Jeremy Clarke

Best of friends

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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I was looking for the Palace of the Kings of Mallorca, and lost my bearings in the maze of narrow side streets that comprises the old quarter of Perpignan. In a street so narrow I could span it with outstretched arms, a youth on a motorbike roared past me doing a wheelie. Further up the street, a man relaxing in the doorway of a stationery shop was happy to direct me.

‘English?’ he said, wanting to talk. I admitted as much. He nodded towards a portable TV set on the counter just inside his shop. On the screen, in glorious sunshine, the band of the Grenadier Guards was marching down the Champs-Elysées playing ‘Rule Britannia’. It was the annual Bastille Day parade and the Guards had been invited, presumably, to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale. It was impossible to watch those glossy bearskins in the Champs-Elysées without fantasising that, while I had been wandering the Pyrenees, Mr Blair had successfully risked his political career on an invasion.

‘Entente Cordiale, pah!’ said the stationer. ‘Our countries have always been the best of friends — in spite of what the politicians or your press think.’ To illustrate the strength of that historic friendship, he shook hands warmly with himself. ‘And as for your Sun newspaper and its crazy antagonism,’ he went on, ‘it’s a pile of rubbish.’ ‘Ah, but what you must understand,’ I said, ‘is that we in Britain value humour more than intelligence.’ ‘The Sun’s insults are supposed to be humorous?’ said the stationer. ‘I don’t believe it.’ ‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘Belligerence makes us laugh.’

The Palace of the Kings of Mallorca stood at the heart of the old quarter on the only hill for miles around. I had no idea the kings of Mallorca were such big players on the mediaeval scene in that part of the world. Big players, but utterly paranoid, judging by the size of the ramparts.

The palace itself has been restored and replastered to an extent that would horrify our antiquities chaps. It was like wandering round in a timeshare. Easily the best thing about it was the free bar. In the kings of Mallorca’s dining-room there was café furniture scattered informally about and you helped yourself to a glass and a bottle of local wine from a nearby table. I don’t know whether all French museums have a free bar. If they do, our British museums would do well to catch up.

I shared a table under a superfluous parasol with a young man in a Hawaiian shirt who’d come all the way from Siberia. Alex had been in France for two days and was extremely relieved to meet someone who spoke English. He expected everyone in France to speak English and was profoundly depressed by the hostility that this expectation had aroused in the people he met. He was, he said, very happy to meet me. I raised my glass and suggested a toast to English speakers everywhere.

Alex wondered if we in Britain were aware of something called global warming. In Siberia, people were very aware of global warming. Last winter, for example, the temperature fell to only minus 30 degrees, when normally it went down to minus 40 or more.

Alex taught English at Tyumen University. He loved English literature. He did not take bribes like other lecturers. The last work of English literature he had read was James Clavell’s Shogun. He had read it on his computer. It took him from November to May. Of the Russian authors, he liked Pushkin best. Did I know, he confided, that Pushkin was a quarter Arab? One glance at his portrait and I would know it immediately. Had I ever been to Russia? Alas, not, I said. Then what was my impression of Russia from what I had read? My impression, I said, was of a holy country full of saints, innocents, holy fools and miracles. Alex laughed mirthlessly. Stuff and nonsense, he said.

To get back to the municipal camping site I had to take a bus from the outskirts of town. The bus stop was next to a vineyard. While I waited, I made a mental list of the things I liked about France. I liked the sunshine, the trees, the marble pavements, the cheap fags, the bread, the shampoo, the politeness of the railway officials and the precocity of the children, and I liked especially the fact that you can stand at the bar drinking spirits at 9 o’clock in the morning and no one bats an eyelid.

At that point in my list, a man and three small boys emerged from the vineyard. The boys were naked except for garlands of leaves around their heads and around their waists. They were holding hands and singing, like tiny pagan sacrifices. Which reminded me of something else I like about France. They like to sing silly songs. They sing silly songs in the street and aren’t ashamed in the least.