We drove down from the hills to visit friends of friends with a house by the sea and on the journey I experienced all the usual mixed feelings of a trip to the coast. On departure: the not unsnobbish excitement at the prospect of a day out on the glamorous French Riviera. On arrival: the disenchantment with the traffic queuing in the cramped streets, the hideous, jerry-built apartment blocks, the boulder beaches, the dog shit, the prevailing chill of vulgar, insentient wealth.
Always the disenchantment brings to mind that passage in Cyril Connolly’s only novel, The Rock Pool (1936), which is set on the Côte d’Azur. The central character is called Naylor. Naylor has a hangover. After several days and nights of partying, this one is his worst yet. It is accompanied by a terrible disillusionment:
The intolerable melancholy, the dinginess, the corruption of that tainted inland sea overcame him. He felt the breath of wickedness and disillusion; how many civilisations had staled on that bright promontory! Sterile Phoenicians, commercial-minded Greeks, hysterical Russians, decayed English, drunken Americans, had mingled with the autochthonous gangsters — everything that was vulgar, acquisitive, and decadent in capitalism had united there, crooks, gigolos, gold-diggers and captains of industry through twenty-five centuries had sprayed their cupidity and bad taste over it.
Our destination on the satnav was a place name near the far end of an isthmus. The dusty, unmade side streets, the unregulated, opportunistic building development and the shuttered businesses were not dissimilar to north Cornwall out of season. Without the seagulls. The impossibly blue sea looked shallow and sterile. We parked on a concrete driveway and next I was standing in a white and cream kitchen being introduced to a pair of shining, strikingly green eyes that were meant kindly but one hesitated to meet them. Our hostess. Her husband was on his way, she said.
Six steps down from the kitchen was a living room with a picture window entirely filled with that impossibly blue sea. A pair of violently trembling hands appeared on the slender iron handrails, followed, after a Herculean effort, by a bearded face with nothing but simple friendship in the eyes. Our host was a wine writer, I’d already been told. Without further ado, he shuffled across the kitchen floor, then bent in painful stages here and there to secure five big wine glasses by their stems, a bottle of pink wine and a corkscrew. The five glasses in his trembling fingers tinged together with a syncopated beat. Thus equipped, he valiantly led the way back down the steps to the living room and we fanned out into the Mediterranean sea-facing sofas. He wrestled the cork from the bottle, lined up the glasses on a low table and started tipping the wine in. ‘You don’t mind rosé?’ he said to me before reaching the end of the line. ‘Not at all,’ I said.
The big wine glasses and light pink contents were distributed. Also two saucers of thinly sliced sausage rolls and potted shrimp on toast. We chatted. We spoke about the twice a week Toulon to Southampton flight service, about Christmas, about people I didn’t know, about the sea in front of us. The sea was shallow, it turned out. You had to walk out quite a way if you wanted to swim, said our hostess. There was no beach, just rocks. Across the bay, recently bare, austere hills were disfigured from top to bottom by building development.
Contemplating them, I took a sip from my wine glass, then another, then half a mouthful just to make sure. More often than not, I recoil from that first sip of rosé, then steel myself to take others until sufficiently anaesthetised to move up to big mouthfuls. With this wine, after the first sip I immediately wanted to drink myself to death on it. I whipped out my pen and wrote down the name on a napkin. It was called Domaine de Marchandise. ‘I’ll get another one, shall I?’ said our host pleasantly.
There was no time for a third, however, as we had booked a table for lunch at a nearby restaurant. It was 400 yards away but we drove there in less than a minute. A partially defaced poster on the wall facing me as I got out of the car showed the smiling faces of Marine le Pen and Matteo Salvini. They made an attractive couple. ‘Right across Europe our ideas are gaining ground,’ the poster quoted them as saying.
The restaurant was packed with what I took to be austere, vulgar, rich people with their veneer of good manners. It was fabulous. Our host chose the wines. The restaurant sent over little shots of something stronger. Again the shallow, impossibly blue sea through a vast picture window and in the mirrors. I was flying.