoilt children to extract goodies from their parents. We commuted daily from our tent in Digne, and ate frugally, beachcombers in one of the most popular hangouts of the global rich.
I was briefly tempted by an offer to join a monastery on a nearby island – no strings, not even a belief in God – but finally I decided to return England and the prospect of the drizzle and fog of the East Midlands. My inner jury is still out on whether I made the right choice.