En Marche!

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. Continue reading


Leicester, Part 2: Turbigo days

I spent three years of my life in Leicester, between 1962 and 1966. In Part 1 I wrote briefly about my earliest impressions of this city, its university, and my tenuous connection to its football team.

Talking recently to another graduate of Leicester University I was reminded of an odd aspect of student life there in the sixties, just one mild absurdity, the use of haute cuisine names for mundane dishes served up in the refectory (academic-speak for canteen.) One ludicrous example  has stayed with me – the term “Turbigo”, used as an adjectival noun in menus, for instance “Chicken Turbigo”.

For me there was something intrinsically laughable about the word itself, and I was amused by the pretentiousness of dressing up canteen food with posh names. Over time I noticed that Turbigo could be applied to just about any main course; the common factor was that the dish always included mushroom stalks. No heads, just the stalks. Continue reading

Thank you General de Gaulle (for my bubble car)

1965 was not a good year for me. As a student reading French I was required, not unreasonably, to spend a year teaching in France. This ought to have been a pleasure, but by and large it turned out not to be. However there was one unexpected consolation prize, thanks to General de Gaulle, then president of the republic.

For some unknown reason, that year he decided to pay an extra month’s wages to all those like me who had been engaged in the mostly futile task of teaching English to French schoolchildren. This inexplicable but welcome gesture enabled me to buy my first car – an Isetta bubble car.

From two wheeled hell to three wheeled heaven! Continue reading