Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 29 December 2016

That’s how it struck me on my return from France, but I’ll take downtrodden English minds over cold French utopian ideals any day

Low life | 29 December 2016
Text settings

I drew back the curtains. Yet another absolutely still, sunny day. Early-morning mist lying in the valleys. An echoing report of a distant hunter’s rifle. Another day in bloody paradise. But I was leaving it. After breakfast I was driven to the bus station. ‘Would you like to do me?’ said the young woman behind the desk in the ticket office. (My single word of French greeting had been enough for her to nail me as an English speaker.) Realising her error, she and her colleague at the next window corpsed. ‘I’m afraid I haven’t got much time,’ I said. The bus ticket to Nice cost hardly anything.

The airport coach pulled in dead on time. Ligne Bleue employs only reigning beauty queens to drive their vehicles, it seems. This driver was no exception. As she clipped my ticket she asked me how was I doing. ‘All the better for seeing you,’ is what I would have liked to have said, but my French grammar wasn’t up to it without a bit of notice. The coach was 90 per cent unoccupied. Reclining seats, bags of legroom. A WC. At Fréjus she came down the coach aisle and asked me in French whether there was anything I needed. Her beauty was stunning. Such as, I said? Water, coffee, beer, she says?

At Nice airport she dropped me beside the terminal building. Palm trees, blue sea, snow-topped Alps. Every waiting taxi a shiny black Mercedes. The sunshine-filled glass departures hall was as calm as a cathedral. Three conveyor belts were in service in the bag-scan hall but I was alone. After getting dressed again, I bought a coffee from the unhurried soul of courtesy behind the posh little snack counter and took it to one of the reclining seats to watch the planes fly in from over the sea.

The process, from stepping off the plane in cold rain at Gatwick to standing on the icy, shitty platform at the train station, took an hour. Continual security announcements in the airport and at the train station, the cowed aspect of the people, the presence at every turn of crowd-control marshals and black-clad paramilitary patrols gave one the sense of having arriving in a populous, totalitarian country on a war footing.

The first train to Reading from Gatwick was cancelled, the second delayed. This second train, when it came, was full. The inhabitants of this cold, populous, totalitarian country were on average quite a bit fatter than those of the country I had just left. Yet they were squeezed between plastic seats that were set so close together I was reminded of the kiddies’ steam model railways at Paignton Zoo. I managed to find an empty one and contorted myself into it. Just behind my head, the hydraulic- or vacuum-powered mechanism operating an interconnecting sliding door was faulty, causing the door to exhale and open and shut continually. More loudspeaker security announcements, including one about how unattended luggage would be damaged or destroyed, and several updates from the driver about the constant delays, and, most helpfully for those with connections to make, how late the train was now running. No Wi-Fi on the train, of course. And after a protracted delay caused by a faulty signal, we began to notice that the heating in the carriage was turned up too high and those that had an arm free were fanning themselves or tugging at their collars. But the UK economy (it said in the discarded Metro I had picked up off the floor) was doing much better than expected, and this, the article implied, was a cause for national rejoicing.

A drinks trolley pushed by an old guy well past retirement age crashed into the carriage. I was sitting behind two young guys. The one nearest the aisle stopped him and asked for a coffee. ‘And how would you like it, sir?’ said the old guy. ‘Like my women,’ said the young guy. ‘Let me guess,’ said the old chap, rolling his eyes and putting his forefinger to his chin. ‘Pale and weak? Poor but available?’ ‘Without a penis,’ said the young guy. And everyone in the packed carriage who heard it, of both sexes, laughed out loud. ‘All over my lap when I’m driving,’ suggested someone else to another round of general laughter.

The old guy shook his head with amiable sorrow as he poured the coffee into the paper cup. And as the overheated, overcrowded, uncomfortable three-carriage train trundled haltingly across the urban sprawl of north Surrey, it dawned on me that I was tired of France and her cold, utopian ideals and that I was tremendously glad to be back in England again, among English voices, English faces, and downtrodden English minds.